Over the last few years I’ve noticed a slight snootiness about using raised beds for growing food, which I find ridiculous. It’s almost like if you are not out there double digging and breaking your back to suffer for your vegetables then it’s considered cheating. Personally I am all for the occasional cheat if it helps me to grow better veggies or to grow them with less time and effort expended.
Generally speaking you need a good spade’s depth of quality top soil in order to grow good veggies. Traditionally, they were grown in long rows direct in the soil, with the soil being worked over many years to make it fertile. Unfortunately GIYers now face twin barriers to this approach – poor soil depth/quality in their garden, and lack of time. A “raised bed” is created by adding a good layer (at least a foot) of soil on top of the existing soil, usually using a frame of timber to keep the soil in place. Instead of digging down in to the soil therefore, you are effectively raising the level of it up by a foot. The raised bed is therefore an ingenious cheat to provide, good quality, deep, fertile soil that’s perfect for planting. You can start growing veggies in it instantly.
They have a number of other benefits. Typically, you don’t ever stand on the soil which means less soil compaction and therefore better drainage (the soil will dry out quicker). They also tend to extend the growing season because the soil in raised beds warms up earlier than the soil around it. You can therefore start planting earlier in the season. Raised beds also make your growing more accessible. Grass, gravel or bark mulch pathways around them mean that the beds can be accessed all year round. They are a little easier on the back and can even be made wheelchair accessible if required.
I also think there is something psychologically easier about weeding when you have raised beds. I have loads of raised beds in the garden and I can commit to hoeing one of them each day – breaking the job down in to bite sized chunks like that makes it seem a little less daunting. When it comes to the shape and look of your raised beds you can let your imagination run riot, but don’t sacrifice functionality for aesthetics. I went nuts a few years back making triangular-shaped beds - they looked lovely but were highly impractical. The important thing to remember is that you should be able to reach in to the centre of the bed from the sides. A 4ft square (1.2m) bed is therefore ideal.