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How to Start a Raised Bed Garden

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If you grew up with a gardening Granny or Granddaddy like I did, then chances are you have memories of rows of fresh vegetables popping up from the ground. It was easy to till up the rows each spring if you had a gas-powered tiller, but quite the full body workout if you didn’t.

Chances are your grandparents, or whoever you knew who worked this large garden plot, did quite a bit of time weeding and maintaining. In the busy and less home-grown veggie culture of modern-day life, most people don’t have the time to maintain a large garden space. But does this mean you can’t garden? Absolutely not.  

how to start a raised bed garden

What if I told you a vegetable garden could be maintained in just five to ten minutes a day, several days a week? True story. The “magic” is in the raised bed.

Raised beds make having fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits during the summer almost as easy as walking out your back door. Knowing how to start a raised bed kitchen garden will provide you with fresh food, exercise, and a fantastic outdoor activity for the whole family.

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How to Start a Raised Bed Garden

So what do you have to consider when learning how to start a raised bed garden for your backyard? Here are five things to consider and/or have in place when planning your raised bed garden.

Step One: Select a Location

The first step in creating a raised bed kitchen garden is to select a location for it. Garden plants will need a location that receives 6 or more hours of sunlight per day.

A great way to know where the best light is in your yard is to create a Sun Map. It only takes a little observation of your yard, and you can keep it as a reference for years. A sun map will clearly show you where the best areas for a full sun garden will be. 

how to make a sun map

For convenience, the raised garden bed should be close to the back door and a water source. Being close to the house means you won’t forget about it and let it go unattended. And proximity to a water source allows you to easily fill and carry a watering can or bring over an attached hose.

A nearby water source also gives you the option of installing a watering system, so you can rest easy that your plants are being watered, even when life gets busy. 

Once you’ve chosen the location, you’re ready to get down to the actual raised garden bed.

Step Two: Building a Garden Bed

The outer frame of the raised bed can be constructed with material you have on hand, buy at your local hardware store, or get from a pre-packaged kit. The frame just has to be sturdy enough to hold soil in place.

Some options include landscape timbers, recycled lumber, plywood, composite material, concrete blocks, bricks, etc. When considering the material to use for your raised beds, think about the aesthetic of your yard, and what you’ll enjoy looking at day after day.

Our raised bed gardens have been made from both treated lumber and western red cedar. If you’re interested in building cedar or lumber beds, check out my raised bed tutorial

DIY Raised Bed

When it comes to size, build the bed as long as desired, but no more than 4 feet wide. You need to be able to reach the middle of the raised bed from either side.

There’s debate on whether to till the soil beneath a raised bed or leave it be. We have done both, and we honestly haven’t noticed a difference. In our newest raised bed (which is two years old) I actually laid thick newspaper down at the bottom to deter any grass from coming up through the new soil.

This worked perfectly, and the bed has grown delicious vegetables with no problem. So, in my opinion, skip the tilling beneath raised beds. The thick layer of soil sitting on top of the grass will smother it out. 

Step Three: Fill With Soil

While it’s nice to have a good looking raised bed garden, it’s all for naught if you fill it with something like top soil. The soil in your raised bed garden will be the medium for growing delicious and tasty vegetables, so give those plants a good start.

Fill the bed with a mixture of peat moss (or coconut coir), vermiculite/perlite, and compost. Check out my post for the exact “recipe” for DIY Potting Soil. The compost will prevent soil compaction and help feed the plants. If you will be using a granulated fertilizer, you can mix it in at this time too.

Some commercial garden soil mixtures already contain soil, compost, perlite, and granulated fertilizer in the right proportions for optimum plant growth. If you’re in a time crunch, choose this option. (I personally like Daddy Pete’s Raised Bed Mix.) There’s no shame in shortcuts, especially if it helps to encourage growing a garden.

Fill the raised bed to within 2 inches of the frame top. Level out and smooth soil with rake. At this point, you’re almost ready to plant!!

Step Four: Plan and Plant

raised bed garden

The new raised bed garden is ready to plant with your favorite vegetables, fruits, and herbs. So, what will you grow? If you haven’t fully decided, definitely come up with a game plan. I have a great print Kitchen Garden Planner that can get you started planning your garden for any season.

Without planning, you’ll find yourself in front a rack of plants and seeds buying everything that looks good. You don’t want to waste money on seeds or plants that you don’t actually have room for. A typical 4×4 raised garden bed has room for 16 square feet of growing space, and any square-foot gardening guide is a great starting place for a beginning gardener.

Here are my spring square foot garden plans for our four raised beds from a few years ago. This will give you a good idea of what can fit in a given space. You’ll notice the squash and zucchini take up much more space, but you can easily grow something tall beside them. So, planning is definitely key!

Also place the tallest growing plants away from shorter growing plants so they will not be shaded. Plant marigolds in the corners of the raised bed (or in pots beside it) to provide organic pest control and a beautiful pop of color. Zinnias are also a great choice for adding height, color, and bees to your garden. 

You can also add 2-4 inches of compost or mulch on top of soil after your garden plants are 6 inches tall to help soil retain moisture.

Get Started on Your Raised Bed Garden

There’s nothing left to do but start! Knowing how to start a raised bed garden can help take away the uncertainty of gardening. It gives you a limited space, that’s easy to maintain.

Before you know if you’ll be adding more beds to your garden area and eating fresh produce from your very own yard. No E-coli scares in the lettuce you’re growing yourself, so what do you have to lose? Get started on that raised bed garden now. 

Still need extra help planning out your space and garden? I’ve got you covered! My Complete Garden Planner will take you through the entire planning process and is complete with monthly checklists, sun map instructions, and raised bed planning pages.

You’ll be set and you won’t waste money buying things you don’t need. Snag one today! 

Faye Haas

Sunday 28th of April 2019

I'd like to know how many plants can be grown in a 4x8 above ground garden. I think I overcrowded my plants last year. If possible, I'd like to plant tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and 2 zucchini plants. Can you tell me how many plants I can plant and if I need additional space. I love getting your newsletter.


Wednesday 1st of May 2019

Hi Faye! What a great question. For years, I used the Square Foot Gardening Method to help me determine how much I could put in a certain area. For a 4x8 garden, you'd have 32 square feet of growing space, which is plenty for all that you've listen. In general, a zucchini or squash needs 2-3 square feet of space, but everything else you've listed only really needs one square foot of growing space. Also consider growing lower plants, such as peppers, next to taller plants like tomatoes. I'd also encourage you to throw in some marigolds and basil (or another favorite herb), which can help to keep bugs at bay. I hope this helps!