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Do I Really Need Raised Beds?

Square Foot Gardening: Do I need Raised Beds?

Do I need raised beds for Square Foot Gardening? In this article we try to settle the debate.

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Do I need raised beds is a common question when it comes to Square Foot Gardening.

As we discussed in our original article on Square Foot Gardening the method can be carried out in raised beds or at the natural ground level.

There are advantages to both options, so we will share with you the results of our research, which will help you to decide on the best choice for your garden.

Why should I use a raised bed in my Square Foot Garden?

There is always a lot of debate around the use of raised beds for anything other than the aesthetic purposes of adding height to your garden. Some say that they’re only good for herbs or small plants, some swear by them.

Here are the most commonly stated benefits of installing a raised bed:

  • Warmer soil earlier in the season
  • Control over the type of soil/ compost you use
  • Better drainage for areas with waterlogged soils (such as clay)
  • Better water retention than naturally dry soils (such as chalk or sand)
  • You can build to a height that suits your mobility – less bending to dig and harvest
  • Less chance of ground-dwelling pests damaging plants
  • Easier to weed
  • Easier to water
  • Suitable for small spaces such as balconies or patios
gardening tool for raised beds

What are the disadvantages of raised beds for Square Foot Gardening?

  • The initial outlay cost is higher than gardening on the natural soil
  • You may not be able to find all the compost types you need at the garden centre
  • They are harder to move or dismantle if you need your space back
  • Some woods you buy are treated with chemicals that may affect your soil
  • In hot or dry locations you may need to water more frequently
  • Perennial plants need to be hardier as the temperatures fluctuate more
  • You will need to use hand tools only in a raised bed (it’s too small for a cultivator or rotavator machine)

Can you create a Square Foot Garden without raised beds?

Of course you can still use the SFG method without a raised bed, this was how Mel Bartholomew originally trialled his vegetable patch in the late 1970s.

Top gardening tip

Did you know that by planting rosemary, mint, or other strong-smelling herbs of this type can assist in keeping bugs at bay? Their essential oils (which are in the leaves and root system) act as a deterrent and discourage the pests from remaining in the area.

The benefits of using your natural soil without a raised bed are as follows:

  • Less initial cost and effort in setting it up
  • Most soils in rural areas are already suitable for growing without adding feed
  • If you need to turnover/till the soil you can use a machine to help you
  • The area can easily be repurposed
  • You can easily apply other methods such as low-dig/ no-dig gardening
  • Easier to expand your growing area if you have extra space near by
  • Easier to rake or fork over as you can stand in it
  • Suited to larger gardens or allotments plots

What are the disadvantages of creating an in-ground bed for your Square Foot Garden?

  • You have to bend down or kneel more to maintain, plant and harvest
  • Unless you prepare the area first it can look ‘messy’ so not always ideal for an open plan manicured garden
  • You may have to feed the soil with extra compost and improvers which adds cost
  • The natural soil can be compacted from years of foot fall, or previous planting
  • You will have to plant later in the spring
  • There are likely to be more initial weeds (more will appear as the ground heats up too)
  • Your plants are more at risk from ground pests such as slugs, snails and beetles

Is it cheaper if I don’t use Raised Beds?

Now that we have compared some of the positive points for both in-ground planting and raised beds, it will be clear to see that raised beds have an immediate higher cost to set up. However, this can be deceptive, because there are still on-going costs for both types of beds throughout the year. Let’s see what those are:

Raised bed associated costs:

  • Initial timber and screws / pre-made kit
  • Initial compost and soil
  • Drainage solutions (e.g. extra gravel or stones)
  • Possible need for an irrigation system in hot climates
  • Every few years repair or replace the wooden boards/ legs
  • Some on-going treatment of soil
what is square foot gardening without a raised bed

Raised bed money-saving and labour saving benefits:

  • Self-contained and can be designed to hold water; less water used means less through your meter
  • Lower need for extra plant food as you designed the compost mix yourself from the start
  • No sinking or spreading of ground media in wet weather
  • Can easily protect from frost/ snow as self-contained in a small areas, you need less material

Square Foot Gardening is perfect for elderly people who may want to continue their hobby despite age-related restrictions such as poor mobility.

In-ground associated costs:

  • More effort needed initially with aerating the soil through tilling/ turning
  • You will need to feed the soil if you live in an area with low nutrients
  • Many houses have rubble in the garden from their construction, this will be hidden under the ground and must be removed before planting
  • You may find in wet weather that your bed sinks down and exposes roots, or becomes waterlogged, this will require more compost and the time to attend to it when it happens
  • If your ground is naturally dry or in direct sunlight you may need an irrigation system to stop the soil baking around your plants; this is more costly than in a raised bed
  • Your growing area can spread naturally through weather and animals moving the soil, this will need to be attended to, or you may end up having to edge the bed
  • More money needed for frost/ snow protection as it is on the ground where the snow will naturally gather
  • More money needed for pest protection from crawlers such as slugs, snails, beetles – also more likely to find rodents eating your produce as it’s easy to reach!

In-ground money-saving and labour saving benefits:

  • If you lose interest in gardening you can easily repurpose the area
  • If you find you love gardening more than expected you can always build a raised bed there
  • It’s quicker and less costly to start an in-ground bed
  • If your area already has good soil you won’t need to purchase extra
  • You can use the no-dig method to initially weed the area and create more nutrients in the soil
  • If the area is next to or within an area of the garden that you regularly water, you can save watering costs (time and money)
  • No need to regularly check and replace frames
  • Companion planting may occur naturally if you are growing vegetables next to a flower border
  • If needed you can use machines like rotavators and weeders to prepare the area as you are not restricted by frames
  • Perfect for an allotment or wide garden space where you can make out the grids for the SFG layout, but you do not need defined edges
Top gardening tip

You can buy a ready made raised bed or build your own using a kit!

Do I need raised beds for Square Foot Gardening?

This is something only you can answer, as everyone’s garden is unique. It depends on your mobility, health, time constraints, budget, end-goal, and most of all your passion.

If you know you already love gardening and want to design a set of raised beds – perfect! If you are new to gardening and a little unsure of the practicalities, it may be worth trying out an in-ground SFG first.

After looking at the pros and cons of each method we have drawn up this table to help you decide:

Raised bed comparison table

A great way to embrace the ethos behind Square Foot Gardening is to consider making your own compost. This is a form of recycling; it’s often organic and can be cost effective.

If you want to follow traditional SFG methods, you should try to use “Mel’s Mix”.

Officially Mel’s Mix is:
1/3 of a good blended multi-purpose compost made from at least 5 different sources
1/3 coarse vermiculite
1/3 peat moss (or coco coir)
In the UK it is possible to create this mix with 50/50 blended multi-purpose compost and vermiculite.

what is square foot gardening composter

If you are looking to start the process of composting at home we suggest purchasing a compost bin. These come in various shapes and sizes.

They sit in a secluded part of your garden, you then add food and plant waste to them.

Here are some of your options:

Compost bin for Square foot gardening
You can make your own compost using something as simple as a wooden crate or search for composters here.

See some of our other articles here:

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Best Companion Plants for Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening: Planting Guide

top gardening tip

Did you know that garden centres and hardware stores such as B&Q and Homebase now carry kits that are affordable and easy to assemble if you are creating a new SFG?

These might be the way forward if you’re not comfortable sawing, or building your own wooden frame.

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) has enjoyed a recent resurgence because the method is suitable for many people’s outdoor areas.

Useful Videos


When was Square Foot Gardening invented?

Square Foot Gardening was first invented by Mel Bartholomew in 1976 and he published his first book on the topic in 1981.

How much does it cost to set up a Square Foot Garden?

You could set up your square foot garden for free using things you have lying around in the house or garden. It depends if you are using a raised bed or not and how much you are investing in your initial set up. You should plan ahead and fully cost your materials before you begin.

What compost do I need for a raised bed?

If you want to stick to the official method of square foot gardening then you should try to use mel’s mix for maximum results. However, depending on what plants you are growing, you may need to add specialist types of compost. It may also depend on your climate and how wet or dry your compost is likely to be.

Can I make my own compost?

Yes. Absolutely! There are many reasons why you should make your own compost. Not only is it good for the environment, but it’s also a great way to make use of your garden waste and spent plants. It’s also said that using compost you’ve made in the same garden is a great way of attracting beneficial insects to your square foot garden which helps to reduce pests.

What is Mel’s mix?

Officially Mel’s Mix is:
1/3 of a good blended multi-purpose compost made from at least 5 different sources
1/3 coarse vermiculite
1/3 peat moss (or coco coir)
In the UK it is possible to create this mix with 50/50 blended multi-purpose compost and vermiculite.

Should you dig the ground over before you start?

This all depends on how you feel about the whole dig vs no dig debate! There is absolutely no reason you would need to dig if you can’t or don’t want to!

Things you’ll need for a Successful Square Foot Garden


Mel’s Mix

Home Composting

Suggested Reading

Want to learn more about No Dig Gardening?

no dig gardening
no dig gardening
no dig gardening

Learn more with these books from the Square Foot Gardening Foundation

Square Foot Gardening
Square Foot Gardening
Square Foot Gardening

Still want to know more about Square Foot Gardening? Find out how it all started!

Check out the video below for more help to get started with Square Foot Gardening!

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