Even if you already have well-established garden beds, there are many excellent, practical reasons for building a raised bed or two. They’re convenient, they deter wildlife from eating your produce, and they offer a wide edge to sit on as you work. As an added bonus, your garden’s raised height will stop you from having to bend over to care for your plants (your back will thank you!). Here are 3 essential garden bed plans for you to incorporate into your own growing space.
Raised Garden Bed Benefits
A raised bed breaks up the “ground-level only” plant life, which helps to create a visually pleasing, fun, multiple-level garden. It can become a nice island among all the ground plants, becoming an oasis that eyes focus on first.
Raised beds also make it harder for critters like rabbits to nibble on your produce so easily. I like to build wraparound benches along the outside of raised beds to create perfect sitting spots among my plant friends.
It’s also quite easy to build your raised bed so that stout wire mesh or PVC pipes can be attached in an arch over top. Clear plastic sheeting can be laid over these as a makeshift greenhouse. When cold weather starts to show its face, you’ll be ready. This will help to extend your garden life at least a month longer. Possibly even longer than that if you live in a warmer growing zone.
Determine Your Raised Bed’s Purpose
Before you begin, think about where you want to build and why. Which plants do you want to grow? What are their sunlight and water requirements?
Looking around for the perfect place that allows the right amounts of shade, sunlight, and view make a world of difference. If you’ve decided on a long, rectangular bed, make sure to orient it north to south. This ensures the best sunlight will fall on your plants over the course of the day.
If you want to grow carrots, you will need to make the bed a bit taller. If you’re building a bed with a bench built onto it, will it be in the hot sun during the time you think you’ll be out enjoying it? You may need to prune branches above if you want to build it where you can sit in the garden to watch stars and fireflies.
Most folks build their raised beds out of wood. I prefer cedar due to its rot resistance and bug-repellent qualities. If you’re planning to use pine, make sure it’s treated, if possible. I’d take it a step further and suggest lining your raised bed to keep soil away from direct contact with treated wood. Same goes for if you decide to use old railroad timbers.
My friend gets large, stout pallets (10’ x 4’) donated to him from Caterpillar (Inc). He breaks these down to make quick raised beds without much work. If you decide to upcycle your raised bed, ask stores if they have any treated pallets you can have. I’ve noticed the treated ones have boards that are almost 1” thick, and are commonly painted a bright color like red or blue.
Beware the more common pallets that lurk behind most grocery stores—the ones that look like they might break if you jumped on them. Do yourself a favor: pass those up and find some treated ones instead.
Stone and Mortar Beds
Making your raised bed out of stone and mortar is also a great choice, though obviously more labor intensive. If built well, however, these very natural-looking raised beds will last for generations. Another advantage to stone (or brick) raised beds is that they hold onto warmth from the sun. This will keep the bed warmer during fall and winter months.
Granted, this can also work against you during summer’s hottest days. Plant cascading herbs, like weeping rosemary, on the southern and western walls of your raised bed to create shade below.
Once you’ve decided about the orientation, shape, and materials, all that’s left is prepping the site. Some people suggest rototilling the ground below first to help with drainage and deep root systems. I generally build my raised beds about 18-24” tall, so I don’t need to rototill them.
I advise against rototilling unless you’re making a very shallow raised bed. Doing so strips nutrients from the soil and breaks up the tiny organisms that live in it. Without nutrients and these life-giving organisms, healthy soil will quickly turn into sterile “dirt”.
Simple Raised Bed
– Cedar boards (or a bunch of stones)
– Nails or screws
– Hardware cloth
– Plastic liner
– Soil, Compost, and Peat
Start by laying down a thick layer of non-dyed cardboard on the ground, overlapping 6 inches past the edges of your planned bed. The cardboard will stop the grass below from growing into your lovely new bed and taking over.
Now, build your new raised bed on top of the cardboard. If you’re building with wood, staple a thin plastic liner on the inside walls. This will help keep moisture off the porous wooden sides so they won’t rot. This will add a few years onto your raised bed’s life.
I also suggest attaching a piece of hardware cloth (with 1/2-inch holes) that will cover the bottom and sides. This will help to deter moles and other small burrowing critters from getting inside your bed and running amok. If you get a mole in the bed, you’ll have to disassemble the entire structure if you want to remove it! I only had to do this once… and have always used hardware cloth ever since.
Filling and Care
Fill your raised bed with a combination of soil, compost and peat moss (or coconut husks to be more eco-friendly). You may want to alter what your soil mix consists of depending on what you plan to grow. (A bit of sand would be helpful for strawberries, but coffee grounds could really help a carrot garden.)
If your build a tall raised bed, you can fill the bottom up with some mulch, grass clipping, straw, sand or even rocks to help raise the fill level a bit. Using rocks will help drainage and the organic material will hold moisture. I’d suggest using the organic fill for the bottom, as it will turn into soil eventually.
A good thing to remember about simple raised beds is that they tend to dry out quicker than regular ground level beds. Finding a way to attach a shade cloth can help beat the heat a bit. Adding a soaker hose is a great option too for keeping beds moist enough. You can even put a soaker hose on an electronic timer, to make your life that much easier.
Hugelkultur (Hugelculture) Raised Bed
– Cedar boards (or stone, or antlers, or large branches)
– Nails or screws
– Hardware cloth
– Plastic liner
– Soil, compost, and peat
– Logs, branches, mulch (not pine)
Building a hugelculture bed will help you during summer’s dry spells by holding moisture below the surface. It’ll also help in wintertime by heating your plants from below as the logs and mulch decompose.
This style bed’s construction can be exactly the same as the simple raised bed mentioned above. Of course, building a taller bed will give more room to hold more moisture-retaining material at the bottom. If you really want to hold lots of moisture in your bed, I’d suggest digging down at least 6-18 inches, though this isn’t necessary.
If you don’t want to dig, then just fill about 1/3 of the bottom of your bed with rotting wood (not pine) or hardwood mulch. Straw and leaves will only last for a season or two.
The rotting wood will break down over the seasons, eventually becoming a nice humus under your plant’s roots. As the logs and branches rot, they’ll retain moisture that can be used by thirsty plants. This is because water evaporates out of soil much slower than when it’s exposed to outside air and sun.
That decomposing wood is also a perfect place for mycelia to grow, which also help increase your soil’s overall health.
Wicking Raised Bed
– Cedar boards (or stone, or plastic tubs, or an old children’s wading pool as shown in the video above)
– Nails or screws
– Plastic liner
– 1-inch wide PVC pipe (slightly longer than the longest part of your bed)
– 2-inch wide PVC pipe (slightly taller than your raised bed height)
– Burlap or old sheets
– Soil, compost,, and peat
One good option to help your plants is a raised bed that has a water reservoir underneath it. Your plants will wick up the water, just as a flame wicks the oil out of an old oil lamp. This helps your plants to drink whenever they are thirsty, not just when you water them!
Constructing wicking beds is a bit more labor intensive, but definitely worth the extra sweat equity in my opinion. You can make a wicking bed out of a 5-gallon bucket, plastic storage tub, or the even using the same walls as the raised beds mentioned before.
For this explanation, I’ll imagine that you’re making the bed out of wood.
Once you construct the bed, install a thick plastic liner. Use a single piece that covers the entire bottom and most of all of the inside walls. This will be what holds back your water reservoir, so it needs to be thick. You may want to double up this liner to be safe. Just don’t staple the liner anywhere that you plan your water reservoir to be! Make sure the liner doesn’t sag lower on one side—you want a uniform bottom surface.
After the liner is in place, fill the bed’s bottom with 4-8 inches of gravel. I’d suggest using gravel no bigger than a golf ball, though lima bean-sized would be perfect. I’ve even heard of folks using pieces of broken terra cotta pots, brick chunks, and broken glass.
These rocks will help create space for water to be held as your plants wick it up.
Creating the Pipes
Cut a 2-inch-diameter PVC pipe slightly taller than the raised bed’s height for your fill pipe. Drill some holes around the bottom 4 inches of this pipe to allow more water into the reservoir. Move the rocks aside a bit and carefully push the pipe’s “holey” section down to the liner bottom.
Standing the pipe upright in one corner will help keep it out of the way. Afterwards, replace the rocks you moved: they” help to hold the pipe upright.
Make sure your rock fill is level, then take a 1-inch-diameter PVC pipe and cut it so it is 3 inches longer than your bed. This is going to be your overflow pipe. Drill holes along one side of this pipe, making it look sort of like a flute.
Next, drill a 1-inch hole in the side of your raised bed wall, so you can slide this “flute” in FLUSH with the top of your rock fill. This pipe should stick out the side of your raised bed wall by a few inches.
Since this is the overflow pipe, the “flute” holes need to face downward, creating the easiest exit route for water. Make sure your overflow pipe is level, and that the rocks cover the sides of it to create a uniform level surface. You may need to glue the liner (or even cut another little piece to place underneath the existing one) to help water find its way out of the bed.
On top of your level rock layer, add a piece of burlap—or even old bedsheets—to separate the water reservoir from the soil. I have some old trampoline material I always use for this, since it doesn’t decompose like burlap or cloth will over time.
I suggest cutting this material larger than the area it’s covering to better hold the soil in place. This will stop it from washing into your rocks over time. Take care to cut as needed to fit around the upright fill pipe as well.
Finally, fill the rest of your bed with soil, compost and peat. Your wicking bed is ready to grow in!
Keep in mind that seeds and seedlings will still require normal watering at first. They won’t yet be strong enough to wick up water like a mature plant can. Because of this, it’s recommended to put transplants into smaller wicking buckets to train them. After you water them normally during the transplant, you can then water them using the fill pipe afterwards.
Care for wicking raised beds is a snap. You fill the water reservoir using the upright fill pipe. When your water reservoir is full, it’ll dump out the excess water from the overflow pipe. Here’s a tip: plant something hardy below the overflow like rosemary. This will drink up the excess water as it spills out.
Each wicking system will vary depending on the season, and water reservoir size. Typically, wicking systems will hold enough moisture to keep your plants watered for 1-2 weeks. This makes wick beds perfect for vacations and long, hot summers!