Are raised beds the best choice for your garden? The answer may surprise you.
With the current trends in gardening leaning towards the ability to grow anywhere, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype about planting in raised beds and containers. Before you’ve had time to even ask yourself if you should be growing this way or not, you’ve added five smart pots to your Amazon cart. Not to mention enough compost to fill all the beds you just purchased wood for. But have you ever wondered if it really pays to plant using this technique?
Let me tell you from personal experience that it isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Now, there are obvious exceptions to this. Maybe you don’t have access to actual ground to plant in or maybe the ground you have is completely unusable. Maybe because of physical limitations you actually need your garden to be off the ground. All of these things are what make container and raised bed gardening so appealing. And if you’re like me, you like the interest they add to your garden. If I’m honest, even I love adding a bit of extra gardening space where there otherwise wouldn’t be any.
My garden is a combination of container, raised bed and a large in-ground space. This is for a variety of reasons. Part due to the specific growing conditions certain plants need, such as blueberries.
My ground isn’t acidic enough for blueberries and we have to fertilizer excessively if I plant them in ground. So, for this reason, I choose to plant them in large 60 gallon grow bags and half whiskey barrels. I plant strawberries in containers to help control all their runners from rooting like weeds in the main garden. I’ve learned over the years that I am a lost cause when it comes to cutting them off on a regular basis. Cheers to all of you who don’t let your strawberries run amuck. I also plant sweet potatoes in grow bags. Mostly because up until now, I haven’t been willing to give them space in the main garden. You can read about that here.
We have some large raised cedar planters that are on our patio. We bought them at a local fundraiser which seemed like a completely worthy excuse to expand my garden space. In them I plant some early spring crops before the in-ground garden is ready to be planted; crops like lettuce, pea shoots, herbs and some of our strawberries. The rest of our raised beds we took out this year are expanded our in-ground garden area.
Gasp! Why on earth would we choose to do that! Well, here’s the deal.
While raised beds can be beautiful, grow healthy plants and produce a great crop, I have discovered something over the years. Through many crop trials I’ve discovered that any plant I chose to stick in the ground rather than the raised bed, grew twice as big and produced twice the amount of crop. We decided it made more sense for us to build up the fertility on more of our land and forget the raised beds all together.
Here’s why. The raised beds were a ton of work. Everything in them had to be done by hand. We had to work the soil by hand in the spring within the confines of boards. I can’t tell you how many boards I’ve cracked doing this. Despite the rumor that you don’t have to worry as much about weeds, you will still have weeds. We had to amend the soil in them twice as much as we did our native soil. They required significantly more watering. Especially considering I almost never water our in-ground garden.
Over all, I decided that if we were going to put that much effort into the raised beds, we might as well use half the effort and resources to improve our own soil.
And boy did it pay off this year. Now, had I never grown in the ground, I wouldn’t have known just how drastically better the plants grow there verses the containers.
Now, as I said before, we still have some containers. I love to experiment too much not to test different ways of growing things. But, I do think it’s important to assess why we are doing things the way we are. Our number one goal in our garden is to provide as much chemical free food for our family as possible. Which for us, means growing in the ground. This may not be the right technique for you depending on your situation.
We feel that it is better for the environment if we can utilize local resources rather than ship in the things we need for the garden. Growing in the ground eliminates many of the products that I would need to buy from a store or online. We source composted horse and cow manure to add fertility to the garden as well as local straw for mulching. Much of this we essentially barter some of our time for, by that I mean my husband’s time, so it costs us nothing out of pocket.
The things we have needed to purchase from a store will last us indefinitely and we would have needed to purchase them regardless. Items like trellising, fencing etc. Many of these things though you can track down for next to nothing. If you do choose to save time and simply invest in the items, like we have, it’s certainly worth it in the long run.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when planning for the coming season.
What is your main goal for your garden? Why are you growing in the first place?
How are the successful gardeners around you growing their food? This may take a little investigation. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions about their garden. Most gardeners are more than willing to share their wealth of knowledge with you! Your local extension office can connect you with local Master Gardeners as well.
Will you take the time to water your containers and raised beds?
What materials will you need and how could I source those in a more environmentally friendly way?
What types of plants grow best in your area and what would need special attention?
One last thing to remember.
It’s not about getting it exactly right the first year. Every year I find ways to improve how we grow things. Each year I am able to source more local materials to eliminate a little bit more of what I need to purchase from a store. Some things are a trade off and I choose convenience over a more natural option. Example, using this light landscaping fabric for my walking paths vs. straw, cardboard etc.
Well, I’m off to get the garlic in the ground so we can watch them poke their bright green leaves out of the ground come spring. It’s a beautiful sight after a long cold winter.
Until next time, enjoy dreaming of your next garden.