To Raise a Bed
To raise a bed, or not to raise a bed, that is the question. Raised beds are so common place in the urban ag scene that people rarely even question the alternative. When asked, people cite soil contamination concerns or perceived drainage issues as the rationales behind this phenomenon. While those are definitely valid concerns, it is my opinion that they should not automatically dictate one’s decision making process.
Determining soil contamination is an exceptionally easy through the soil testing process. After finding a site with water, soil testing is the first step in any future farm. The reasons for this are two-fold. One, a soil test will tell you the soil’s nutrients and pH, which will therefore guide all of your fertilizer and amendment decisions. And two, a soil test will tell you if the soil is contaminated with lead, cadmium, zinc, etcetera.
As for perceived drainage issues, there’s an easy no-cost test to check drainage. Essentially, you dig a 12 inch deep by 12 inch wide hole. Fill it with water. Wait overnight. Fill it again, and then use a tape measure to determine how fast the hole is draining in inches per hour. Ideally, the hole will drain at a rate of two inches per hour. More detailed instructions can be found at the website below.
In this “to raise a bed” discussion, it is rarely mentioned that raised beds need more water. So much so that time and time again I’ve seen new gardeners/farmers struggle with keeping up on their watering duties. This holds true for container gardens as well, which are essentially micro-raised beds. Therefore when asking yourself, “shall I raise a bed,” it would be prudent to also ask yourself how diligently you plan on watering. Just like the rest of life, good intentions will only get you so far in gardening. So, answer the question honestly.
There are other considerations to ponder when determining if raised beds are the right choice for you. Raised beds are cited as being easier on the back because you don’t need to bend over so far when planting, weeding, and harvesting. While this is certainly true, filling a raised bed is nothing short of back-breaking. In this case, you must consider whether or not the long-term gain is worth the short-term physical expense.
While we’re speaking of expense, it should be mentioned that raised beds do in fact cost money to build and fill; whereas, the soil below your feet will likely just need to be amended (also an expense just not as large of one). Do you want to grow on 100 square feet, 2,000 square feet, or 10,000 square feet? As your square footage increases, so does your expense both physically and monetarily during the building phase.
A consideration that is completely unrelated to expenses physical or monetary is aesthetics. Raised beds can add an orderly fashion to what would just be a garden or lawn. Order is a popular notion in both urban and suburban environments. There is just something pleasing to the public about 4’X8’ boxes lined up in perfect right angled rows. Whereas a garden or farm plot just looks like patch of dirt or worse: overgrown weeds! The biggest consideration in this sense is to make sure you give your raised beds enough space so that they can be mowed between the beds. Or if you have particularly tight quarters, be sure to mulch with something like cardboard and woodchips to suppress weeds between the beds. Neglected raised bed gardens take more work to “pretty up” than neglected gardens.
Ultimately, the answer to raise a bed or to not raise a bed lies in personal taste and monetary budget. I’ve seen in-the-soil gardens and raised beds get way out of weedy control, and I’ve seen in-the-soil gardens and raised beds do amazingly awesome. Both gardening and farming are physically draining labors of love. Raised beds are just another option in the canon of agriculture.