Put a pretty frame around your garden by planting in a raised bed. Raised beds define a garden neatly and lend themselves to easy, striking garden designs.
The simplest raised beds involve just mounding soil up so it is higher than the level of the soil around it, but framing raised beds with bricks, pavers or standard lumber holds the soil in place and keeps the garden looking tidy.
Raised beds are typically only three or four feet wide and eight to 12 feet long. They’re just the right size for first-time gardeners of all ages — easy to manage and maintain, even for children planting their first seeds or transplants. They appeal to experienced gardeners because they overcome the problem of poor soils — you fill a raised bed with a fertile combination of soil and compost. Raised beds also can be planted densely.
Raised beds are not a new concept, but they have grown in popularity in recent years, especially among vegetable gardeners. Because they are higher than the surrounding soil level, raised beds typically drain better than regular garden beds. Raised beds are also easy to take care of: You’ll still have to bend over, but not as far, and because you never have to walk on the soil, it doesn’t become compacted. Raised beds are also easy to weed and to keep looking sharp.
Front-yard vegetable gardens designed around raised beds can be very stylish indeed. Josee Landry and Michel Beauchamp took out their front lawn in Drummondville, Quebec, a year ago and replaced it with a checkerboard pattern of raised beds with gravel paths between them. The couple unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a controversy about the propriety of growing vegetables in the front yard, but their good-looking garden quickly convinced skeptics that a well-designed and carefully tended vegetable garden, even out front, is an asset to the neighborhood.
My own community garden plot in Kansas City is on a city lot with dozens of raised beds laid out in a grid, leaving about two feet between each bed. It’s a convivial arrangement: We all have plenty of room to grow our own crops or flowers in the 4-by-12-foot plots, but we’re close enough together to learn from each other as we compare gardening techniques. Because we’re all part-time gardeners, we appreciate having a garden that’s not too big. But I have learned not to underestimate the possibilities: My plot produced an impressive salad garden in spring and then a summer’s supply of tomatoes, peppers, basil and zinnias. I had lots of produce to share with friends and neighbors.
Maree Gaetani, a spokeswoman for Gardener’s Supply Co., a mail-order gardening company that has offered raised bed kits and supplies for more than 30 years, says small raised beds are by far the most popular among customers. A typical order is for 4-by-4-foot cedar beds, but “these gardens are so easy that they’re really addicting,” Gaetani says. And adding another is not much trouble; even if you build a raised bed yourself from scratch, it’s a Saturday project.
Over the years, Gardener’s Supply has developed kits for really elevated raised beds — three and four feet tall — an easy working height that requires no bending to plant or tend. The company also makes raised beds on legs with casters that can be wheeled into a sunny spot. These are especially nice for decks and patios. Cedar beds are popular because they look so natural, age gracefully and last for years, Gaetani says. Beds made with steel panels and recycled plastic lumber are also durable and popular. The company even helps customers with planting guides that take the guesswork out of choosing plants for vegetable, herb, and flower gardens in raised beds.
Arrangements of raised beds may be the shape of things to come in the front yard. When you design a whole garden of raised beds, keep simple shapes in mind. The easiest beds to maintain are square or rectangular, no wider than four feet across, and accessible from both sides. Parallel beds along a garden path and foursquare plans bisected by wide paths are easy to lay out and look effortlessly great, right away. They look very pretty enclosed with a low fence. First lady Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at the White House, designed with raised beds at sharp angles to the central path, is proof that right angles are not the only option. If they work at the White House, they’ll work at your house.