With all the information out there, situating raised beds can be a little overwhelming. I’ve used raised beds for years, and more often than not I’ll place them anywhere I can that gets full sun. Recently I’ve learned that there’s a science to orienting raised beds for maximum light and that’s changed my whole perspective on raised bed gardening.
The best orientation for raised beds is north-south. This orientation is perpendicular to the equator, allowing both sides of the bed to receive sunlight during the day. While an east-west orientation may work for tall crops, mixed beds are less likely to be shaded out in a north-south orientation.
If you have existing raised beds that are oriented differently, all is not lost–you can still arrange crops within your beds to minimize shading. Let these tips guide your garden planning going forward, and you’ll see your healthiest plants and highest yields yet!
North-south orientation is best
While there are other factors that may take precedence when orienting raised beds (like slope or drainage), it seems that a north-south orientation is ideal for most scenarios. A north-south orientation allows for ample morning sun on the east side of the bed and sufficient evening sun on the west side.
This orientation is perfect for low-growing and short crops, as the sun will shine on the entire bed from sunrise to sunset. A north-south orientation also works well in the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, when the sun hangs lower in the sky and shadows are longer.
Consider vertical structures
For gardeners in the northern hemisphere, you’ll want to take care to situate your raised beds south of any buildings or trees that could cast shade on your garden. For growers in the southern hemisphere, the opposite would be true–place your raised beds north of any tall structures so that there is nothing to block the sun’s rays from your raised beds.
Be prepared to cut down, or at least cut back, some trees and bushes to give your garden the sunlight it needs.
If you’re using trellising, you’ll want to pay careful attention to when and where you’ll be using a trellis. OYR Frugal & Sustainable Organic Gardening offers great advice for placing trellising in the youtube video, 6 EZ Tips to Minimize Shade When Growing Vertically In A Small Garden:
- Place trellis on the north sides of beds.
- Arrange plants from shortest to tallest.
- Use a trellis that doesn’t cast a shadow.
- Plant sun-loving crops far enough away from the trellis to avoid shading.
- Plant shade-tolerant crops a couple of feet behind vertical crops.
- Plant cool-weather early-season crops directly behind vertical summer crops.¹
As you can see in the video, it’s definitely possible to have a diversified vegetable garden with tall and short crops alike! The key here is to strategically place trellising and plant crops around it based on their lighting needs and the changing lighting over the course of the season.
Arranging raised beds
Raised beds are intended to be a semi-permanent structure of the garden, so choose your location carefully. But the contents of your raised beds and their placement within may change from year to year, depending on what grows well and what doesn’t. Use the following information as a framework, but don’t be afraid to experiment with your raised bed garden and make changes as needed.
First, determine what purpose your raised beds will serve. Will you be growing vegetables? Flowers? Perennials? Different plants have different lighting needs, and your crop plan will influence your raised bed location.
Our favorite vegetables and flowers prefer full sun, so be sure to site your raised bed in a location that receives full sun, or at least six hours of direct sunlight each day.
Ideally, you’ll want to observe your growing area for a full year before you place a raised bed. Lighting varies at different times of the day, and shadows lengthen from season to season. What gets full sun in early spring might be shaded by trees leafing out in midsummer. Know your land well before you build a raised bed and run the risk of losing a crop to inadequate lighting.
There are some tools to help gardeners familiarize themselves with lighting in their growing area. While the weather might sometimes throw off the readings, a garden light meter is a useful tool to help you gauge whether your potential raised bed site receives full or partial sun.
Garden light meters like this one simply need to be placed in the ground at the same height as your raised beds would sit. Move the meter around to get readings of different locations at different times of the day. After a few weeks or a season of using this technology, you’ll have a much better idea of where to situate your raised beds!
Well-draining site protected from the wind
While raised beds have better drainage because they sit above the surface of the soil, you’ll still want to avoid putting your raised bed in a low spot. Choose a well-draining site to locate your raised bed, and if by necessity to have to locate your beds on a slope you’ll need to dig into the slope to make the bed level.
Unless you’re growing a wind-pollinated crop like corn, you’ll probably want to protect your raised beds from the wind. Build a windbreak perpendicular to the prevailing wind using t posts and a bamboo screen or something similar–just make sure that the windbreak is placed where it won’t cast a shadow on your raised bed.
Raised bed dimensions
The beauty of raised beds is that they can be personalized to your budget, space, and preferences. While many gardeners use wood to make their raised beds, you can use anything from brick to metal, so feel free to use materials you already have on hand.
Most raised bed plans call for a bed that is between one and two feet tall and no more than three feet wide. You want your raised bed to be deep enough to adequately hold root vegetables like carrots and support the development of deep root systems like those on tomato plants.
If you have multiple raised beds, build them all up to the same height to minimize shadows. Leave yourself at least two feet between raised beds to navigate between them. You want to be able to reach the middle of each raised bed from every side–this will save you from having to step into the raised beds, compacting the soil, and running the risk of damaging your plants.
Making a crop plan
Thoughtful placement of crops inside raised beds is crucial. Many vegetables thrive when companion planted with other plants, but these different varieties must be carefully placed within a raised bed so as to not crowd or shade out the other crops.
Gardeners in the northern hemisphere will always want to plant their tallest crops north of their medium-sized crops, with the shortest crops furthest south, front and center to the sun. Whether you have one raised bed or ten, think ahead and place your seedlings accordingly.
Place trellises and plant climbers like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peas in the northernmost beds or on the northern side of a bed. Plant Swiss chard, broccoli, bush beans, and other medium-height crops in the bed south of the taller crops. Plant low-growing vegetables like radishes, carrots, and lettuces even further south, and all of your plants will still get the appropriate amount of sun that they need to grow and produce fruit (or roots, or stems).
Within a raised bed, you’ll want to keep the tallest plants in the middle and the shorter plants on the sides, for ease of harvest. You don’t want to have to lean through a zucchini bush to reach the turnips, but if you place the zucchini in the middle, you’ll have no trouble reaching either vegetable when it comes to dinnertime.
Plant light requirements
Most vegetables thrive in full sun, which means you’ll want to situate your raised bed in an area that gets at least hours of direct sunlight–preferably more. Heat-loving annuals like tomatoes and peppers need all the sun they can to flower and set fruit, so aim for between eight and ten hours of sunlight a day.
If some of your beds are shaded by necessity, save those beds for cool-season crops like leafy greens and Brassicas. These crops, especially the vegetables that are harvested for the leaf or the stem, can tolerate a decent amount of shade. Come midsummer, these crops will appreciate a break from the scorching afternoon sun.
Optimizing space and sun
Some growers have no choice but a compact garden, and shading can be an issue. Gardening in a small space with minimal shade is possible, but it just takes some thought when placing plants. Know your crops and do the necessary research on their projected height, width, and lighting needs.
Gardeners growing food in tight spaces need to get a little creative with their crop plan to avoid shading out other crops in the garden. You always want to keep all raised beds the same height and space them equidistant from one another to minimize shading.
Trellis whenever possible
If all beds are the same height and crop height is shorter than the width of the path, then shading shouldn’t be an issue. But with compact gardens, wide aisles aren’t always possible.
When it makes sense, run vining plants like cucumbers or winter squash on a trellis and they’ll climb to reach the sunlight that they need.
Plant in containers
You might consider growing some vegetables in containers that can be moved to follow the sun as the day progresses. It’s more work, but it might be the only way to meet certain crops’ lighting needs.
Planting vining plants in hanging baskets is another creative option to mitigate low sunlight. Observe your property and notice any unused sunny spaces. Do you have a flat roof that could house a few pots or a south-facing window that needs a window box?
Raised beds are an easy way to grow your own food at home, even in urban and small spaces, or areas with poor native soil. Orienting raised beds does require some forethought, and arranging the crops within the beds takes planning, but the result is a productive vegetable garden.
Make the most of your raised beds by orienting them north-south, and arrange the tallest plants and trellises on the north side of the bed, with the shortest plants further south to minimize shading. That’s all there is to it!
¹ “6 EZ Tips to Minimize Shade When Growing Vertically In A Small Garden,” YouTube, OYR Frugal & Sustainable Organic Gardening, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvuXvxDKnaE&ab_channel=OYRFrugal%26SustainableOrganicGardening.