Raised Bed Gardening

How To Design A Raised Bed Garden

If you have been getting ideas for your backyard garden, most of what you are probably seeing around the internet is what is called “raised bed gardens.” And there is a good reason for that. Gone are the days of needing large plots of land and a tractor in order to grow your own food. Today, backyard gardeners all over the world are growing food for their families in raised beds instead. And a raised bed can be many things. Ours are built from cedar and are painted on the outside. We have eight and they range in size from 4’x8′, 2’x12′, and 4’x4′. These beds give us plenty of room to not only grow enough food for our family each season, but we always have plenty to share. Other options for raised beds can be metals troughs, large pots, planter boxes, and even bags called “grow bags” that look like trash bags. You can literally put those anywhere and move them season after season. There are so many ways you can create the backyard garden you have been dreaming of no matter where you live, even if you are renting, or if you have very little space. There is a way to garden for you!

We have built over 30 raised beds, both in our backyard, and for others, so we have some tips and tricks that I am going to share with you today. Just think, you could be gardening in just a few weeks! Let’s get to it!

Benefits of Raised Bed Gardening

If you have never gardened before, you are going to love this method. There is no tilling involved, which disrupts the natural community of the soil and is back breaking work. You have so much more control over the soil and can react to trouble much more easily bed by bed. They are so much more efficient, and you can grow more crops in the same space of a raised bed than you can in a row. But, for right now can we just talk about how beautiful they are?

I love to garden, but I also love to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. Raised beds turn your garden into a retreat space. They create dimension and interest in the garden that traditional rows just can’t do. They look amazing, are easier to work with, and are more efficient. What is there not to love about raised bed gardening?

Location! Location! Location!

Choose a location in your yard that gets lots and lots of sun – all day, in all seasons if you can. Even if that means right in the middle of the yard. You will be designing something beautiful, so why wouldn’t you want it right smack in the center for you to enjoy all the time. There are not many vegetables that want to be in the shade, so remember that when you are choosing your location. It is the hardest thing to change.

If you have a small space or obstacles to work around, create a few garden areas instead. And if you get some shade, that is okay too. Especially in our South Louisiana summers, afternoon shade isn’t really a bad thing. The veggies will thank you.

One more thing about location. We are blessed in Louisiana to be able to garden year-round.  If you plan to garden in all seasons, the location of your garden is so important. As the seasons change and the sun will cast shade on different areas. If you place your garden beds along a fence, wall, or house, they may be “out of the way,” but unless that wall or fence is facing south, it is going to cast shade on your garden for parts of the day….even parts of the year. Choose your location wisely. And remember right smack in the center of an open space is ideal!

Layout and Size

One thing I love about gardening is that it is totally unique to each gardener. You probably won’t ever see someone growing the same exact vegetables in the same way at the same time. Whether you have a small yard or acres of open space, raised beds can be designed to fit that space.  So let your creativity run wild!! Dream big!! You don’t have to do everything today. Make a three year or five year plan and add a few beds each year. Before you know it, you will have a paradise to enjoy every day.

Layout

In addition to considering the location, you also want to think about working in and around your beds. This is where you will spend most of your time. Make sure that you leave enough space around the beds to plant, weed, and harvest. Your back will thank you later.

In our garden, we prefer at least 2 feet between beds. That distance creates the perfect spacing to move a wheelbarrow or garden cart up and down the aisles between the beds. Once we built a raised bed garden and it was about an inch too tight for the wagon. I ended up having to carry my pickings to the outside of the garden by the handful. It is so handy to plan for this kind of thing now.

One more thing, a garden bed in the summer looks a lot different than what it looks like right now. In the winter garden, plants are more compact. But in the summer, the garden beds can be overflowing with plants! And that is exactly what you want. They will spill out into the aisle space, making a beautiful walkway. If you plan accordingly, and give at least 2 feet in between each bed, you will still have plenty of room to walk around the overflowing plants.

One of our garden beds in October. There are green onions and tomatoes in there somewhere.

Size

You can grow lots of veggies in a small space when raised bed gardening. You will be shocked at how much the quality the soil contains and your companion plants will benefit your vegetables and allow them to grow in very little space. What they need is nutrients, and if you have nutrients they will grow. And if you have companion plants that keep the pests away, they will thrive.

Garden Bed Length 

One thing that will help you greatly when designing your garden is your bed sizes. Here are a couple things to keep in mind when determining what length will be best for you:

  • We have found that 8 feet in length is a great size. The longer the bed, the more difficult it is to move, manage, and maintain.
  • Longer beds can always be built end-to-end to give the look of a longer bed, but still be manageable for you.

Garden Bed Width

Raised beds shouldn’t be any wider across than you can reach. You don’t want to have to step into the bed to weed, get up to walk around the bed to get something on the other side. Here are a few things to remember when determining the width of your beds:

  • Your bed shouldn’t be wider than 4 feet across for comfort.
  • If your beds are against a wall or fence, keep the width around 2 to 3 feet so you reach from one side only.

Garden Bed Depth

Keep in mind that most plants prefer at least 12 inches of soil depth for their roots to happily grow. Here are a few things to remember when determining the depth of your beds:

  • 18-24″ deep is an ideal depth.
  • Deep rooting plants like tomatoes can grow roots over 3 to 4 feet deep, but they don’t need that much space to produce a good yield!
  • Anything less than 12″ will not only inhibit root growth, but will also affect the overall health of the plant.

Tall, deep beds mean less bending over. Deeper beds also retain moisture better, which in South Louisiana, is so important. Our beds are 12 inches deep, but I would love to add some deeper beds. To keep your plants happy, you should plan on beds that are at least that deep.

Design and Layout

Now to the fun part!! This is where your creativity can just run wild. The sky really is the limit…well maybe that and the amount of space you have to work with. Here are a few things to keep in mind when designing your raised bed garden:

Material For Beds

  • Cedar is the best material to build your raised beds out of. It is durable, beautiful, and rot-resistant, which makes it one of the most popular and common types of lumber used to build raised garden beds. It also lasts forever, so you won’t have to replace your raised beds like you will using other kinds of wood. There are even tutorials online for building beds out of cedar fence boards! Here is one that some of our garden club members have used when making their beds! This is an easy and affordable route to take!
  • Pine is often more affordable, which makes it very appealing if you’re on budget! However, pine doesn’t last nearly as long as cedar. A raised beds made from pine will last about 5 to 7 years, if you are lucky. Here in Louisiana, we have a very wet climate, and we only got 2 years out of our pine beds before they began to rot.
  • NEVER USE RAILROAD TIES in your raised beds. They seem to be a cost effective and beautiful option, but for vegetable gardens they are also a big NO NO! They are treated with Creosote, which the EPA notes is a human carcinogen by the EPA. They Creosote will leach into the soil and ultimately be consumed by you. You are what you eat, and what your animals eat, and what the soil contains.
  • Reclaimed wood, salvaged wood, or painted wood may be beautiful, but in a vegetable garden can be toxic. The treatments that give the wood their outward appearance are no good for the human body. You can always paint the outside of the beds, but never the inside!

A Few Things To Note (From the Mistakes We’ve Made):

  • A raised bed garden is the most efficient method of gardening, but you have to manage the weeds and grass outside the beds to keep them out of your beds.
  • Landscaping cloth is an excellent way to build a barrier on the base of your beds.
  • A sand and gravel base around the beds is an even better way to control the weeds. That is what we have and it works really well. In South Louisiana, we have weeds year round, so we have to work to keep them out.