Raised Beds, In-Ground Beds, or Containers?

Flowers growing in in-ground bed

Which is the best way to garden? Raised beds or in-ground? Raised beds have become a sort of default method of gardening. But there are many advantages to in-ground gardening. And for some growing in containers is the best or only option.

If you’re starting out you may think one way is the best way. Some depends on your situation. But a lot is simply pure preference.

Raised beds have become very popular over the past couple of decades, largely because they offered better drainage. But gaining that drainage has a cost. They come is a wide variety of sizes, materials, and heights. Some beds have a bottom of galvanized hardware cloth to keep the gophers out. And some are simply built with imported soil on top of the native soil and contained with a taller border. Some are made of wood, some are made of masonry, and some are even metal, and you can even use railroad ties (yes, according to donotdisturbgardening, they’re safe!)

But you need to make them.

In-ground gardening just needs to have native soil to start with some organic matter amendment to add, and some simple tools. The garden can be on a slight slope with a little terracing with rocks or wood if needed.

But you need to dig them.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of raised beds and in-ground gardening. I leave containers for last because they have their obvious limits, but they serve their purpose well for a lot of people.

Advantages of Raised Beds

Row of raised bed boxes with tomato plants growing in them
Tall raised bed boxes growing veggies Credit: Jeyaratnam Caniceus via Pixabay

Quicker control over the soil quality—if your native soil is poor, raised beds can give you higher quality soil right away.

Can be short or tall as needed—they can be

Can be made to a height that’s more comfortable to work at—they can have areas for sitting while working (takes more design and wood for an increase in cost), be higher for reduced back strain or to avoid kneeling, have legs for wheelchair access, and even have wheels for some portability.

Irrigation—for drip irrigation, initial planning is essential to get the plumbing installed under the pathway material and into the beds.

Some movability—with planning you may be able to take the beds with you for a move to a new location.

Tidy appearance—raised beds lend themselves to an organized appearance, often with lots of empty space between beds

Décor—you can design with materials that blend nicely with your house and outdoor décor style

Less plant-able space—borders of the beds take up additional space

Prevent gophers—can be made to keep the gophers out with galvanized hardware cloth at the bottom

Fewer weeds— imported soil is more likely to have much fewer weed seeds

Reduces soil compaction— keeps the dogs, kids, and visitors off the soil, and out of the garden beds

Soil warms up faster—for earlier planting in spring

Disadvantages of Raised Beds

Higher cost—for building materials, time, and soil

Replacement will be needed–wood and metal beds will eventually degrade and need to be replaced, adding to costs and garden down time

Reduced plant-able space—due to the space the materials take up (and often the tidy appearance comes with larger paths than what an in-ground has).

Limited root space—limits plant choices for raised beds, especially for larger plants. But a combination of in-ground and raised beds would be in order.

Soil gets hotter in summer—exposed sides soak up more summer heat, affecting growth

Soil dries out faster—so you’ll need to water more often

Soils cools faster in fall and is more vulnerable to cold and freezing in winter—making some perennial plants less able to survive the winter

Taller plants and vines are harder to reach and enjoy— use shorter raised beds or in-ground for these

Advantages of In-Ground Beds

Low start-up cost—gathering materials to amend the soil, after that it’s maintenance and smaller amounts of input; may need good tools

Hard labor upfront and fairly simple maintenance for the long run— add amendments, dig, and maintain the bed forever

Soil offers a large reservoir of moisture— except in the fastest draining soils, any water that is applied remains available for a while, and mulching helps with moisture retention

Roots stay much cooler in the summer heat— keeping them healthier

Roots stay warmer in the winter— the ground soil insulates itself from the coldest temperatures, allowing the perennials that are right for your zone to live

Slopes—you can dig beds on a slight slope. And with help from stone work, other masonry, or wood or railroad ties, you can terrace the beds for slightly steeper slopes

In-Ground Aesthetics— some say the in-ground gardens are “farmy” looking, but it all depends on design; the beds can take any shape and offer a wider choice of design. You may create a labyrinth, a spiral, or any bed that works around the features in your landscape. (I usually stick with a long, straight bed so I can grow as much as I can.)

Tall summer flowers and veggies are easy to see, trellis, harvest, and enjoy

Irrigation is flexible— drip lines are straightforward to install, and with narrow paths you can even use an overhead sprinkler (link to new article).

Regenerating soil helps the whole environment—using your native soil enhances it for the long term. And with proper maintenance, it contributes to sequestering carbon in the soil, making your in-ground beds a way to help mitigate our changing climate problem

On-ground bed of herbs and flowers
A free-form, in-ground bed bed with herbs and flowers Credit: Nancy Burton via Pixabay

Disadvantages to In-Ground Beds

Hard work, pure and simple—it’s hard work digging in the soil, but with the right soil moisture and excellent tools, it can be made easier (link to article)

At ground level so it does require ability to kneel, bend, and crouch—if necessary use knee pads, good long handled tools. And my best advice is to do exercises that strengthen and stretch the knees and hips to protect them well for the rest of your life and maintain good flexibility. See a physical therapist for this. (I know, I have osteoarthritis and the exercises and stretches really help!!)

Risk of soil compaction from kids and visitors—just train them to stay on the paths

May have a more “farmy” aesthetic—but can still be innovative and gorgeous

Gophers may get in—use traps

Three round in-ground flower beds in lawn
In-ground, round flower beds in a lawn Credit: Aruggeri via Pixabay

Combo beds

You can use the border/wall concept on a slope, with an in-ground bed to create a combo bed, advantages of each to fit your space

Containers

Golden glow and bee balm
Golden glow and bee balm flowering in containers

Many people don’t have easy access to earth to grow anything in. For you, if you are one of them, containers offer a little space to grow something with a fairly minimal input. Containers can be simple plastic pots, terra cotta pots, or fancier and larger clay or ceramic pots, or wine barrels, planter boxes, or any manner of container you can upcycle to a planter. And there are synthetic fiber pots you can use for a season then empty and fold to store.

Just be sure your container has drainage holes. Fill it with good quality potting soil. And get a supply of a good flower fertilizer. Follow the directions on how much and how often to use.

Find a sunny spot for your containers. If you have a less than full sun spot, you’ll need to limit your plant selection flowers that handle part sun.

Be vigilant about water needs. Pots and other containers dry out more quickly. And sun heats them up. You can reduce their water needs a bit by placing pots in front of others to shade the root zone from the sun.

Why I always choose in-ground beds

Hands down, I favor in-ground beds. I like the low-input of materials, I like working directly with real soil, I like the quick start of them (only one big dig and I’m on to planting), and I like the aesthetics I can create with them.

But there’s something so much more to this choice.

Working with the soil in the ground is a way to deeply connect with nature. It’s an opportunity for learning more about the complex beauty of the soil. When you work to improve the soil you improve a piece of the earth. And with your stewardship you contribute a little to the whole.

Well-tended soil, soil that increases in organic matter, soaks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and holds it in the soil. This increases soil fertility and actually helps mitigate our climate emergency. (See my article on that.)

Native soil has its advantages. It offers its minerals, a larger reservoir of moisture, and insulates roots from summer heat and freezing cold temperatures.

The labor involved in gathering amendments and digging a new bed is like a meditation. I learn more about what is best for the soil. The soil that will supply me and reward me with beauty, flavor, and nutrition. The soil that can bring some remediation to all the taking we have done to this earth.

As I dig, I listen to the birds around me. I learn the soil, its texture and all its inhabitants, up close. I watch and feel the sun, the clouds, the breezes, and even raindrops on me. These are the times I have felt the clearest about where I was on this earth. And it’s where I’ve fallen in love with my garden and felt a reverence for what it is to be a human being on the earth.

This is why I became a gardener.

What do children learn from our gardening choices?

I feel that when kids know more gardens that involve purchased materials, a construction phase, and soil that is purchased, and in a garden that has a rather sterile appearance, miss the opportunity to see gardening as an activity that you can just start with the soil outside the door and just the simplest tools.

And they miss the opportunity to learn that all soil can be improved, brought to life, cared for, and permanently enhanced to give life back to us forever.

They miss the simplicity.

Child's hands planting strawberry plant into soil
Child planting strwberry plant into soil Credit: Kurt Bouda via Pixabay

In-ground growing helps the planet

In our modern society of so much consumption, I feel that the simple act of restoring the soil, with minimal resource input and with the simplest tools is one of the strongest things an individual can do to help the planet.

Digging and starting an in-ground bed is the process of regenerating the soil.  You build your soil by harnessing the natural processes that capture carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it into the soil. And that is actually a significant action individuals can do to help with our climate problem. (Again, read more here.)

It helps the atmosphere, helps the soil, creates beauty, and supports an ecosystem of living organisms that reflect the bounty and beauty of life on this earth.

It's an individual choice

Given the advantages and disadvantages of each method, a lot has to do with your site, time, and resources available. Often both types can be used in a garden. Consider my choice recommendation, but go with what you can do to grow your flowers and anything else. Because every garden has the opportunity to create so much more life that helps us and the whole earth.

Further reading: