Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Raised Beds Vs In Ground Gardening: Pros and Cons

By: Zac Friedman

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When starting a garden, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is whether you want to build raised garden beds or simply grow directly in the ground. This decision will depend on a number of factors including what you plan to grow, how much space you have to work with, and your budget. This guide outlines the pros and cons of planting in raised beds vs in ground to help you decide which setup is best for your veggies, flowers, fruits, herbs, or whatever else you like to grow in your garden. We’ll cover efficiency, maintenance, productivity, cost, drainage, and much more. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not raised beds are the right choice for your homestead. 

Lettuce growing in a raised bed

What is a Raised Garden Bed?

A raised bed is a container or box full of soil where plants are grown. The bed is filled with soil so the soil level and plants are raised above ground level. Raised garden beds are sometimes referred to as planter boxes or garden boxes. In a home garden, raised beds are often used instead of planting directly in the ground. 

Raised beds are traditionally made from lumber but can also be made from rock, plastic, brick, concrete, galvanized sheet metal, logs, fabric, or any durable and rigid material. Raised garden beds typically measure around 3-4 feet wide, 6-8 feet long, and 6-36 inches tall. They can be any size, height, or shape but most are rectangular. 

Most raised garden beds sit directly on the ground. The bed contains enough soil for the plants to grow without needing soil underneath the bed. In fact, the bed does not need to be built on the ground. It can be built on any surface including gravel, concrete, grass, etc.  The beds can also be built on top of blocks to raise the plants up, making them easier to access.

After they are constructed, raised beds are typically filled in layers. At the bottom will be a layer of landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing up through the bed. The next layer may be gravel for drainage. The following layer may be sticks, logs, grass clippings, or hay. This will turn into compost over time. The final layer will be a mixture of soil and compost. 

Some homesteaders recommend adding earthworms, fertilizer, lava rock, pumice, etc. to their soil mixture. The ideal soil mixture depends on what you plan to grow in your raised beds. For more in-depth info on filling a raised bed, check out this excellent article.

In raised bed vegetable gardening, plants are typically placed closer together than they are in a standard row or in-ground garden. Ideally, the plants are spaced out so the leaves barely touch when they are fully grown. This conserves moisture, suppresses weed growth, and improves efficiency.

What is an In-Ground Garden?

Tomatoes growing in an in-ground garden

An in-ground garden simply means planting your fruits, veggies, flowers, and herbs directly in the ground. In its most basic form, an in-ground garden is planted in the soil that already exists naturally on your property. To make an in-ground garden, you may have to remove some grass or other foliage and debris. 

You can also modify the soil to make it better for gardening. There are a number of ways to improve the existing soil for an in ground garden. For example, you could till the soil. This loosens the dirt and aerates, mixes the soil, and controls weeds. You could also modify the natural soil by adding to it. For example, you could add compost, fertilizer, pumice, worms, etc to make the soil more fertile. Another option is to create mounds to grow in. This can increase usable space and can help with drainage. This is sometimes called a mounded in ground garden bed.

Pros of Raised Garden Beds

In this section, I’ll outline some of the main benefits of planting in raised garden beds.

Raised Beds Lengthen the Growing Season

Raised garden beds allow you to start planting your garden earlier in the spring. This is possible because raised beds warm up faster in the spring and dry out more quickly. If you live in a cold climate, the soil in your raised beds may thaw out and reach growing temperature a week or two earlier than the soil in the ground. 

This gives you extra time to plant your garden and start growing. If you live in a cold climate with a short growing season, the extra time can greatly improve productivity. Your vegetables will have an extra week or so to grow before harvest. You may be able to plant some crops you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. 

Peppers growing in a raised bed

You can Control the Soil Texture, Composition, and Quality in a Raised Garden Bed

Raised garden beds give you absolute control over the soil that you grow your plants in. You can choose the ideal soil texture and composition for the plants you plan to grow. You don’t have to settle for whatever soil exists naturally on your property. In addition, when you import soil, you know that it isn’t contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, asbestos, and other toxins that you don’t want around your plants or your family.

This is important because soil quality plays a major role in the health of your plants and the productivity of your garden. With the right soil, your plants will grow faster and larger. Growing in quality soil also makes it easier to get your garden growing.

Generally, sandy loam is the best soil texture for planting most types of plants. Sandy loam consists of equal parts of sand, silt, and clay. The ideal soil will also contain a good amount of organic matter such as compost, manure, or mulch. It should also be somewhat loose so roots can easily expand and grow. You also want your soil to strike a compromise between water absorption and drainage. Your soil shouldn’t be too wet or dry. In addition, your soil should be alive with healthy organisms including earthworms, bacteria, fungi, etc.  You may choose to add fertilizer to your soil as well. According to the University of Hawaii, the ideal soil contains about 45% minerals, 5% organic matter, 20-30% water, and 20-30% air.

Exactly how much you’ll benefit from controlling your soil quality depends on the quality of the natural soil that exists in your garden. If your natural soil is healthy and has a good texture and composition, you may not benefit as much from gardening in raised beds. If your natural soil is of poor quality, you may benefit greatly from gardening in raised beds. 

Some indications that your soil quality is poor include too much rock, sand, clay, or silt, or poor drainage. Contaminated soil can also cause problems. For example, if someone treated the soil with herbicides or herbicides at some point, you may have trouble growing anything. You may consider having your natural soil tested for contaminants before making a decision. Of course, there are ways to improve natural soil. I’ll talk more about that later on.

The native soil on my property is somewhat sandy. It’s not ideal for growing. Water drains too fast. For this reason, raised beds are the better choice for me. If I were to plant directly in the ground, I would have to add a lot of compost and manure to improve it. 

raised beds in a front yard in an urban environment

Fewer Weeds Grow in Raised Garden Beds

You won’t have to do as much weeding when you garden in raised beds. This saves you time and energy to do other more interesting work in your garden.

There are several reasons that raised beds grow fewer weeds. First, the fresh soil that you fill your raised beds with won’t contain any weeds or weed seeds. This makes it far less likely for weeds to grow. To compare, your natural soil can contain weed seeds that can sprout up year after year. It’s difficult to completely remove weeds.

Next, because the beds are raised off the ground, weeds can’t as easily spread into your raised garden beds from your yard or walkways. The walls of the beds create a tall border. In order for weeds to enter your raised beds, the seeds would have to blow in or be brought in by an animal. Weeds can still grow but you’ll have far fewer to deal with.

Finally, plants are usually placed closer together when planted in raised beds. Ideally, they should just touch when they are fully grown. This leaves less space for weeds to grow. Good mulching practice can also help to keep weeds down. Mulch reduces weed germination and blocks weed growth. 

One problem you can encounter with raised garden beds is weeds growing up from in from the bottom. This is common if you build your raised beds on top of a weedy yard. Luckily, this is easy to prevent if you plan ahead.

While building your raised garden beds, consider installing some kind of weed barrier under the beds before you fill the beds with soil. Landscaping fabric works perfectly for this. In fact, this is what landscaping fabric was invented for. This Hoople Premium Garden Weed Barrier Landscape Fabric would work well. 

If you’re installing your raised beds in an area without many weeds, you could simply line the bottom with some unwaxed cardboard. This can help smother out any existing weeds. Over time, the cardboard will degrade and weeds may grow through. If your yard is full of weeds, you’re better off going with landscaping fabric.

Eventually, some weeds will begin to grow in your raised beds. Maybe a bird drops some seeds or some seeds blow in on a windy day. If you stay on top of it, it’s easy to keep the weeds down in raised beds. This is partially because raised beds typically have less surface area than in ground gardens. It takes less time to weed a smaller area. 

Raised Beds Offer Deep and Quality Soil for Healthy Roots

Raised garden beds are deep enough to give your plants’ roots plenty of space to grow. The deep soil in raised beds tends to be looser than the soil in the ground This allows your plants’ roots to grow more easily. The soil in raised beds also drains better than ground soil. This allows the roots to breathe. This is important if you live in an area that is prone to flooding. The soil in your raised bed will also be of better quality, as outlined above. As a result of all of this, the roots will grow larger and deeper. Larger and deeper roots give you healthier and more productive plants.

At a minimum, raised beds should be 12 inches deep (about 30 cm). If your raised beds are built on a solid surface, have a solid bottom, or if you lined the bottom of your raised beds with some type of landscaping fabric, you should ideally build beds that are 18-24 inches deep (about 45-60 cm) to make sure your roots have plenty of space to grow and spread out. 

If you build your raised beds on top of natural soil and the beds don’t have a bottom, you can build them as shallow as 6-8 inches (15-20 cm). In this case, you’ll want to make sure that the soil under the raised bed is of decent quality and soft enough for the roots to grow into.

Exactly how deep your raised beds need to be depends on a number of factors. You’ll want to consider the type of plants you plan to grow. Some plants only need a few inches of soil while others need several feet. For example, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, kale, pumpkins, and many types of beans need about 2 feet of soil. For more info on soil depth, check out this great guide.

You’ll also need to consider what you plan to build your beds on top of. If you build your raised beds on a solid surface where the roots can’t grow through, you’ll need deep beds to be deep enough to contain the entire root structure. If, on the other hand, you build your beds on soil and leave the bottom open, you can utilize the soil under the bed.

A benefit of deeper beds is that they retain more moisture than shallow beds. In addition, they provide more protection from flooding.  

Of course, the soil in an in ground garden will be deeper than any raised bed. The problem is that you can’t control the quality of the deep soil without putting in an enormous amount of work. For example, maybe the soil 1 foot below the surface is incredibly compact. You’re not going to till 2 feet into the ground to break it up. It would be too much work. In many areas, drainage is poor. Sometimes the deeper soil is full of rocks or clay. If you don’t fix this before you plant, your plants’ roots may be limited.

raised beds vs in ground

Raised Beds offer Better Ergonomics, Allowing People with Limited Mobility or Disabilities to Enjoy Gardening

Raised beds lift your plants up, making them easier to access. It’s much easier to reach your plants when they’re 1-2 feet off the ground rather than directly in the ground. You won’t have to hunch over as far or sit on your knees to work in your garden. Your back and knees will appreciate this. Raised beds make gardening much more comfortable and ergonomic than in-ground beds.  

On those occasions when you do have to kneel down to work in your beds, a garden seat like the TomCare Garden Kneeler can really help. It doubles as both a chair and a padded kneeling mat.

Raised beds also make gardening possible for people with limited mobility or certain disabilities. For example, those who use a wheelchair can roll up to the raised beds and easily reach down and work in their garden. If you have a bad back or knees and have trouble bending over and reaching the ground, the height of raised beds lifts the plants up to you. You don’t have to reach down nearly as far to garden. You could also sit in a chair while gardening.

If your mobility is limited, consider building your raised beds at least 2 feet tall and no wider than 4 feet. The height makes the beds accessible while sitting down in a chair or wheelchair. The narrow width allows you to reach into the middle of the beds without having to lean too far.

If your mobility is severely limited, it’s also possible to buy or build raised garden beds that are elevated on legs. This is basically like gardening on a table. You could walk or wheel yourself right up to your garden to easily care for it. For example, this Best Choice Products 48 x 24 x 30in Raised Garden Bed* would work well for someone with limited mobility.

Raised Bed Can Help Keep Pests Out

One major annoyance of gardening is dealing with pests eating your fruits and veggies before you get the chance to enjoy them yourself. Depending on where you live, some pests you may have to deal with in your garden include slugs, snails, rabbits, rodents, squirrels, gophers, moles, birds, skunks, cats, various bugs, and more.

Raised garden beds provide an extra layer of protection to keep pests away from your plants. They help in several ways.

First, the height and frame of raised beds create an obstacle that animals have to overcome in order to access your plants. For example, if your bed is 2 feet tall, any critter that wants to eat whatever you’re growing has to climb up 2 feet. This alone can keep many pests out. It also dissuades your dogs from climbing into your garden and digging. In addition, it prevents your backyard chickens from scratching up your newly planted seedlings. The frame material can help as well. If your raised beds are made from a slippery material like some types of plastic or sheet metals, some pests may not be able to climb them.

Unfortunately, many critters can still climb up into your raised beds with ease. Luckily, there are solutions. One way to keep pests out is to cover your raised beds with hoops and insect netting. This will keep out pretty much all large pests such as rodents, birds, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, etc. This can also help to keep flying insects away from your plants. Another option is to build a fence around your raised beds. This can help to keep larger animals out.

backyard chickens
Raised beds prevent your chickens from tearing up your garden

Possibly the biggest benefit of raised beds is that they can keep burrowing pests like gophers, moles, and voles away from your plants. You can block these creatures off from below and completely prevent them from digging into your garden. This is particularly important if you live in an area where gophers are a problem. In some places, it’s nearly impossible to grow an in-ground garden because gophers will eat and kill everything.

The best way to prevent burrowing pests from entering your raised garden beds is to create a barrier with galvanized hardware cloth (sometimes called wire mesh, galvanized mesh, or gopher mesh), or chicken wire. For example, this Amagabeli 48×100 1/2Inch Hardware Cloth would work well. This is a metal mesh that burrowing pests can’t chew through.

There are two ways to go about installing the hardware cloth. If you haven’t yet built your raised beds, you can line the bottom with the hardware cloth. When you do this, make sure there aren’t any gaps where pests can climb through. Secure the hardware cloth to the sides of the frame so pests can’t squeeze through. 

If your raised beds are already built, you can build an underground fence around your beds with the hardware cloth. You’ll want your barrier to extend 18-24 inches below the ground and above the ground to provide maximum protection from gophers. You can also use this underground mesh fence method to protect fruit trees from gophers.

Chicken wire is a cheaper alternative to hardware cloth. There are several drawbacks to using chicken wire. First, chicken wire can rust and disintegrate over time. The holes are also larger, allowing some pests to crawl through. Some pests can chew or tear through chicken wire. For these reasons, hardware cloth is highly recommended, even though it is significantly more expensive. It will last much longer.

You Can Use Fewer Pesticides and Herbicides When You Grow in Raised Beds

Because raised beds reduce weed growth and help to keep pests out, you can get away with using fewer pesticides and herbicides in your garden. There are a number of benefits to this.

Most importantly, you won’t expose yourself or your family to any potentially harmful chemicals. You won’t have to worry about breathing pesticides or getting them on your skin while applying them to your garden. In addition, you won’t have to worry about accidentally ingesting any pesticides. This is important because, according to this article, “pesticides have been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, ADHD, and even birth defects.” The more of these chemicals you can avoid, the better. 

Next, your soil stays healthier because you’re not killing off beneficial insects and microorganisms with these chemicals. Your soil quality will remain higher as a result. Healthier soil can retain more water. Your plants will grow bigger and stronger. 

Using fewer pesticides and herbicides also saves you time and money. You won’t have to spend time spraying your garden. You won’t have to spend money buying these chemicals.

In addition, using fewer chemicals in your garden helps the environment. Pesticides and herbicides can make their way into the water supply. This can harm aquatic life. Pesticides in your garden can also poison animals that you don’t want to harm. They don’t just kill pests.

You Can Vary the Soil From One Bed to the Next

Different types of plants prefer different types of soil. Some plants prefer sandier soil. Other plants prefer more compost. Some crops are very particular about the type of soil they grow in. Varying the soil from bed to bed allows you to create the ideal conditions for the plants you’re trying to grow in a given bed. 

A person holding a handful of soil

For example, peppers prefer soil that is kind of a sandy loam in texture. For your pepper box, you might increase the sand in your soil mix to achieve this texture. Cabbage and broccoli, on the other hand, prefer soil with more clay because their roots need a firm place to anchor. You might add more clay when mixing soil for this bed. 

Providing the ideal soil texture and condition for each type of plant can help your plants grow larger, faster, and healthier. This increases yield. You can’t vary the soil as precisely with an in-ground garden.

You can Build Raised Garden Beds Anywhere

When you garden in raised beds, you’re not limited to growing only in areas where you have natural soil. You can build raised beds almost anywhere. They are incredibly versatile, just like potted plants. Being able to grow anywhere really opens up your options. For example, it allows you to build your garden in the sunniest part of your yard or utilize space that would otherwise be wasted.

A few examples of places you can build raised garden beds include on a patio, deck, balcony, porch, pool deck, driveway, or walkway. If your yard is sloping or on a hill, you can build terraced raised beds into the side of the hill. This is a great way to use space that would otherwise be useless. If you have a large flat rooftop area on your home or garage, you can even build a rooftop garden. It doesn’t matter if the surface under the raised beds is made of soil, concrete, rock, brick, wood, or some other material, as long as your beds are deep enough.

A tall raised bed in a garden

There are a few important considerations you’ll need to make when deciding where to build your raised beds. Most importantly, you’ll need to make sure that the surface you’re building on is capable of holding the weight of your raised beds. This is particularly important if you’re building your beds on a deck, balcony, or rooftop. You wouldn’t want them falling through and injuring someone. Most decks are designed to handle 50-100 lbs per square foot. A cubic foot of topsoil typically weighs 75-100 lbs. If in doubt, you may want to hire a professional contractor to determine whether or not the area you plan to build your raised beds is structurally sound enough to handle the extra weight. Of course, if you’re building on a solid surface such as in your yard or driveway, weight doesn’t matter.

You must also consider drainage when building your raised beds on a solid surface like a balcony or deck. Excess water needs to be able to escape. When you water your plants, you don’t want a puddle of water to form around them. You also don’t want water dripping down onto someone else’s property if you build a raised bed on a balcony. Ideally, the bed will also have some kind of bottom so the soil doesn’t slowly seep out and make a mess. Lining your beds with landscaping fabric can help with this. In addition, you’ll want to choose an area that receives good sunlight.

Raised Garden Beds Look Nice

Looks are subjective but many gardeners enjoy the aesthetics of raised beds. They add another dimension to your garden. Instead of growing on a flat surface, your garden can feature a multitude of beds of different sizes, shapes, and heights. The raised beds also create a border between your garden, your yard, and your walkways. This allows you to design a visually interesting garden.

In addition, the boxes themselves can be attractive to look at. For example, planters made from wood, rock, or brick are visually appealing, even when they’re empty. To jazz up your garden even more, you can add additional features such as stepping stones on walkways between your raised beds, string lights around the raised beds, gravel or bark walkways, etc. 

Many gardeners also find raised beds are easier to keep looking nice than in-ground beds. The main reason is that the beds create a distinct border between your garden and walkway or yard. You won’t have to deal with grass growing into your garden or ground cover like bark or gravel migrating into your garden area. Fewer weeds also grow in your raised beds. The yard stays looking neat and tidy as a result.

Raised beds can also improve your home’s curb appeal. For example, maybe your front yard is covered in cement or rock instead of grass. You can add some greenery by building some raised garden beds and growing some plants in them. You don’t have to grow vegetables. You could grow flowers instead. This can greatly improve the look of your home.

Raised Beds Reduce the Likelihood of Plant Damage

Raised beds create a clear barrier between your garden and footpaths in your yard. This helps to protect your plants from accidental damage. People and animals are much less likely to step on your plants when they’re raised up off the ground. People won’t accidentally walk through your garden you’re your plants are in raised beds. Pets and even wild animals will be less likely to damage your plants. 

This is particularly helpful if you have children, livestock, or large pets who walk and play in your garden area. It can also be helpful if you plant your garden in your front yard. Your mailman, meter reader, paper boy, pool boy, neighbor, etc. won’t accidentally cause any damage by walking through your garden. They will stay on the footpath between the beds.

Raised Beds Prevent Soil Compaction

Raised beds protect your garden from foot traffic. People and animals are unlikely to walk through your raised beds. This prevents the soil from getting compacted. When soil stays loose, roots can more easily grow and spread out. This leads to healthier, stronger, and more productive plants. Roots have a much harder time growing in tightly compacted soil.

As an added benefit, plant damage is less likely when people aren’t walking through your garden. In addition, you won’t have to till your raised beds as often as you would an in-ground garden.

Raised Garden Beds Offer Better Drainage

A well-built raised garden bed allows for better drainage than an in-ground garden. This is possible because the bed sits above the ground, allowing excess water to drain out into the ground. Water drains through the bottom of the raised bed. It doesn’t pool up inside. 

Drainage is particularly important if you live in an area that experiences heavy rain or flooding. In some regions, the ground can become completely saturated with water for days after a storm. If the water can’t drain away, your plants can begin to suffocate.

This happens because plant roots need to breathe air in order to survive. If there isn’t enough oxygen in the soil, the plants will drown and die. After a few days with too much water, the roots can also begin to rot. This can also kill your plants.

Some regions have a bad combination of annual flooding and soil that drains poorly. This is common in parts of the southern U.S. If you live in a place like this, the only way to garden may be in raised beds or in mounds. Some crops simply will not grow in the ground because they get too much water. Raised beds allow you to grow where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. 

A raised bed in a park next to a lake

Raised beds are more productive

A raised bed will usually be more productive than an in-ground garden of the same size. Under ideal conditions, raised beds can yield 2-4 times more productive than an in-ground garden of the same size. 

There are several reasons for this. First, the growing season is slightly longer because raised beds warm up more quickly in the spring. Next, soil quality is generally higher because you have complete control over the soil texture and composition of the soil that you put in your raised bed. Better soil grows stronger and healthier plants that produce more. The soil is typically less compacted as well. This allows the roots to grow and spread more easily, resulting in healthier plants. Plants are usually placed closer together in raised beds. This allows you to grow more per unit of area.

For this reason, raised beds are ideal for those who are gardening in a small area like a backyard in a dense city. You’ll yield more fruits or veggies than you would with an equal-sized in-ground garden. Raised beds allow you to more efficiently utilize the space you have to garden.    

There is Less Waste

Raised garden beds concentrate your garden space. When planting in a raised bed, you usually place plants a bit closer together than you would when planting in the ground. 

Because you’re dealing with a smaller space, you use less water, compost, fertilizer, mulch, pesticides, and other additives that you put in your garden. As a result, you’ll waste less. This saves you money. 

You’re also putting fewer chemicals in the environment if you treat your plants with pesticides. This is better for the environment. 

Raised Beds Can Be Mobile

It is possible to build raised beds that you can move around. One excellent option is to build a raised bed on top of a furniture dolly. This allows you to easily wheel it around on solid surfaces. You could also build custom raised beds and install wheels on the bottom.

Remember to consider drainage when building a mobile raised bed. You should also install some kind of lining to prevent soil from leaking out of the bottom.

There are a number of reasons you might want to build mobile raised beds. For example, maybe you rent your home and your landlord doesn’t want you to install raised beds. Maybe you want to be able to take your raised beds with you when you move. Maybe you want to move some plants indoors during the winter. For example, maybe you have a greenhouse where you keep some plants in the winter. You might build a special mobile raised bed for them. Maybe you simply want to have the ability to rearrange your garden for aesthetics.

A raised bed

Cons of Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds aren’t ideal for every garden. In fact, there are a number of disadvantages to growing in raised beds. In this section, I’ll outline some of the main reasons you may not want to garden in raised beds.

Raised Garden Beds are More Expensive

Building raised beds isn’t free. You’ll have to buy some kind of material to build the bed walls. This will usually be lumber but could also be sheet metal or concrete blocks. You’ll need to buy hardware such as screws or nails and braces to hold the beds together. You may also need to buy tools such as a saw and drill. In addition, you might need to buy landscaping fabric and galvanized mesh to keep weeds and pests out. 

Labor is another consideration. If you’re not handy, you may have to hire someone to build and install the raised beds for you. A simple 4” x 8” wooden raised bed will cost around $100-$300 to build. You could easily spend several thousand dollars building raised beds in an average-sized yard.

After your raised beds are built, you’ll have to fill them with soil. This can be another major expense. If the soil quality in your yard is low, you may have to buy soil and have it hauled in from somewhere else. This could cost $20-$100+ per cubic yard, depending on the type, quantity, and quality of soil you buy. You may also have to buy mulch, compost, fertilizer, and other soil additives. It would be easy to spend $1000+ filling your beds with soil.

Luckily, there are a number of ways to reduce the cost of building raised garden beds. For example, you can build your raised beds out of recycled materials. Look for old lumber, cement blocks, logs, palates, or whatever you can find used. You can also save money by buying soil in bulk or using natural soil that already exists in your yard if it of decent quality. Of course, performing the labor of building and filling the beds yourself instead of hiring someone will also save you a substantial amount of money.

Another excellent way to save some money is to use the technique of Hügelkultur*. This involves filling the bottom of your garden beds with compostable organic materials from around your home including logs, sticks, grass clippings, wood chips, food scraps, manure, leaves, etc. You then pour a layer of soil over the top. Over time the materials below degrade into compost. This reduces the amount of soil that is required. You can read more about this interesting technique here.

Raised Garden Beds Require More Startup Work

Before you can start gardening, you’ll have to design your garden layout and your raised beds. This requires research and careful planning. You’ll want to make sure you do this right the first time because you won’t want to move your raised beds after they’re installed.

After everything is designed and planned out, you’ll have to buy materials. You may need to shop around a bit to make sure you get the best prices and have everything you need for the project.

Next, you’ll have to actually build your beds and fill them with soil. This requires quite a bit of physical labor. It’s much more work to build a raised bed than simply clear a flat spot for an in-ground garden.

Luckily, most of this work is a one-time thing. After your raised beds are built, you can use them for years. 

Some Specialized Skills and Tools are Required to Build Raised Garden Beds

If you want to build your own raised beds, you’ll have to have some basic construction skills or be willing to learn. For example, you’ll have to perform some basic calculations to design the beds you plan to build and purchase the correct amount of lumber and hardware. You’ll have to measure and cut the lumber. You’ll also have to engineer your beds in a way that they are strong enough to hold the weight of the soil inside without falling apart. You’ll have to do some drilling and screwing to assemble your beds. It will also take some muscle to position the beds and fill them with soil.

You’ll also need some specialty tools to build your raised beds. For example, you may need a saw to cut the lumber. If you don’t have a saw, you could ask an employee at the store you’re buying the lumber to cut it to size for you. You’ll also need a power drill to drill holes and screw the boards together. In addition, you may also need a measuring tape and clamps. You’ll also need a shovel to move soil into the finished beds with. You may need a large vehicle to haul the wood and soil.

Once you have the proper tools and materials, building raised beds is a pretty simple DIY project. It’s basically a matter of making a few cuts, drilling some holes, and screwing some screws. The hard part is moving soil. 

For some step-by-step instructions, check out this great guide to building raised beds from The DIY Nuts.

If you’re not up to designing and building your own raised beds, you can buy some great raised bed kits. For example, this Foyuee Galvanized Raised Garden Bed sets up in about 5 minutes. It measures 8’ x 4’ and is made of galvanized metal.

If you prefer the look of wooden beds, this Best Choice Products Outdoor Wooden Raised Garden Bed would be a good option.

Of course, another option is to simply hire someone to build your raised beds for you. This can get pretty expensive.

Raised Garden Beds Require Maintenance and Eventually Replacement

Raised garden beds don’t last forever. Eventually, they’ll require some maintenance. This can involve quite a bit of labor. For example, you might have to remove the soil to replace a board. Eventually, you might have to replace the bed completely and start over.

Exactly how long your raised garden beds will last depends on the materials they’re made of and the build quality. For example, a box that’s made from cheap pine wood or scrap lumber might only last a couple of seasons before it starts to rot or warp. A raised bed made from treated lumber should easily last 10-20 years if it’s taken care of. A brick or cement block raised bed might last a lifetime. The region you live in also plays a role in the longevity of your raised beds. For example, harsh winters can be hard on some materials. Termites can also eat away at your raised beds if they’re made from wood.

You can save yourself a lot of time and work down the road by building your raised beds from quality materials in the first place. If you’re building your beds from wood, try to use quality 2” thick hardwood lumber. Cedar or heart redwood would work well. These woods are both naturally rot-resistant. They are also somewhat termite-repellent. You should get at least a decade of use out of a well-built cedar or redwood raised bed.

The drawback to using these types of wood is that they are significantly more expensive than pine, douglas fir, scrap wood, logs, plywood, etc. The 2” thick boards are also more expensive than thinner 1” thick boards or fence boards. 

The problem with these cheaper types of wood is that they can rot more easily, bow, get eaten by termites, and degrade quickly. You’ll end up replacing your raised bed more often.

Tip: Many gardeners recommend that you avoid using pressure-treated lumber to build raised garden beds. The reason is that the chemicals used to treat the lumber can leach into your garden. Some of those chemicals may end up in your soil and eventually your plants. If you decide to use pressure-treated lumber, it’s a good idea to install a heavy plastic liner to separate the boards from your soil. Having said this, according to the EPA, it is safe to use lumber treated with ACQ in your garden.

You’ll Use More Water When You Garden in Raised Beds

a sprinkler watering a garden

Because raised beds drain better, they dry out more quickly than in-ground gardens. This means you’ll have to use more water to maintain your plants. This can be an issue if you live in an area that experiences drought. Sometimes water use is limited. Your water bill will be higher as well. It can also be an issue if you go on vacation. Your garden could dry out while you’re gone. 

Irrigation can also be a bit more complicated with raised beds due to the height. If you have a sprinkler system, it may not hit the bed evenly or at all. If you want to install an irrigation system in your raised beds, it can get a bit involved due to the bed walls. You may need to hire a plumber to set it up for you.

An easy solution is to run a drip line or soaker hose up into the bed. Of course, you can always water by hand or set a sprinkle in your raised beds.

Raised Garden Beds are More Permanent

After you get your raised garden beds built, installed, and filled with soil, they are somewhat permanent. You can’t just pick them up and move them around. 

This means you can’t easily change your garden layout after it’s been built. If you move to a different house, your raised beds can’t come with you. If you no longer want them, it’s a major hassle to tear them out. If you want them in a different place, it’s a major job to move them. 

Of course, it is possible to move your raised beds. Exactly how difficult this will be depends on the type of beds you build, their size, and how they were installed. The process basically involves removing the soil, preparing the new location, then moving the bed. Depending on the bed design, you may have to disassemble it. There is a risk of damaging your bed while moving it. Some beds can’t be moved without being destroyed. For example, a brick bed can’t be moved after it’s built. 

There are some ways to make raised beds easier to move You could build your raised beds on wheels. You could also build them with a bottom so they can be moved like planters. 

If you simply no longer want your raised beds, you’ll have to tear them apart, dispose of them, and cover the space with grass or sod. 

In ground, gardens are even less permanent. If you no longer want an in-ground garden, you can simply seed it with grass seed or cover it with sod. 

Raised Beds Look Unnatural and Can Limit Your Garden Layout

Some gardeners don’t like the artificial look of raised beds. They are large square or rectangular boxes that are clearly man-made. Raised beds create clear boundaries in your garden, making the area look planned and unnatural. If you’re going for a natural look in your garden, raised beds probably aren’t for you. 

In ground gardens allow you to easily create a natural-looking space. For example, you can create curving or round garden beds and walkways. Everything grows straight out of the ground as it does in nature. Some gardeners find this look softer and more appealing. Of course, looks are subjective.

In Ground Garden Pros

onions growing in a garden
  • In-ground gardens are cheaper- You can start an in-ground garden on a very tight budget. Maybe even for free. All you really need is a shovel to dig your garden space and some seeds to plant. You don’t need to buy any special tools or building materials. You don’t even need to buy soil if the natural soil on your property is of decent quality. To save money on soil amendments, you can make your own compost from food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, paper, manure, etc. If you’re on a tight budget, an in-ground garden is the way to go. Of course, you may want to spend a bit of money to improve your garden. For example, may want to buy some soil, compost, or fertilizer. You may want to buy some gardening tools such as a rake, hoe, shovel, pitchfork, trowel, gloves, etc. Still, you can save hundreds of dollars by simply planting in the ground instead of building expensive raised beds.
  • It takes less work to start an in-ground garden- Really all you have to do to make an in ground garden is pick a spot in your yard and clear a patch of dirt. This may mean digging up grass, weeds, or other vegetation. You might have to clear some large rocks and roots. A rototiller can really help loosen the soil before you plant. This may be necessary if the soil is compacted. If the soil is of poor quality, you might have to mix in some compost or even have some soil hauled in. This may sound like a lot of work but it’s nothing compared to building raised beds. To build an in ground garden, you don’t have to deal with buying materials, using power tools, or moving dirt.
  • No specialized skills or tools are required to make an in-ground garden- As I mentioned, all you really need to build an in ground garden is some basic hand tools such as a shovel, rake, and hoe. You don’t need any special skills or construction knowledge. You don’t need to know how to operate power tools. All you need is the ability to perform some hard labor. Digging out an in ground garden just takes some elbow grease. Anyone can make an in-ground garden. 
  • In-ground gardens require less water- In ground gardens typically don’t drain quite as well as raised beds. This means your soil will hold more water. Your garden won’t dry out as quickly. As a result, you’ll usually water an in ground garden a bit less frequently. The main benefit of this is that you save water. Your water bill will be lower. This is also nice if you live in an area that experiences drought. Your plants will be more likely to survive when water use is limited. If you can’t water for a few days while you’re on vacation, your garden will probably survive.
  • You can use the existing soil- Most natural soil works just fine for gardening, even if the texture isn’t ideal. If the existing soil is of poor quality, there are a few ways to amend it. For example, if the soil is compacted, you can till it to loosen it up. This allows roots to grow more easily. If the soil is dead or unhealthy, you can add some organic compounds such as mulch, leaves, manure, or compost to bring it back to life. If the soil is too dry, you can simply water it. Adding organic material can also help improve soil that has too much sand or clay. Whatever type of soil you’re working with, chances are you can grow in it with a bit of work. In most cases, you don’t need to haul in soil to start an in ground garden. The only exception is if your soil is contaminated with some type of chemical that you don’t want to grow your food in. 
  • In-ground gardens require less maintenance- There is nothing that can really break or wear out in an in ground garden. The only maintenance you have to do is prevent weeds or grass from taking over your garden. You can do this by spraying for weeds or simply digging them out when they pop up.
  • In ground gardens are less permanent- If you want to move or expand your in ground garden, you can simply dig a new garden area. If you want to get rid of your in ground garden, you can remove the plants and seed the area with grass seed. To speed up the process, you could lay some sod over the old garden. For this reason, an in ground garden is usually better for those who rent. If your landlord doesn’t want the garden to be there when you move, you can easily cover it up. You can’t as easily move raised beds. They are somewhat permanent.  
  • In ground gardening is better for those who are growing on a large scale- If you’re planting a large garden with the intention growing enough fruits and veggies to feed your whole family or sell at a farmer’s market, in ground gardening is really your only option. After all, you’re probably not going to build an acre of raised beds to plant in. Raised beds are ideal for smaller crops. 
  • Some types of plants are better suited for in ground gardens- Some crops require a large number of plants to ensure proper pollination takes place. This is the case with corn. Some plants to spread out and take up a large amount of space. This is the case with watermelon. For these types of plants, it’s better to grow in the ground where space isn’t as limited. 
  • In ground gardens make irrigation simpler- Because in ground gardens are flat, it can be easier to set up an irrigation system to keep your plants watered. For example, you can lay soaker hoses in your garden. You can set a sprinkler. You can even install a sprinkler system for your garden that activates automatically. You can use these same techniques to keep raised beds watered. Setup is just a bit easier with an in ground garden.
  • Some gardeners find in ground gardens to be more attractive- Some gardeners prefer the natural look of an in ground garden with plants growing directly from the ground instead of man-made beds. You can make a garden that looks much less artificial. This is attractive to some. 

In Ground Garden Cons

beets growing in an in-ground garden
  • The natural soil texture, composition, and overall quality could be poor- When you start an in ground garden, chances are you’re going to be growing in the natural soil that already exists in the ground on your property. The problem is that the texture, composition, and quality of this soil may be poor. For example, the soil could be too sandy or it could contain too much clay. It could be contaminated with various. It could also lack the nutrients that are necessary for growing. Soil quality plays an important role in the health of your plants. If the soil quality is poor, your plants may grow small and only produce a small amount of food. If the soil quality is really bad, nothing will grow in your garden. Luckily, there are some ways to improve the quality of your natural soil. You can add organic material such as compost, manure, leaves, or grass clippings.  This can improve the texture of your soil. You can add fertilizer to give your plants the necessary nutrients. If your natural soil is contaminated with harmful chemicals, heavy metals, or asbestos, it may not be healthy to grow food in your garden. In this case, you’ll have to haul in fresh soil. Soil quality varies greatly. In some regions, you can grow in the natural soil without making amendments. In other regions, nothing will grow.
  • Shorter growing season- The ground takes more time to thaw out and warm up after a cold winter. It also doesn’t drain quite as well as raised beds. If you live in a cold, wet climate, you may have to wait until later in the spring before you can plant your garden when you grow in the ground. This means your growing season is shorter. Exactly how much less time you’ll have to grow depends on the climate. The difference could be a week or two. In colder climates, missing out on a couple of weeks of growing time is significant. 
  • The natural soil in your garden could be contaminated- This can be a problem in urban areas. Natural soil can be contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, asbestos, petroleum products, herbicides, and other nasty toxins that you don’t want near your plants. For more info on soil contamination, check out this interesting article. Ideally, you don’t want to grow in contaminated soil because the contaminants can potentially make their way into your food and cause you and your family harm. Some plants can actually accumulate contaminants through their roots. You end up eating these contaminants. Luckily, the risk of consuming these contaminants is generally pretty low. Root vegetables tend to accumulate the most contaminants. The greater risk is breathing in dust from contaminated soil while gardening or eating contaminated soil if your fruits and veggies were not cleaned properly. Some contaminants can even harm your skin when they come into contact. For more in-depth info on growing in contaminated soil, check out this pdf from the EPA. If you’re buying a property to homestead on, you may want to have the soil tested to make sure it’s not contaminated. If the natural soil on your property is contaminated, there are some solutions. You can amend the soil with organic material, haul in healthy soil, or build raised beds and fill them with healthy soil. You can still garden on contaminated land. 
  • In ground gardens grow more weeds- When you garden in the ground, you’ll have to do a bit more weeding. This takes time and energy. There are several reasons that in ground gardens grow more weeds. The main reason is that natural soil naturally contains weeds and weed seeds. These can be brought in by the wind and animals. Weeds can also spread from other parts of your yard into your garden by spreading their roots and sending up shoots. Plants are usually placed further apart when planted in the ground. This leaves more space for weeds to grow. There are a few ways you can reduce weed growth. You can use mulch to prevent weeds from getting enough light to grow. You should also avoid tilling. This raises dormant weed seeds to the surface, allowing them to germinate. Growing plants closer together also helps. Selectively watering only your plants and not the surrounding soil can help as well. Of course, you can also use a weed-killing herbicidal spray. Whatever you do, weeds will eventually grow in your garden. The best solution is to stay on top of the weeds and pull them up or clip them off before they go to seed and multiply. If you weed your garden regularly, the job is manageable. It does take a bit of time and effort. 
  • More pests to deal with- It’s harder to keep pests out of an in-ground garden. The reason is that there is no barrier to protect your plants. They are at ground level. Pests such as rabbits, birds, squirrels, slugs, rodents, and various insects can easily enter your garden and eat or kill your plants before you get a chance to harvest them. Pets such as dogs, cats, and chickens can walk into your garden and cause damage to your plants. One particularly nasty type of pest you may have to deal with in an in-ground garden is burrowing pests such as gophers, voles, and moles. These critters enter your garden from underneath and eat and kill your plants. In some regions, gophers can get so bad that it’s impossible to grow anything. You can’t easily install hardware cloth. To keep pests out of your in-ground garden, you may have to resort to traps, poison, or pesticides. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but many gardeners prefer not having to use chemicals or kill anything to keep pests at bay. Another option is to build a frame and cover your garden with insect netting. This can keep some pests out but not all. You can build a fence around your garden to keep large animals out.
  • Soil compaction can be an issue in in-ground gardens- The soil in your in ground garden can get compacted as you, your family, pets, and pests walk through your garden. When soil gets compacted, roots have trouble growing. This makes for weaker and smaller roots. Weak roots make your plants smaller and less productive. To loosen the soil, you’ll have to till your in ground garden once in a while. This can cause more weeds to grow because seeds get tilled to the top of the soil where they can germinate. Tilling also takes time and effort. You can reduce compaction by avoiding walking on the soil and placing a fence around your garden. 
  • It’s easier for plants to get damaged in an in ground garden- Because an in ground garden sits at ground level it’s easy for someone or something to walk through your garden, step on your plants, and damage or kill them. For example, your pets, children, neighbor, mailman, etc. can walk through your garden and cause damage. This is easy to do when your plants are just sprouting. Someone could walk through without seeing them. Even if you have a path, people might not stay on it. With raised beds, you don’t have to worry about this. Nobody will walk through your raised beds. 
  • In ground gardens are less productive- An in ground garden typically produces less food per square yard than raised beds. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the growing season is slightly shorter because the ground takes longer to thaw out and warm up after the winter. Next, the soil quality is typically lower because you don’t have as much control over the natural soil in your yard. The soil in the ground tends to be more compacted as well. For these reasons, your plants might be slightly less healthy or they may grow a bit slower. In addition, plants are usually more spread out when planted in the ground. This makes your in ground garden a bit less efficient. If you have a small garden space to work with, like a small backyard in an urban area, you might yield fewer fruits and veggies in an in ground garden than you could in raised beds.
  • Poor ergonomics- Because all of your plants are at ground level, you have to bend down further to work in your in ground garden. This can be an issue for some people. For example, those with back, hip, or knee problems may find it painful to bend down or get down on their hands and knees to work in their garden. People with limited mobility, like those who use a walker or wheelchair, may also find it difficult or impossible to work in an in-ground garden. Those with certain disabilities may also have trouble accessing their plants when they’re at ground level. An in ground garden may not be an option for everyone. Even if you’re a healthy person, you might simply find it uncomfortable to crouch down and work in you in ground garden. There are a few ways to improve comfort. You can wear knee pads or place a foam pad under your knees. You can also sit on a gardening chair like this*. With raised beds, you don’t have to bend down nearly as far to access your plants.
  • There are fewer places that you can put your in-ground garden- You can only build your in ground garden in areas where soil already exists naturally. When deciding where to put your in ground garden, you also have to choose an area that gets good sunlight. Ideally, the garden should be level as well. This is somewhat limiting. If you have a small or sloped yard, you might not have a decent space to build an in ground garden. In this case, you may be better off building raised beds.
  • You may need to use more pesticides and herbicides- Because in ground gardens typically grow weeds and attract more pests, you may have to use more herbicides and pesticides. There are a number of drawbacks to this. First, you can expose yourself and your family to potentially harmful chemicals. For example, while working with pesticides and herbicides, you can breath them in. This could cause respiratory problems in some people. You could get them on your skin. This could cause a rash or irritation. If you don’t properly wash your fruits and veggies before you eat them, you could accidentally ingest chemicals that can cause a number of diseases. Pesticides can also kill beneficial organisms from your soil. This can reduce your soil quality over time. It is also simply bad for the environment to use these chemicals. For example, over time, they can make their way into the water supply This can cause damage to the ecosystem.
  • Poor drainage- In ground gardens sometimes don’t drain as well as raised beds. This usually has to do with the soil density and the texture of the soil. Soils with too much clay doesn’t drain well. This can be a problem if you live in an area that is very wet. The soil can become saturated and take days to drain. If this happens, your plants can essentially drown. Plant roots need to breathe air to survive. If the soil lacks oxygen, the plants die. If the soil is too wet, the roots can also begin to rot. This condition is known as root rot. This will also kill your plants. If you live in an area with poor drainage or regular flooding, you may have no choice but to garden in raised beds. An alternative option is to build mounds of soil to garden in. This way, gravity will drain the soil that sits above ground level. This greatly increases the chance of your plant’s survival. Some crops can deal with poor drainage better than others. For example, asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries can handle wet soil. For some more wet soil gardening ideas, check out this guide.
  • More waste- In ground gardens tend to be more spread out than raised beds. The plants are spaced a bit further apart. The garden covers more area. It takes more water, fertilizer, pesticides, mulch, compost, and other additives to cover the larger surface area of an in-ground garden. More resources get wasted. You spend more money on these additives. You’re also putting more chemicals into the environment if you decide to spray your plants for weeds and pests. This all creates more waste. 
  • You can’t easily control the deep soil quality- Most of your plant’s roots will grow 1-2 feet deep. The soil that’s 1-2 feet deep in the ground can be of poor quality. For example, it can be too compacted. It can also have a poor texture with too much rock, sand, or clay. It can also hold too much water if the drainage is poor. If the deep soil quality is poor, your plant’s roots can have trouble growing. If the drainage is poor, your plants may have trouble breathing. This can result in smaller and weaker plants. It is difficult to improve the quality of deep soil in an in-ground garden. Imagine how much work it would be to dig down 1-2 feet to amend the soil. Your deep soil quality can greatly affect the quality of your plants in an in-ground garden.
  • Looks- Some people find that in ground gardens look kind of plain. During the winter, they look like a big patch of dirt. Most of your plants die off. They aren’t unattractive. Just a bit less exciting than raised beds.
A woman holding home grown vegetables

My Choice: Raised Garden Beds Vs In Ground Garden

Personally, I’m a fan of raised garden beds. I value the productivity and efficiency that they offer. In my raised beds, I can grow more food in less space while using fewer resources. Even though they are costly and a bit of a hassle to build, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

That said, I still garden in the ground as well. I think a hybrid approach is ideal. Some crops are better suited for the more spacious in ground garden. For example, I like to grow a couple of rows of corn. It seems like a better use of space to plant it in the ground and leave the raised bed space for plants that take up less space. Luckily, the soil quality where I live is decent.

A homestead with a garden

Final Thoughts About Raise Garden Beds Vs In Ground Gardens

As you can see, you’ll have to make some compromises when choosing between gardening in raised beds or in the ground. The best type of garden for your property depends on a number of factors including the quality of your natural soil, the climate you live in, how much space you have to garden in, the types of weeds and pests that exist in your region, your budget, personal preference, and more. If you have the space and decent natural soil quality, the best choice may be to use a combination of both types of beds. Whichever type of garden you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.

Do you prefer raised bed gardening or in-ground gardening? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!

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