Your Guide To Raised Beds & Container Gardens
We’re digging deep into everything you need to know about adding raised beds or a container garden to your outdoor space. And what about edible plants? A popular choice for raised beds and containers, let’s talk about how to make the most out of your space to grow exactly what you want.
Raised beds and container gardens are having a moment and we understand why. They’re eye-catching, suit many lifestyles, fit many places, and are great for growing edible plants you’ll actually want to eat. If you’re thinking about starting your own container garden or building out some raised beds, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know before you get started.
What are raised beds and container gardens?
Let’s start with what we’re talking about. Raised beds are planting areas built up above the level of your existing yard or garden. Container gardens are gardens grown in a collection of freestanding pots and planters.
Almost every garden store right now has a great selection and a wide variety of different pots you can choose from. There are even off-the-shelf raised beds you can find that come at all heights, lengths, and widths.
Gardening in these ways has a few great benefits that can’t be overlooked.
They’re Easier on Your Body
If you’ve ever gardened on your hands and knees for hours, you know how exhausting it can get. Raised beds can be built to and come in a variety of heights that either limit or eliminate the need to kneel, hunch, or bend over. This is especially helpful if you have mobility issues that make other types of gardening more difficult.
They Keep Contaminated Soil Away
Since containers and raised beds get plants up off the ground, they’re especially great in older parts of the city where lead paint may have been used. You don't have to excavate all that potentially toxic soil and have it replaced, which can be expensive. This is especially important if you're growing food.
Just be sure you aren’t building your raised bed out of something equally unwanted, like treated wood. Only use untreated wood and food-safe stains if you’re planning to grow food.
They’re a Pest and Pet Deterrent
People have different outcomes with this, but generally, the small height difference between pots, planters, and raised beds can reduce rodents. It’s a small, but not insignificant deterrent. It can also keep your pets and their waste out of your garden and off of your food.
Why are raised beds, container gardens, and growing edible plants so popular right now?
We’ve seen a big uptick in home gardening since the pandemic, with people home, closer to their yards, and in need of something to do. While you could choose to grow non-edible plants, once people start, many find growing their own food satisfying and delicious.
For some people, the overall messaging out there about eating local, organic foods has led them to incorporate more substantial edible plants into their own yards. And in Seattle in particular, food lovers have long grown their own food because they know nothing tastes better than something fresh-picked in your own backyard.
There’s also a rise in maintenance companies that can help and support people who want to create raised beds for growing food but just don’t have the time to keep up with maintaining them. Having experts that can come in, turn over a garden, plant, weed, and do other regular maintenance has opened the door for more people to pursue edible plants.
What do you need to consider before you go to the garden or hardware store?
If you’re considering adding raised beds or containers to your garden, there are a few things to keep in mind and some questions you may want to ask yourself as you plan.
Get Clear on Your Goals
Consider what kind of garden are you trying to achieve, including what plants you’re looking to grow and the yield you’re hoping to have if you’re pursuing edible plants. If you’re growing a dedicated food garden, you’ll need something different than if you’re focusing on flowers or looking to spruce up your outdoor space with seasonal textures and colors.
If you’d like to have a few herbs to add to your barbecue or greens for a summer salad, some pots may be adequate for your needs. But if you’re looking to start growing a lot of your own food, you will need to be prepared for something quite a bit larger. Or perhaps you have kids, niblings, or grandkids who love berries, and you’d like to incorporate raspberries or blueberries into your yard. Each of these scenarios, and your specific goals, will impact how you arrange and care for your raised beds or containers. They require different solutions, space, and maintenance.
Be Realistic About How Much Space You Need and Have
You may want a huge, productive garden but only have a small apartment balcony. Understanding the constraints of your gardening area will probably impact how much and what you’re able to grow. That’s not to say you can’t grow a lot in a small space, you might just have to be thoughtful about what containers you're using, how much is reasonable to grow, and how big things will realistically grow.
If you’re interested in growing more flowers, for example, that's doable anywhere, but brings up the question of scale. Let’s say you want to grow dahlias. You can definitely grow those in pots, but if you want tall ones, you may need to consider finding a spot in a larger yard or garden.
Consider The Location of Future Pots, Containers, or Raised Beds
This also comes down to how much and what you want to grow. If you’re hoping to grow flowers, maybe some food, you can do that easily with pots or raised beds or containers, or intermix any of the above within an existing garden.
If you’re growing small plants, like herbs, a small planter or container near where you’ll be cooking predominantly, like an outdoor barbecue or nearby your kitchen, is going to be helpful.
Many popular food plants need a lot of sun, so considering the sun exposure of any pots or beds will also be important, or picking plants that work well for your particular outdoor environment.
It’s good to be conscious of potential pitfalls, too.
Whether you’re an avid gardener or a complete beginner, there are some things to be prepared for as you start growing in containers and raised beds.
Plants Need Water
Unfortunately, you can't just put a plant in the ground and expect it to grow. You do have to water it. In Seattle, our summers are so dry, and most plants need supplemental water. This is especially true for planters, raised beds, and containers which tend to dry out a little bit faster than the surrounding soil. If you're going the raised bed or container route, you have to think more about keeping them regularly watered and checking their soil moisture.
We recommend installing an irrigation system on a timer so you can forget it and just enjoy the garden. If you have space, you can also consider rainwater harvesting to take advantage of whatever rainfall we happen to get during the dry season.
Plants Have Different Needs
There are plants that need a lot of sun. They're your typical peppers and sunflowers and tomatoes. And then there are the ones that, as soon as it starts getting sunny, they bolt and flower, and you have to take them out. Think spinaches and lettuces and things like that.
If you’re planting a variety of plants with a variety of needs, make sure you're either getting the right plants in the right sun exposure or looking for varieties that are adaptable to more extreme conditions.
Raised Beds and Planters Still Need Maintenance
You don’t want your hard work to become an eyesore. Weeding might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how quickly you can get overwhelmed with weeds. Often when the sun comes out, people get excited about getting into the dirt and turning it over, and putting in seeds. And then the momentum gets lost. If you’re planning to put your raised beds or containers in a prominent location, you’re going to also want to make sure they're in a spot where they can be easily maintained so they continue to look nice throughout the seasons.
Edible plants aren’t only for raised beds or containers.
If incorporating edible plants into your outdoor space is the main reason you're pursuing raised beds or containers, know they aren't your only option.
There are beautiful ways to incorporate both edible and non-edible plants into your garden that give you the fun of growing food in a way that fits you’re aesthetic, even if it isn’t raised beds or containers.
They Provide Beauty and Utility
While raised beds and container gardens certainly lend themselves to edible plants, we love to incorporate edible plants into gardens and yards of all kinds, even if eating them isn’t the goal.
Everbearing Strawberry is a great example: it gives great ground cover where it will completely cover the ground (decreasing your maintenance and weeding) and, at the same time, it's fruiting and it's edible. Oregon Grape, Salal, Evergreen Huckleberry, and Hazelnut are all plants native to the Pacific Northwest that we choose for their beauty and visual interest, but also have the added benefit of bearing fruit we can eat.
They’re Great for Awkward Spaces
If you have a sloping yard or awkward unused spaces, something like a big squash or pumpkin patch can be a great option. They’ll grow as large as they need to within the space provided, can stabilize the slope, and don’t need a lot of maintenance to flourish.
They Support a Healthy Garden Ecosystem
There's something to be said for interweaving your edible plants in with your non-edible plants. Your yard is an ecosystem, and plants create beneficial relationships with one another. They attract different pollinators and good bugs, and can even alert you to health issues within your garden. That's an important requirement for making sure your garden is successful: having opportunities for the hummingbirds and bees and flies and butterflies and everything in between to be able to pollinate.
If you’re considering adding raised beds, containers, or edible plants to your outdoor space, we’ve got your back. With all the options out there, it can be helpful to consult a landscape architect who can guide you toward the best options for your particular goals, spaces, and needs. If you’re going it alone, we hope this helps demystify some of the considerations you may need to take into account as you get started.