A legitimate question that is often asked by new gardeners is “What type of garden should I start? Rows or beds? And if I choose growing beds; should it be in-ground or raised beds?”
First, let’s examine rows vs beds considerations
Rows, also generally referred to as the “traditional” gardening approach, consists of planting crops in straight lines and separate each of these lines with a pathway. This is the common approach used on seed packets to provide spacing parameters related to a given plant. The term “traditional” suggests that this is the way gardening was practiced by our ancestors and thus, that it should be the reference. But in fact, that’s not the case.
Going back to Babylon, the Greek golden age, the ancient Rome, the Orient or even the Aztecs, growing beds was the way of doing gardening . Growing beds were also used and advanced by the French intensive gardening method that peaked around Paris in the 1800s. Growing beds simply means grouping plants together in a specific area and separating the beds with pathways in order to access every parts of the bed without having to step into it.
That being said, which one should be favored?
If you rely or plan to use heavy mechanical equipment such as tractors, perhaps in-rows gardening is more adapted to your purpose. As a matter of fact, in-rows gardening emerged from the industrial revolution to accommodate mechanization. If you go down that path, you should at least have a look at the overall efficiency of your system.
If you’re not tied to specific farming equipment, growing beds are by far the best options you can choose. Considering the growing area alone, you can double the efficiency of your garden by using growing beds instead of rows, as there is far less space wasted for pathways. Regarding the other positive impacts, growing beds minimize uncovered soils and compaction, thus helping to promote healthy soils. Also, growing beds tend to create a local ecosystem where leaf canopy acts as living mulch and plants can interact together to leverage their full potential. Thereby, growing beds lead to less weeds, retain more moisture in soil, and thus result in less maintenance for gardeners!
Considering the growing area alone, you can double the efficiency of your garden by using growing beds instead of rows, as there is far less space wasted for pathways.
what about in-ground vs raised beds decision?
There are pros and cons of both approaches.
Raised beds can be a perfect solution if you have issues with your soil (rock, heavy clay, …) and they can be used in slope as terraced beds. Raised beds might be useful to circumscribe invasive plants in your garden, like mint, as each raised bed can be managed as a big container. Raised beds can also help to keep dogs or other animals from running straight in your crops and they may prevent soil compaction by being a physical barrier limiting people from stepping in. Besides, raised beds can be easier to maintain and harvest as plants and fruits are further elevated from the ground. They are also more accessible for peoples having disabilities. Moreover, raised beds can help to extend the gardening season as the soil warms up more quickly and water drainage might be better. Finally, some people opt for raised beds for aesthetic reasons.
On the other hand, raised beds can be cost prohibitive. Indeed, you’ll need materials to build them, usually wood plank, but also soil to fill them. Raised beds can limit the development of some plants that have deep roots system. This inconvenience depends, however, on the basis upon which raised beds are built. Finally, some crops are less appropriate for raised beds, like watermelon, which can overtake a bed unit.
Obviously, some of the advantages mentioned above regarding raised beds are inconveniences of in-ground beds and vice-versa. However, in-ground beds have some specific and very important advantages over raised beds that are worth mentioning. Indeed, in-ground beds are less costly, and they could be better suited for mechanical equipment. They allow to do wider experiments with garden location, shapes and dimensions. They also require less water than raised beds as they generally dry out much slower. If you opt for irrigation systems, in-ground bed might lead to an easier implementation. By using in-ground beds you contribute to regeneration of existing soils and reap all the benefits of having healthy soils. This is probably by far the biggest advantage of in-ground beds, especially if you want to use gardening as a positive environmental solution.
Growing beds dimensions
Generally, growing beds width is between 30″ (2.5′) and 60″ (5′) or 75 cm to 150 cm.
Note that 30″ or 75 cm is often preferred because:
- it is very accessible from each side
- some equipments are standardized for this width
- it allows you to easily step over the beds
- they are ideal width for kids
If your beds are not very long, it could be more valuable to go up to a width of 60″ or 150 cm in order to maximize your gardening space.
For paths, a minimum width of 12″ or 30 cm is required to walk, but for more comfort and to allow the wheelbarrow to pass, paths between 18″ to 24″ or 45 cm to 60 cm are ideal.
Regarding the length of growing beds, this is mainly based on your available space. However, it could be wise to try to get uniform beds dimensions. That may help maintenance and maximize the usefulness of your gardening equipment. Uniform beds can also ease garden planning. However, this limitation is not applicable when using HireNature’s Garden Planning tool technology, as it allows automation and optimization of garden layout for gardens with beds of varying sizes.
A good growing bed is often between 2” to 12” or 5 cm to 30 cm above the original ground surface. For raised beds, the height is typically between 6” to 36” or 15 cm to 90 cm. It depends on the soils below (structure, compaction, …) and the type of vegetables you want to grow. As a rule of thumb, you should try to get at least 24’’ or 60 cm of loosened soil from the top of your beds. Most vegetables can grow down their roots as deep as 6’ or 180 cm to get nutrients and water. By itself, this shows the benefit of avoiding compaction.
Bottom line, the selection of garden type and its dimensions is a personal choice. However, we hope that this post brings to light some facts that will help you make an informed decision. No matter what you choose, the Garden Planning Tool developed by HireNature is there to help you to make your garden planning phase easier and to allow you to try new garden configurations.
What kind of garden you’ll do this year? We’d love to hear from you about that and the challenges you face or the next steps you’re thinking of taking in your gardening journey. Besides, send us pictures of your garden layout!
Have a wonderful gardening season!
 D. Wallace (Ed.). Getting the Most from Your Garden Using Advanced Intensive Gardening Techniques. 1980. Rodale Press.