Creating a vegetable garden from scratch can be an overwhelming task for a first-time gardener, but a raised garden bed can simplify the process. Raised beds are sized for success and come ready-to-plant with quality soil, unlike an in-ground bed, which requires the complicated task of amending the soil. Below are six steps to help you get started with a raised bed:
1. Find the right location for your raised bed
Fruiting vegetables prefer at least eight hours of full sun each day, so place your garden in the sunniest part of your yard. If you don’t have an area of full sun, don’t let that discourage you. Leafy greens and root vegetables can thrive with just 4-6 hours.
To prepare the ground for your raised bed, remove any sod or ground cover with a shovel, then aerate the compacted ground underneath with a sturdy digging fork. If this feels too labor intensive, an alternative method is to smother the unwanted vegetation with 3-4 layers of overlapping cardboard and then place the soil on top. Tip: try to avoid placing your bed on top of an invasive ground cover, like crabgrass, it will inevitably creep back in, even with a weed barrier.
2. Build a raised bed frame
A raised bed is comprised of two components: soil, and a frame to keep the soil in place. You can find several creative renditions of this online - here’s an article that provides some fun examples: 5 Raised Bed Designs You Can Make In An Afternoon. The frame can be constructed from a number of materials, like: stones, logs, straw bales, or untreated lumber (consider treating your wood with a non-toxic stain, like LifeTime Wood Treatment). A bottom is not necessary, unless the raised bed is placed on top of an impervious or contaminated surface. The standard dimensions for a bed are 4 x 8 feet, but this can be altered so long as you can access all areas within the frame. The depth should be at least 6 inches to provide space for roots to roam. Check out this video on how to build a raised bed for under $15.
3. Add the soil
An ideal planting mix for a raised bed should consist of 50/50 quality compost and topsoil. If your blend feels dense, you can adjust the ratio and add 10% coconut coir (a sustainable alternative to peat moss) to increase aeration. If you don’t have a supply of compost and topsoil at home, most nurseries offer a topsoil/compost blend by the bag or in bulk. In Asheville, this is available by the cubic yard at the Mulch Yard and Danny’s Dumpster. To determine how many cubic yards you need, use this soil calculator or convert all dimensions to feet and do the equation yourself: (w x l x h) divided by 27. For example, a raised bed of 4’ x 8’ x 6” will look like: (4’ x 8’ x .5’) divided by 27 = .59 cubic yards. Alternatively, you can buy 8 two-cu ft bags of soil.
4. Choose your plants
To maximize the limited space of a raised bed, you will want to plant high-yield crops that will either provide multiple harvests (such as cut and come again greens, tomatoes, and green beans) or can be planted multiple times in succession (such as radishes, beets, and beans). Vegetables that take up a lot of space, like winter squash, and/or only produce one harvest, like cabbage, can be left out. How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons offers great advice on maximizing your square footage. Tip: do not plant perennial herbs like mint and lemon balm in your bed. They spread aggressively by root and will over take any container.
5. Determine when to plant
To create a planting schedule, there are a number of variables to take into consideration, such as: your garden zone, frost dates, and average soil temperatures. Luckily, there are now numerous online programs that factor in those considerations and produce a customized planting calendar for you in a matter of seconds. All you have to do is provide your zip code. The Farmer’s Almanac and Johnny’s Selected Seeds both have planting calendars available. For more accurate dates, contact your local Cooperative Extension Agent. Extending your season beyond the suggested planting dates is possible, and Elliot Coleman's Winter Harvest Handbook provides basic knowledge on how to do that.
6. Create a garden map
A garden map will help you strategically arrange your plants within your raised bed frame. Different vegetables require different amounts of space and will occupy space for a certain amount of time. To a new gardener, this is not necessarily intuitive. So, rather than attempt this equation on your own, you can turn to free online resources like the Farmer’s Almanac’s garden planner, which will help you map it out. Alternatively, if you are excited about sketching a map on graph paper the old fashioned way, order a copy of Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening for guidance. This A-Z encyclopedia of vegetables lists the spacing and also notes the soil preferences, potential problems, and how to harvest.
Feel free to leave your questions in the comments section below.
Additional photos via Charles Dowding