What Type of Garden is Right For You? Raised Beds, In-Ground, Containers, and More!
This article has been a long time coming. Since 2016, we have installed a wide assortment of gardens around our urban homestead, which has helped me to form a pretty good idea of the pros and cons of the different kinds of gardens. As always, this blog is about my experiences, and I hope that sharing my observations and opinions can help get you started in the right direction. Below I’ll be introducing you to the types of gardens we utilize here, and how they have performed for me so far.
Ready to start gardening? The first thing to consider before starting a garden is what kind of space you have to work with. As you review the different kind of gardens below, try and keep in mind which descriptions seem to match your space, your needs, and your goals.
»The Raised Bed Garden
This type of garden has become extremely popular, especially in urban and suburban areas. Raised beds are simply a constructed frame of metal or wood that sits on top of the ground and can be filled with the soil of your choice in order to grow plants.
We started our first garden area in raised beds. Our concept was inspired by potager gardens (the French term for a kitchen garden), and was comprised of five wood beds for a total of 119 square feet of growing space. The personal reasons we chose to start with raised beds were: (1) we were beginners and felt intimidated by our hard, clay soil (2) I liked the look of raised beds for this space. The picture below is of our original raised beds we built in 2016—and we still garden in them today.
Some of the benefits of raised bed gardens are:
–Ergonomics. You don’t have to bend over as far to care for your garden.
–Soil quality. You have the chance to fill your beds with the best soil possible! This means better plant performance from the beginning.
–Avoid contaminants. This will be discussed more in the in-ground garden section, but raised beds let you avoid possible toxins or heavy metals that might exist in urban areas.
–Weed control. Raised beds are great for starting fresh and keeping a garden free of weeds. You can line the bottom with cardboard or weed fabric which will prevent grass and weeds from growing in your garden.
–Gopher protection. If gophers or voles are issues on your land, you can install metal hardware cloth on the bottom of your raised beds to prevent underground critters from demolishing your garden.
Our raised beds are made from redwood because it has great rot resistance, is all-natural, ages into a beautiful greyish patina, and will last for 5-10 years. Another great wood for raised beds is cedar. Personally, I gravitate towards natural wood (not chemically treated) because it ages beautifully and I don’t need to worry about chemicals. There has been a concern about pressure treated wood leaching chemicals into your garden soil and, while arsenic is no longer used in the process, I still recommend going with an all-natural wood.
If you are interested in crafting your own wood raised beds you can read How to Build a Wood Raised Bed. If you are looking for raised beds that are ready-to-go and quickly assembled, Greenes makes many cedar garden kits like these:
You can also check out my Raised Bed Garden Checklist for things to consider before building.
While I love our raised beds, and four years later they are still looking great, there are some very important cons or drawbacks:
– Buying materials. The materials to build raised beds can be expensive. You want to use the good stuff, so your beds can cost upwards of $200 just for lumber.
– Soil cost. Filling raised beds can be expensive. You’ll have amazing soil quality, but it does cost money.
–Time investment to get started. Leveling your ground area and assembling your beds will take more time than a small container or digging straight in the ground.
»In-Ground or Flat-Earth Gardens
All of the landcsape around the perimeter of our yard is considered “in-ground” gardening. In-ground (or flat-earth) gardens utilize the exisiting soil and entail planting directly in the ground. For us, the major benefit to in-ground gardening was cost. The bulk of the soil is already there, and so labor was really all it took to get growing. We determined the shape of our garden, removed the grass with shovels, amended the soil, and done! I have found the following pros/benefits to gardening in-ground:
– Low cost! To start an in-ground garden it’s mostly labor. You need to fully dig up your grass and amend the soil before you can plant!
-Great water retention. I have to water my in-ground beds considerably less than any other space in my yard. Since most native soil tends to be harder and more clay-like ,they hold the water a lot better.
–Natural looking. From an aesthetic perspective, I like how in-ground beds let plants grow how they would in nature.
Good news for those worried about weeds! This year I tried a re-useable landscape fabric in one of my in-ground beds (pictured below), and found that it worked great to control bindweed in the garden. If you are interested in growing your crops in rows, you can line them with landscape fabric for an easy solution to weeds. Obviously this creates a more farm-like look instead of a natural garden space.
If you go by square footage, we actually grow more in-ground here at Freckled Californian than in raised beds. Honestly, we have saved so much money on building materials and soil by utilizing what already came with our property. Although I feel like most of the time this method is most cost-efficient, there are some MAJOR drawbacks to in-ground gardens, such as:
–Safety. You must test your soil for contaminants and health. This is an upfront cost of growing in your exisiting soil, but it’s very important. More details discussed below.
-Building soil over time. It might take some time to fully amend and build healthy soil. While it is totally possible to transform inhospitable clay soil into beautiful soil for growing, it does take time. I usually amend according to the soil test, top with compost, and plant crops that I know might not perform the best right away, but their roots will start to break up the soil and nurture it. You could even do a cover crop.
–Ergonomics. You do need to bend or kneel in order to tend an in-ground garden bed.
–Weeds. Somtimes it’s hard to keep grass and weed from returning.
Why should I test my soil before planting in the ground?
A proper, laboratory soil test can cost anywhere from $50-$150, but when you compare that to the start-up cost for raised beds or large containers, it’s really inexpensive. You will also save a lot of money in the long run if you are able to amend and use your existing soil. Testing your soil properly will also give you the best starting point for your garden. Sadly, urban soil is often contaminated by things like heavy metals and pollutants. This could come from factories, refineries, freeways, and even older homes that were painted with lead paint. Make sure you ask for lead, heavy metal, and contaminant tests so you can proceeed knowing your soil is safe. We got our soil tested when we first moved in so that I knew we could garden safely for the future and knew what kind of soil we were working with. I have never regretted that decision!
If you are ready to create an in-ground garden bed, check out our front yard transformation in the video below. PS: while you are there, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel!
»Container Gardens, Pots, and Grow Bags
This year I added a lot more grow bags to our garden. A huge advantage was how quickly we could set up the grow bags and start growing. Also, we currently have over twenty different herbs and trees growing in containers around our property. We love growing in containers for the following reasons:
-Quick start. A container garden is as easy as buying your container, buying a bag (or two) of potting soil, and planting!
-Design & aesthetic. Containers allow you to add color and various sizes to your space. You can tuck them in corners or add charm to the patio. They are fun to design with!
-Soil quality. Again, you get to choose the soil you use to fill your container which means you have great soil from the start!
-Not permanent. If you aren’t sure about tearing up your lawn or maybe you are renting, starting in containers is a great way to garden with less of a comittment.
-Good option for a balcony garden!
I really recommend starting a container garden if you just want to grow a few herbs and see how you like it! It’s a simple, non-committal way to get into gardening. While we love having plants growing in pots or containers, there are some cons to growing in containers:
-Watering. As someone who is not great at watering my plants, containers were a challange. The well-drainging potting soil means that you need to water more frequently, especiallly in hot weather.
-Fertilizing. Well-draining soil means that nutrients can be quickly flushed out. Sometimes it dependson the type of plant you are growing, but heavy feeding vegetables will most likely need to be fed while growing in pots.
-Root rot. This has happened too many times for me not to mention it. As your plants grow larger root systems, they might accidentally grow into the drainage holes of your pot and prevent water from leaving. This can result in waterlogged soil and root rot. This is just something you’ll have to check for once in a while.
Choices for containers, pots, and grow bags
You have some choices when it comes to containers to grow in.
There are products called “grow bags” that are essentially heavy duty fabric pots. Grow bags are re-usable and easy to store when not in use. Companies like Smart Pots also tout benenfits like “air pruning” which is supposed to benefit the root systems of plants. We use a lot of grow bags in our garden, as you can see in the photo above. I’m growing tomatoes, basil, and marigolds in large 15 gallon grow bags.
There are also a lot of materials you should not use for gardening—especially for any edible plants. Be wary of plastic containers, painted containers, or metal ones. You want to be sure that whatever you are growing in won’t leach toxins into the soil—especially if you are growing plants you plan on eating! Many pots at the store will have the words “for decorative use only” listed on them which signals that it is not safe for growing food.
Terra Cotta is a very traditional material for gardening containers, as long as it is unglazed.
This is kind of a hybrid garden, between a raised bed and a container. Elevated gardens are wonderful for patios, balconies, and small spaces that need to be multi-functional. They come with the benefits of raised beds (like control of soil quality and ease of tending), while also being much larger in capacity than your regular containers, pots, or grow bags. Also, a lot of these elevated gardens have the option formesh covers that assist with protecting your vegetables from pests and critters—-highly beneficial for those of us in urban environments or even patios/porches.
As far as beautiful elevated gardens go, I find that VegTrug makes a wide assortment of products for balconies, patios, small spaces, and more. Most of their products are like a raised bed that is simply much taller.
If you are really looking to save space, go vertical! I’ve heard great things about this tower garden from GreenStalk:
Are you ready to start gardening? I hope this article has helped you get a good feel for the type of garden that might be right for you. Every space is different and each gardener has different priorities, which is why there’s not only one way to garden! Remember, it’s also okay to have ALL these types of gardens in your space!
⇓What are your garden plans? How do you garden? ⇓
PS: Tag me in your gardens with #FreckledCA on Instagram!