First Things First: What Kind of Garden Will You Grow?

updated Dec 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Linda Ly)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Gardens can take many forms, but today we’ll tackle the three main types of gardens you can start with a basic supply list: container gardens, raised bed gardens, and in-ground gardens. You might already know what type you’ll be growing, since it’s usually determined by your space and your lifestyle. Each garden has its pros and cons, but in many instances, you can mix and match the type of garden to your needs. Perhaps you want to grow succulents in the ground where they’ll thrive on their own, but tend vegetables in a raised bed where weeding and harvesting will be easier.

Not sure where to start? Take stock of the amount of space you have in your yard and consider what you’ll need to transform it into your own green retreat.

(Image credit: Linda Ly)

Container Garden

Not just an option for small spaces like balconies, patios, or rooftops, a container garden can be a standalone garden or an accent in a larger garden. It can include a collection of pots and saucers, window and deck rail boxes, and other planters that you can easily move around.

A walk down the container aisle at your local garden center will present all the usual pots and planters made of clay, wood, plastic, and stone. But these days, there are plenty of alternative containers to consider as well, such as grow bags, wine barrels, wool pockets, and self-watering contraptions. If you’re the crafty type, you can repurpose old or unused objects into containers: tea tins, burlap sacks, galvanized buckets, wooden crates, watering cans, wheelbarrows, even vintage clawfoot tubs.

Pros of Container Gardens

Container gardens are ideal for just about everybody since they’re portable yet expandable. You can start with a few small containers and add more as your resources allow. Plants and pots can be changed on a whim every season with a minimum of work, and pests and diseases can more easily be managed since you can single out an afflicted plant.

Cons of Container Gardens

The drawback to container gardens is that they’re sometimes more time-consuming to maintain, especially if you don’t invest in self-watering containers or automatic irrigation. Potted plants dry out quicker than their in-ground counterparts, so in the heat of summer, you might need to water your plants two or three times per day. When plants outgrow their containers, they need to be divided and repotted into fresh potting soil. Multiply that task by however many plants you have, and it can easily equal the maintenance of a traditional garden.

(Image credit: Linda Ly)

Raised Bed Garden

If you have the space, a raised bed is the best way to start a sizable garden, especially if your soil isn’t up to snuff. Raised beds negate the need to battle poor soil conditions, allowing you to grow above ground and control the temperature, texture, and makeup of your soil with more ease.

Raised bed gardens are built on top of your native soil or grass (or even asphalt in some cases) and are usually contained in a structure, though some raised beds are simply free-formed mounds of soil. You can buy a ready-made raised bed, build an insta-bed from a kit, or DIY a custom bed to your specifications. Wood (anything from cedar planks to railroad ties) is the most popular choice, but you can also create a raised bed out of bricks, stones, cinder blocks, or straw bales.

Pros of Raised Bed Gardens

There are several advantages to starting a raised bed garden: it warms more quickly in the spring and allows for a longer growing season, the soil drains better and doesn’t get compacted from foot traffic, and you can tailor the soil in each bed to the types of plants you’re growing (such as making one bed more acidic for blueberries). If you choose the right materials for building your raised bed, it will last for quite a long time and require less maintenance than a conventional garden.

Cons of Raised Bed Gardens

The disadvantage is the initial time and expense involved with installing a raised bed. Quality pre-made beds can be expensive to buy, but a custom bed you build yourself may even out the cost in terms of actual money and sweat equity. Then there’s the cost of filling the beds with soil, whether you buy in bulk or in bags. Think of a raised bed garden as a home improvement project; how much you want to spend may depend on how long you plan to live in your house.

(Image credit: Linda Ly)

In-Ground Garden

Few people have the perfect soil that facilitates an in-ground garden. But if you know your way around a spade and a rake, you can turn an empty plot of dirt into a healthy bed of soil for growing ornamental or edible plants.

Pros of In-Ground Gardens

In-ground gardens utilize the existing topsoil in your yard. In desert climates, these types of gardens save water since plant roots don’t dry out as quickly. Irrigation systems are easier to install on flat surfaces versus raised beds. And if you have fertile land, growing directly in the ground makes the most sense. You don’t have to buy soil, you don’t have to buy any special beds or containers, and you can start planting right away with a minimum of prep.

Cons of In-Ground Gardens

Most of the time, you’ll need to improve the soil with compost, sulfur, pumice, lime, gypsum, or any number of soil amendments and conditioners to create the ideal growing medium for your plants. Sometimes you can simply add a healthy dose of compost and commercially bagged garden soil and call it done, but if you want to grow plants with very specific nutrient needs, it can be difficult to determine what your soil is lacking. For this reason, an in-ground garden may take a few years to really get going as you experiment with various soil amendments.

Testing Your Native Soil

If nothing has ever been grown in your yard, it’s a good idea to test the soil before you invest time and money into starting an in-ground garden. Garden centers carry soil test kits that you can use at home to measure the pH of your soil. Most plants prefer a neutral pH, but others fare better in an alkaline or acidic environment. Knowing what you have can help you choose the right plants for your existing soil or the right amendments to adjust your soil accordingly.

If you want a more precise and detailed analysis (especially if you’re concerned about possible contaminants), you can send a soil sample to your local university’s cooperative extension office. The lab results can clue you in to potential toxins in the soil, as well as any mineral deficiencies you should correct before you plant. Keep in mind that the soil may differ from one side of the property to another, so you should collect samples from each part of the yard you’re considering planting.

Expert Tip: Start small. Don’t get bogged down by the desire to set up a picture-perfect garden. It’s easy to get overzealous and overplant your space. Unless you have a lot of help or a lot of time on your hands, err on the side of simplicity — you can always add more containers or more beds as your experience grows and your needs progress.

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