Raised beds offer many advantages because they can be created in manageable sizes, usually no wider than 4 feet, to facilitate easy maintenance.

Raised beds offer many advantages because they can be created in manageable sizes, usually no wider than 4 feet, to facilitate easy maintenance.

Photo by Brian Louwers


Raise your gardening game

Raised beds are ergonomic, aesthetically pleasing and allow for better soil management

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published March 13, 2019

 Proper watering practices and plant selection, with respect to the size of the raised beds, are also important, according to Rebecca Finneran, a senior horticulture educator with the Michigan State University Extension office in Kent County.

Proper watering practices and plant selection, with respect to the size of the raised beds, are also important, according to Rebecca Finneran, a senior horticulture educator with the Michigan State University Extension office in Kent County.

Photo by Brian Louwers

METRO DETROIT — The garden of your dreams doesn’t have to exist in your mind, or even in the ground in your backyard.

Raised-bed gardens, made of wood or other creatively repurposed building materials, offer many advantages to vegetable growers in residential lots and community gardens.

They’re defined spaces that are easy to maintain. They’re also easier to weed and harvest, can be built at various heights to accommodate anyone maintaining them, and allow gardeners to precisely control the soil conditions.

Dave Ross is a gardening associate at the Home Depot in Harper Woods. A certified master gardener since 1979, he leads the store’s Team Depot outreach projects.

Ross said he has built a “couple hundred” raised beds at community garden sites in the area as part of the company’s outreach initiatives. He also added some at his own home.

“It has a lot of advantages over the traditional row gardens,” Ross said of the raised beds. “Row gardens were really a copy of farm gardens, or agricultural gardens, where you put things in rows because you had tractors and tillers and things like that to care for them. Really, for the home gardener, row gardens make no sense.”

Ross said raised beds give gardeners “complete control” over soil.

“You don’t have to be concerned about compaction, because you’re not walking on it,” Ross said. “The materials you can use for it vary. You can use white pine, cedar — any of the natural woods are good for it.”

Untreated, natural wood boards can be used, but they will decompose faster than pressure-treated lumber. As a compromise, untreated cedar is more rot-resistant and will last longer in contact with the ground than untreated pine boards.

“I also recommend using pressure-treated lumber,” Ross said. “There have been a lot of misconceptions about pressure-treated lumber over the years.”

Pressure-treated lumber sold prior to 2004 contained chromated copper arsenate, an arsenic-based preservative, while today’s products do not. Still, experts said numerous studies found little evidence anyway that any of the materials leached into the ground as potential contaminants for vegetable growers.

Ross said raised beds offer many advantages because they can be created in manageable sizes — usually no wider than 4 feet to facilitate easy maintenance — and at various heights. Some are even raised to chest level and are wheelchair accessible.

Proper watering practices and plant selection, with respect to the size of the raised beds, are also important, according to Rebecca Finneran, a senior horticulture educator with the Michigan State University Extension office in Kent County.

“Any kind of raised-bed gardening, the bottom line is coming down to knowing the plants that you’re going to grow, and it’s kind of about the volume of soil that’s placed in the raised beds,” Finneran said.

That’s particularly true of raised beds constructed as containers on decks or patios with no soil underneath, or those that do not rest on the ground.

“You really have to be cognizant of the fact that these plants are pretty hungry. If we reduce the amount of area where the roots can grow, we probably aren’t going to be real successful with it,” Finneran said. “I think a more seasoned gardener will know how big a root mass of a pepper is versus how big a root mass of a tomato is. Those are pretty hungry feeders.”

It’s also important to note that raised beds tend to dry out a little faster, particularly during the hottest hours of the day. Finneran suggested drip irrigation as a good method to keep the soil at the base of the plant, where the roots are, evenly watered.

“Roots like to be cool. You’ve got to stay ahead on watering. If you want to have production of vegetables, you’ve got to consider even watering, really in any vegetable-growing scenario,” Finneran said. “Don’t let them get bone dry and then drench them. Keep them watered consistently. That’s one thing where, I think, people could really go wrong — that is, underestimating what the plant really needs.”

Choosing what to put inside the raised beds as a growing medium is not a perfect science. Some gardeners choose a mixture of soil and compost. Some might choose a soilless mix that is sterile and free of pathogens, doctored with a nutrient-rich product.

“I don’t think there’s only one way to do it,” Finneran said. “Each thing brings something to the table, and each thing might have something negative about it. My compost at home would be full of weed seeds. It’s the way it is.

“The beauty of compost, then, is you also get nutrients, so there’s less fertilizer (needed). That’s a good thing. There’s lots of reasons to do things, but they all have some consequences, good or bad.”

The MSU Extension offers a plethora of resources through its website at www.canr.msu.edu. Various “Smart Gardening” bulletins can be found online at www.canr.msu.edu/home_gardening/tip_sheets.