Raised Beds vs. In-Ground Gardening: 9 Pros and Cons

Not sure if you should plant in raised beds or opt for in-ground gardening? Raised bed popularity is on the rise due to clever new designs, though in-ground gardening has a classic appeal. Gardening enthusiast Emily Estep explores the pros and cons of both options so you can make the best decision.

A close-up of raised garden beds in a vegetable community garden, featuring lush green plants growing in wooden beds with white pebbles around them.

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Whether you’re a gardening novice ready to get your hands in the dirt for the first time or a seasoned gardener who’s just moved to a new spot, you may be struggling with the decision of whether to purchase and assemble raised beds or prep your land for in-ground gardening. Either way, you have a lot of thinking to do. There’s much to consider.

Certainly, both methods can lead to bountiful harvests and beautiful ornamentals, though they each have their benefits and their downsides. Available space, existing soil composition, design style ideas, and much more need to be contemplated, as well as budget. Which is best for you?

Location and Space

A close-up of colorful flowering plants in wooden planters of a vegetable garden, interspersed with various green plants.
Expansive yards offer plenty of space for in-ground gardening.

The first factor to consider when deciding between raised beds and in-ground gardening is available space. Do you have a small yard to manage, a few acres at your disposal, or perhaps just an apartment balcony?

Raised beds can be placed wherever you choose, making them ideal for those without much room to grow. You could put one anywhere in the yard, or even on the porch or in the driveway. As long as the space gets enough sunlight, it’s fair game. But when pursuing in-ground gardening in small spaces, your options are restricted.

For those in apartments without a yard, you can still get your hands in the dirt with a small, elevated garden box on a balcony. You can even get elevated gardens on wheels for whenever you want to rearrange your balcony furniture.

On the other hand, if you have a fairly large yard, in-ground gardening may be the better option. In this case, you have much more real estate to garden, and choosing to garden in raised beds would likely limit your potential. Some larger plants and crops, like pumpkins, are also better suited to classic garden plots since they’re so large.

Costs and Budget

A close-up of small green plants thriving, showcasing their vibrant foliage against the earthy brown backdrop.
Deeper beds mean higher soil costs.

Don’t forget about your budget when making this choice. Raised beds require an up-front cost, including not just their initial purchase but also the price of soil components or pre-prepared mixes. 

They are available to buy at a variety of price points, and you can also get the raw materials to make them yourself. Plus, the deeper the bed, the more you will spend on soil. These costs can add up, especially if this is your first year.

Conversely, if your available soil is in decent shape, it’s much more affordable to opt for in-ground gardening. That said, it is possible that amending your natural soil may come with a price tag, so consider how much work your existing soil needs before assuming that in-ground gardening will save you money.

Containers also tend to dry out faster than regular gardens, requiring more water in the hotter months. This can ultimately lead to a higher water bill, particularly if you have a lot of them.

Soil composition and control

A close-up of a vegetable garden featuring lush lettuce and onion leaves growing in rich brown soil, highlighting the variety of greenery in the garden
Gain more soil control and less weed pressure.

When gardening in-ground, you’re somewhat stuck with your native, existing soil. It can be rocky, can have too much clay, and can have terrible drainage, among other pitfalls. The soil can be amended and tilled, but you may still have issues. Existing soil may have even been treated with persistent herbicide

Depending on what you want to grow, existing soil in an in-ground garden can seriously hold you back. It’s not easy to grow root vegetables in a swampy yard.

But when filling up raised beds, the soil is completely in your control, allowing you to prepare rich, well-draining soil perfectly suited to the plants you intend to grow. You can mix your own blend, or you can purchase a pre-made mix.

Also, existing soil may already be loaded with weeds just waiting to emerge. If you’re just starting a new in-ground garden, brace yourself for frequent weeding. Raised beds have far fewer issues with weeds, especially if you stay on top of the weeds as soon as they appear.

Root Depth

A close-up of a domestic vegetable garden featuring squashes, lettuces, and various green plants thriving under the sunlight.
In-ground gardening can be hindered by poor drainage.

Though it may seem like in-ground gardening offers more space for plants and their roots, it may actually inhibit root growth vertically.

If your natural in-ground soil has excellent drainage, then root space isn’t a barrier to in-ground gardening. But most gardeners aren’t so lucky, running into clay, rock, or poorly-draining soil at a fairly shallow depth. This presents a challenge.

Many common garden plants, particularly edible crops like tomatoes, beans, peppers, and squash, like to send their roots a couple of feet deep, with some even needing two or more feet of soil depth for unencumbered root growth.

Raised beds can give you that vertical space. In fact, though they are typically only a couple of feet high, you can make or buy one at pretty much any height you want, offering added depth for enthusiastic roots. Happy roots lead to happy plants.

Soil Temperature

A close-up of a soil temperature measurement tool resting in a black plastic cover surrounded by lush green plants.
Warmer soil promotes early planting and quicker seed germination.

Many gardeners discover that plants in their raised beds have longer seasons than expected, surviving later into fall and winter. That’s because the soil actually retains more heat. The increased temperature protects the plants, extending their growing season and increasing overall harvest yield.

The difference in soil temperature between these gardening methods may even be the difference between life or death during an unanticipated frost or a late freeze.

Higher soil temperature can benefit plants at the beginning of their season as well. You can start some plants even earlier in the spring. Also, you may find that seeds germinate faster when directly sown into beds than they would in the ground, especially seeds that prefer high temperatures, like hot peppers.

Plant Protection

A close-up of pest protection covers on green plants with additional green plants in the background.
Hoop tunnels are easy to install over individual planters.

When planning your garden, it’s crucial to consider how you will protect your plants from pests. Insects, rodents, deer, and more pose threats to plants, but they can be thwarted with physical barriers and other means.

There are countless creative ways to stop pests, from fences to netting, that can be applied to both raised beds and in-ground garden plots. However, the former has an inherent advantage against burrowing animals, such as gophers, which are extremely persistent critters. It’s also easy to add a hoop tunnel, and some are even sold with hinged protection attached.

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Additionally, in-ground gardens are in danger of foot traffic, as guests and other visitors may find themselves accidentally walking into your garden, possibly crushing plants and compacting the soil. Have kids or pets running around outside? In-ground gardening may not be the best choice.

Comfort and Convenience

A close-up of brown soil and growing green vegetables, surrounded by potted vegetables.
Reduce back pain and kneeling with tall planters.

Any gardener can speak to the back or knee pain that comes from a long day of weeding or transplanting. When you’re gardening in-ground, there’s not much you can do to avoid it.

Enter raised beds, which are available in all shapes, sizes, and heights, meaning you can plant in a tall bed without having to bend over. No more back pain and no more scraped knees. There are super deep options, and there are also elevated options. Either will raise your garden vertically so that you do not have to bend as much or kneel as often.

Over the course of a gardening season, the switch from in-ground gardening to raised beds can make a measurable difference in back pain and general discomfort. They can also make gardening more accessible for those with mobility issues.

Assembly and Labor

A close-up of brown soil, ready for planting vegetables and flowers.
Steel and cedar beds are durable and long-lasting.

One notable downfall of planters is that they require assembly when you first get started. If you’re planning to make them from scratch, don’t forget to consider the labor involved in your DIY project in addition to the cost.

Even if you purchase a raised bed instead of building one from scratch, it will likely require some assembly. Some gardeners may be unbothered by this initial setup, but others may need to acquire new tools or hire outside help. 

Fortunately, this is just an up-front hurdle, as they will last for many years once assembled. Steel and cedar beds are particularly durable and reliable. After the first year, they are quite low-maintenance and shouldn’t require any extra annual labor.

Design Flexibility

A close-up of well-tended garden on a plot, showcasing lush green plants and a manicured lawn, showcasing a vibrant and harmonious garden landscape.
Gardening style is a matter of personal taste.

Finally, while raised beds are available in numerous shapes and sizes, they tend to be rectangles and ovals. This can influence your garden design blueprint, though many gardeners like the organized patterns these structures create.

Gardeners who hold the ornamental appeal of their garden as a high priority may prefer their garden beds to be less rigid and may have a more natural look in mind. When planning an in-ground garden, you can let your imagination run wild.

You can plan an in-ground garden space however you see fit, following the natural topography of the land and structures around your property. Some feel that in-ground gardening lends itself better to a cottage-core or classic garden look. 

But really, it’s all personal preference. What do you want your garden to look like? There are a lot of colorful and creative options out there, so there’s no limit to what you can visually achieve, whichever path you take.

Final Thoughts

Though the decision may be daunting, both raised beds and in-ground gardening are stellar methods that can have amazing results when applied with tender loving care. Consider the factors above when making your move, such as location, soil composition, and design, but don’t stress too much. Whatever you commit to now, there’s always next year!

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