Raised Bed vs. Traditional Gardening
May 1, 2011 3:40 PM   Subscribe

I have a plot in a community garden. I'm trying to decide if I want to use the raised bed/square foot gardening method or just use the soil that's already there.

I have a 10x5 plot (actually 5x5, since I'm splitting it with a friend). This is my first year using this plot; it hasn't been used in at least two seasons. My only experience with gardening is using the square foot method, (building a raised bed and filling it with compost, vermiculite, and peat moss) which I like because it eliminates weeding and somewhat prevents over/under-watering. I used this method two years ago when I first started gardening, and I was very pleased with my results.

I'm hesitant to do square foot gardening this year because it is time and labor intensive to make the soil mix, plus it's more expensive. I still have my raised bed frame, but I'd have to buy peat moss and vermiculite. Compost is super cheap ($5 for a huge load), but I don't have a pickup truck to transport it.

Traditional gardening, using the soil that's already in the plot, would be cheaper up front, but I don't have time to do a lot of weeding and fertilizing and I worry about over/under-watering.

If I did do traditional gardening, I'd probably try to amend the soil with a little bit of compost/manure (the commercial stuff sold at nurseries in bags) and mulch around my plants to prevent weed growth.

Which should I choose?
posted by chara to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In a similar situation, I just amended the existing soil with a few bags of miracle-gro organic veggie soil. I got a great yield for not that much extra work. The previous user of the plot had planted a nitrogen-fixing ground cover, though, so the soil was in good shape already. This year I did a raised bed with an organic soil mix (not Mel's Mix, though - I did a mix of compost, pine fines, and top soil with high organic content) and my results are not as good so far. So I say, stick with what worked last time! Soil is the most important part, and it is worth the upfront investment.
posted by yarly at 3:48 PM on May 1, 2011

Also, gardenweb is a great source of soil information.
posted by yarly at 3:50 PM on May 1, 2011

What do you want to grow? If it's squash or tomatoes, things that don't require too much careful watering or soil amendment (which would make the area even more attractive to weeds), then maybe just planting in the ground would be OK.

Also, the state of the soil right now would matter. Is it going to be easy to break up and weed? Is it free of rocks?
posted by amtho at 3:57 PM on May 1, 2011

Response by poster: I'm growing squash, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, beetberry and some edible wildflowers. I tilled the soil yesterday; it's pretty weedy, but relatively easy to break up. I didn't notice any rocks.
posted by chara at 4:14 PM on May 1, 2011

Building up the soil is one of the most rewarding parts of gardening, IMO.

If you do go for the traditional gardening, here is a watering hack that is both cheap and as old as the ancient Chinese, apparently. Look at the step by step design using two clay pots glued together which will demand-irrigate several plants for days, giving you freedom from the tyranny of frequent watering requirements. A very few of these sunk into your soil with plants grouped around them plus some appropriate mulch to free you from the tyranny of weeding chores should give you a pretty fine garden spot.

Incorporate companion planting and a vertical element such as a tomato tower or trellis for beans or peas to increase yields, reduce maintenance and show off your fun garden design.
posted by Anitanola at 4:26 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can still use a lot of square foot techniques (spacing, watering, weeding etc) in a normal non-raised bed. Just dig it up, remove the big rocks, add in whatever compost you want and put down the marking strings. Your results may not be as good as with a fancy soil mix but it will work.
posted by ChrisHartley at 4:29 PM on May 1, 2011

Bear in mind, you're in for weeding no matter what. The soil might not have weed seeds when it comes out of the bag, but after the first stiff breeze, it's going to have weed seeds on it.
posted by musofire at 4:35 PM on May 1, 2011

You can get a soil test from the cooperative extension service. I'd go traditional, and use lots of mulch.
posted by theora55 at 12:40 AM on May 2, 2011

I've gardened in both raised beds and in a community garden plot. In my experience, the garden plot -- actually planting things in the ground -- is the much more efficient and inexpensive route.

In my community garden, there's one guy with a rototiller. He charges $25 to till the plot in the spring. This is such a phenomenal investment. I can't even tell you how much it outweighs the other options. No hand-working of the soil (which is back-breaking, and is not all that effective with clay soils). No weeding. Weeds turn into organic matter. It's a total coup.

Maybe check in your garden to see if anyone there does that? If not, is it feasible to rent a tiller? Some (but not all) rental companies will deliver a tiller to you.

I've become a naysayer on raised beds for summer crops -- tomatoes, peppers. However, I live in a really warm climate. For plants like tomatoes and peppers that prefer infrequent, long, deep waterings, raised beds don't work very well where I live. I think it's always better -- at least where I am -- to use the natural insulation that the earth provides. Till the soil, plant that plants. It all works out better.

Your mileage may vary. I'm not sure how KC summers play out.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:04 PM on May 2, 2011

Just to throw another factor out there ... some people are against tilling because it disturbs the natural soil structure and balance of micro-organsims. If your plot has been gardened for the past years and is not compacted, you might not need to till, and can just lay down some amendments and mulches on top.
posted by yarly at 11:52 AM on May 3, 2011

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