Common questions from new gardeners

GardenersYesterday, I led a garden planning workshop with Preserving Traditions at the Pittsfield Grange. A couple of questions came up more than once, so I thought I’d answer them here in case they interest anyone else.

What material should I use for my raised bed’s walls?

I’ve used both composite decking material and 2″x8″x8′ standard (untreated) pine lumber. The composite has bowed out over the years but the pine hasn’t. I’m not sure how long the pine will last, but after 3 6 years in my Michigan zone 5b garden, it’s not showing much wear or rot. It’s also cheap, easy to find, and there’s no worry about leaching chemicals, so it is my preference for all my new beds. YMMV, especially if you live where it’s warm all year and termites are a problem.

Do I need to dig up the sod/soil before building my raised bed?

No. If you put at least 6″ of dirt and compost in the bed, it will smother all the grass. The grass will compost and become worm food, and your deeper-rooted plants will soften the hardpan. Save your back! Let the plants and worms do the work!

What soil should I use in the beds?

You want “garden blend” soil, which is half topsoil and half compost. Plants need the minerals of the dirt AND organic matter – don’t use just one or the other. You’ll need one cubic yard to fill a 4’x8′ bed 6-8″ deep.

Where should I get soil?

If you’re near Ann Arbor and you only need a couple yards of soil, I’d order it from Lodi Farms. They’ll deliver small loads at a decent price. It will have some weeds in it (all bulk soil does) but they’re easy to remove. For larger loads, other places, like EZ Landscaping, are probably less expensive. The soil is all more or less the same quality, and all good enough to get started with.

Don’t raised beds dry out really fast?

I water mine deeply about once a week – twice if it’s really dry, not at all if we get a good rain. They seem to do just fine and they don’t “bake” any faster than the rest of the yard. And because the soil’s so loamy, it doesn’t get compacted like the rest of my clay yard does.

Is it better to put all the plants of the same family in one bed, or spread them around?

I like putting them into one bed for two reasons: it makes crop rotation easier, and similar plants often need similar protection. So, I can fence the beans easily, and cover all the brassicas to keep out the caterpillars. Other folks like mixing up the plant families to explore companion planting, or to prevent pests and diseases from moving like wildfire through all the plants of that family. It’s up to you – both approaches have advantages!

Should I start my own seeds indoors?

Probably not, especially your first year. Seed starting is its own skill, and you’re going to have your hands full enough. Your first garden will probably be a mix of seeds you plant directly in the garden bed (green beans, lettuce, carrots, squash) and plants you bought at the market or store (tomatoes, peppers). And potatoes, which you plant in the garden as actual potatoes, and which will grow a new potato plant. For more details on what to plant as a seed outdoors vs. transplanting something that was started indoors, see Should I buy seeds or transplants?

Do I have to worry about crop rotation this year? I’m getting overwhelmed!

Personally, I think it’s much more important to get out there and start your first garden than to worry about rotating crops your first year or two. Crop rotation is certainly a concern as you think about long-term sustainability. If you plant the same crop in the same place year after year, it will deplete the soil of its favorite nutrients, and it’s possible that diseases and pests will build up in the soil. So do think about it…but if it’s too much for this year, don’t sweat it.

See also:



  1. Ed Bruske said,

    April 7, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Emily, my garden is supposed to be featured in an article about how to start a garden in People magazine, out this Friday. I’m planning to have a post ready on the blog with links to garden resources. This would be great.

    • Emily said,

      April 7, 2009 at 1:26 pm

      Ed- How exciting! I can’t wait to see your article. And I would be honored if you’d link to any of my resources, including the “See also” list. -Emily

  2. Robyn M. said,

    April 7, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I’ve got 1″x8″s for my garden beds, and they have begun to bow already, but then again, I used decking nails instead of screws, which probably didn’t help. This was a one-year cheapo experiment, but next year if I do it again (signs point to yes), I’ll get the 2″x8″s instead. I’m surprised to hear how durable the untreated pine is–good news!

  3. TeacherPatti said,

    April 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. Jeff and I have been going round and round on whether we have to dig up the sod. I told him that Emily said NO and you know about 1,000,000,000 times more than I do! Thanks for vindicating me (and saving my back) 🙂

    • Emily said,

      April 8, 2009 at 8:32 am

      Emily doesn’t just say it…Emily’s done it for ten beds and never dug one shovelful of sod. I don’t even put newspaper or cardboard down in my raised beds first.

      • TeacherPatti said,

        April 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm

        I think Jeff gets tired of hearing “Emily says”, so now I’m going to start saying, “Emily does…”

  4. Leasmom said,

    April 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Good advice. I made the mistake last year of using just topsoil. I only had half success. Thanks.

  5. ilex said,

    April 7, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    All fine advice- especially the bit about not rotating for a couple of years. New gardeners have enough to think about.

    I’ve built raised beds out of cedar, too- beautiful. Expensive, but hard-wearing and beautiful.

  6. April 10, 2009 at 5:34 am

    […] doing at Rappahanock Cook & Kitch Gardener, or El at DescriptionFast Grow the Weeds, Emily at Eat Close to Home, or Michele at DescriptionGarden […]

  7. lyanda said,

    April 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Neat post (your site is always beautiful!). I’d like to add that you don’t necessarily have to build raised beds. Mounded earth beds offer a lot of flexibility. I live in Seattle, where the wood on raised beds gives slugs a great place to hang out. We’ve built raised beds in the past, but now, other than our cold frame, we’ve switched to entirely mounded beds, and are very happy. Here’s a recent how-to from my blog, The Tangled Nest:

  8. August 23, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    […] Common questions from new gardeners […]

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