How to build raised garden beds in your yard
Take your garden to the next level.
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Raised beds solve almost every garden problem—they let you plant more veggies in less space, cut down on weeds, plant earlier in the spring, improve drainage, keep your plants safe from lawnmowers, discourage nibbling by all kinds of pests, and make your yard look neat and organized.
Here’s how to set up the perfect raised beds for your yard.
1. Select your site
If you’re going to spend the time to build a raised bed, you want to put it where your plants will have the best chances for healthy growth.
Choose a site with full sun
“Full sun” means six hours or more of direct sunlight every day, without any branches or roofs shading the plants. You can grow many garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers with less than six hours of sunlight, or under dappled shade from high branches, but they won’t grow as quickly or get as big as their sun-soaked counterparts. Shady and damp sites also increase the risk of fungal diseases.
If you have to choose a site that only gets part-day sun, pick a spot which gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Morning sun helps dry off dew which can promote fungal disease, while afternoon shade can reduce heat stress.
Look out for water
Think about drainage
Garden plants’ roots need air to grow. Raised bed drainage means both drainage into the bed, and drainage out of the bed.
To keep excess water from getting into your bed, avoid putting your raised bed on a marshy site where the bottom of the bed will rest in water. You’ll face similar problems if you put your raised bed in a low spot that floods frequently. Consider planting a rain garden there instead.
To get excess water out of your bed, look at your soil. Soil with a high percentage of clay particles drains poorly. If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have, you can use a home soil texture test to see how much clay you have, or get a soil test from your state extension office.
If you live in an area with poorly-draining clay soil, make sure your raised bed will drain. The best way to improve clay soil is to mix in organic matter such as compost or composted manure. Many sites recommend mixing in sand, but if you add sand to clay soil in the wrong proportions, you can end up with concrete.
You may need to put your raised bed on a slope that drains toward your house or another structure. Try putting gravel-filled trenches around the bed to direct the water where you want it to go.
Avoid frost pockets
Have you ever noticed a low spot in your yard that seems to get frost earlier than the rest of the site? You may have a frost pocket, also known as a frost hollow. These are places where cool air tends to settle at night and get trapped by land or dense vegetation. Build your raised bed somewhere warmer.
2. Choose your method
There are three main types of raised beds.
Raised ground beds are just large, flat mounds of earth. They’re easy to build—all you have to do is shovel dirt into a pile—but they’re also easy to step on accidentally. Compared to higher raised beds, they’re also not as effective when it comes to reducing weeds, improving drainage, and increasing soil temperatures.
Supported raised beds have some kind of edging that’s usually 6 to 10 inches high. These are the type you’ll build from most raised garden bed kits. Many garden plants need at least 10 inches of soil for their roots, so you may want to add compost or manure to the soil below your raised bed.
Container raised beds have high enough walls (10 inches or taller) that most garden plants don’t send their roots down to the earth below. Raised beds 27 inches tall are a good height for those who use a wheelchair. These tall raised beds allow you to control the soil your plants are growing in, but note that you need a lot or soil to fill a bed that deep.
3. Choose your shape
Once you’ve decided what kind of bed you want to build, you have plenty of choices of shape. You can try a circular design, purchase bed corners and attach your own lumber to make a square or rectangle, or just go more free-form.
Whatever shape you choose, make sure that you can reach the middle. Most people are comfortable reaching up to 2 feet so they can easily dig, plant, and weed, so a rectangular bed with paths on both sides should measure no more than 2 feet across.
You also want to make sure you can move around your bed, so try to make paths at least 24 inches wide. If you’re planning to mow next to your raised bed, do you have space to push your lawnmower? It may be easier to opt for mulch on your garden paths.
If you’re designing a wheelchair-accessible bed, grass and mulch aren’t good options for paths; you will need a path made of firm, hard material. Wheelchair-accessible paths should be at least 36 inches wide—and don’t forget that a wheelchair user will need space to turn around at the end of the bed.
4. Build and fill your bed
Whatever you use, if you’re building a bed with less than 10 inches of soil, think about how you’re going to control weeds sprouting from below. You may want to line the bottom of your bed with landscape fabric to suppress weeds. The disadvantage of using landscape fabric is that it’s made of plastic, which you may not want in your garden, and it blocks earthworms and other beneficial insects from getting into the bed—but if you’re filling your beds with garden soil and compost, you’re probably getting plenty of them in your raised bed anyway. You can also opt for putting 2 to 3 inches of mulch between your plantings instead.
Now that you’ve built your bed, fill it with garden soil and you’re good to go! If you’re using soil from your yard, you can replace up to half your soil with compost to help your soil retain water, and give your plants more nutrients to grow green, full, and healthy.
Now comes the fun part. Plant your bed with your favorite vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
Since there aren’t as many weeds and the soil is full of plant-nourishing compost, you can put your plants closer together than most soil packets recommend. University of Massachusetts Amherst recommends spacing your plants so that the leaves are shading most of the soil, and spread up to a half-inch of fine mulch like shredded leaves or coffee grounds between your plants to keep weeds down.
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