Down with raised beds

From Gene Logsdon

[Gene’s long-awaited, and much-anticipated 2nd Edition of Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers is now available.]

The only raised bed I’ve ever found useful in sixty years of gardening is the one in my bedroom. And after I quit double-digging, I didn’t have to spend as much time there either. Or if I did, it was for reasons other than resting.

I must be wrong, but I don’t understand the modern enchantment with raised beds. Yes, if you are a market gardener, you will no doubt feel obliged to plant on raised beds to get the earliest possible crops but you can get early vegetables in unraised beds too. I have a very disgusting sister who plants peas in March here in northern Ohio, and often gets away with it, without raised beds.

If you want to plant a garden on an old parking lot (I have a hunch there will be many abandoned ones in the future) then by all means you will need a raised bed.  (It should give us all pause, however,  to realize that plants can come right up through cracks in pavement and grow vigorously— so what’s that say about all our dearly held beliefs about gardening?) And definitely, if you want to plant a garden on something akin to swampland, you will surely want a raised bed. But the poorly-drained  soil under it will still “lay wet” and give you problems when your plants put down deep roots.

Other than those situations, raised beds guarantee only one result as far as I can see. You will have to irrigate more when dry weather comes and it comes quicker on raised beds. All of us gardeners pride ourselves in being eco-friendly. What is so ecological  about using water (and the power to pump it) when you can avoid doing so? Also, if you are bound and determined to make raised beds, a veteran market gardener just told me that you should be sure to mulch the paths heavily around the raised beds. Otherwise moisture will be drawn out of the bed even faster. So why not just go with unraised beds and mulch them?

My disgusting sister who gloats about having peas two weeks before I do without raised beds has been fertilizing her garden heavily with composted manure every year for at least half a century. Her soil is so rich you could stick a broom handle in it and it would grow. When you make soil like that, who needs raised beds?  Even she still has to replant some years because peas  have a tendency to rot rather than sprout  if it snows too hard after planting. Needless to say, that would also be true on raised beds.

I have almost the same kind of bias about double-digging. To turn compacted soils into a productive garden, double-digging makes sense the first year or two, I suppose. But I will bet a bushel of surplus tomatoes (from soil never double-dug), that if you have that kind of compaction problem, it will take quite a few years of mulch, compost and avoidance of unnecessary tillage to change it, and double-digging won’t speed up the time.

Please tell me how you increase the fertility of your soil, if you bury  unfertile soil on top with the unfertile soil underneath it. Or if the soil on top is fertile, why bury it under the less fertile soil underneath. If both the topsoil and the soil under it are fertile, is it not just loony to risk throwing your back out of whack by double-digging?   If compaction is the problem, shouldn’t you be attacking the cause?  Usually compaction comes when a clay soil needs underlying tile drainage. The impatient gardener roto-tills too deeply before the soil is sufficiently dried out and that happens on raised beds too.

Okay, so I’m being a little facetious here. Correct double-digging is not exactly the way I describe. It is even loonier. You dig up a spade’s worth of soil across the garden plot that you are about to desecrate. You put it in a wheelbarrow. Then you loosen up a spade’s depth below that. Then you dig up the next trench’s worth and put it where the dirt in the wheelbarrow had been, being careful to keep the topmost soil on top even though, and I just watched a gardener doing this, there is absolutely no difference between the soil on top and the soil four inches below it. And so you proceed until you have moved the top layer of soil over about six inches.  Then, if you have not yet slipped a disc or two, you put the wheelbarrow load in the last trench. Never in the entire process is the cause of the compaction, real or imagined, addressed and so the suffering double-diggers figure they must move the top layer of their garden over another six inches next year, until knee surgery do us part.

Maybe you have arguments in favor of raised beds and/or double-digging that I don’t appreciate. I’ll bow to your expertise if that is so. But since I get gobs more food from my garden than I can ever eat without these tortures,  why would I want to torment myself and end my gardening life too early?  I would rather spend that time in another kind of raised bed I highly recommend. A hammock.
~~

29 Comments

raised beds to me are simply that outrcopping of Baby boomer excess and neurotic need for ‘ hyper order’. They are rediculous and in reality the way ‘most’ people do them are expensive, wasteful and only drives the lumber economy. Sure your point is good about them being good for an empty parking lot. But why plant on a parking lot when right next to it is prime virgin soil?

This year I put in a Lasagna Garden/Ruth Stout method. I didn’t even kill the sod first. In mid march I laid newspaper or cardboard on top of the sod, then covered it with 6″ of fresh manure with wood chip bedding. Then I topped that with 4-6″ of half finished compost that I had collected over the winter. I ended up using about 1 yard of manure and 1 yard of compost per 100 square foot. Then I planted it at the end of march/beginning of april. I now have a garden bigger and more productive than the one I dug with a tiller last year.

I have lived on land that you could not have double dug with a back hoe, but heavy applications of cow manure and old sawdust made it more productive than our friends who had prime farm land.

I do have 1 raised bed, but it is what I use as my cold frame in winter. After building one raised bed, the cost of good soil is too much to be worth while in a larger scale. I think they are great for the disabled, but deep mulch gardening is much easier/cheeper for everyone else. Clay is extremely fertile soil, it just needs heavy amendment with organic matter and as little compaction as possible. Make your “rows 3-4 foot wide with a 18 inch to 2 foot path in between. Then you never set foot in your planting area to compact it. I cover my walk ways with wood chips that come from the city dump. That way I never have bare soil, or compaction in my planting beds.

I look at raised beds as artistry rather than painting the side of the house. Where my goal is to cover a large area with vegetables, I don’t use raised beds. However, as I found my time allowed, I am engaging in a little bit of artistry.

Perhaps artistry generally occurs when life is secure and our needs are taken care of. Raised beds can give this impression.

    I am disagree , to me it’s the opposite. The garden without borders is artistry. The box with veggies in it, is mechanical , rigid , predictable and not original, unlike a painting of a natural scene.

I have a U-Pick strawberry field. My niece, who has MS and is in a wheelchair, inspired me to put in a small raised bed area of strawberries so that she, and others like her, can still have the pleasure of picking. I use strawbales on their sides with some compost on top. The straw holds water pretty well except in really dry weather, and the strawberries seem to love the bales.

So do the seniors who come out in a bus to pick. I also have the small wheeled garden scoots with tractor seats for those who aren’t in wheelchairs but still find even a small amount of stooping difficult.

I think a lot of what you said makes sense, but there are some other things to consider. First – Raised Bed Gardening…is great for people who can’t get down and work the soil, plant, etc. I think someone else mentioned that as well. Raised beds are great if you have really bad rocky soil and the rocks are really too big to move with just you and your husband. They are also good if your soil only lasts the first 6-8 inches and then you hit solid clay. I know, you can do stuff to break up the clay… but for older gardeners, that isn’t always an option. Second – double digging. I do double digging, but not the way that you explained. I did up a furrow, remove the soil then dig up the rest of the soil to loosen it. Then I mix in the compost, peat moss, etc. in the soil (also adding in the soil removed). I just found that removing part of it makes it easier to work with and gives me more room to work. Sometimes, when I add all the compost etc. there isn’t room for the “old” soil… I just add that to my new compost pile and turn it over in that. I get back a gorgeous soil from the compost and old soil combined. Does that work for you? Just some ideas!🙂 I am new to gardening and pretty much suck up anything and everything I can. I love to hear the various different opinions pro and con. It helps make the final decision more right for you and your needs, than just want someone says is right for you. Thanks for all the words and advice! I love it!

I have a tiny semi-urban co-op yard with no room to spread out. So I doubledug behind bedwalls. I didn’t leave any part of my few beds strictly singledug as a control, so my impressions would be purely anecdotal, and I have no standard of comparison.
In my doubledigging, though, I didn’t just fork loose the compacted clay. I mixed peat moss and various ground up rock and mineral powders into it so as to have a “sub topsoil” under the topsoil. The soil has stayed deep and results seem good though
without a singledug control bed who can say? I did beat the backache problem by: digging a stand-in-it working hole 5 feet long the width of the bed by putting the dug up topsoil behind me. That way I could dig and ammend a 3 foot long bed-wide section of subsoil without bending down. Then I shoveled back topsoil from “behind me” back onto the dugammended subsoil section. This uncovered another section of subsoil to be able to digammend most of. And so on moving the working hole all the way to the other end of the bed. And then level back the topsoil back over the last dugammended subsoil section. No bending over or down.

i agree with Bettina above. I have 20 raised beds (16’x3′)made from 1×4’s. I dug the topsoil out in the pathways between the beds and put it on top. One advantage is that there is zero compaction along the edges. My regular beds get compacted 4-6″ in from the edge during the summer. I don’t seem to use any more water in those beds, either, although I’ll test that out this summer. Finally, I like the way I can fill up the beds right to the edges. All in all, it was more work the first year, but more efficient overall for me.

We just added 2 raised beds to our community garden for the elderly and disabled. I love making gardening accesible and easy for everyone.

My reason for raised beds: Silver Maples.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment. Love all your answers. Gene Logsdon

Dear Gene,
To add to the list of exceptions for using raised beds which you start your post with: there are many people (like Sheila Z – see below) for whom raised beds means they can continue garderning which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. People with back injuries, people in wheel chairs, older people with no serious disabilities but just “less-able” to do all the work on the ground. In the ‘social farming’ scene, raised beds are used regularly for that purpose.

(By the way, I hadn’t really heard of raised beds for home / small scale farming actually… Perhaps it’s not so common in The Netherlands? They do have them on larger horticultural farms, but probably more because of the intensive, industry-like labour that is required there and the related government regulations on working conditions.)

I have raised beds, but I have flat beds, too.
I didn’t double dig (never saw any reason in this, too). To build my raised beds, I just dug the paths between my beds deeper and flung the soil on top of the beds. They’re shaped like a “Hügelbeet”.

The big plus for me is: Nobody (myself included) stomps or walks around on my raised beds, so the soil remains loose.

Bettina

What I have can’t really be called “raised” beds. I have a few 2×4 framed areas that hold in the mulch. I put them around a sheet mulched area and let the worms do the work. The frames contain the mulch, and I have some PVC tube bent over them to support the bird netting over the strawberries. But other than that, really isn’t raised. I suppose the beds will get higher and higher after many years of use, but really, why work hard?
To Sheila – You could have someone build you some planting tables. Here is an example – http://www.krupps.com/Large-Raised-Table-Planting-Bed/0_0_8650_0_cc2472_0_0 I wouldn’t buy it myself, but I would surely build some and get someone to do the heavy lifting for me! Good luck Sheila.

I’ll ‘fess up. I have raised beds. I love my raised beds and my raised beds feed me.

Of course, I couldn’t have a garden if I didn’t have them so maybe that is why.🙂

Many of us urban/suburban gardeners face the same dilema. Our ground is contimated with who knows what, our neighbors pour chemicals to get those day-glo green lawns and our critters appear to be Harley riding outlaws. I also live on the wetlands border and have a tropical brush by or nor-easter that gives a couple of floods a year.

In short, it is fine to wag fingers at folks who walk outside to a lovely rural bit of land where no one was ever dumping shipping waste, but for many who would otherwise feed themselves from the grocery instead of their yard, it is still a great way to garden.

Stephen Beltramini. May 2, 2009 at 11:00 am

Hi Gene.

My home garden is in a subdivision that used to be a gravel pit. Our backyard is basically about 3 inches of manufactured topsoil (manufactured by a local landscaping company that mixes an enormous pile of wood chips, leaves, and other organic matter with sand, mixes it more, and lets it age) spread over a layer of hard pan clay. My whole yard thankfully slopes gently towards the neighborhood pond. I have 7 garden beds tilled right into the lawn. They’re not raised, but rather are level with the sod that I retained for pathways. Not all the beds started out equal, however and therein lies the story.

I *did* double-dig the first 2 beds because the clay underneath was virtually bulletproof and, as I said, the topsoil was but 3 inches thick and I feared things just wouldn’t grow well. I then mixed a LOT of compost hauled in from my job at the farm school down the road that I work at, and that really got the earthworms going. (By the way, we talked about our farm school last year: http://organictobe.org/index.php/2008/02/04/the-acorn-tree-syndrome-strikes-again) Over the next 3 years, I dug 5 more beds, but got lazy and, rather than do a true double-dig on these latter beds, I just forked as deeply as I could without mixing the layers. I again added loads of compost along with a bunch of worms contained in the hauled-in compost.

So, one wonders, is there a difference in fertility and plant health between the double-dug and non-double-dug beds? Well, I can’t see any. Everything now grows like gangbusters, despite the clay layer below everything. Additionally, when I *DO* probe underneath into the non-double-dug beds, the lower layer is now fairly soft and friable, and getting more so, despite never having been double-dug. As well, the depth at which the grey, almost white, clay color resides continues to retreat deeper and organic matter gets dragged deeper. What I think has happened is that all those worms, combined with the added organic matter, have been working diligently to break up the lower layer for me while intermingling the organic matter previously imported and turned into the top layer. Compaction has greatly eased thanks to the worms too and these newer beds are only entering their third growing season this year.

As I see it, if one wants to undo previous compaction damage, even in the case of this old gravel pit top-dressed with a thin, imported soil, one keeps the heavy traffic off the soil, adds lots of organic matter, and lets the soil life, especially the worms, do the rest.

I’m considering raised beds. It’s either that or forget gardening for me. Back injury makes working at ground level impossible. I used to have a huge garden and grew almost all of our produce for the year. I really miss it. I have to find someone to build the raised beds for me and fill them in. Can’t even do that anymore. I never even thought about raised beds until my health changed.

Oh, yeah, on double digging…I very much love my no till method of gardening and would not be caught double digging. Too much work and to disruptive to the natural state of my soil. Kim

I love mine because I have little kids and critters galore and they are much less inclined to walk into a raised bed with a clear defined border of wood than they were in a flat garden. Besided its fun to see the nasturtiams and other lovely flowers cascading down the sides of the beds next to the broccoli!

One more advantage is here in the rainy and slug infested northwest I encircle my beds with a band of copper and it has helped tremedously with the slugs and snails…Kim

I just like how my raised beds look.

I loved this article! very humorous and humble at the same time. Now I feel much better about not having raised beds or ever double digging. I’ve lived in the Dakotas for 20 years and I’ve managed to improve the soil in my gardens by leaps and bounds just by composting. And even that I do the easy way, dig a hole and pour the waste in and top with a shovel full of dirt. Water and repeat when I clean out the fridge. This was my first time to this site but I love the way you think and write Gene!

thanks gene,
I never bothered with the raised bed for the garden, but I did double dig the first year. the soil was clay. I’m sure it helped.

I was considering double digging again, but after reading this, I don’t think I will. Why bother? its a lot of hard work for little to no gain.

Thanks Gene. I started my modest gardening effort with raised beds (and imported soil!). But I have seriously started to doubt what I’m doing. Especially after reading Fukuoka. We just bought a little farm, and I do not think I will build a single raised bed there..

As Fukuoka-sensei says, “Humanity knows nothing at all. [..] When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary”.

As you say, plants know how to grow.

Okay, I’ll come out and say it: I have raised beds. I have raised beds that produced gorgeous vegetables. I also live on a tiny little lot (60′ x 120′ and the building footprint is 46′ x 44′) in an urban neighborhood and the backyard (which has the very best sun by the way) used to be a gravel pad parking lot when the property was built in the 1950s. Planting in the ground is not really an option back there. I take that back; the raspberries planted over the gravel and mostly a bunch of rotted leaves seem to be doing well.

Yes, it cost some money for the cinder blocks, topsoil and compost to get started. But I’d to have had to get topsoil and compost anyway if I’d chosen to excavate the gravel and have in-ground beds.

I do have in-ground beds along the south side of the building and I’m growing peas in the ground along the chain link fence on the south property line. I’ve got some blueberries and currants in the ground in the front yard, too. But then again I’m also growing tomatoes and peppers in containers because the soil never gets warm enough here in Anchorage even in raised beds.

The in-ground beds need lots of organic matter to improve them and I started that process last year. Actually, I’m doing that with the raised beds as well. I’m hoping to work on a manure composting project with a friend about 50 miles away (and on her own 80 acres, darn her) so that I won’t have to purchase compost anymore.

Don’t wag your fingers at me about raised beds! I’m happy to use whatever combination of techniques works so that I can grow my own whether it be containers, hanging pots, raised beds, or in-ground beds. When you don’t have the land, you make do.

Learning how to urban farm at 65N latitude…not for sissies!

Kerri in AK

It seems that down here in Texas a raisedbed garden is an irresistable invitation for those doggone,pesky little critters called fire ants.If I am gonna take the trouble to construct domiciles…I would prefer another type resident…anybody have plans for a Buzzardhouse?

Johnny Buffalkill April 29, 2009 at 6:48 pm

I’ve never cared much for raised beds either. I could never put a finger on it but they just seem a little wierd.

I wouldn’t completely dismiss the double dig. Its probably not necessary if your soil hasn’t been abused, but any suburban gardner will probably have to do it once at least. Most newer yards have what little topsoil came with the sod laid over machine compacted fill dirt. I have been working on remediating a little corner of suburbia for a year now. The double dig has been absolutely necessary. My earthworm populations are way up since last year. I plan to try no-till in the future so I don’t have to double dig again (couldn’t do it this spring – the winter rye just wouldn’t die).

In other parts of the yard I’m trying to break the compaction with alfalfa. I’ll report back on that in a few years.

Gene,
Don’t you think, really, that it’s just something to do for folks who don’t have enough land to raise a sweat on?

You’re right about the raised beds. But you are braver than I am. I’ve given up arguing with peoples’ gardening religion. They can even see that I get great food, but still don’t believe it. But keep talking. I’m listening. Thanks.

I’ll second that emotion, Gene. Raised beds are expensive. You have to buy the lumber. Then you have to find soil to fill them with. It all costs money, whereas just taking up sod costs nothing, and makes a great starter for your compost heap. I’ve never double dug. Never made raised beds. Just loosen the soil a little with a tug on my forked spade, work in some compost with each new planting. I also get more produce than we can eat. There is something to be said for creating a little barrier around the garden bed. In my case, that means regular snipping with the garden sheers, and of course the mandatory weeding.

Please leave your comments...

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>