There are any number of reasons to include raised beds in your garden — to combat poor soil, to adequately grow root vegetables, or simply to save your back from bending over to ground level. But once you’ve decided to create the raised beds, how do you know what kind of design to use? There are more options than you might think, and while there are certainly practical considerations to take into account, the aesthetic ones are just as valid.
So what do you need to know? Follow three easy steps to before starting construction — we know that good, successful gardens are mostly in the planning and preparation!
Choose from our top 3 raised beds design suggestions to find the design that is perfect for you.
Before You Get Started
1. Locate a sunny, level area. Most edible plants love as much sun as you can give them, so look for a site in your yard that gets 6-8 hours of full sun a day. If that site is fairly level, so much the better — while creating raised beds on a slope is possible, of course, it’s much easier and less expensive if you can minimize retaining wall-type construction.
2. Choose your construction materials. Lots of material types are appropriate for raised bed borders, and your choice mostly depends upon the look you are going for and your budget. Wood (2 x 4, 2 x 6 or landscape timbers) is a classic and inexpensive choice, but avoid railroad ties as they are typically soaked with chemicals that are not compatible with edibles. Other material options are mortared stone, rolled steel or simple cinderblocks.
3. Determine your raised bed size. Aim for beds that are 6” – 12” high for best results (unless otherwise recommended) and 4′ wide bed at whatever length works for you (4′, 6′, 8′, etc.). The narrower width allows you to easily tend the garden from either side without having to step into the bed or reach too far. As for height, 6 – 12″ tall is plenty for providing adequate soil depth, but if you have any mobility issues, plan for taller sides (18 – 24″ or more) so you can sit on the edge of the bed to water, weed, and harvest.
Square Foot Beds: The square foot bed is typically 4 x 4 and divided into 1-foot sections for ease of planning your plant spacing. For example, in one square foot section, you can plant 8 pole beans, 9 beets, or 16 carrots. While square foot beds are typically more utilitarian looking, their highly efficient design makes them a popular choice among avid gardeners, particularly those with less space. For more in-depth reading, check out Mel Bartholomew’s “All New Square Foot Gardening: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space” (Cool Springs Press)
Keyhole Gardens: The keyhole garden is the granddaddy of raised bed garden designs, inspired by similar gardens in drought-stricken conditions in South Africa. Typically a 6’ diameter circle with a notch cut out for the entryway, keyhole gardens are often waist-high and focus on sustainable methods for both plant health and easy maintenance. The beds themselves often consist of an intricate layer of materials including wood, cardboard, compost, newspaper, manure, worms, wood ash, straw, and topsoil. A compost basket is in the center of the keyhole garden, moistening and nurturing the surrounding soil.
Rectangular Grids: Likely the most common and recognizable of raised bed designs, the rectangular grids are easy to build and highly flexible in terms of layout. Plan for a 4’ width and a length that is equal to standard lumber (if you’re using wood) to minimize waste (8, 10, or 12 feet). Just as with the square foot beds, the 4’ width makes maintenance a breeze. Lay the beds out into a graphic grid pattern or side-by-side, allowing for a 4’ path width in between for maneuvering wheelbarrows. This raised bed garden design is not only practical but visually attractive as well.