Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Raised Bed Vs Ground Bed


I can contain myself no longer.
Everyday I read about someone wanting to grow vegetables but they have to wait to save up for the "special raised beds" and then for the soil to fill them. In this instance I am talking about the 12'+ high corrugated iron beds that garden centre and hardware stores are selling in their trendy dozens. On average these cost about $200 each (filled). 
Baloney!
How does an average family afford that.
A raised bed is only essential for people with a disability that prevents them from gardening. There is no reason that anyone else should find it essential to have a raised bed in order to grow vegetables.
There is a massive consumerist movement at the moment trying to convince people that they need to spend a fortune in order to grow food.
In the above photo you will see various building materials that cobble together a containment line. It is something that you can mow and edge too and would be equally practical if you have a mind to gravel paths. It cost nothing.
In fact since this photo we have reverted to no containment lines and just spaded edges.
So lets step through some of the myths.


1."They are perfect for dealing with difficult soil types like clay"
The way to deal with difficult soil types is to improve your soil. Period. If you buy those raised corrugated bedding surrounds, you are going to need a lot of soil bought in just to fill them. If you are looking for an instant start then you may well buy your soil but you don't need an expensive 12" deep bucket to put it in. How about just getting some free stable manure and mixing it with collected leaf matter and green waste. Within a few months you will have something rich starting to happen but that's not the end of your soil work, you have to keep feeding it and replenishing it so make your compost piles on the side as well for topping up. (And if you are tempted to reach for gypsum read here first

2."Raised beds increase the efficiency and yields of crops because the soil is deep, loose and fertile"
It is entirely possible to have the same soil properties in a normal garden bed. It's what gardeners call "tilth" and if you are nurturing your soil (see point 1) then you will realise efficiency and yield. 

3."Raised beds save time and money because you need only dig, water and fertilise the beds not the paths"
Well that goes without saying whether you use a containment line border or a spaded edge.

4."You don't need to weed as much as plants grown close together lessen weed competition"
This is based on the premise that container gardening is intensive gardening in that you are cramming in plants in a limited space for maximum yield. I would argue that is the case for any backyard grower. Unlike big farms and mono cropping concerns we are trying to harvest a bit of everything so the very nature of how we grow is intensive. We have the luxury of constantly top-dressing soils with compost, pea straw, manure so as we take the goodness in harvest we keep replenishing. Growing crops and different vegetable types close together like this is possible in conventional non-raised beds too.

The Cons
Here are some reasons not to go spending hundreds of dollars on raised beds.

1. Flexibility 
Having conventionally dug garden beds means you can change their location from year to year and change their size to adapt for household needs. This year you might want to have a large corn crop but next year you might be wanting to devote more space to herbs. If you buy pre-fabbed tubs for raised beds then you are pretty much locked into their size and shape and where they will sit. As your family needs change so too does your garden. As children grow you might put in a sand pit and a cubby house but a few years on these give way to trampoline and a basketball hoop. Your dug garden can conform, wrap, skirt and re-locate much more easily than fixed sized beds.

2. Watering
Raised container growing means more watering. There is more water loss generally due to the extra drainage created within the beds.

3. Harvesting
Harvesting and removing crops like broad beans and corn is much easier with a garden fork and some boot grunt. There are times that you just need to get in and fork it over which is pretty hard when you are trying not to damage bed edges or break seams.

4. Temperature Control
The raised bedding system is advantageous in the early spring when it raises soil temperatures but it must surely be harder on the plants in the height of summer. With a conventionally dug bed. thick dense mulching keeps the soil temperatures even and prevents moisture loss.


The Pros
Here are some reasons why you would choose raised bedding

1 Accessibility
For someone with back problems or for older people with agility loss a raised bed system is a great solution, particularly if they are built with narrow edges for sitting while digging but these beds would need to be narrow and limiting in the types of crops. 

2. Aesthetics
Some people see gardening as a bit messy, especially vegetable gardens. They prefer to have something more pleasing to the eye like neat conformity and if that is your taste then these raised beds are a very conforming neat way to go.

3. Temporary
If you are renting or in a retirement villa you may not want to radically change the structure of the yard so a raised bed may be the ideal solution if you are planning to grow for only a year or two before needing to dismantle and move on.

4. Secured
This would deter some dogs from trampling and digging but still wouldn't be out of reach of chickens (heh heh)

If you really want to grow vegetables and you live in ordinary suburbia, you don't have to spend a fortune. Just go into your yard, front or back or side, and turn over a sod. It starts there and costs nothing.


If you think you need raised beds for growing, make a list of the reasons why, weigh that up against the cost and then reassess and make sure it's not because the consumer market told you that you need them or because you saw other people do it that way. There is a big ground swell and movement back to basics but the retailers need you to keep buying so they are going to try to sell ice to Eskimos. Save your money.

And now over to you with comments,
Discuss....

11 comments:

  1. Hmmm I totally agree with all of the above. I have raised garden beds, the corrugated kind. (Gulp) for all the reasons stated in the Pros sections. I do however agree with all the point you made in your Cons section. I had many things to consider when i made my garden, and had to compromise. What i did do was build them myself. I was quoted $395 for one 2m X 1.25 Oblong bed at waist height. No way was i going to pay this. So is used my thinking cap, graphed my yard, designed my bed sizes and placement, called a metal distributors (Robot Trading in Sunshine) and told them i wanted so many sheets at the following sizes in the these colours. I then, lucky me, asked the engineer at work to design a corner piece and the boys in the factory made them up, powdercoating them to match my sheets. I have 8 big beds for $$350. The metals is very cheap. They are just riveted into squares and rectangles. Most of the staff now have them as well.

    I have only one bed in the ground and that was my potato bed and my dog dug up every single one, chomping on each, spreading all over the yard and house and then gave herself a dose of the runs. I am still finding them everywhere.

    I think your garden is gorgeous and it obviously plentiful and providing you with heaps.

    What i would like is to completely enclose it in a mesh of some kind. I dont think i can get salmon netting like Narf77. I would like to protect my veggies from the birds.

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  2. I agree too. I don't use raised beds and have no need for them. However my father in law lives near the coast and has struggled to grow veges in sandy soil. Even though he was constantly adding organic matter, it wasn't until he built some raised beds that he saw results. Being cheap he did not buy soil, rather filled each container with branches etc and only a layer of his existing soil and compost on top. So they do have their place, but try in ground first if you don't want to spend so much.

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    Replies
    1. Liz,i could do with a bit of your Dads sand. I filled the bottom of mine with packed staw bales. Then i got out my cement mixer (doesnt everyone have one of these) and combined my clay, gypsum, veggie soil, mushroom compost and manure. I let it churn away and then filled the beds. A year later the levels have dropped but im always topping up with mulch and compost. Its doing OK. I must feed tonight though.

      Working with what you have is always the best option. Just like you should always walk around your neighborhood to see what is growing well and what is not.

      It is so damn hot today...

      Delete
  3. A wonderful post - if I were still gardening, I would prepare a raised bed to spare my back. I'd use the technique that Farmer Liz's father-in-law used. Fill the bottom with filler for drainage and to cut expenses.

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  4. My first flurry into veggie beds was spent on back breaking work of making compost and digging it in to our sandy awful soil. It was a failure and hard, hard work.

    I did build a "raised" bed (some boards to outline the area only) and filled it with equally crappy soil. Over the years I have improved that soil from the top down and the "raised" parts only kept the good soil contained.

    The most valuable thing I learned in gardening was to cardboard and mulch (any area) and create a totally non dig garden "permaculture style". This gives the benefit of reducing weeds, reducing work and building up the soil all in the same motion.

    I believe my worm population will speak of its success :))

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  5. Very interesting. I've spent the past two weeks trying to sort out which types of raised beds I wanted (unfortunately I had back surgery last year and, while we have a non raised vegetable patch, I've found preparing and maintaining it to be quite difficult). You're right, though, there has been a definite trend in raised garden beds - presumably because it is easier to just buy soil and add it to a structure than it is to spend time actually repairing poor soil/establishing a bed somewhere.
    - Christine

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    Replies
    1. PS That was meant to say that being easier is one of the reasons for the increase in raised beds, not the only reason!
      - Christine

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  6. I have both raised and in ground. The in ground has much better soil because I've amended it. The raised beds with their purchased soil have taken many years to come close to the natural soil. One advantage of the raised beds is that in my super deep ones, I was able to attach hardware cloth to the bottom and these make good varmint proof beds for growing root veggies as they can't tunnel up and eat. We were able to buy leftover cedar boards from a local fencing company that had a pile in their parking lot for pennies compared with garden center containment systems. Fancy is not necessary.

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  7. Pro: If your yard is downwind from coal-burning plants or other industrial facilities (i.e. a huge portion of the Puget Sound area, including Seattle), your soil is likely contaminated. Bringing in clean soil for gardening may be a very good idea.
    Pro: Raised beds are probably the easiest way to start a new garden where turf is already in place, especially if you can't borrow or don't own a rototiller.

    Con: Purchased "soil" is usually of extremely low-quality, no matter what the seller says.
    Con: Bruised shins. Perpetually.

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  8. I have raised beds but I chose that because I find my back aches abominably if I need to bend over for anything more than a few minutes and I have terrible knees so kneeling is not ideal either. We also have terrible clay soil so we've addressed several issues with the raised beds. However, on the converse, the soil I imported to fill the beds has a) cost an absolute fortune and b) has a ph of 10. Yep, dry and dusty, hydrophobic and nearly toxically alkaline. I have just as much work to do. The only plus is that the beds themselves cost me around $30 (excluding soil) as I bought the used corrugated iron from my uncle for $1 per sheet and the hardwood ends were from hardwood sleepers we already had. We paid for the hex screws used to put them together but they are also easily dismantled should we choose to do so. When the end of civilisation as we know it arrives I intend to turn the veggie patch into a pig run and then the beds will be lifted and moved but at least the pigs will help to fertilise the soil when that happens and I can refill the beds with manure rich and much more ph neutral soil. :)

    I believe that raised beds are a waste of resources unless there is an actual need. :)

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  9. I found this post really interesting, as these days I am actually a complete convert to using raised beds! I'll explain :)

    I grew up on a big farm working a traditional garden in a subtropical region of Australia. While I totally agree you don't need raised beds, they make gardening on a small scale and where we live much easier. We get massive flood rains where we are every single year. We would lose our traditional garden every single year. Not only losing the plants and some topsoil, but turning the garden into an unworkable boghole for months. By putting in raised beds we have made our garden workable the whole year long! Massive difference!

    Also I have 3 little kids now (the eldest is just 5) and very little time! Raised beds save me so much time that it makes it possible for me to have a garden now (no turning soil, hardly any weeding). For that I owe enormous thanks to raised beds.

    Raised beds don't have to be expensive though. We bought mostly corrugated steel cheapies from Aldi (these are $40 as opposed to $200) because wood warps in our wet climate. But we made my Dad a heap for absolutely nothing out of recycled materials. They also work great! Even he is a convert (a full time farmer- who's been gardening in this subtropical region for most of his life). We were lucky ours didn't cost a fortune to fill. We already had good quality topsoil on our property which which we could use. We mixed it with some organic compost that we bought locally in bulk very cheaply (as in $40 for a truckload cheap). The quality of our soil is actually really great and grows really well. I've written about it in a couple of posts here
    http://www.ock-du-spock.com/2013/12/the-transformation-of-garden.html#.UvHSkbQbA0o
    and here
    http://www.ock-du-spock.com/2014/01/6-weeks-in-garden.html#.UvHUL7QbA0o

    I do think people should weigh up whether raised beds are necessary for them, and the conditions they are gardening in! Raised beds definitely aren't for everyone. But I guess one could liken it to buying a thermomix (although my beds cost far less than a thermomix)- Does one buy a thermomix because the consumer market tells you to buy it, or because it's a truly nifty little tool that makes cooking faster and easier?

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