Raised Beds vs. In Ground Gardening: Which Is Better?

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Raised beds vs. in ground – this is a topic that has often puzzled many gardening enthusiasts. What are the pros and cons of these two distinct gardening environments? Each comes with its own set of benefits and might work excellently for one person, but not meet the needs of another.

As home gardeners for the past 20+ years, my husband and I have experimented with many styles of gardening trying to balance productivity with practicality. As we have balanced the financial investment into a garden and the conveniences that different methods bring, we have learned so much about how to grow things in the home garden.

Are Raised Beds or Ground Gardens Better?

The reality is, when comparing raised beds and in-ground gardening, neither is always the ideal solution for every plant or every growing environment. If you ask me which one is better, I will say, “It depends” because it really does depend on many factors. The climate, soil, moisture, nutrients, and pests in an environment can all be factors that would make choosing one type of garden or the other a better choice.

The Main Differences Between Raised Beds Vs. In Ground Gardens

  • Raised beds can have soil that is 100% controlled and mixed exactly while ground gardens always start with the local soil and have to be amended.
  • Raised beds usually have a cost to build them while ground gardens can be done for nearly free
  • Raised beds are easier to keep free from weeds because they are elevated above the soil level
  • Raised beds are difficult to till while in-ground gardens are more accessible to turning soil.
  • Raised beds tend to need to be watered more often than in-ground gardens due to soil drying out more easily. 

8 Pros & Cons of Raised Bed Gardens

Red Raspberries 2 years after I planted them. They are now spreading into nearby beds and into the mulch path on one side. (April 2023)
Red Raspberries 2 years after I planted them. They are now spreading into nearby beds and into the mulch path on one side. (April 2023)

Raised beds have many desirable qualities that make them ideal for gardening, however, they do tend to be somewhat expensive to set up which some gardeners may find to be disadvantageous.

Pros of Raised Beds

There are many advantages to raised beds that make them desirable for gardens.

Raised beds can have the perfect soil mixture.

If you are trying to create the perfect growing environment for a particular kind of plant, often raised beds will help you achieve that easier than growing in the ground. 

We tried to grow red raspberries several times, but our clay soil and abundant weeds made it difficult for those raspberries to get established and really start to spread. After trying to grow them in the soil several times, we decided to try putting them in a raised bed. In the raised bed, we regularly add compost, wood chips, and other organic matter. The soil is great and mostly weed-free.

A couple of years ago, I bought a few red raspberries from Walmart…you know the ones that don’t look so great back in the cardboard tubes. Yes, I bought those and they are spreading like crazy in my raised bed and now into the raised bed next to them. I think I might finally have a crop of raspberries to look forward to! 

Red Raspberries (in upper part of bed) 1 year after I planted them. (April 2022)
Red Raspberries (in upper part of bed) 1 year after I planted them. (April 2022)

Raised Beds Are Easier to Weed

Raised beds have a couple of advantages when it comes to weeds. First, they are elevated, so it is physically easier to weed those beds because you don’t have to bend over as far. If this is an advantage you’re looking for, consider a taller raised bed…one that is at least 18” tall.

In addition to being easier to weed, raised beds can often be “cleaned out” at the end of the season. Pull the weeds and add a thick layer of leaves or wood chips to help prevent weeds at the start of the next season. They are also easy to cover with a dark tarp over the winter if you want to suppress weeds that way.

Raised Beds Are Tidy

If you are trying to have a garden while maintaining a beautiful yard, raised beds offer a big advantage over ground gardens. A raised bed is relatively contained and when added to a yard can look almost like a decorative planter.

Raised Beds Elevate Plants

Plants that are prone to rot will greatly benefit from being planted in raised beds. Even growing in a bed that is just 6 or 8 inches tall will elevate the plant enough to prevent roots from being excessively wet.

Root crops like potatoes, onions, beets, and carrots are all vegetables that don’t like to grow in excessively wet conditions. So all of these can benefit by growing raised beds.

Raised Beds Typically Yield Higher Amounts Per Plant

Because raised beds can be used to create a more ideal growing environment, they also tend to yield a higher amount per plant.

Growing in a raised bed typically means there are fewer pests, fewer weeds, and more nutrients in the soil. It can also mean the soil is warmer which is ideal in cooler climates with a shorter growing season.

Cons of Raised Beds

The cons of growing in raised beds focus primarily on the costs and the logistics of setting up new beds.

Raised Beds Can Be Expensive

Raised beds are typically made out of wood, cinder blocks, metal, or other hard materials. Setting up a bed may involve buying the bed or materials for the bed as well as the soil and amendments to fill the bed.

Creating a low 4×4 bed can easily cost $100 or more just to create and set up the bed. Larger beds will obviously cost more. And most gardeners have multiple beds which makes raised bed gardening somewhat expensive.

This raised bed is recently companion planted with strawberries, onions and garlic. The goal is for the onions and garlic to help repel damaging insects from the strawberries. This garden is in the process of being "built" so you can see the heavy weed fabric that is under all the raised beds which will eventually be covered by gravel.
This raised bed is recently companion planted with strawberries, onions and garlic. The goal is for the onions and garlic to help repel damaging insects from the strawberries. This garden is in the process of being “built” so you can see the heavy weed fabric that is under all the raised beds which will eventually be covered by gravel.

Raised Bed Gardens Can Be A  Lot of Work to Set Up

Some raised beds are a lot of work to set up. If you are trying to build a bigger bed at the lowest cost, then you will be building a bed using regular building materials. Of course, you can buy raised beds that are fully assembled but those are more expensive.

Then raised beds need soil to fill them up. A bed that is 4x4x1 will need 16 cubic feet approximately 10-15 bags of soil (depending on the size). If you are doing multiple beds…or deeper beds, it will require more soil.

Raised Beds Dry Out More Easily

Because raised beds are elevated, their soil tends to dry out more quickly and requires being watered more often. I found that watering raised beds is best done with deep soaking once a week where I water them…and then come back and rewater them to put more moisture deep in the bed.

The extra water needed may end up raising your water bill making it an extra expense.

7 Pros & Cons of In-Ground Gardening

I think one of my favorite things about ground gardening is how easy it is to start. For most people who are just starting to garden and who don’t have a big budget, ground gardening is the way to start. But of course, it also means that you have to work with the soil in your area which may not be suitable for growing.

Pros of In-Ground Gardening

For most of history, gardeners usually used ground gardens. They are cheap and anyone can start with very few tools required.

In-Ground Gardening Is Accessible

In-ground gardening can be done around nearly any home where there is a patch of ground to grow in. Some people convert flower beds into vegetable gardens or convert a small yard into a garden.

In-Ground Gardening is Less Expensive

In order to have an in-ground garden, you simply need a patch of dirt. Everything else is a bonus. That means that someone can have a garden for virtually free when they garden this way.

It requires only a few tools and amending the soil is optional which makes it a very accessible way to try gardening.

Ground Gardening is ideal for growing a larger crop

If you are going to grow a LOT of something, growing in the ground is more than likely the best way to go. It simply isn’t practical to put everything in raised beds if you are going to be doing a large area. 

For example, if you are going to grow a large area of corn…or a large area of squash and pumpkins, it is unlikely that they will fit well in raised beds.

Raised beds are typically only 3 to 4 feet wide which is not ideal for corn which likes a larger patch to pollinate.

In-Ground Gardens Require Less Water

Growing gardens in the require dry out less quickly than those grown in raised beds. If irrigation is needed, it is much easier to install and use in ground gardens than for raised beds.

Cons of In-Ground Gardening

In-Ground Gardens are more prone to weeds

If you grow your garden directly in the ground, it is very common to struggle with weeds coming up from the soil…and weeds that start from seeds being blown into the beds.

Because in-ground gardens are usually more expensive, weeds can quickly become a huge problem without some way to manage them.

Ground Gardens Don’t Usually Have Ideal Soil

In my area, the soil has notoriously high amounts of clay. That means it holds moisture but it does not drain well and it is not loose. If I plant most things directly into my clay soil, they will not grow well.

Before I plant anything, I am usually amending the soil by adding peat moss, compost, manure or leaf litter. By the time you go to the trouble to do this, you could just as easily layer all those things into a raised bed.

In-Ground Gardens are More Prone to Rodents

Rabbits and moles are common garden pests as well as chipmunks and sometimes mice. Growing vegetables at ground level makes them the most accessible to little critters.

Raised beds can be built with hardware cloth to prevent rodents from tunneling up from below.

How Do You Choose What Type of Garden Beds To Use?

The best way to decide what kind of bed to build is to look at your goals, your budget, and your available space. I prefer growing in raised beds for most of my plants except corn, indiscriminate tomatoes, and large squash and pumpkins with long runners.

The reality is, that it takes a lot of time and sometimes money to build up the “ideal” garden. Thankfully, gardening doesn’t require ideal circumstances to be fun and productive!

 Right now I have about 10 raised beds and more than that space on the ground. Over time, I expect that we will add more raised beds.

For both in-ground and raised beds, one thing gardeners can do to ensure success is managing weed control. My favorite products for that include heavy-duty weed fabric and wood chips.

I use heavy-duty landscape fabric between my raised beds to prevent weeds from growing in the paths. I also use it for my ground gardening to prevent weeds in the garden.

You can buy it here on Amazon

Garden Alternatives

If growing a garden in the ground or in raised beds is not a good option, there are a few other choices that gardeners might want to use.

Patio Pots – Many gardeners find success growing vegetables right in the flower pots on their patio or porch. As with anything, make sure that the pots get enough sun, are well-drained, and watered regularly. I would also suggest adding some kind of mulch to keep them from drying out quickly.

Buckets – If you like the idea of raised beds but don’t want to spend the money, you can start by growing vegetables in 5-gallon buckets or other random containers. I grow potatoes in buckets quite successfully, but you can grow many other things this way.

Various types of planters with different colors and shapes
Various types of planters with different colors and shapes

Vertical towers – If you are a home gardener that wants variety but doesn’t have a lot of space, consider using a hydroponics growing tower to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a compact area.

You can buy it here on Amazon

FAQs

Are raised beds worth the money? 

It’s no secret that raised beds are an investment. Some gardeners enjoy the frugal approach, and others would rather build the ideal garden without regarding the costs. So whether it is worth the money is largely dependent on your personal goals.

Where can you put a raised bed?

Raised beds can go anywhere you have a flat surface. You can put a raised bed on a gravel drive, on an asphalt parking lot, in an old garden, in your yard…or pretty much anywhere else you want. Because they are raised, you are creating a garden space above the ground. If the ground is less than ideal, it doesn’t matter as long as your raised bed is deep enough for the roots of the plants you put inside the bed.

What are the garden basics you need for any kind of gardening?

Every gardener needs gardening gloves, shears, a trowel, pruners, a rake, a hose, and buckets or a wheelbarrow.

Final Thoughts on Garden Bed Choices

I have personally tried out many different kinds of gardening strategies. My goal is practical productivity. If that matches your goal, then I highly recommend using raised beds whenever possible and practical.

Raised beds are easy to maintain, easy to harvest from, and require less work overall than in-ground gardening.  It is easy to keep a garden tidy using raised beds and harvests tend to be much higher in raised beds as well.

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