There is a lot of healthy discussion which surrounds the planning of vegetable garden beds: to dig or not to dig, that is the question!
One of the best things about gardening is that you can start with just about nothing and end up with something beautiful, fulfilling or successful or if you’re blessed with a green thumb all three. The subject of garden beds can generate healthy heated discussion between allotment gardeners. To dig or not to dig, that is the question. Plants, luckily, are more forgiving and they can survive as long as they have sun, water, food and somewhere half decent to place their roots. But the basics need to be laid down to give your plants the best start possible in life.
Your garden may well have challenging soil. Whether it’s sandy, rocky, hard clay or a mixture, the best solution here is a raised bed, or the no dig method. Much of plant development occurs in the shallower areas of the soil. The activity of microbes and worms helps the plant consume the nutrients it requires to grow. Most vegetables have anchor roots that will penetrate a wide variety of soils, as long as the upper structure is well supplied. Raised beds need not be complicated. A raised vegetable bed kit may not even be necessary, in a simple mound of good soil and compost, and daily watering, large growing plants such as courgettes (zucchini), squash, and pumpkins will do really well. You don’t need to invest in making raised beds if you’re just interested in growing these plants. However if the rest of your vegetable garden needs much more structure to withstand the elements and any enthusiastic pets and kids that share your house then please read on!
Materials: Garden Bed Edging
For most garden beds popular edging has to be old wooden railway sleepers. Railway sleepers are fairly easy to source, robust and for the construction of beds usually, they’re at ideal lengths. But you can use whatever comes to hand that can retain a depth of soil of at least one hand and a half. We have successfully used rocks, old scaffold planking and offcuts of wood. We’ve also used decking which has a nice look and ages well. A lot of lengths of wood can be recycled to make great edging and corrugated iron is also very popular. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. Just be sure to know how the wood has been treated. Due to the presence of wood preservatives such as coal tar, creosote or salts of heavy metals, using railroad sleepers requires a lot of buying diligence. This is because most older railway sleepers are treated with creosote which is a preserving chemical that is unsuitable for skin or food contact. Avoid chemical wood treatments for use in vegetable gardening – a good supplier will be able to tell you how their wood has been treated. Creosote free railway sleepers are available but they tend to be more expensive.
Size counts: Raised Beds Plans
Having decided on your construction material, you’ll now need to plan where you’ll site your bed, most importantly arrange the beds so that you need not walk on them and in a design that looks good in your garden. your next big decision is how large to make the beds. Don’t make them bigger than double your own arm’s length. Essentially, that means that you can maintain them and reach the middle of the beds without walking on the soil and causing compaction. When it comes to shape, triangles of wood are good, because they fit together with paths in between that looks nice and as a bonus are easy to maintain. Crops like sweet corn do well in triangles because pollination is improved. Traditional squares and rectangles have their place too, to fit into existing garden situations with little replanning. One of the most inefficient shapes in a small plot are large circles, however these can look good on a smaller scale are ideal as a feature especially for rampant herbs like mint and chives.
Raised Garden Bed Corners
Once you have decided how your beds should be shaped and positioned, simply place the edging material. Due to the soil adding pressure to the edging material you will need to secure the wood ends. Nails or gang nails, are generally used for keeping timber roof framing together, are cheap and strong. Secured at the corners strong roofing nails will stop soil spilling at the weak points of your bed. Hinges, recycled from other projects, will be handy to securely join wooden ends as hinges adapt to a wide range of angles of wood. Pre-drilling of harder woods, such as that in railway sleepers, may be necessary for the screw bolts. This is also true for metal braces or wooden supports that cross the angle from the top of the planks, for stability. You’ll need to purchase special bolts to secure railway sleepers together and you’re also likely to wear out quite a few drill bits while making the holes. Heavy sleepers will sit in place without the need for additional anchoring if you’re just using one layer, and soil and straw can be built up without movement of the edges – always remembering to take care with your back even the smallest railway sleeper needs two people to shift them.
Building up the beds: Raised Garden bed Soil
There are quite a few options for filling in your newly constructed raised bed. Line your new beds with old newspaper or thick (packing tape free) cardboard and make alternate layers of good organic material (compost, soil mix etc) and layers of straw. You can also fill them completely with rotted farmyard manure (cow manure is ideal for this!) and finish the beds with a thin layer of topsoil. Don’t use meadow hay unless you really like weeding: every seed will germinate! A bit of blood and bone and manure and you have paradise for your plants. Regularly top up with more organic material each season, you will have a self-perpetuating system for your vegetables that will be a easy to care for. Whatever you decide don’t fill you raised bed with just top soil, this will eventually compact under it’s own weight and you’ll have missed the opportunity to add deep layers of humus which makes no dig systems so successful and easy to grow plants.
By rotating your vegetable crops, and companion planting, your raised bed soil mix will encourage healthy earthworm activity and the previously undesirable soil below your construction will become improved without any more effort on your part.
Raised Bed Gardens: Worth the Effort
The ‘no dig’ method works best for smaller gardens with poor soils, for large plots it would require a lot more effort, but they do maximise the productivity for most small to medium spaces. Raised beds are also a good choice for wheelchair users and those with bad backs. If you like the layout of your beds, you can next complete your garden with permanent weed-free paths which can be laid between the beds, giving year round access to your easy-care garden. Make sure paths are wide enough for wheelbarrow access. From experience the 60 cm concrete pavers are the minimum size to use. I used 45 cm pavers once between beds and found access really hard once the plants were in full swing and overhanging the narrow paths making access for watering and harvesting really hard not to mention they shaded the plants in the bed next door! I’ve seen some very nice paths laid with sieved flint and gravel, ensure you put a think layer of weed matting between the soil and the gravel path.
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