Raised bed gardening has a number of benefits, including warmer soil temperatures and less weeding -- and if you have kids, the elevated beds with solid walls also keep the little ones from tromping over your precious seedlings. As with any building or outdoor project, you have a lot of options as to the materials you can choose, as well as the way you choose to arrange the plants. As you get started, try a few common methods of building, planning and planting in your raised bed garden.
Before you start planting, think about the materials you may want to use for your raised bed. Wood is a popular choice because it's widely available and relatively inexpensive. Ideally, look for recycled cedar or redwood found at rebuilding centers, which is more rot-resistant than other types of wood. Don't buy lumber treated with creosote or other pressure-treating materials -- toxins can leach into the soil and harm plants and those who eat them. Other types of materials are good for raised beds as well. Consider stacking concrete blocks in a rectangle or square or piling large rocks side-by-side. Your raised bed doesn't have to be extremely high; having even 6 inches of soil above the surface is enough to warm the soil and create a weed barrier. Based on the space available, build several smaller beds of 4 feet square, or one larger bed of 8 feet by 4 feet, which will still allow you to stand at its edge and weed without disturbing your plants' delicate root systems.
Before planting your garden, take a little time to plan. This is key to a successful harvest. Whenever possible, plan to plant companion plants next to each other. Companion plants benefit each other's growth in various ways, from nutrients to natural pest-control. Asparagus likes living near tomatoes, parsley and basil; plants in the cabbage family -- including broccoli, cabbage and kale -- like spinach, potatoes, onions, lettuce, cucumber, chard and celery. Check your seed packets or the labels on your veggie starts for information on companion plants.
If you have several smaller raised beds, another way to arrange them is by theme. In one bed, try planting a "salsa garden" with tomatoes, cilantro and peppers. In another, plant a "soup garden" with carrots, potatoes and onions. Reserve yet another raised bed for the herbs you'll use to season all those yummy meals. If your kids want to get involved in the garden, give each child his own bed, allowing him to choose the vegetables that will go into it and to help you weed and water it.
When the weather gets cool, the sturdy walls of your raised bed provide an opportunity to build a hoop house -- basically an inexpensive greenhouse -- that will extend your growing season. Sink pieces of rebar into the ground on the inside edge of your raised bed walls, with pieces facing each other on opposite sides and sticking out from the ground about 1 foot. Then slide pieces of PVC piping -- cut to about twice the width of your raised bed -- on top of one piece of rebar and over to the rebar on the opposite side of the bed. This creates a "hoop" shape on which you can place greenhouse plastic. In places that don't get a lot of snow or freezing temperatures, such as USDA hardiness zones 7 and up, this may help you garden year-round. Even in lower zones, you'll be able to extend your growing seasons.