Pros and cons of seven different inexpensive raised garden bed ideas from the simplest DIY bed (mounded soil) to recycled to purchased beds. Includes a video of six of the seven types we've used in our gardens.
Want to save this?
Enter your email below and you'll get it straight to your inbox. Plus you'll get easy new recipes, gardening tips & more every week!
One of my favorite easy care gardening tips is using raised garden beds.
I've used raised beds for decades and can honestly say I wouldn't have started my first garden if I hadn't learned about them because I had no interest in tilling soil and weeding paths like my parents did.
Once they are set up the general benefits of raised garden beds are clear:
- Easy to focus on building quality soil - and quickly which is especially nice if you live in an area of soil not great for growing plants.
- Reduces compaction of the soil because of the size and permanent paths.
- Warms up quicker in the spring - a huge benefit to those of us in the north where springs can be cool and rainy.
- Easy to cover and control for pests or to kill weeds before the planting season.
- Less weeds and what you do get will come out better in the loose, quality soil (yes, weeds will blow in over the winter, but during the season there will be a LOT less than tilled plots).
- Simple to prepare in spring - simply layer on compost, let rest and start planting.
- Can be built higher for less strain on the back.
- Defined areas for deep watering - you don't to weed or water the paths - they are permanent so you can cover them with wood chips and not deal with them all season.
- This targeted watering saves you money, too. You can even set up a DIY automatic watering system.
- Easier to prepare and plant in sections - you never need to "get the whole garden planted" at once. You can see our raised bed garden in spring here and the summer garden here.
- Don't need to buy or maintain a rototiller.
- Beds are easy to build anywhere you have sun and level ground - you can have one close to the house and a few farther away to take advantage of your yard and exposure.
If you can't tell, I love raised beds for gardening and Brian does, too. We find them SO much simpler to set up, plant, maintain - plus they make a neat and tidy garden space.
So we made a video sharing about why we like raised beds, including the fact that they're especially good if you want to raise vegetables while pulling hardly any weeds.
What about the cost of raised beds?
The one thing we hear the most when people are considering raised beds is the cost of building, buying, or installing them.
And yes, if you used stone and build major beds it could cost a lot - and even buying wood will cost more than just tilling a patch and planting it.
But the benefits are worth it. AND there are actually quite a few options to build beds that range from free to low cost.
In both the video and article below we're sharing seven different materials you can use to build the raised beds - all of which we've personally used - plus a bonus more expensive option and the one material to avoid.
Pros & Cons of Raised Garden Beds Video
Inexpensive Raised Garden Bed Ideas Pros & Cons
Six types of inexpensive raised garden bed ideas
Shown above clockwise from top left along with the pros and cons we've found with each after using them in our gardens:
1. Cinder Blocks
- Pros: Easy to find, buy, transport and layout in the shape you want; lasts forever; relatively inexpensive, especially if you can find them for free like I've seen.
- Cons: Hard to get the blocks level - and keep them level if you have any type of burrowing rodents like moles and gophers; openings in the blocks aren't big enough to grow plants and keep them watered and they harbor wasp nests and weeds unless covered (which adds a lot to the cost).
2. Composite Wood Decking Boards
- Pros: It doesn't rot and should last for decades, especially when built with all metal like we show here; you can easily attach hardware cloth to keep out rodents. In my research, composite wood doesn't leach into soil (and it's made from recycled materials so you're keep things from the landfill).
- Cons: It's expensive to buy new; the rebar needed to build them needs to be cut where you buy it (a regular hacksaw wont' do it).
TIP: However, when you can find used boards this is probably THE best way to build almost permanent raised beds. We took apart an old deck and used the boards and I've also seen them at places like ReStore or Facebook Marketplace. Old vinyl fence boards would also work, so think outside the box!
3. Broken Concrete
- Pros: Free; you're saving it from the landfill; relatively easy for one person to build with; can make as tall as you have the material for (even just one layer will edge a bed that you can mound with soil).
- Cons: May not be able to find it in your area; pieces may be too heavy for you to carry and build with; soil can run out of holes created by the layers (though it's really minimal in my experience).
TIP: You can make a lot of things from broken concrete (aka, "urbanite"), actually - here are some ways to use it in the garden and here's a cute broken concrete patio I made all by myself with broken concrete.
4. Wood (preferably rot resistant cedar, 2-inches thick)
- Pros: Easy to find material and relatively inexpensive; simple and quick to build; it's easy to attach hardware cloth to the bottom if rodents are a problem in your garden.
- Cons: They don't last - cedar lasts about 10 years and less expensive pine only last about 5-6 years.
TIP: Definitely don't use cheap 1-inch fence boards - they bow immediately with the weight of the soil and break within just a few years.
5. Mounded Soil
- Pros: Least expensive to set up (only need to purchase compost and maybe soil); easiest to build.
- Cons: The soil sides grow weeds which you can't plant as the water would run off; edges can break down with use and watering so you have to rebuild them every season.
- Pros: Potentially free; lasts forever (think of the rock walls in Ireland...); simple to build by stacking on top of each other. I shared here how I built and filled our round rock wall garden bed.
- Cons: Dry stacked rocks can fall; not as sturdy as other options - can't lean or sit on edges to work bed; takes awhile to puzzle together so it's durable; soil can spill from holes created by the stacking
More Expensive Option: you can also purchase decorative retaining wall blocks and build beds from these which would be pretty and last forever, but is probably the most expensive way to make raised beds and we've never used them.
I'm also including another type that's become very popular in the last few years - metal raised beds, that we didn't talk about in the video.
7. Metal Raised Garden Beds
- Pros: The look fabulous; they will last decades; many have higher sides for less bending; easy to set up.
- Cons: The cost - some styles are quite expensive; the beds with higher sides take more material to fill; dry out faster and may be hotter (blueberries didn't do well in the beds shown); some styles allow soil, water, and weeds to spill out of the corners (the style of our beds shown above - for this reason I wouldn't recommend this square style with riveted corners).
What about using pressure treated wood for raised beds?
In the video Brian says pressure treated wood shouldn't be used to build raised beds that will grow food.
And while I still feel that way, he was mistaken in saying it's treated with arsenic - the EPA banned the use of this in treated wood in 2003.
However, it still is treated with chemicals and in my experience we don't know how those chemicals react to the soil or us (for many years, arsenic in this application was seen as safe by the EPA...), so we err on the side of caution and don't build beds with treated wood.
So I'd still advise you to avoid it if possible, but if it's the only option you have, you need to make your own decision on this.
What's the best size for raised garden beds?
No matter what you use to build your beds you will want to keep them narrow enough that you can reach across from the side into the center.
That is 4-feet wide for most people and this would be the maximum width of traditional raised beds.
However, I have beds that are 3-feet wide and some that are 2-feet that I can reach all the way across. So build what works best for your area.
You can make them any length you want.
The Exception: You can still use raised garden bed techniques with bigger beds, which I found to be the best way to grow corn and potatoes.
In our previous garden I had 9x12 beds for these crops and while I did need to walk on them to plant and harvest, I used the no-till, water at the roots, and layering techniques to grow with hardly any weeds all season long.
They started out with 4x4 recycled wood edges, but when those rotted I used the mounded soil raised bed idea and it worked perfectly.
- Here's how to crow a large bed of corn practically weed-free.
- Here's the large beds growing potatoes hilled up with straw.
More Raised Garden Bed FAQs
Simply mounding the soil is the cheapest - all you need is the soil amendments. Next would be using found items like broken concrete or used cinder blocks.
Cedar and redwood for their water resistance and durability are best, although more expensive than pine or fir.
You may be able to make hemlock, fir and pine work for many years by lining the inside with a heavy landscape fabric so the soil won't touch the wood.
Although I like to focus on the advantages, there are some disadvantages:
-If you are paying money to build sides, there's that expense.
-Filling the beds may cost more than starting with soil on the ground, especially if the beds are tall (but this assumes you have good soil to start with - any new garden will need soil amendments).
-The beds can dry out in the summer heat faster than ground gardens, but watering deeply at the roots invites the roots to dig down deeper, so you may not find this is a problem (I haven't).
-I've read that the roots get warmer in the hotter months, but I've not found this to be any problem to the many plants I've grown in raised beds when watered regularly and deeply (except in the metal beds which I mentioned above - it bothered the blueberries, but not strawberries).
It depends on the ground you're starting with - if it's a layer of rock, loose sand, or other soil that's not great for plants, you're better off with at least 8-inch sides and 12 inches would be best. If you've got decent soil (just under grass), you can get away with 4 to 8 inches, as the roots can grow into the soil after the cardboard breaks down.
I'd love to hear your experience if you've used raised garden beds!
Even a combo of traditional beds with raised beds for growing things like root crops and quick, early lettuce works well, too. What have you experimented with?