In this post, YouTube video and Small Scale Life Podcast Episode, I am going to talk about Raised Bed Garden Ideas to Improve Your Garden. This is part of our Introduction: How to Start Gardening Series here on Small Scale Life where we are doing some deep dives into gardening techniques that are used to successfully grow vegetable and herbs.
Recently Julie and I were at Eagles Ridge, getting ready to burn a pile of brush. I noticed that Julie had disappeared, but then I realized she was talking with our new neighbor about her garden. I have featured that garden several times on the Small Scale Life Instagram Feed, and it was obvious to me that our neighbors hadn’t planted in 2020 (or even 2019); it had been overrun with some serious weeds. The neighbor said she “was going to rip everything out and have her husband install raised bed gardens to help with weed control.”
To that, Julie replied that someone, SOMEONE like your humble Greenman correspondent, knows “all about raised bed gardens and has a lot of ideas about how to improve gardens with them.”
She is absolutely right about that!
The truth of the matter is that I have experimented with a lot of different gardening techniques over the years. I have dabbled in a lot of different systems (as you can see in this post) because I wanted to find productive growing systems for small spaces. I don’t want to grow weeds or green bushy plants (unless it is salad greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, etc.)! If you are going to spend your time, blood, sweat, tears and other resources, you want productive gardens.
I have found raised bed gardens to be very productive, require low maintenance and can actually be made into self-watering systems.
The good thing is that I am happy to share information because I have learned a lot through the School of Hard Knocks: stuff I have tried and either succeeded at or failed at over the years. I am happy to share my experiences to save you some time, money and frustration!
Let’s talk about some different types of gardening methods and raised bed garden ideas that are incredibly productive, even in small spaces. As I write and talk about these, I realize that I am going to need to do deeper dives into each method in future articles, videos and podcast episodes.
- 1 Traditional Gardening Method: Tilling Up Your Yard
- 2 Raised Bed Garden Ideas
- 3 Container Gardening
- 4 Square Foot Gardens
- 5 Mittleider Method Raised Bed Gardens
- 6 Table Top Gardens
- 7 Vertical Gardens
- 8 Rain Gutter Grow Systems
- 9 Wicking Beds
- 10 How About You?
- 11 Hall of Heroes – Gratitude
- 12 Listen to this Episode!
- 14 Get More Small Scale Life
- 15 Support us on Patreon!
- 16 Reviews on iTunes
- 17 Special Thanks
Traditional Gardening Method: Tilling Up Your Yard
I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of folks started gardens in 2020 when the shelves were going bare by tilling up a patch of grass in their yard.
While this is the way our great grandparents, grandparents and parents started to gardening, new gardeners found out the hard way what more seasoned and grizzled gardening veterans already know: this is a sure fire way to get overrun with weeds! Sure, that soil looks great at first, you new gardeners plant all kinds of vegetable and herbal goodness in the soil, but then a curious thing happens: small plants spring up fast!
See, Mother Nature is a shy goddess. She doesn’t like to be naked, and Mother Nature will pull out a green dress as fast as she possibly can to cover up and stay warm!
The truth is that there are dormant seeds in the soil, and tilling that soil activates those dormant seeds. Like your flowers, vegetables and herbs, weeds will be activated by sun, water and nutrients too. By removing that grass canopy, you have provided that last element those weeds need to start growing: sun.
I have seen this time and time again on our family land in Central Wisconsin. We have towering red pines and oaks growing on the property that shade the forest floor below. New growth is held in check because sunlight rarely hits that forest floor.
When you cut trees and open the canopy of mature red pines or oaks (as you can see above), it allows the sun to shine on that forest floor and warm the soil. That’s when you will see seedlings start to push through the pine needle carpet and begin to grow. Soon we will have thick patch of blackberry bushes, raspberry bushes, young oak or red pine trees growing. Of course, sometimes invasive species (buckthorn, prickly ash and honeysuckle) and poison ivy begins to grow too!
Believe it or not, the same process happens in that patch of yard you just tilled up and exposed to the sun!
For my new garden at Eagles Ridge, I am anticipating using this method (believe it or not). I heard a collective gasp from those who have followed me for years! Believe it or not, I have and do use the traditional method of growing for certain plants: rhubarb, comfrey, grapes and asparagus.
Yes, the traditional method of gardening will be great method for annual plants that come back year after year after year. The key will be keeping these plants watered and somewhat protected from deer and groundhogs until they are established.
The other good thing about this traditional method of growing is that I can start some of these plants this year (in 2021) without significant investment in new fencing and equipment.
Raised Bed Garden Ideas
Fortunately, there are other gardening methods and techniques that help have developed new methods and techniques for gardening. The glorious thing is that these new methods and techniques can make a small space, a small yard or even a patio or deck shine!
Since I tinkered and experimented with various techniques and methods over the years, I will show you some common examples of Raised Bed Garden Ideas including the following:
- Container Gardens
- Square Foot Gardens
- Mittleider Gardens
- Table Top Gardens
- Vertical Gardens
- Rain Gutter Grow Systems
- Wicking Beds
I have tried all of these Raised Bed Garden Ideas before with varying degrees of success. That is the benefit of gardening in different places and spaces since 2008 or so. We have been landowners and renters, and there are times when I have had to build and grow plants using fairly mobile and non-intrusive methods.
Of course, as I think about these various Raised Bed Garden Ideas and Systems, I have to smile: these are all worthy of their own deep dives in the future. There is so much to say about each one, and often creative folks blend, mix and match between these methods. Testing, mixing and mashing up methods get the cranky purist gardener’s underwear in a twist, believe it or not.
Guilty. As. Charged.
That is what I love about gardening: you can grow in almost anything and anywhere as long as you provide the three basic elements: light, nutrients and water!
Who is with me on that?
There are a myriad of container gardens out there! In 2020, we had a patio herb and flower garden that consisted of a variety of galvanized metal buckets, a 1’x4’ planter and two Wicking Buckets. This was Julie’s Kitchen Garden, and she maintained and watered these flowers and herbs.
Container gardens are incredibly flexible, and they are perfect for small spaces including decks, patios and porches. We will have a larger herb and flower garden at Eagles Ridge, but I will be experimenting with a very small Self-Watering Buckets/Container Gardens here at our Third Floor Castle in the Sky in 2021. You can grow a lot in a small space with container gardens!
Square Foot Gardens
As an adult, my re-introduction and re-entry into gardening was Square Foot Gardening. Mel Bartholomew’s straightforward and organized gardening method and style appealed to my desire to learn some new skills and grow some food and Julie’s desire to have it look nice and be organized! Square Foot Gardening met all of those goals.
The key with Square Foot Gardens is the raised bed, which is typically made out of wood. You can divide that raised bed into one foot squares, and you plant your seeds or seedlings into that one foot square.
Another innovation from Square Foot Gardening Method is the soil mix used in the raised bed gardens. Mel recommended a 1/3-1/3-1/3 soil mix:
- 1/3 Compost (mix of 5 different types of compost is best)
- 1/3 Peat Moss or Coco Coir
- 1/3 Coarse Vermiculite or Perlite
This is very close to the soil mix that I recommend and use to this day, and it has worked out very well for me! For those who are wondering, I won’t use 5 different compost mixes in my raised beds, but I will use at least two and use natural supplements (used coffee ground teas, compost teas and worm castings) and worms in my raised beds.
Mel and others developed planting guides for different varieties of plants and herbs for those one foot squares. For instance, you can plant 4 bush bean plants in one square, 2 Swiss Chard plants in another, 1 pepper in another square and 1 tomato in the fourth square.
Square Foot Gardening is near and dear to my heart. It was my “gateway” back into gardening, and I still use elements of Square Foot Gardening to this day. In fact, one can say that Rain Gutter Grow Systems use principles and planting guides for these systems as well.
Mittleider Method Raised Bed Gardens
Mittleider Method is a gardening system developed and tested by Dr. Jacob Mittleider over a 55-year period. Dr. Mittleider has an interesting background and history that shows that dedication, perseverance and intense focused study and experimentation can yield excellent results. Dr. Mittlieder developed his method of gardening that has been used to feed people all over the globe.
The Mittleider Method Gardens are basic wooden raised beds. In the Mittleider Method, you can use Grow Beds (earth beds for planting) or Grow Boxes (wooden raised beds). There are two types of Grow Beds and Grow Boxes: 18” wide or 4’ wide. The Grow Beds or Grow Boxes are as long as you wish, but they a maximum of 30 feet long!
The picture above is an 18″ wide grow box. I made my own trellis system which didn’t meet the “Mittleider Method Garden Standards,” but sometimes you have to bend “the rules” when something works WELL, am I right?
Soil mix, trellises, watering and regular fertilizer use are all parts of Mittleider Method, and the nuances of this method are worthy of a deeper dive. We won’t cover them in this introductory article, but in a future Deep Dive.
I have experimented with Mittlieder Method of Gardening a bit, and I have had good results. I can also admit to you, friends, that I have been kicked out and blocked from the Mittlieder Method Facebook Group before because my methods and advocacy of experimentation were outside the strict boundaries of the group.
How many of you can say you have been banned from a Gardening Group?
Well, friends, if you are listening to this or reading this, you just met one. Welcome to my one tomato trellis revolution!
Table Top Gardens
When we moved from Illinois to Minnesota in 2012, I purchased some lumber to create a model train table. I built two 2’x4’ sections and mounted legs on them. As Julie set up her wedding flower design studio in the basement, I realized that model trains were not happening in that small house!
I switched gears and turned the “train tables” into Table Top Gardens. I added a 2’x4’ frame around the top of the table and then drilled drainage holes in the ½” plywood. Then, I added compost and great plants!
After two seasons, I determined that plywood was not a great solution. I knew that the wood was rotting fast (wet soil has a tendency to do that to wood). I replaced the wood with landscape fabric and coated chicken wire. I essentially created a big root pouch and set it in the Table Top Garden.
My mom is still using the Table Top Gardens at her house in Northern Wisconsin. One has been converted into a Wicking Bed, and the other is still functioning as a Table Top Garden. She has replaced the landscape fabric with a liner, and I will be strengthening both frames in 2021. I see no reason why these to veteran Raised Bed Gardens shouldn’t last for many years to come!
These small Table Top Gardens look great on decks, patios and porches. You can grow peppers, greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, bush beans and onions in them, and they are very manageable. I am going to build one and get it in place for the Third Floor Castle in the Sky for this summer.
As a renter, I was looking for ways and methods to grow food and herbs while not adding more raised beds gardens in “the wild area” of the rental house. After all, I am pretty sure the gardening I was doing was against the lease! I was looking for a method to add space for gardening without building a wooden raised bed gardens. I was out of real estate on the driveway and the “wild area.”
Somehow I discovered The Plant Charmer Khaled Majouji on Instagram and was fascinated with his Vertical Gardens using rain gutters and wood A-Frames. Khaled was operating a productive urban farm in his backyard in Montreal, Canada, and he had designs on bigger operations. I interviewed him and posted two episodes of that conversation:
Using his Instagram feed as inspiration, I created a vertical garden using rain gutters at the rental house in St. Louis Park using two 2’x4’ Table Gardens (see the picture above). When we moved to North Minneapolis, I built two vertical gardens using some 2’x4’s and a chain link fence. I wrote about thoser Vertical Garden projects here:
All in all, Vertical Gardens are a viable alternative raised bed garden idea, especially for folks with limited space. The key with this kind of gardening is to keep the soil moist; it dries out in the gutters and the compost will turn rock hard if you are not careful! This is speaking from experience!
Rain Gutter Grow Systems
Larry developed his Rain Gutter Grow Systems quite by accident. He stumbled upon this concept by growing his own tobacco in Minnesota. He wanted to cut his costs after taxes and fees made the price of tobacco skyrocket. Larry tore up his garden and planted organic tobacco, which grew very well in the rich soil in his garden in northern Minnesota.
Larry started to test self-watering systems using 5 gallon buckets with 3″ net cups set in vinyl rain gutters in 2011. Larry built a platform for the gutters by using 10′-2×4 boards, and he would set the rain gutters and 5 gallon buckets on level ground.
Larry worked with some folks to design and build a float system that could be connected to a rain barrel or a hose. As the water level goes down, the float moves and allows water to flow into the gutter until it is full of water. With the water in the gutter and the net cup in the water, the water wicks up into the soil in the net cup and into the 5 gallon bucket which completes the watering process.
There are variations on the original theme, of course. I have tested two types of Hybrid Rain Gutter Grow Systems, and my mom and brother tried the Kiddie Pool Systems. I have had excellent success with my Rain Gutter Grow Systems, and I will be working with them more in the future here at the apartment and at Eagles Ridge.
While there is a whole book of experience and information that must be written on this system, I will say that Rain Gutter Grow Systems are incredibly flexible and productive. I will set up some small systems here this year and show you just what I mean!
For my previous articles and videos on Rain Gutter Grow Systems, check out the following articles:
- Rain Gutter Grow Systems 101
- Rain Gutter Grow System…Meets Alaska
- Hybrid Rain Gutter Grow System Update 9/11/15
A whole book needs to be written by someone, and that someone is me. I am going to be working on this book and will offer it to you when it is complete. You will probably see drafts on Small Scale Life in the future.
Wicking Beds are another special raised bed garden that allows gardeners to “plant, water and forget it.” After the initial cost of construction and soil, these are self-contained systems that reduce water loss due to evaporation and are relatively low or no maintenance.
Like Rain Gutter Grow Systems, the beauty of Wicking Beds is that there is a water reservoir in the bottom of the raised garden bed. You add water to that lower water reservoir through the fill pipe OR from top watering (you can do both and should use both during the season), and the water wicks up into the soil to the plant roots through capillary action/
Wicking Beds come in all shapes and sizes. From totes to grow boxes to wooden beds to large plastic or metal watering troughs, plants love Wicking Beds! I consider these all raised bed gardens; they are just variations on a theme.
I have had excellent production from my Wicking Beds including tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, peppers, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, lettuces, onions and even potatoes. I was even getting ginger to grow in my Wicking Bed in 2020, but my move out of Minneapolis ended that experiment prematurely.
I will be writing about the experimenting more with Wicking Beds in the future. I am sold on this Raised Bed Gardening Idea and want to experiment more with the system! Did you hear that Michael Bell?
For more on Wicking Beds, check out my interview with Doneil Freeman from the Colorado Springs area in Colorado. He has an extensive Wicking Bed Garden area featured repurposed and restored second-hand metal watering troughs that are all raised bed gardens.
- Doneil Freeman: Wicking Beds and Regenerative Dads
- This method was discussed in the Small Scale Life Podcast Episode titled Modern Victory Gardens in 2020. You can listen to that Podcast Episode by clicking on this text.
How About You?
I have covered a lot of Raised Bed Garden Ideas to Improve Your Garden and your gardening experience in this article. While I intended it to be a brief overview, you can see that I have a lot to say and write about in future articles about each of these styles and methods. The fact is:
I have had a “wandering eye” and experimented with a lot of methods to find something that worked for me as a renter and a landowner.
I wanted to have beautiful and productive gardens, and that continues to be my goal!
How about you?
What system are you using?
What is working?
Let me know in the comments.
Remember, we are here to help gardeners grow. Maybe there is something we can tweak or adjust to make your garden shine.
If you have a problem, I might be able to help!
Until next time, remember to learn, do, grow and be a little better every day!
Hall of Heroes – Gratitude
“It’s hard to have a bad day when you START your day with gratitude.”
These folks have reached the Hall of Heroes for this episode of the Small Scale Life Podcast:
- Lettie Loo, Maria the Energy Healer and Hannah for being guests on the Small Scale Life Podcast. It was great chatting with you all!
- Michael Bell for collaborating with me on a future post and podcast episode.
- Brian from Happy Hills Homestead that gave me some great SCOBY last year. It is a strong SCOBY and is generating some awesome Dombucha. It is hard to keep up with Happy the SCOBY!
- Craig Caskey for being a great member of my Small Scale Gardening Groups. He is going to be promoted to Moderator of the MeWe and Facebook Groups.
- The Pine Hill Cottage, Travis Schulert, Mary at Red Dragon Herbs and Teas, Hannah at The Wisconsin Homestead Podcast, Brian at The Garden Voyeur, Jacob at the Wisdom of Odin and Maria the Intuitive Energy Healer for being so active on Instagram. It has been a lot of fun there!
- Finally, a special thank you to you for listening to this podcast episode, and if you want a shout out in our next Hall of Heroes, get active and participate on Small Scale Life.
What are you grateful for? Maybe you should tell that person or that organization (or favorite podcaster). Give it a try!
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