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Good Growing

Starting a Garden: Types of Gardens

lettuce and potatoes in an in-ground garden, vegetables in a raised bed, and herbs in pots

When it comes to planning and creating a garden, you need to determine how you’re going to grow your plants. There are a variety of ways in which this can be done, each with its advantages and disadvantages. The amount of space, as well as your gardening goals, will play a large role in the type of garden you choose.

In-Ground Bed (Traditional)

This is the way humans have been growing plants from the beginning. This type of garden bed, like the name implies, is dug directly into the ground. While these gardens can be surrounded by some sort of border, the soil surface isn’t going to be much higher than the rest of the landscape. Because these beds are using the existing soil, there is typically less start-up work. These beds rely on the existing soil, but they can be amended with compost and other types of fertilizers to improve the soil.

When it comes to size, the only real limitations to this type of bed is the amount of space you have (remember most vegetables require full sun) and how much of your yard you want to convert to a garden. Since these gardens can be large, they can provide plenty of space for wandering plants such as pumpkins, squash, and watermelons. Additionally, these beds often need to be watered less, compared to the other types of garden beds.

There are some disadvantages to in-ground beds, though. They generally require more maintenance, particularly weeding (due to the weed seed bank in the soil). If you have poor soils (ex. bad drainage or poor nutrient levels), the soil may need to be amended. Since the beds are at ground level, you’ll be working at ground level, and depending on the state of your knees and back, that may not be all that appealing. Finally, the soil can be compacted by repeated foot traffic; this can be reduced by utilizing mulches, though.

Raised Beds

Raised beds are elevated above ground level and often surrounded and contained with boards or other materials (cinder blocks, plastic lumber, metal, etc.). The beds are filled with a mixture of compost and garden soil (or purchased topsoil). These beds are usually 2- to 4-ft. wide (so you can reach the middle from both sides), 6- to 12-in. high, and as long as you want. Raised beds are a good option for intense growing in a small area.

Since these beds are raised, it allows you to garden in soils where it may be difficult to grow vegetables (or some types of flowers) such as areas with poor drainage or compaction issues. Since these beds are raised above the ground compaction isn’t an issue (you shouldn’t be walking in them), they have better drainage, and the soils warm-up earlier in the spring compared to in-ground beds. There also tends to be fewer weed problems, although this can vary depending on the soil you are using to fill the beds.

While there are many advantages to raised beds, there are also some disadvantages. Raised beds have to be constructed, which can come at a cost. While you can use recycled materials, there is still some added work to construct them. Filling raised beds can be expensive, especially if you are building large beds. Some crops don’t work well in raised beds; sweet corn requires larger blocks of plants to ensure proper pollination, and vining crops can overtake a bed. Finally, raised beds tend to dry out faster than in-ground beds, so they will likely need to be watered more frequently.


Containers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. Planting containers need drainage holes and should be made from materials that hold up well when wet and left outdoors. Ceramic and plastic containers are traditionally used, but a variety of other items can also be used (old bathtubs, sinks, wheelbarrows, etc.). Containers are a great option for areas with limited space; all you need is a flat surface (decks, balconies, driveway, etc.) and sun. Containers can be easy to move (depending on how big it is), which is helpful if you are growing plants that aren’t hardy in Illinois (for example, citrus).

Like raised beds, there is some upfront cost if you are going to be purchasing pots. You’ll also have to spend some money on the ‘soil’. Rather than using soil, use a soilless mix, usually referred to as potting soil. Potting soil is typically a mix of peat, vermiculite, bark, and coir fiber that is light and drains well. Because containers are small (compared to in-ground and raised beds), they need to be watered much more frequently, and, depending on the type of potting soil you use, fertilized more often. Finally, depending on the type of container, you may be limited in what you can grow. Larger plants such as indeterminate tomatoes will require larger pots; vining crops will likely get too large for containers (you may be able to find bush varieties though).


Good Growing Tip of the Week: Straw bale gardens are a newer trend in the gardening world. Strawbales are conditioned, and then vegetables or flowers are planted. For more information on how to create a straw bale garden, check out the Four Seasons Gardening – Strawbale Gardening video.  


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