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Garden Design for Beginners: Cultivate a Beautiful, Functional Space

June 26, 2024

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Garden Design for Beginners: Cultivate a Beautiful, Functional Space

Curves, Curves, and More Curves

As the cost of lumber continues to rise, I get more and more questions about whether raised beds are necessary for a healthy and productive kitchen garden. The extra expense – the bed materials and then all that soil to fill each one – of a raised bed versus an in-ground garden might seem like a waste. I get it. But after trying unsuccessfully to garden in the ground, I converted to growing most of my edible plants in raised beds and using raised beds in all of my kitchen garden designs for clients. And let me tell you, unless you’re blessed with the perfect soil for growing fruits and vegetables (is anyone?), you’ll find that raised beds will drastically increase your productivity and overall success in the kitchen garden too.

Before setting up your own raised beds, it’s important to consider the purpose of gardening in a raised bed, the ideal size of the structure based on your space, and the best materials to use to build your raised bed. Let’s look first at the reasons I consider raised beds the most important element of any kitchen garden. Raised beds can increase the productivity and appearance of your kitchen garden space. I go into further detail on the reasons raised beds are all-around better for gardening here.

Choosing the Perfect Location

After working with hundreds of clients to design and install kitchen gardens, I’ve narrowed the long list of things to consider when choosing a site for your raised-bed kitchen garden to four key aspects. The first and most important aspect to consider is sunlight exposure. Your garden will need to receive six or more direct sunlight hours per day. Really though, you’re aiming for as much sun as possible. Ideally, you’ll position your garden on the south side of any tall structures such as homes, garages, tall sheds, and fences. This is especially important during the winter months when the sun is lower on the horizon for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. If your only available spot receives four or so hours of sun a day, you can still have a kitchen garden—you’ll just need to prioritize growing herbs and salad greens, plants that will still thrive with less-than-ideal sun.

The second aspect to consider is water proximity. Place your garden, when possible, near a spigot, a rain barrel, or a location where it can be connected to an irrigation system. Plants love the deep and consistent water that drip irrigation can supply (more on the best way to water plants in raised beds in a bit).

The third aspect to consider is convenience. Your raised beds should ideally be located as close to the kitchen as possible—or at least as close to your everyday activities as possible. Look for sunny locations near a back door, front door, or even next to your driveway so that you can pop outside with scissors to snip some herbs for dinner or some lettuce leaves for lunch.

Lastly, the final aspect to consider is how your raised beds can fit in with the rest of your landscape. Your garden should feel like an extension of the home, something that’s always been there. With that in mind, position your garden near prominent structures or line it up with existing elements of your home or yard. Look for spots where you could add beds along already-established lines such as a side yard, a fence, a driveway, a deck, a patio, or a pool.

Sizing It Up

There are three general parameters for raised bed size: the height, the width, and the length. The very first raised bed my family ever put together was only four inches tall, and that height just didn’t work for the type of plants we wanted to grow. A raised bed should be tall enough to accommodate the full root ball of whatever plants you’re growing. The minimum raised bed height I ever recommend is six inches, and then there’s no reason to go over two feet unless you have a specific reason, such as a mobility issue.

Here is the minimum depth you’ll need based on the type of plants you might want to grow:

Plant Type Minimum Depth
Leafy Greens, Herbs 6-12 inches
Root Vegetables 12-18 inches
Tomatoes, Peppers 12-18 inches
Pole Beans, Vining Crops 18-24 inches

Keep in mind that beds 18 inches deep or more will have better drainage than shorter beds. While most plants don’t need anything deeper than 18 inches, I prefer beds that are two feet deep (24 inches). The extra height is mostly just for the ease and convenience of the gardener. Garden work should be an enjoyable part of your daily routine, not a chore that hurts your knees and back. I also prefer this height for aesthetic reasons. Two feet of stone, brick, Corten steel, or cedar planks adds beauty and way more vertical interest to a landscape.

Unlike height, the possible width and length of your raised bed might be limited by the space you have available. The minimum width I’d recommend for a raised bed is 18 inches. Anything less across just doesn’t afford you the full benefits of growing in a raised bed—there wouldn’t even be room to plant more than one or two plants across your bed, especially not if they need to spread out. If you can find a space for a bed that’s at least two feet wide, that would be preferable. The maximum width you would want for a raised bed is about four feet wide, and that would only be for beds that you’re able to access from all four sides. Anything beyond four and a half to five feet typically makes plants in the middle of the bed too difficult to reach unless you have very long arms.

The length of your raised bed will be determined by the space you have available and the materials you’d like to use to build your bed. If you’re using wood to construct your raised beds, eight-foot-long boards are generally the most economic option. That’s why many of the raised beds you’ll see in our designs just happen to be eight feet in length. In my experience, the best length for a bed maxes out around 10 to 12 feet long. I’ve installed beds as long as 25 feet, but we encountered issues with holding the bed structure together as the soil was added. Wooden beds that are too long might start to bow.

Choosing the Right Materials

When choosing materials for your raised beds, we prioritize those that are natural, beautiful, durable, sustainable, and also affordable. Remember, making good decisions when you start to build your raised beds can save you money in the long run and ensure you’re able to enjoy your gardening space to the fullest.

My favorite wood to use is cedar, which is an incredibly durable timber that will perform well for years to come. Whichever wood you’re using, make sure to avoid boards treated with chemicals that could then leach into your soil and therefore into the food you’re going to eat. If you do want to stain the outside, go with a high-quality, eco-friendly, and weather-resistant stain. I get asked a lot if it’s safe to stain or paint the outside of a raised garden bed, so I compiled information about safe stains and paints to use on wooden raised beds. I do recommend using an eco-friendly wood treatment on the inside of your raised beds to prolong the time you can enjoy them in your garden.

When it comes to the thickness of your wooden boards for the body of your raised beds, I recommend buying the thickest board you can afford, preferably two inches thick. You’ll get more life out of your raised beds and be able to enjoy them for longer if you avoid the temptation of buying something less than one inch thick. For the trim boards, one-inch thick will work just fine.

If your budget allows, you can’t get much more durable than steel, which will quite literally last a lifetime. My favorite types of steel to use in garden designs are Corten steel, thanks to its weathered look, and powder-coated metal, which has a very sleek, modern feel. Here are three major benefits of using steel:

  1. It’s extremely durable and won’t rot, warp, or deteriorate over time.
  2. It has a beautiful, modern aesthetic that can elevate the look of your garden.
  3. It’s highly customizable, with various size and color options available.

If you’re going with steel, make sure you arrange for delivery. Many steel raised beds arrive pre-made, so measure the narrowest part of the path the bed will have to travel to ensure it will fit through.

Nothing beats stone for longevity when it comes to garden materials, no matter what type of temperature ranges, humidity, and water intake your bed will experience. Stone is also food-safe and can often be locally sourced. Stone is definitely an investment and might not fit all raised bed budgets, but it’s on my wish list for a garden someday.

Filling It Up

Once your garden is fully constructed and installed, it’s time to fill your raised bed with the best possible soil to keep your kitchen garden plants happy and healthy. To calculate the total cubic feet of soil you’ll need, simply multiply the square feet of your garden’s footprint by the height of your raised bed. This provides the total cubic feet of garden space that must be filled with soil.

If you need less than 27 cubic feet of soil for your raised bed garden, you’ll want to purchase soil bags to fill your garden instead of ordering a truck delivery of soil. Use our soil calculator to determine how much soil you’ll need for your raised beds.

When installing the soil, whether you’re dumping bags of soil into the bed or carting soil from a huge mound on your driveway, you’ll want to slowly fill your raised beds three to six inches at a time. Be sure to protect your water source (i.e., your drip irrigation, which should already be installed) as you do. Put something like a piece of plastic or cloth on top of the pipe that’s coming up to be sure you don’t get dirt down into it.

As you install every four to five inches of soil, you’ll want to wet the soil thoroughly so that you can continue to filling it up. This will prevent the level of soil in your bed from suddenly sinking inches overnight. Finally, you’ll want to level your soil with a rake.

For the best results, use new, nutrient-rich soil to fill your raised beds. I’ve seen suggestions to add plastic bottles or trash bags as filler to the bottom of raised beds to save money on soil, but that kind of defeats the purpose of giving your plants’ roots all the growing room they need. We want to make sure we’re filling up our raised beds from the bottom all the way to the top with great organic matter that will feed our plants, not something that will break down slowly and contaminate your soil with plastic particles.

Before you shovel your new soil in, add some simple raised bed liners. If you have an issue with animals that come from underground, such as voles, add some hardware cloth at the bottom of the bed. I recommend weed barrier cloth for everyone to keep weeds out and to prevent your soil from washing out of your bed with the first heavy rain.

Bringing It All Together

Now that you know how to calculate your soil for your raised beds, it’s time to think about what that soil mix should be. For years, I’ve used a sandy loam garden soil that’s organic, natural, and doesn’t include any peat moss products. If you want more help on how to create the soil blend, how to keep your soil healthy, and how to blend a variety of natural soil ingredients to get the best organic mix, grab a copy of my book Kitchen Garden Revival or join our kitchen garden setup course, Kitchen Garden Academy.

When it comes to watering, I wake up early and use a watering can or hose to soak the soil of my raised beds, but I warn you that watering by hand can get old real fast—plus, it doesn’t serve those who frequently travel and can’t rely on their gardens consistently receiving one hour of rainwater per week. When watering by hand, avoid spraying the leaves of your plants and water as close to the soil level as possible so that the water can be absorbed by the roots. This is why I recommend raised bed drip irrigation systems for most of my clients and students. Plants love the deep and consistent water that drip irrigation can supply.

Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to think about the fun part: designing the layout of your raised beds. I used to think that garden design was just figuring out the best spot to place a wooden box, but now I know that there are dozens of ways to plot out your kitchen garden space to combine form and function. Explore our ten absolute favorite ways to arrange your raised beds from Gardenary and Rooted Garden. Something you’ll notice in each of those designs is that the raised beds all come with trellises. The garden trellis is an essential component of the kitchen garden, and to me, no raised bed is complete without a panel, obelisk, or arch trellis.

Raised beds are the ideal place to grow edible plants like herbs, leafy greens, root crops, and fruit for everyday use. You’ll be amazed at how many plants you can fit in each raised bed. The reason we can plant intensively and grow way more plants in a raised bed than we could in the ground is that the raised garden bed provides room for roots to dig down deep, the soil provides the nutrients they need to thrive, and the trellis provides vertical support and encourages larger plants to grow up and stretch out.

So, are you feeling ready to create your own beautiful and functional raised bed kitchen garden? Thornappple CSA exists to give beginner gardeners like you all the resources you need to keep on growing. Whether you’re a DIYer looking for step-by-step guidance or an online-course-type of person, we’ve got you covered. I’m confident that you’re going to love having raised beds if you choose to install them in your outdoor space, and we’ve got tons of resources to help you build your own gardening haven and start growing.

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