10 Tips for Successful Raised Bed Gardening

Assorted fresh vegetables in a wooden basket in urban allotment on roof garden.
Mike Harrington/Iconica/Getty Images

Traditional gardens are great, but there's something to be said for raised bed gardens—it allows you to grow more food in less space, tailor the soil precisely to your needs, and decreases the amount of space for weeds to grow wild. Plus, the soil in raised bed warms and dries out earlier in the spring than regular garden beds, so you can get planting sooner. They allow you to garden without fighting stones and roots, and the soil in them stays perfectly fluffy since it doesn't get walked on.

Of course, there are a few drawbacks to raised bed gardens. In hot dry weather, they tend to dry out quickly. Roaming cats may find the nice, fluffy soil attractive for their own reasons. However, these few drawbacks are easy to avoid with a little planning and prevention.

  1. Don't ever walk on the soil

    The biggest advantage of raised bed gardening is the light, fluffy, absolutely perfect soil. When you build your raised beds, build them so that you're able to reach every part of the bed without having to stand in it. If you already have a raised bed and find that you have to walk on parts of it, consider installing strategically placed patio pavers or boards, and only step on those rather than on the soil.

  2. Mulch after planting

    Mulch with straw, grass clippings, leaves, or wood chips after planting your garden. This will reduce the amount of weeding you'll have to do and keep the soil moist.

  3. Plan your irrigation system

    Soaker hose and drip irrigation are the two best ways to irrigate a raised bed. If you plan it ahead of time and install your irrigation system before planting, you can save yourself a lot of work and time spent standing around with a hose later on.

  4. Install a barrier to roots and weeds

    If you have large trees in the area or just want to ensure that you won't have to deal with weeds growing up through your perfect soil, consider installing a barrier at the bottom of the bed. This could be a commercial weed barrier, a piece of old carpet, or a thick piece of corrugated cardboard.

    If you have an existing raised bed and find that you're battling tree roots every year, you may have to excavate the soil, install the barrier, and refill with the soil. It's a bit of work, but it will save you tons of work later on.

  5. Top-dress annually with compost

    Gardening in a raised bed is, essentially, like gardening in a really, really large container. As with any container garden, the soil will settle and deplete as time goes on. You can mitigate this by adding a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost or composted manure each spring before you start planting.

  6. Fluff the soil as needed

    To lighten compacted soil in your raised bed, simply stick a garden fork as deeply into the soil as possible and wiggle it back and forth. Do that in 8- to 12-inch intervals all over the bed, and your soil will be nicely loosened without a lot of backbreaking work.

  7. Cover up your soil, even when you're not gardening

    Add a layer of organic mulch or plant a cover crop at the end of your growing season. Soil that is exposed to harsh winter weather can break down and compact much faster than protected soil.

  8. Plant annual cover crops

    Annual cover crops, such as annual ryegrass, crimson clover, and hairy vetch, that are planted at the end of the growing season can benefit your raised bed garden. They provide nutrients to the soil, especially if you dig them into the bed in spring, reduce erosion, and in the case of vetch and clover, fix nitrogen in your soil.

  9. Think ahead to extend the season

    A little planning up front can enable you to grow earlier in the season or extend your growing season well into the fall. Consider installing supports for a simple low tunnel or cold frame, and you'll have minimal work when you need to protect your crops from frost.

  10. Compost directly in your raised bed garden

Worm tubes, trench composting, and dig-and-drop composting are all methods you can use to compost directly in your raised bed garden. You'll be able to enrich your soil without ever having to turn a compost pile.