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Raised Beds

Fashion plays a part, even with ‘growing stuff’. We may be wrong, but it seems that raised beds are ‘in’ and appear to be springing up all over the place, so why create such a bed, how do you do it and what are key things to think about. You will no doubt find this information all over the Internet, as is true of most gardening matters, but as our role on these pages continues to be to encourage our readers to think further afield, especially beginners to garden life, we’re going to venture out into this area in a more personalized way than you might find elsewhere. It’s an area that we’ve never been in before on these pages but it is an area with which we have had long-term experience, so here goes!


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An early version brick raised bed

The first thing to say is that unless you have a friend getting rid of materials or you’ve just bought an old house and have materials on hand, it is going to cost more than just growing traditionally with ground-level beds. We inherited an allotment plot with raised beds and, as you’ll shortly see, decided to remove them and relocate and construct new ones of a different style. At another time we took down and replaced an old fence that had good timber posts (which we then used) with a completely new fence with concrete posts. At various times we’ve also had various house alterations which meant the odd pile of old bricks laying around. Waste not, want not. Recycling is here to stay as far as we’re concerned. But if you can’t do that, be prepared to spend money.

Scaffold boards painted plus wire ‘fence’ to house leeks and onions

Why Raised Beds?

They aren’t for everyone because many of us like the simple straight forward ground-level beds and like trimming the lawn edges regularly and so on. However, there are some advantages to creating raised beds:

 First, they create a very distinct border and, being raised, I have found they brings weeds to my notice much quicker than in my traditional beds, so I end up with cleaner beds.

 Second, they can create an interesting landscaping scenario and beds can be different depths with paths between to create interest.

 Third, they tend to make one far more thoughtful about the soil. If the soil in your garden is naturally acidic and you want to have some plants that dislike such soils, it is relatively easy to create a limited-size raised bed with the appropriate soil. For example, we wanted to grow blueberries and as they are acid-loving, a bed with ericaceous compost is ideal when the rest of the garden is not that way inclined.

 Fourth, raised beds also lend themselves to extensive use of trailing plants, so at the appropriate time of the year trailing lobelia and trailing nasturtiums or even trailing geraniums can be seen hanging above path level. The list is endless, and the results create a soft and fascinating mixture around the garden.

 Fifth, and this is for those of us of more mature years, a raised bed means you don’t have to bend down so much. These days garden centres seem to have lots of growing tables or growing troughs for growing plants at waist level, but if you have plenty of old materials on hand your creativity will not doubt bring about your own designs.

 Sixth, growing different plants in different areas can create interest. For example, our older brick raised beds are for flowers. My more recent experiments in timber are all for vegetables although I was given as a birthday present a ‘wild flower growing mat’ which is tempting me to give over a recent higher raised bed to wild flowers in the midst of everything else. If it works I anticipate this mini-wildflower meadow adding a riot of anarchic colour to the otherwise orderly vegetable patches. (If the seeds spread I may be in trouble in following years but why not mix flowers and veg?).

 Seventh, there is also a challenge about raised beds, especially the higher ones I think, as to how much you can grow in it, though it doesn’t have to be more than a single board bed. There was a challenging idea that appeared over the horizon of gardening creativity not too long ago and one of my family prodded me with it as a recent birthday present, a book entitled, ‘Grow all you can eat in 3 square feet’. Hmmm! We will see what we will see!

How to do it

Fairly simple really, create a box or larger rectangular shape to fit the space or spaces you have available. Obviously you’ll think about location and so if you put one against a north facing wall or fence, you’ll probably end up putting shade loving plants in it. For growing veg you’ll locate where the sun shines. The two key things to think about are a) the material you use and b) the soil etc. you put into it.

A larger timber bed in its early days

Tucked away in a corner, a raised bed made from old fence posts  

a) Construction materials

The obvious materials are timber or bricks or blocks. Decades back I created brick raised beds and these are still exactly as they were first constructed – although obviously weathered somewhat; they have done us well. One or two of them have housed the same bush plants and therefore have not been replenished, while others of them have had various plant changes and along with them fresh soil and compost.

When we move into the realm of timber there are a number of considerations. I ‘inherited’ an allotment with raised beds made from scaffold boards which have performed their task for about five years. Having said that many of these boards are rotten along the bottom two or three inches and so I have been removing them, burning some and recycling some in creating smaller deeper beds. I have also come across someone who moved into a house with a nice garden with raised areas created by larger timbers and all of those timbers have gone rotten on the back side and will need replacing. Preservation is the main problem with the use of timber.

The experts advise the use of oak or sweet chestnut which are hard and dense and only then start talking about larch or pine and the need to have them pressure treated. Obviously all of these are more expensive than getting hold of secondhand scaffolding boards. Pressure treated timber means the preservative goes deep into the wood which is obviously better than you simply painting it with preservative.  Railway sleepers that have tar on them are messy but other baulk timbers that are treated are ideal. If your garden is neat, tidy and the joy of your life then appearance is important, and quality treated timber will be your choice. I have never been so particular and so have used old fence posts that had been originally pressure treated and now, more recently, old scaffold boards which I have painted with preservative and have lined the insides of deep beds with plastic lining, being a belt, braces AND string sort of person who is not particularly concerned with appearance, more with keeping the bed functional.  

b) Soil

It rather depends on what you have got or can get hold of because this can be another purse-emptying aspect of raised beds. If you create a bed, say four feet square and two scaffold boards deep, you’ll find that requires a lot of soil. You may have some from elsewhere in the garden or you may have to buy it in. Low-level beds with say a single scaffold board you just treat the same as any other bed. Deeper beds provoke differing opinions, but you can’t go wrong taking a mixture of soil, compost and a little sharp sand to aid drainage. As someone who runs four compost bins, a leaf-mould bin and a wormery, ongoing filling of these with horse manure straw from local stables, and house raw remains and plenty of grass, leaves and anything else the garden will give me over the space of a couple of years means, I hope, I have plenty of material to fill new deep bins. Soil management and composting are vital to good growth. If you want to buy big bags of topsoil and add compost, that will do it, but will obviously cost you.

And so, there it is, a different way of gardening with pros and cons but which can be fun creating and even more fun as you develop your beds and watch them mature. Perhaps one final point needs making. If you have cats or your neighbours have cats, a brand new bed seems to attract them and suggest to them that here is a place to deposit their own waste. To counter this, I have either filled the bed rapidly with plants or put up a shallow ‘fence’ of chicken wire which appears to have deterred their earlier efforts. But don’t be put off by such things. Persevere and enjoy!