Growing vegetables in raised gardens has been increasing in popularity for decades, for a multitude of reasons. The soil warms up faster in spring, facilitating earlier seed germination and an extended growing season. You can control soil quality and drainage properties easier than struggling with dense clay or overly sandy soil. Not to mention, it’s far easier on the body to stand up and work the soil versus kneeling down!
Interested in filling your own yard with a few raised vegetable gardens? Keep reading and I’ll tell you the best vegetables to grow in raised beds and how to care for them.
- Selecting Vegetables to Grow in Raised Beds
- Best Vegetables to Grow in Raised Beds
- Why Grow Vegetables in Raised Beds?
- Planning a Raised Vegetable Garden
- FAQ’s Raised Vegetable Gardens
Selecting Vegetables to Grow in Raised Beds
One important thing to consider when choosing what to grow is how big certain crops get. Squash and melon plants, for example, can potentially take up an entire bed.
You can either train these upward on stakes or simply grow alternative, smaller crops like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, and herbs.
Also, consider how many times you can harvest each crop. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, and melons, among others, can be harvested several times over in one growing season. But onions, carrots, radishes, garlic, and corn offer a single harvest per year.
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Winter or Summer Crops
Thanks to a raised bed’s ability to absorb and retain heat, both winter and summer crops can be successfully grown in them. In cold-winter regions, they can be fitted as cold frames with the addition of a hinged lid.
Under optimal conditions, many lettuce varieties can be successfully grown throughout winter or started in early spring. As the seeds don’t require high temperatures to germinate. Leeks, radishes, rocket (arugula), spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower also fall into this category.
All other vegetable seeds require warm temperatures to germinate and grow. These would be considered your summer crops.
Plants that grow well together should be given some thought when choosing your crops. Companion planting is the practice of positioning specific plants near each other to enhance growth, share and/or swap nutrients, and protect each other from pests and disease.
This practice promotes a more organic garden environment, in which plants interact with each other the way they do in nature. The more diverse, yet complimentary, the grouping, the more the plants protect each other and produce more.
As we discuss the best vegetables to grow in raised gardens, I’ll include the best companion plantings for them.
Three Sisters Method
The most famous plant grouping is that of the ‘three sisters’. A gardening method born from the early discoveries of Native American peoples, their agricultural traditions, and their expertise. The three sisters are corn, beans, and squash.
Corn provides the upward structure upon which beans can climb, so as not to get tangled in and overwhelmed by the squash vines. In turn, the green beans offer much-needed nitrogen to the soil that the corn and squash to benefit from in the early stages of growth. Large squash leaves shade the soil, which increases moisture retention and discourages weeds.
Best Vegetables to Grow in Raised Beds
You can literally grow any crop in a raised bed. The question is how successful it will be in producing a bountiful harvest while growing in a limited space. Some grow like crazy but others struggle.
As we go through my picks for the 14 best veggies to grow in your beds, bear in mind the following:
- The square footage of each of your beds.
- The size of each crop you’re considering will be at harvest time.
- Do you prefer single-harvest crops, multiples, or both?
- What plants you can successfully grow together to maximize space.
- The length of your growing season compared to the maturity times of each crop.
- Most importantly, what you like to grow and eat.
These rosy root vegetables grow below the soil line and are harvested once per growing season. The wonderful thing about these is that not only can you eat the beetroot but the scarlet stems and green leaves are delicious, too. They taste like a sweeter version of Swiss chard.
If left in place for a second season or allowed to go to seed, delicate flowers form (similar to those of carrots).
Despite being a cold-weather crop, beets do require the warmth of the full sun to develop properly. As such, they grow quite successfully in deep cold frames.
Companion plantings: Onions, beans, lettuce, cabbages, and radishes.
Sweet & Hot Peppers
Peppers, sweet or hot, require warm soil for seed germination and healthy growth. Since the soil in raised beds warms up faster than ground soil, peppers are the perfect crop to grow in them.
Peppers also like their roots to be snug but not soggy. Raised beds sufficiently provide these factors, as well, when you plant them roughly 18-24 inches apart. They also need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.
Peppers have a long maturation time, so starting them indoors, or in a cold frame, may be necessary if you live in a place with a short growing season.
Companion plantings: Onions, scallions, garlic, dill, fennel, and cilantro.
Garlic & Onions
Onions are actually flowering perennials (think alliums), and garlic is a self-propagator. This is why you can plant one clove and harvest a whole bulb. This creates the opportunity for a never-ending supply of these as both can be regrown from what you harvest.
Planting a single garlic clove will form a new bulb consisting of 5-10 new cloves each season. Similarly and equally as cost-effective, the root end of each harvested onion can be placed back in your raised bed and a new one will grow!
Companion plantings: Brassicas, carrots, dill, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Corn is often mistakenly thought to only grow in the ground. If you’ve ever driven through the North American prairies, past miles and miles of ground-planted corn fields, this might make sense.
However, the truth is that corn stalks have pretty shallow root systems. Which means they’ll grow quite comfortably in a raised bed. As long as they’re in full sun and temperatures are between 10-30°C (50-85°F).
The trick is to plant them in two or three staggered rows. This not only increases the chance of cross-pollination, whether by wildlife or wind but also ensures the foliage of each plant does not crowd out its neighbor, thus ensuring that each has ample access to sunlight. The end result is a bountiful harvest in autumn.
Companion plantings: Beans, beets, cucumber, dill, melons, parsley, peas, potato, soya beans, squash, and sunflower.
French beans (and peas and lentils), with their far-reaching tendrils, are actually ideal for raised beds. Especially if you train them along with upright, bamboo stakes, in two rows, to optimize the limited space.
Harvest time for ripe French beans lasts for two weeks. But, while they’re growing, the roots of these nitrogen providers will reach down 12”, so a fairly deep bed is needed. They only need about 6 hours of sunlight per day, though. A bit of shade is fine and will save the leaves from scorching.
Companion plantings: Carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, celery, kale, strawberries, Swiss chard, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, cauliflower, parsley, and spinach.
Some may say that squash plants are space hogs and you shouldn’t plant them in a raised bed. But remember that squash varieties are one of the three sisters.
Zucchini plants grown in a raised bed will help prevent weeds, increase moisture retention, and grow really well. Especially when planted with corn and beans in full sun in an 18” deep bed. You’ll have enough to share with the whole neighborhood!
Like French beans, you can easily train zucchini to grow upward on bamboo stakes. This minimizes the amount of soil space used and provides you with abundantly producing plants. Zucchini requires a balanced fertilizer throughout the flowering period for a bountiful yield.
Companion plantings: Beans, borage, dill, garlic, marigolds, mint, nasturtiums, oregano.
Winter squash is a category that includes acorn squash, banana squash, buttercup squash, butternut squash, Hubbard squash, kabocha squash, and pumpkin. All have a single harvest time — autumn — when planted in the spring.
They are named so because, unlike summer varieties, winter squash have thick rinds that protect them from low temperatures. This makes them easy to grow in cold frames right through winter.
Due to their sprawling nature, vining squash varieties are best for raised beds. But they will still need to be staked and positioned where the soil will warm to at least 15°C (60°F) during the day.
Companion plantings: Corn, lettuce, melons, peas, and radish.
Like squash, cucumbers grow quite happily in raised beds. Provided that their large roots have enough room to spread (at least 18” in soil depth), full sun, and adequate drainage.
Like other sprawling veggies, cucumbers will need to be trellised in raised beds. Allowing them to grow along with the soil actually promotes fungal infections. Trellising allows for enough air circulation to prevent water from settling and fungal spores from taking hold.
While their growth habits are similar to squash, they don’t offer the same benefits and therefore should not be planted near corn.
Companion plantings: Asparagus, beans, brassicas, celery, dill, kohlrabi, lettuce, onion, peas, radish, and tomatoes.
Cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew can all be grown in raised beds with proper staking. They can get quite heavy, though. Supporting them with cheesecloth, old pantyhose, or other breathable fabric may be necessary as they grow.
Melons have relatively large root systems that need a depth of 24” to grow productively. Being summer fruit, these will also need 8-10 hours of sunlight per day.
When it comes to maximizing space, melons have one of the longest lists of beneficial companion options among all of the vegetables I’ve featured in this article.
Companion plantings: Beans, peas, onions, leeks, chives, and garlic. They also flourish with cabbage, broccoli, carrots, kale, okra, cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and lettuce.
As mentioned, raised beds offer you the opportunity to increase soil fertility and composition — just what carrots need to thrive and produce.
In beds 18” deep and filled with loamy soil, carrots will develop long, straight root structures rich in vitamins A and K, beta-carotene, and calcium. Fertilizing carrots with a low dose of chicken manure or similar is a cheap and organic way to provide a boost to your soil. But carrots will not thank you for heavy feed, they actually prefer relatively poor light soil.
Seeds should be sown directly into your beds ¼” deep and 2cm apart. Then, watered well during their long germination period.
If you allow some to go to seed, you can collect them for the next season from white lacy flowers that emerge from the foliage.
Companion plantings: Beans, brassicas, chives, leeks, lettuce, onions, peas, peppers, pole beans, radish, rosemary, sage, and tomatoes.
Parsnips thrive in nutrient-rich soil with good drainage. They like to dry out a bit in between waterings. They don’t compete well with weeds that leach nutrients away from them, though. So, it’s best to keep your beds weed-free.
Like carrots, seeds should be directly sown, in loose soil. That way they can easily push through to develop long, straight forms, without the risk of distortion. But they need a bit more room — a depth of 24-36” — to accommodate the parsnip itself and any extending root lines.
Companion plantings: Anise, Bush Bean, Garlic, Lettuce, Onion, Oregano, Radish, Rosemary.
The best tomato varieties to grow in raised beds are determinate ones. Determinate tomatoes produce a large harvest all at once, as opposed to indeterminate tomatoes that just keep growing until the end of the season.
Determinate varieties also require less pruning, which contributes to raised beds being less work. Seeds can be started indoors but should be planted 4’ apart to allow for optimal growth and air circulation.
For larger tomatoes, a few stems and leaves can be removed, and the stalks staked to support them.
Companion plantings: Basil, nasturtiums, marigolds, asparagus, garlic, parsley, and chives.
Early varieties are the best to plant in raised beds because they’re ready for harvesting by mid-summer if planted in late March.
An exception would be fingerling potatoes. While considered the main crop, their size fits perfectly in raised beds, with plenty of room for a companion crop.
Plant your seed potatoes 12” apart and 3” deep. Once they reach 6” tall, add more soil around the base. This will maintain 3” of soil coverage as the potatoes push up and out with growth.
Companion plantings: Bush beans, celery, corn, garlic, marigolds, onions, and peas.
Salad Catch Crops
To maximize production for these cool-season crops, direct-sow lettuce seeds in raised beds,in early spring or fall depending on the variety. Make sure to protect seedlings against frost. Personal favorites include Romaine lettuce (Cos), spinach, and wild rocket.
With shallow root systems, lettuce varieties only need 6” of soil depth for healthy growth. Rows should be planted 8” apart to give them adequate spreading room.
Lettuce or collard greens need more sun in spring than in summer. Planting them beneath tomatoes will provide more sun while the plants are small and more shade as the tomato plants grow bigger in summer.
Companion plantings: Tomatoes, asparagus, beets, calendula, carrots, chervil, chives, cilantro, and eggplant.
Why Grow Vegetables in Raised Beds?
So, I’ve already touched on a few benefits of growing crops in raised or container gardens:
- The soil warms up faster to allow for a longer growing season
- Seeds can be sown earlier
- Quicker seed germination for an extended growing season
- You can control soil quality and drainage properties
- In improved conditions, higher yields are more common
- Raised beds are easier on the body
Anything else? Absolutely!
Because you’ve curated your soil so well, there’s no tilling required in raised beds. Excess tilling destroys the natural soil structure, which makes it prone to compaction.
Elevated beds also make it harder for rabbits and other critters to access your plants for a quick snack and for weed seeds, like dandelions and crabgrass, to settle on the soil surface.
Control Depth and Quality of Soil
You can build raised beds as tall as you want. But, if you’re looking to build beds tall enough for you to work in while standing, there’s no need to incur the expense of filling them up with soil.
Filling the bottom with foam peanuts or chunks is safe because foam only breaks down in temperatures that would literally cook your crops. Since garden soil doesn’t typically get that hot, foam is widely used for this purpose.
Then, you can build a beautiful, nutrient-rich growing medium on top, by mixing fresh, quality topsoil, well-aged compost, and other materials that supply nutrients and encourage drainage.
Convenience and Comfort
You can also build raised beds wherever you want, which makes them ideal for small outdoor spaces. They’re also easy to place right outside your kitchen door. You can even put them on casters and roll them around!
Elevated beds make growing and harvesting crops a very comfortable experience. They extend accessibility to that grand experience to elder folks and to those who are unable to crouch down and work in the soil.
Gardening is a very satisfying and meditative activity that every last one of us can now participate in, all thanks to raised beds.
Higher Yield Per Square Foot
Raised beds will naturally be more productive because of improved soil and environmental conditions. But how much food can you actually put on your table?
The University of Massachusetts states that 200 sq. ft. of raised bed garden space can yield enough fresh produce for one person to last an entire year.
Multiply this by how many are in your family and you’ll most likely need 6-8 raised beds, each measuring 40 square feet, for a year’s supply of delicious, home-grown produce. That’s actually not a lot if you’ve got the room.
Pests aren’t consciously aware of how we grow plants. They’re more interested in what we grow. So naturally, growing crops in raised beds won’t completely deter them.
The good news is that beds that are up off the ground do make it harder for soil-dwelling pests to access your crops and easier for you to see evidence of ones that can and thus, take measures to prevent them.
One natural way is companion planting, which attracts the kind of beneficial insect predators that like to snack on undesirable pests rather than our crops, such as ladybugs who love to feast on aphids.
Planning a Raised Vegetable Garden
Planning a raised bed begins with answering a couple of different questions:
- How tall do you want your beds to be, in proportion to your accessibility needs?
- Would you prefer beds on legs or ones that sit on the ground?
- Where would you like to put them? Do you want to be able to move them around on casters?
- How many beds do you need to provide the kind of crop yield you’re going for?
- And finally, what would you like to grow?
Once you’ve established your preferences in these areas, it’s time to move on to what to grow together and how to space these plants, in relation to each other.
We’ve touched on companion planting and what grows well together. Now, to work out spacing. Behind this, there are a few different philosophies.
I’ll start with a basic and commonly used method for small crops. Allowing 3”-6” spacing between plantings in single rows nicely accommodates small crops like root and bulb vegetables, garlic and onions, and most lettuce varieties (sepending on the mature size of each).
Larger crops require more breathing room. This is where ‘intensive garden spacing’ comes in, which is the idea of using every square inch of bed space to its highest benefit. Planting crops closer together saves water usage and improves weed control.
It’s a good idea to experiment for yourself to see which method works best in your garden environment.
Square Foot Gardening
Another spacing method is simply referred to as square foot gardening, or SFG. This method offers techniques for raised beds that require minimal time, effort, and energy to maintain.
Practitioners of this method have reported higher yields, better quality produce, and less soil and water usage. And, on average, a mere 2% of the effort that traditional gardening requires. So, what is it?
Traditionally, this includes 4×4’ raised beds, 12” deep, with square foot lattice over the top (this visually separates plants while keeping them close together). All are filled with a specific soil recipe that has exceptional drainage.
Soil for Raised Vegetable Bed
Let’s talk about that ‘specific soil recipe’. Quality soil is your first step toward a bountiful harvest, whether in the ground or raised beds. Here’s a simple recipe that comes highly recommended:
25% Garden Soil — A mix of topsoil and other organic materials that create a medium conducive to healthy plant growth.
25% Organic Compost — Compost and manure are combinations of natural materials, like garden waste and kitchen scraps, and animal by-products.
25% Perlite — A naturally occurring volcanic glass that is superb at improving aeration, drainage, and insulation qualities in garden soil.
25% Coco Coir — Harvested from the inner husk of a coconut and possesses the ability to retain moisture and nutrients, while providing adequate oxygen to roots.
The best vegetable fertilizers are crop-specific. If your soil is already well-curated, you may not need to add any at all.
If necessary, though, the following rule of thumb is simple.
Leafy greens need more nitrogen for a healthy yield. So a higher-nitrogen NPK (i.e., 3-1-1) would work well.
For flowering/fruiting vegetables, that same 3-1-1 ratio can be applied for a robust root structure and vibrant foliage.
Once buds are set, an NPK higher in phosphorus and potassium, such as a 4-6-4, will be needed. When to fertilize will depend on the brand you choose.
In my experience, a soaker hose or drip line irrigation is the best choice for raised beds. This allows the delivery of water directly to the soil surface and therefore reduces water use but, more importantly, eliminates the risk of fungal disease.
If you get the plant’s foliage wet it can lead to a number of problems with disease and pests.
- Soaker Hoses offer a broad spread of irrigation across the soil surface. The hose can be run in lines or coiled like on my raised beds.
- Drip lines slowly release water around plant roots, at a pace that allows for efficient absorption. No costly or wasteful runoff. But it does mean fewer points of irrigation.
- Sprinklers can actually encourage and spread fungal diseases, as can the use of watering cans. So I would avoid anything that delivers water onto the foliage of the crop.
Raised beds tend to dry out quicker, being confined spaces. So, running your drip lines daily in summer may be necessary. Running them in the cooler hours of early morning or late afternoon will allow for better absorption with little evaporation.
I have run LDPE irrigation hose from my water faucet and timer to the areas where my beds are. I buried the LDPE hose pipe a few inches under the ground and split it off with a T-connector to run to each of my four raised beds.
The LDPE hose runs up and onto the surface within my bed where it connects with a simple tap coupling connector.
This is then connected directly to the length of the soaker hose coiled within that raised bed.
This gives me full control over each bed, allowing me to control the flow of water and managed the water pressure between each soaker hose.
Crop rotation is the practice of moving where you plant a specific crop every 5-7 years. You may ask, “Is this really necessary? I can just fertilize and compost it really well.” The answer is, yes. It’s actually critical to the health of your plants.
Within 5-7 years, plants begin to experience an increase in diseases, fungal infections, and pest infestations. More importantly, symptoms of nutrient deficiencies from minerals and other micronutrients may emerge as the soil becomes depleted.
Yet, that spot would work just fine for a different crop. With raised beds, this means crops are moved to different beds altogether.