Raised Beds vs. Rows

Posted on June 5th, 2012 by Cynthia

by Rachel, Dog Island Farm

There are many types of vegetable gardens out there from the traditional rows – one plant wide row with walkways in between – to raised beds (and wide beds) or more natural, loose organic gardens. I try to stay away from rows because they are much less space efficient than the other two  types. With rows you end up devoting a lot more land to walkways, which isn’t a good use of space if you’re trying to maximize your harvest. They do make harvesting easier and are better suited for using equipment which is why some people still use them.

  At our old house we used raised beds which have many benefits. You can lay hardware cloth (metal mesh) and weedblock under them to keep out gophers, voles and weeds. They are the perfect solution for problem soils whether you’re dealing with heavy clay or lead contamination (use filter fabric underneath to keep soil from migrating into the bed). They can be used on slopes as terraced beds (just make sure you have proper supports to hold the weight of the soil). Organic, loose garden beds are a personal preference for many people. Lines are not straight and the plants are not organized into rows. I do really enjoy the looks of these types of gardens because they are productive while also being very aesthetically pleasing. There is usually more mixing of plants since rows are being utilized which can be very beneficial in regards to companion planting and confusing pests.

 

We currently use wide beds. Raised beds are cost prohibitive at our scale and rows don’t produce enough. A 4′ wide bed can produce 4x more produce than a row of the same square footage. Plants are closer together (no walkways in between) which means less weeding when the plants get larger and shade the soil. Of course what you choose to go with is totally up to you because it really is personal preference. As much as I love the organic flowing look I’m just too OCD to try it.

Comments

By Yolanda @ Kosod... (not verified) on

Hi Rachel,
I love the more organic look of "edible landscaping". Trouble is, my beds aren't all stationary. I form and re-form my beds throughout the season according to what crop I'm rotating through the garden. And different crops have different water needs. Any suggestions of how I can use automatic irrigation (drip emitter, soaker hoses, t-tape, etc.) with this type of configuration? Do I have to rip out the irrigation each time I plant?. Right now I'm hand watering, and while I'm making sure the water is going where I need it, it is a big time suck!

By Yolanda @ Kosod... (not verified) on

Oops! Cynthia wrote this post! Sorry.

By Todd Hindmarsh (not verified) on

I disagree, at least in part.

Traditional rows like you would see on a big farm are designed for tractors and obviously don't make sense for a back-yard farm. However, built-up raised beds are popular but over-rated. I believe the trend will die off in favor of re-tillable "row-beds". Here are the problems with raised beds:

* Expensive infrastructure: redwood or some sort of rot-resistant wood or time consuming stone-work. Too many times i've seen people try to save a few bucks and build raised beds out of pine plywood scrap or douglas fir framing material, and they rot in short order. Literally rot apart in 2 or 3 seasons - a waste of money and not a sustainable use of precious wood. Redwood is the best wood for soil-contact applications but plan on paying 2-3 times as much for it as douglas fir, and even redwood will only last 20 or so years while in contact with soil. Cost will be upwards of $50 per 4'x8' x 8-inch high bed.

* Hard to rework: The protocal is you buy a couple yards of high-end compost or compost mixed with top-soil and fill you're bed with it. You also have to buy the wood or stone material. The logic in your head at that point is "big investment on the first year but continual pay-off". The problem is it's not ever-lasting. The first year you get AMAZING production and then you rave to all your friends about how awesome raised beds are. The following year it's so so. The 3rd the soil will be compacted from over-watering and sucked dry of nutrients and you have to re-till and add compost / amendments. When you do this, the material you're bed wall is made from gets in the way of tilling tools, and if it's not well constructed you'll end up breaking it and having to rebuild it.

* sustainability: aside from the cost, how sustainable is it to import your soil? Really, think about it.

* weeds: People seam to think that bed walls will keep out weeds. Not bermuda grass, though, and not oxalis. Weed seeds are in the air and all around us. When they do take root at the base of the bed wall, their roots will be in-accessable to your shovel. Without the bed wall you can just dig them out, but with the bed wall there, pulling weeds is like surgery.

...

What I prefer and what i think is the future of urban farming is 3 to 4-foot wide sem-raised bed-rows with no border infrastructure which continually evolve in shape and form through the years.

The walls of the bed are not really necessary. When you work the soil you can simply pile it up onto a 6" or so "mound-bed" and the plant's roots will hold the soil together.

After a season or two of good production, when it's time to till and add compost, you can just have a few friends over and let loose and double-dig the whole area with no borders in the way. Adding compost, mixing, tilling, pulling out weeds and root-balls of weeds and when you're done, rake the soil up to form a new bed. Maybe you made a pathway out of mulch the first year which will have broken down at this point and is now nutrient rich soil, so you till that in too. What once was pathway may be where the new bed goes. Maybe you change the dimensions of the beds based on what you will be planting, etc.