Designing a Raised Bed Garden
As the cottage garden ascends to new popularity, so too does the humble raised bed.
Maybe it’s their approachable nature, their down-to-earth charm, or their contrast of geometric planters and unruly plants. Maybe people just want to grow their own food. Whatever the allure, client requests for raised bed vegetable or herb gardens are way up.
What exactly are raised beds? Why use them? How can we best include them in landscape designs?
We’ll dig into all of these questions, share design tips, and have a look at a few projects to give you inspiration on how to incorporate raised beds into your landscape design project.
Table of Contents
WHAT ARE RAISED BEDS?
The classic raised bed is a basic wooden planter box, rising to shin height, with a footprint somewhere between a shipping pallet and a sheet of plywood. This describes the typical raised bed, but people have put many twists on this format. Here are the basics about raised bed design:
SIZE & SHAPE
Most raised beds are square or rectangular, 3’-4’ in width, 6’-10’ in length, 1’-2’ in height.
The standard raised bed sits on the ground, and does not have a bottom – think of a frame rather than an open-topped box.
Smaller beds can rest on posts, elevated to waist height (particularly appealing to those of us with bad backs). These do have a solid bottom.
In theory, custom beds could be designed to virtually any shape, but they tend to stay boxy and simple. U-shapes, corner pieces, tiered planters, or long, narrow strips are common variations.
Natural Wood is the most popular raised bed material. Use rot-resistant species like cedar or redwood.
Landscape timbers are popular for a chunkier, more park-like aesthetic. Note: some people call these “railroad ties”. Actual railroad ties are usually treated with chemicals, and would not be appropriate for vegetable garden use.
Chemically treated wood is discouraged for raised beds – some of it, like wood treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate, is outright toxic (and illegal). Today, wood is most often treated with Alkaline Copper Quaternary, which is arsenic-free and considered to be low in toxicity, but we’d still avoid it for raised beds. Our advice: stick to untreated wood, it’s the safest bet.
Composite Lumber, like TimberTech, is attractive, sustainable, and highly durable, just be sure the product you select is intended for direct contact with soil.
Metal is a common material for prefab beds, and is super durable, provided it is galvanized or painted to resist weathering. Livestock troughs or small stock tanks, typically made of galvanized steel, are commonly repurposed as vegetable beds (and as pools!). Trough planters are popular, durable, and widely available (just be sure to drill drainage holes in their bottom if they don’t already have them). In general, metal beds of all styles look at home in modern design styles, particularly in rustic takes on modern design.
Plastic is cheap and light, can be super durable (depending on the type), can be free of toxins (same), but generally looks less attractive than other materials. Read the fine print, and proceed with caution.
Cinder blocks, also called concrete masonry units (CMUs) or concrete blocks, are made from concrete and can contain fly ash, which is a byproduct from burning coal. Fly ash may contain heavy metals and other hazardous materials. It is yet unclear if any of this toxic material leaches from CMUs into garden soil. CMUs are common as a raised bed construction material, but their viability for your garden will depend on your comfort level.
You can also make raised beds using other hard materials like bricks, stone, or other materials you’d associate with retaining walls. Mortaring hard materials together makes for a permanent, higher-end bed, but costs much more than other options. Dry-stacking stone is a simpler and cheaper approach.
WHY USE RAISED BEDS?
Raised bed gardening offers several advantages for growing herbs and veggies:
It allows for control of soil conditions. This is especially important in areas where the native soil is sandy (drains too quickly), clayey (drains too slowly), compacted, or nutrient-poor.
The soil in raised beds warms up earlier in the spring than the surrounding soil. This extends the growing season by allowing crops to be planted sooner.
Raised beds can discourage pests by incorporating netting, wire mesh, or weed barriers. Some claim their height alone is enough to discourage slugs.
Raised beds can also discourage weeds by using new soil free from unwanted seeds, and (again) by utilizing landscape fabric weed barriers.
Raised beds also offer advantages from a broader landscape design perspective:
Closed-bottom raised beds can be placed in areas where in-ground gardening is not possible, such as on top of hardscape. A small space and a patch of consistent sun is all you need to grow food.
Raised beds are a great way to activate parts of a yard that would otherwise be ignored – so-called “dead zones”. As long as an area receives 6 hours or more of daily sunlight, it could be viable for a raised bed vegetable garden.
Custom raised beds can be designed to efficiently tuck into any space, and there are plenty of prefab options to suit nooks of all shapes and sizes.
HOW MUCH DO RAISED BEDS COST?
Custom Raised Beds
With the price of wood through the roof, the custom versions of the classic wooden raised planter bed cost more these days. Factoring for materials, labor, and soil, you can expect to pay around $500 for a 3’x6’x1’ bed, or $1,000 for a 4’x8’x1’ bed.
Prices for custom beds made from hard materials like brick or stone will vary, but are typically much higher than wood.
PREFAB RAISED BEDS
Prefab raised beds are cheaper than custom, and run the gamut on price, quality, size, and style.
Depending on these factors, a prefab raised bed or vegetable planter will run you anywhere from $50 to $500 or more. Typically, prices hover in the $100-$300 range for the good stuff at average sizes.
Many wood prefab planters will come as bed kits, and are typically a breeze to assemble. Prefab planters made from other materials are more likely to arrive pre-assembled.
Looking for some prefab recommendations? Here are a few of our favorites:
WHAT SHOULD I PLANT IN A RAISED BED?
Be it beets, radishes, cucumbers, or kale, the world is your oyster when it comes to veggie gardening!
Season, sun exposure, and geographic location will all factor into which plants may perform best in your vegetable garden. Even more importantly, you’ll want to plant food that you enjoy eating!
Consult your local agriculture extension or nursery for guidance on what plants to include in your raised bed. They’ll also have great advice on a whole range of things, from plant spacing and garden plans to soil mixes and organic matter.
LANDSCAPE DESIGN TIPS FOR RAISED BEDS
Now that we have a basic grip on raised beds, let’s look at how to design and place them in a landscape.
Herbs and veggies need sun to thrive. Place raised beds in areas that get at least 6 hours of sunlight a day.
Pay attention to shade cast by trees, large shrubs, or structures.
It’s tempting to utilize side yards for veggie beds, but check them for sun exposure before you add your beds. Thanks to tall fences and house walls, side yards often receive insufficient light for vegetable gardening.
Choose a good working surface
Surround raised beds with a groundcover material that is comfortable and durable as a work surface. We suggest simple, tough materials like bark mulch, gravel, or decomposed granite.
Leave room to work
Provide comfortable space around each raised bed. You’ll want room for some tools, a wheelbarrow, and yourself.
We recommend a minimum of 30” of clear space around each edge.
It should be easy to access each part of the garden without putting your hand down on soil to brace yourself (this is a no-no – it compacts the soil).
If you can access all sides of a planting bed, choose a dimension that allows you to easily reach at least halfway across the bed.
If you have a narrow space and need to place your planter against a wall, consider tiered planters to make it easier to access the back row.
If you’re going custom, design to standard lumber dimensions – aim for even 1’ lengths and widths – to minimize work and waste.
Raised beds can be embedded into slopes, but the beds themselves and their planting surfaces are best kept level. This ensures even distribution of water, and makes for a generally easier time working on the garden.
For most of us, one or two raised beds is all you need. Remember, it does take some upkeep to grow herbs and vegetables.
Many suggest 100 to 200 square feet of growing space per person you intend on feeding, but it’s okay – and often advisable – to start smaller and work your way up.
Most raised beds are around 12” tall, but for some, working on a box this close to the ground can be physically uncomfortable. If back or other joint pain is an issue, taller beds – either deeper on-ground beds or planters elevated on posts – can be a better solution.
While taller beds can offer greater physical comfort, they do so at a cost. Beds on posts are typically smaller and offer less surface area to work with. Tall on-ground beds require more building material and soil, and end up costing more than their lower-slung cousins. Tall beds also take up more visual space in a design, and must be carefully placed to avoid creating obstacles or constricting circulation.
Suit the Space
Choose a size, shape, and quantity of beds to comfortably fit within the space. Don’t overstuff – it makes spaces feel cluttered and uncomfortable.
If budget allows, you can fill larger spaces using modular prefab systems or custom bed designs. Some people prefer large continuous planters, like a U-shape “keyhole” garden or single linear planter, while others opt for higher quantities of smaller planters, interspersed with gridded paths.
Small spaces, from corner nooks to apartment balconies, are often best served by small prefab planter options.
Trellis planters bring vertical gardening into your raised beds.
Try adding a trellis planter into the the middle of your raised bed. TerraTrellis has several stylish options.
If you have multiple beds, you can bridge the gap between them with an arch trellis planter. A succession of these arches creates a charming, verdant tunnel that lends a storybook quality to a design (and makes for an excellent feature within a cottage garden).
If you only have one box, turn the arch 90 degrees to span the planted surface, just make sure your plants will still receive plenty of light.
Have a seat
Custom wood planters can double as built in seating without too much additional expense.
The lowest cost approach is to simply add a comfortable seat cap atop the vertical wall of your raised bed.
Options abound for more ambitious designs, including bench seating with backrests that double as the walls of tall planter beds.
RAISED GARDEN BED IDEAS
Now let’s take a look at some great examples of raised beds in Yardzen landscape designs.
Part of the Scene
A pair of raised beds tuck comfortably into the corner of this front yard design.
The beds’ pale color echoes the feathery grasses and wood fence behind it, lending the beds a sense of belonging in the scene.
While grass can suffer under heavy foot traffic, a little kneeling now and then to tend the garden shouldn’t hurt it. All the same, the adjacent concrete path offers a place to rest tools and garden carts, sparing the grass from the damage such heavy items could inflict.
Soften the Space
Big, blank walls tend to make spaces feel lifeless and unwelcoming.
In this design, a tidily arranged cluster of tall planters joins forces with a row of small canopy trees to obscure the view of a tall white fence. The planters themselves are elevated, literally by short posts at their corners, and figuratively by the pride of place they are given in the design’s layout.
Steadily repeating design elements establish rhythm in landscape designs, leaving a breadcrumb trail for the eye to follow.
This design applies this trick via a row of rustic galvanized steel trough planters.
Lest things feel too rigid, a lemon tree pops up mid-row to add a dash of vertical punctuation.
This garden design sticks to a strict but lusciously organic color palette: leafy greens, rusty reds, and cool grays.
Planting avoids flowers entirely save for a few white blooms, opting instead to foreground full, shaggy texture and blanket the scene in green.
The corten steel planters, trellises, and fireplace, along with the adobe-tinged gravel and tan wicker chairs, bring warm neutrals and earthy reds to the palette.
The stone paving contrasts this warmth with bright, blue-tinged grays, a palette cleanser to balance out the richness of the other colors.
Oh yeah, and there are vegetable gardens in the middle of all this. Goes to show: veggie beds can be an integral part of a visual composition.
Front and Center
Vegetable beds have long been approached as utilitarian features best kept hidden out of sight.
Times are changing. Today, people are increasingly happy to pop their beds right out front yard for all the neighborhood to see, embracing them as aesthetic features as well as places for the functional work of growing food.
This design does exactly this, dropping veggie beds right into a row of foundation planting along their house’s front facade. By arranging the beds to face forthrightly street-ward, and enveloping them with the same species we see along the lawn’s sidewalk edge, the beds are presented as an intentional feature of the overall planting design.
Spiff up the Side Yard
Not all side yards can accommodate raised beds. Narrow spaces that sit between a tall fence and house receive limited sunlight – often not enough to keep herbs and veggies happy.
That said, a wide side yard is a perfect spot for a raised bed garden. From a landscape design perspective, side yards are often difficult to activate. Provided a side yard offers sufficient sunlight, raised beds are a fabulous way to take advantage of the space they offer.
This design embraces the long, narrow character of the side yard by plugging in a custom linear raised bed. Continuing the gravel from the front yard as a bed for this side yard planter to rest within helps to visually knit the two spaces, implying a single, flowing design.
A Pair of Squares
The vegetable beds in this design are carefully orchestrated to balance separation and connection between an adults’ lounge area and a kids’ play lawn.
The planters themselves imply some separation between the two spaces, but their low height allows for clear views over their top, making it easy for parents to keep an eye on their kids. This sight line implies a connection between the two spaces, and helps both zones feel more expansive.
The choice to use two square planters in place of a single rectangle allows for direct circulation between the spaces, again straddling that line between separation and connection.
Formal & Functional
The sculpted evergreen hedge that lines the edge of this yard is a clear nod to formal garden design.
Rather than follow the formal script with a row of boxwoods or Hydrangeas, this design subs in evenly spaced trough planters, whose matte gray finish matches the gravel beneath it.
Dark green herbs within the planters maintain the look and feel of the hedge, sticking to a consistent planting aesthetic.
Balanced & Substantial
Four spaces anchor to a central pool in this landscape design, each offering something unique: shade, a fire pit, sunbathing, and a vegetable garden. The arrangement and substantial scale of the garden presents it as a space that is as important as the others.
A band of ornamental planting separating the garden and the pool creates a layered composition when viewed from across the pool: the ornamentals form a low layer, while the elevated planter boxes form a taller background layer.
A Fragrant Frame
Two horizontal board planter boxes evoke the horizontal board fence wrapping two sides of a minimalist seating space beneath a mature canopy tree.
The two boxes act like an edge to frame the seating area, yet they allow easy movement in and out of the space via the gap between the boxes.
Fragrant herbs within the boxes pile on to the dappled light and pleasing crunch of gravel underfoot to create a tranquil space rich with sensorial detail.
CARING FOR RAISED BEDS
Looking for more nitty-gritty detail about establishing and maintaining raised beds? Read on for our responses to some of the most common questions we receive about raised beds.
→ Wooden beds are often left open to the ground, but you can opt for hardware cloth (fine galvanized metal mesh) secured across the bottom if gophers are an issue.
→ You can also put landscape fabric across the bottom if weeds from the native soil will be a nuisance.
→ Plastic liners since will break down over time, leaving behind bits of plastic in the soil. For this reason, we do not recommend them.
→ Depends on what’s available to you. Vegetable garden soil should be high in organic matter content (compost), which aids in water retention and nutrient exchange.
→ Native soil on its own is too dense/heavy.
→ You can use a mix of native soil + amendment (compost).
→ Some amount of topsoil is fine, but it should be coupled with richer soil and compost to provide enough nutrient content.
→ You can also use potting soil, but this tends to be the most expensive option, and has lightweight components like perlite that tend to float to the top of the soil profile over time.
→ Calculate the volume in cubic feet. Bagged soil mixes are sold by the cubic foot (or cubic yard for bulk soils). 1 cubic yard = 27 CF.
→ Aim for soil height up to around 4-6” below the top edge of the bed (the soil will settle after filling/watering in).
→ Don’t add gravel or anything else as a layer across the bottom (this does NOT improve drainage).
→ Drip irrigation is nice for ease of set up/use. Drip systems are also excellent for using water efficiently.
→ Drips systems can clog over time due to hard water. Adding an upstream decalcifier can mitigate this issue.
→ Soaker hoses are less efficient and don’t have as long of a service life. They also can clog due to hard water.
→ Hand watering requires the most time and effort. It may be meditative, but in general we recommend going for an automatic drip system instead.
→ Depends on weather, soil type, and water needs of the plants, as well as how the water is applied (drip, hand water, etc). Anywhere from 1-3x/week is common, but you’ll want to pay attention to determine the right amount of water for your particular garden.
→ Seedlings and shallow-rooted plants need more frequent water, while deep-rooted plants (like tomatoes) can be watered more deeply and less frequently
→ Soil moisture is crucial for nutrient uptake and fruit set. If you notice an apparent nutrient deficiency or your yield is suffering, make sure the plants are adequately and consistently watered.
→ Ideally, the top of the soil should dry out slightly, but still feel cool and slightly damp if you poke your index finger into it.
→ If soil looks or feels wet, it does not need any water!
→ Yes, always! Drainage is crucial to avoid waterlogged soil and keep plant roots healthy.
→ Sealing wood is not necessary, but can extend its lifespan.
→ Using naturally rot-resistant woods like redwood or cedar skips the need to seal.
→ If you do seal, we suggest a natural sealant like Tung Oil. Polyurethane sealants and latex paint are also supposed to be safe once cured.
→ Any time of year!
→ Major planting times are usually late spring/early summer and fall (for warm- and cool-season crops, respectively).
→ Check your local master gardeners’ website for local planting info (recommended varieties, planting/harvest times, etc).
→ Yes! Weeds compete with your crops for water and nutrients, and can harbor pests and disease.
→ To keep weeds at bay, try interplanting crops with annual flowers. This adds color, attracts pollinators, and suppresses less desirable plants from growing.
→ Yes – any time you harvest crops or remove plant material you are removing nutrients from the soil. Fertilizing replaces those lost nutrients.
→ You can use organic or inorganic fertilizers, but we favor organic for their reduced risk of contributing to water pollution.
→ Be sure to always follow the package directions on any fertilizer product. This is especially important when using inorganic products, which are more apt to burn plants and can contribute to water pollution if overapplied.
→ Check out our Fall garden checklist, which features a ton of tips for cool season gardening.
→ In mild climates, you can garden year round.
→ If letting the garden rest through the cold season and resuming in spring, don’t work the soil while it’s wet, as this can disrupt soil structure and lead to compaction.
GET STARTED WITH YOUR LANDSCAPE DESIGN BY YARDZEN
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape and exterior design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Whether your goal is creating more functional outdoor living space or beautifying your home exterior, we can create a design that meets your needs and style preferences.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.