Learn how to start a raised bed vegetable garden for beginners so you can start growing food right in your own backyard! I’ve been following the same simple steps for years to build raised bed vegetable gardens so today I’m going to show you my tried and true method. I’m also going to share some common mistakes beginner gardeners make when starting a raised bed vegetable garden so you can learn from some of my past mistakes.
Years ago I would toil for days trying to put in a new garden bed by turning a new patch of soil. Then I discovered how quick and easy it is to build a raised bed vegetable garden. The first raised bed garden I built was in 2013 for a large patch of strawberries. Since then I’ve built so many raised bed gardens I’ve lost count!
When should I start a raised garden bed?
You can start building a raised garden bed anytime of the year. Well maybe not in the winter if you have a foot of snow on the ground like we had earlier this year! I’ve built raised garden beds every season of the year.
I’ve built raised garden beds in the fall, filled them up and let them sit all winter so they were ready for planting in the spring. In my opinion, the fall is the best time for building a new raised bed vegetable garden because you don’t have to take precious gardening time in the spring or summer to do it!
We started in late winter when we built the first round of our new raised bed vegetable gardens after we moved to our current homestead. Since we live in a cold weather climate with snowy winters, we had to wait until the snow melted to get to work.
The great thing about building raised bed vegetable gardens is that you don’t need to wait until the ground thaws in the spring to get started since you’re building on top of the ground instead of digging into it.
Building a raised bed garden in the spring allows you to still have ample time to plant seeds and seedlings before the height of gardening season in the summer.
Building a raised bed garden in the middle of summer is fine too. There are many plants you can seed for a fall harvest, like kale, chard, spinach and beets. Some garden shops may even still have established tomato plants you can buy to plant in your new raised bed vegetable garden in the summer.
How to build a raised garden bed for cheap
There are a variety of materials you can use to build raised bed gardens for cheap and not have to spend an arm and a leg buying a new one from the store. Here’s a helpful article if you’re looking for more specifics on how to build the raised bed garden frame.
All my raised bed garden frames at our old homestead were built by my husband out of scrap wood we had left over from other projects on the homestead.
When selecting lumber for a raised bed garden, we try not to use treated lumber since the wood will be touching soil where we will be growing food. Cedar is a really great option if you can find cedar scraps, otherwise it is more expensive to buy. Pine will also work, it just won’t last as long as cedar.
I have seen some really cute raised garden beds built out of tin roofing screwed to wood 4×4 corner posts. You can often find used tin roofing at the second hand building supply stores and I’ve also seen it for sale on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace. I’ve even seen it for free in someone’s scrap pile!
Rough Cut Lumber
Recently I drove past a garden of raised beds made out of rough cut lumber and it looked so nice! We have several saw mills in our valley so there are local sources to buy rough cut lumber. This type of lumber is cheaper than buying new pine or cedar boards at the lumber store so it’s a nice option if you’re on a budget and like the rustic look.
Repurposed Stock Tanks
Repurposing an old stock tank is another great way to start a raised bed vegetable garden for cheap or even free.
A lot of times folks will give away stock tanks that have a crack or hole in them since they can no longer hold water. These make great raised bed vegetable gardens!
I started a raised bed herb garden in a rusted out stock tank at our old homestead. It was so easy to make and cost me nothing since the stock tank was free.
Where to Buy a Raised Bed Garden
If you’re not a DIYer wanting to build a raised bed garden, there are several options to buy raised bed gardens. Raised bed gardens have become more popular so they can often be found at most garden or hardware stores.
I’ve also seen ads on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace for raised bed gardens. These are usually a local woodworker making raised bed gardens to sell so can be a nice option to buy a pre-made raised bed garden and support local. A local woodworker may also be able to make you a custom made raised bed garden with your specific dimensions.
If you want the ease of buying online and having it shipped to your front door, there are a wide variety of raised bed gardens you can choose from. It’s surprising to see so many different raised bed gardens for sale online here with good reviews that can ship directly to your house!
Another option are these durable raised garden beds sold by our favorite seed company in Colorado. These raised bed garden frames even ship free in the US!
How do you prepare the ground for a raised garden bed?
The ideal location for a raised garden bed is a flat, level surface that receives a lot of direct sunlight and has good drainage. Remove any rocks, sticks or other debris from the site.
Before filling your raised bed gardens, lay the frames out in the location you have chosen for your garden. Leave space between garden bed frames to walk or to push a lawn mower or wheelbarrow.
We measured the distance between each of our raised garden bed frames so they were laid out with nice, even spacing and not haphazard and sloppy looking.
Keep in mind that once you fill your raised bed garden it is extremely difficult to move so you want to have it just right before filling it!
If the ground is not level, the raised bed garden frame will not sit even with the ground and can rock back and forth.
An uneven raised garden bed creates gaps underneath the edges of your raised bed frame and the ground. This creates a spot where soil can leak out. Taking the time to level your raised bed garden before filling it with soil is key.
To ensure your raised bed garden is level, dig out any high areas until the garden bed frame is sitting solidly on the ground on all sides.
If you’re really particular like my contractor husband, you can get out the level, sit it on the edge of the raised garden beds and dig around the bed until it is perfectly level on all sides.
What do I put on the bottom of a raised garden bed?
If the raised garden bed is being placed in an area of bare ground with no weeds, grass or sod then you can put the raised garden bed frame directly on the ground. Or for a little added protection at no cost, add a layer of cardboard or newspaper underneath.
If you are putting your raised bed garden on top of weeds or grass, I highly recommend putting down cardboard and then a layer of durable landscape fabric like this. A good landscape fabric will block weeds from growing through but still allow water to drain.
The cardboard layer will help smother and kill the weeds. The landscape fabric should help prevent any sneaky weeds from growing through over time.
I’ve put in raised garden beds with and without landscape fabric and I’m here to tell you the landscape fabric is worth the extra effort and expense!
The raised garden beds I started without landscape fabric under them now have pesky deep rooted quack grass growing up in them and it is extremely difficult to weed and get rid of.
If you want to put down any type of mulch like rocks or wood chips around your raised bed garden, landscape fabric is also helpful to put down as a first layer and weed barrier.
The Best Soil for Raised Garden Beds
Before we get to the steps of filling your new raised garden bed, we need to first address the best types of soil for a raised garden bed.
The key to having great soil in your raised garden bed is a soil that drains well, holds moisture and is nutrient rich.
Raised garden beds have become so popular that you can now find pre-mixed bags of Raised Bed Garden Soil at the local garden store. These days you can even buy bags of raised bed vegetable garden soil here online and have it delivered right to your door!
If you’re a DIYer like myself or looking to save money and mix your own raised bed garden soil, then here are a few tips.
When I’m filling a new raised bed garden with soil, I strive for a mixture that is about 1/2 top soil and 1/2 compost.
This means that using all top soil is out of the question. Why? Top soil can compact easily causing drainage issues. Top soil also tends to be lacking in adequate nutrients to grow a healthy garden which can be addressed by mixing in compost.
Ideally we want a top soil that has a sandy loam composition (here’s how to identify your soil type) that is loose and drains well.
If the top soil you are using is not a sandy loam and has a heavier density, you can add in a little peat moss. Peat Moss can be found at a local garden store or you can find it online here.
I’ve also mixed in potting soil that contained peat moss from some large garden pots stored in my garden shed. It was a great way to use up that container garden potting soil I was no longer using!
How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed
1. Cardboard or Newspaper in a raised garden bed:
The first layer I always put in the bottom of a raised garden bed is cardboard or newspaper. These help as additional natural weed barriers that will eventually break down and compost.
2. Aeration and Drainage in a raised garden bed:
I don’t put rocks in the bottom of my raised garden beds since I’ve read that rocks can prevent good water drainage. Water pooling in the bottom of a raised garden bed can cause root rot and kill your plants. I put in a few sticks, some as big as 1″-2″ in diameter thrown in haphazardly to help with aeration and drainage in a new garden bed. Plus the sticks will eventually break down and compost over the years.
If you’re planning to buy pre-mixed bags of raised bed garden soil, you can skip this step of adding compost since your raised bed soil should already have it mixed in.
It’s important to remember that sometimes more is not better and that is the case with compost. Too much compost can actually create nutrient levels that are too high and cause damage to your seedlings and plants.
When I’m adding compost to a raised bed garden, I go to the giant compost pile behind our shop with piles in various stages of composting. I shovel in a layer of compost from the pile of chicken manure/bedding and grass clippings that fully composted over the last year or two. I also mix in some worm castings compost I harvest from our vermicomposting bins.
If you don’t have your own homemade compost to use, you can buy it at the local garden supply store. You can also buy bags of compost online and have it shipped to your home.
Spread the compost evenly over the bottom of the raised bed on top of the layer beneath it. As I mentioned in a previous section, the ideal soil I strive for in my raised garden beds is 1/2 top soil and 1/2 compost. Keep this in mind when adding compost to your raised bed garden.
When mixing my own soil, I try to keep track of how many 5 gallon buckets of compost I dump into the raised bed. Then I know that I need to add that equivalent in top soil.
The final layer of a raised bed garden is soil. If you’re buying premixed raised bed garden soil, all you have to do is pour it in.
Since we are aiming for a mix of 1/2 top soil to 1/2 compost, you need to add the equal amount of top soil that you added in the compost layer in the previous step.
I’ve purchased bags of soil at the local garden store if the raised bed isn’t a big one. When building and setting up multiple new raised bed gardens, buying bags of soil at the store can get expensive.
When filling multiple new raised bed gardens with soil, it is cheaper to buy a bulk load in the bed of a truck. This makes for a fun family project shoveling out all that beautiful soil!
If you don’t have a truck to haul soil, some garden centers will deliver for a fee. There are also several non-profit garden programs in our region that have a truck borrowing program for tasks exactly like this.
Once the soil is in the raised bed garden, use your hands or a hoe to mix up the soil and the compost layer below. Once you’re done mixing the soil, spread the soil evenly across the raised bed garden.
What to Plant in a new raised bed vegetable garden
Once all the layers are in the raised garden bed, you are ready for planting. This is the part where my kids and I get giddy with excitement!
If you’re not sure what to plant, here’s our guide on how to figure out what to plant to feed your family for a year.
If you’re trying to figure out when you can start to plant seeds or seedlings in your garden, here’s our list of resources to help. This will help you figure out your growing zone, first and last frost dates and printable planting chart so you can figure out what to plant and when specific to your area.
If you’re looking for a specific vegetable list, here are the 20 easiest vegetables to grow in a raised bed garden.
10 Beginner Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden
There’s nothing worse than putting all your hard work into a project only to have some mishaps and look back wishing you had done things differently.
Here are 10 common mistakes made by beginner raised bed gardeners:
- Picking a location with poor drainage which can cause water to pool up and lead to root rot.
- Choosing a site without direct sunlight which means you can only grow plants that are shade loving plants.
- Not leveling the garden bed frame before putting soil in so the soil leaks out the gap and makes a mess.
- Not putting landscape fabric or multiple layers of cardboard down as the bottom layer of your raised garden bed so the weeds and quack grass come up underneath. These are a nightmare to weed out of your raised bed garden!
- Making your raised garden bed too wide so you can’t reach to the center.
- Using only heavy top soil in the raised bed so it gets compacted and doesn’t drain well.
- Making the raised garden bed framework out of treated lumber or old railroad ties that will leach toxins into your vegetable garden soil over time.
- Making the raised bed garden frame too long without structural supports so when it is filled with soil, the sides bow out.
- Buying cheap, thin landscape fabric thinking you’re saving a buck, only to have the fabric easily tear and allow weeds to grow through within a year of building your raised bed garden.
- Forgetting to remove plastic tape or packaging from cardboard placed in the raised bed. The plastic will never decompose like cardboard.
Building a raised bed vegetable garden is a great way for beginners to start gardening. They are quick and easy to build and make a great family project the kids and even Grandma can help with!
Have you ever started a new raised bed vegetable garden and have any tips to share?