Limited Garden Space? Increase The Productivity Of Your Space With Raised Beds!


A common problem encountered by many gardeners is a simple lack of gardening space.

Maybe your yard is just too small.  Maybe you have a large yard but it is mostly shaded.

Whatever the case may be, raised beds can be a powerful tool in the gardener’s toolkit for solving the problem of limited garden space.

Building A Case For Raised Beds

A three year study done by the Dawes Arboretum in Ohio concluded that a properly built and maintained raised bed garden can outproduce a properly maintained traditional “row” garden (of the same space) by 1.5 to 2 times.

Put another way, a raised bed garden can yield the same amount of produce as a conventional row garden – in half the space.

A prominent advocate and expert of raised bed gardening, Mel Bartholemew (author of the popular Square Foot Gardening books), claims that you can achieve 5 times the produce from his raised bed methodology (and special soil mix) than you can from a traditional row garden of the same size.

In other words, this means that you can grow the same amount of produce using his raised bed garden system as you can in a conventional row garden – in just 20% of the space.

I have to say that Mr. Bartholemew does not explain in detail how he arrived at his space-saving conclusions, so I tend to think that the Dawes study gives gardeners a more reasonable expectation of the space-saving features of raised beds.

How DO They Do It?

How do raised beds create such dramatic out-production over conventional row gardens?

  • You can fill a raised bed with a high-quality soil mixture (the benefit of this is even greater if your native soil is really poor)
  • With a raised bed you don’t compress your garden soil by walking on it – this is a huge benefit and alone can increase your yields dramatically
  • You can plant raised beds much more densely because of the improved soil conditions
  • The space needed for walkways in a raised bed garden is actually much smaller than in a conventional garden with its traditional rows
  • You can tailor your soil mix to your individual gardening situation (for example if you live in a very rainy area you can make your mix more drainable, and vice versa for dry areas)

I would like to elaborate on a couple of these raised bed advantages.

Never Compressed

First, the matter of never walking inside of your raised beds (and thus never compressing the soil) is huge.

A great rule of thumb that you can use to test if your garden soil is loose and airy enough is the following: you should always be able to easily poke your forefinger into your garden soil all the way to the knuckle.

Even if you till your native soil and are careful to never step into the growing spaces, you might find it impossible to pass this test because many native soils will form a hard crust over time.

If, however, you invest from the beginning in a high-quality soil mixture (with plenty of compost or other amendments such as peat moss and vermiculite mixed in), and put this mix inside the protecting confines of a raised bed structure where it will never be stepped on, you should always be able to pass the finger-poking test (without tilling, ever).

Much Less Space Devoted To Walkways!

Second, I think it is easy to overlook the space-saving implications inherent in the dramatic change in the physical layout of a garden that is accomplished by installing raised beds (versus the layout of a garden established on the traditional row system).

The space in a raised bed garden needed for walking lanes is dramatically less than that required by a traditional row garden.

You only need 2 foot wide walking lanes in your raised bed garden, and your beds should be 4 feet wide (no wider) so that you can reach into the middle from both sides.

Most seed packages recommend a spacing of 3 feet between rows (to accomodate walking), and this creates substantially more “walking space” in your garden versus a raised bed system.

Of course you could design a conventional row garden on a raised bed layout (without the physical raised bed structures) by simply tilling 4 foot wide planting areas and leaving 2 foot wide walking lanes between them, and I think that would be a big space-saving improvement.

The key space-saving factor here is the fact that you are creating a “growing zone” that is 4 feet wide (a design based on the reach of your arms), instead of one that is 1 foot wide in a traditional row garden (with rows of plants spaced 3 feet apart and leaving 2 foot wide walking lanes, a design based more on large-scale agriculture in big fields plowed and planted with tractors).

Other Big Benefits Of Raised Beds

Of course the potential to greatly increase your production is just one of the benefits of a raised bed garden.

Raised Beds Can Be Beautiful

For someone with limited gardening space, the ability to create an eye-catching array of beautifully crafted raised beds may be appealing.

Raised Beds Make Gardening Easier

And of course raised beds not only also make the back-straining work of such gardening chores as planting, weeding and harvesting much, much easier by bringing the level of the soil closer to ones hands, they also entirely eliminate the need for seasonal tilling of your garden because your soil is never compressed by foot traffic.

So you never have to buy, maintain and store an expensive garden tiller in a raised bed system!

By the way, “no-till” gardening is not just a way to save you extra work and equipment, it is actually an agricultural technique that many experts now think is much better for the health of your garden soil.

Raised Beds Make Garden Food More Organic and Safer

Finally, if you live in an urban area, building a raised bed and filling it with a premium organic soil mixture negates the possibility that you will be growing your food in contaminated urban soil (because you will be growing on top of and not in that native soil).

In fact, you don’t even have to be in an urban environment to be concerned about contaminated soil.  Soil is often contaminated around a home from the building process or other causes.

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