Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I Heart Raised Beds

Some of my new raised beds - with alliums, peas, lettuces and the globe shaped kind of carrots

My biggest and best project of the year so far has been converting part of my allotment to a no dig, raised bed system. A few sources of inspiration all converged last year to persuade me to finally take the plunge:
  • My visit to Charles Dowding and seeing no dig in action
  • Listening to Alys Fowler talk about her Edible Garden at a study day at Holt Farm last year and then reading her book. Inspirational stuff which has got me thinking very hard about the way in which I garden and keep my allotment
  • Finally getting around to using the raised bed kit I received as a giveaway from Garden Answers a couple of years ago and realising that little patch is soooooo much easier to maintain
So I invested in another six raised bed kits last summer. Unfortunately the bad weather meant I didn't get round to setting them up until late spring this year. I roughly cleared the allotted space of weeds and then laid a thick layer of cardboard with wetted newspaper on top to suppress any further weeds from coming through. I assembled each raised bed and then emptied out the contents of one compost bin into it. Luckily I have plenty of compost bins on the allotment. Unluckily the emptying bit was very hard work, but thankfully no worse than digging over my heavy clay.

The raised beds work well for me because my allotment's on clay and on a slope which faces in a southerly direction. Thus the soil I have in these beds warms up much more quickly and is easier to work. I planted out my new strawberry plants and onion sets in a matter of minutes this year and my allotment neighbours were so impressed by what they saw, they bought some raised beds too! Later this year I reckon I'll be able to plant out my garlic directly, instead of my usual over wintering in pots.

If life gives you weeds, then let them be useful red oak-leaf lettuces

Weeding the beds has been a revelation. When I mentioned I was converting to raised beds Helen Gazeley left a comment saying she has to question every seedling which pops up very severely. She's right, especially if like me you've used your own cold compost making to supply the bulk of the growing media. However, weeding is like going through butter. I've been reduced to tears some summers when trying to weed my concrete-like limey clay. Now I can whip through all seven beds in a mere afternoon.

Strawberries with their grass clipping mulch

In time I reckon I'll be able to reduce the time taken for weeding still further. I'm experimenting with mulching a couple of the strawberry beds using the grass clippings from mowing my allotment's paths. This was to see if it was a suitable straw substitute (the usual material placed around strawberry plants) and a possible way to reduce the amount of watering needed. It's worked for both of these, and with the added benefit of me finding only a couple of weeds in each bed, when the other 5 were awash with them. As a result I've also started using the clippings to help maintain a weed-free area around each raised bed.

I also believe my crops have been much healthier this year. There's no sign of rust on any of my alliums (though that might be due to all kinds of other factors) and I'm certainly looking at much higher yields even though my crops are spaced much more closely together than is recommended. I'm also trialling biochar + compost bin growing media vs compost bin growing media only on some of the alliums this year. Once they've been harvested in the next couple of weeks or so, then I'll be trialling lots of different quick-growing leaves using seed tapes. I'll keep you posted on the results from both of these trials later.

A moribund set of crops because I used up the dregs from my compost bins - contrast with the
couple of onions you can see in the bed next door which were planted at the same time

It's not been a total success. Here is a visual warning about using up the dregs of all your compost bins to provide the growing media for your final raised bed. It wasn't as crumbly and was much more clayey than the material I'd used for the other ones. As a result the crops in this one aren't growing so well and need much more watering than my other raised beds do. Serves me right for being so impatient to get everything started and too mean to buy something better ;)

Raised beds like these aren't the full solution for my allotment. As you can see they're only six inches deep, so I'd need much deeper ones if I were to include no dig for growing my potatoes and other deep-rooted crops. They're not suitable for the areas where I have couch and bramble either unless I do lots more work to clear them out first (this also applies if you have bindweed, horsetail or Japanese knotweed on your plot). If your plot has a sandy soil, then you'll also need to weigh up the reduced advantages of raised beds (your soil will be far more workable than mine from the outset) plus all the extra watering you'll need to do. 

However, on the whole and especially in my GYO circumstances, raised beds get a huge thumbs up from me.

What's your most successful project so far this year?

23 comments:

  1. Sophie Cussen has kindly been in touch via email as she couldn't comment on my blog this morning. Sophie, it might be because I disabled anonymous commenting whilst I was on holiday, I'll follow up with you later to see what the problem is and if it can be sorted out.

    Sophie deserves a link to her blog, The Forget-Me-Not Cultivation Blog as a thank you :) NB she has free seeds on offer at the moment!

    Here's her comment:

    I love raised beds, I am a big supporter of them. It's really great to see them being used on an allotment as well because presumable all that digging required on 'usual' bed system is enough to send anyone nuts! It'll be interesting to hear if you manage to get more crops produced within the smaller area?

    Good luck with it all.

    Best wishes,
    Sophie


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sophie - so far my crops are shaping up to be much higher yielding than usual with a much closer spacing. Of course what I should have done is to have added another trial bed in soil only to see if the raised beds are making the difference, or if it's this year's growing conditions.

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  2. They look like 'link-a-board' raised beds, so you can add to the height of them. I've just done that with my first veg bed in my new home. They are neat, easy to manage, and as you say, very easy to weed. I 'heart' raised beds too!

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    Replies
    1. Well spotted Gwenfar :) The recycled plastic they use seems to help with soil warming too, another plus point I forgot to mention!

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  3. Blimey Michelle, these beds looks very tempting indeed! I built some raised beds for free, recycling old pallets, but after 3 or 4 years they are crumbling, so these raised bed kits look like a great solution and much less work (although not free!).
    I followed Charles Dowding's example last year and grew spuds on top of grass, just piling compost on top of the potatoes rather than digging them into my (also heavy clay) soil. This worked a treat, so I think potatoes could grow equally well in your new raised bed using Charles Dowdings no dig method-although you do need a fair amount of compost to pile on top.
    Love your red oak leaf lettuce weeds!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Naomi - I would have gone down the pallet route too, but that freebie one crumbled my resolve. I'm spending this year getting my plot on lines which will enable me to continue to look after it for the next 20 years, so on that basis I think these raised beds are worth the investment. I also got a good deal on them in last year's sales!

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  4. Awesome post Michelle as always

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  5. I use raised beds in the veg patch and am slowly converting all of the ground to raised beds. I find they are higher yeilding and much easier on my back!

    Mine are recycled HDPE and are made by Garland

    Mulching with grass clippings - only problem I can think of is if you are using the grass when green, as it can scorch the plants - but I don't think you would do that :)

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Hi Compostwoman - the plants are scorch free :)

      Having mulched everything in sight, I'm now using the clippings to suppress weeds on the paths between the beds :)

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  6. I'm a great fan of raised beds too. We've built two large ones on our sloping site, two more to come.
    Love the idea of the grass clipping mulch. Have you noticed whether it has any effect in keeping slugs off the strawberries?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's hard to say re your slug question - it's been so dry so there haven't been that many around. Judging by previous year's and their tendency to lurk under the grass at the side of the plot, I'd say that slugs might turn out to be a problem with this method. I'll keep your question in mind for a future post!

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  7. I started making raised beds from bricks I had (left-overs from when my mother built her house). When they were used up, I bought raised bed kits. I love them!
    I'm still keeping an eye out for stray bricks - sometimes non-gardening people give left-over bricks away, or sell them very cheap, just to get them off their property. What a deal!
    Have a wonderful day!
    Lea
    Lea's Menagerie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was collecting bricks for the same reason Lea! However, I've never accumulated enough as I always find other uses for them!

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  8. I had to have raised beds, Michelle, as the central "veg patch" garden here was cleared of cotoneaster and weeds before we could start, and those were growing in bark chippings over London clay! We have wooden beds, initially filled with council compost, and everything grows really well. One mistake we made was to lay the beds over weed suppressing membrane - I've removed it where I could as it stops the worms doing their work. I just top up the beds every year with more compost (own or shop bought) and have always had good results. The raised brick borders are my headache - soooooo many weeds! Now THAT's where we should have put weed suppressant! PS my potatoes are grown in sacks, but I like Naomi's idea of growing them on grass!

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    1. Hi Caro - always good to hear about your experiences :) I've also tried Naomi's trick this year, but I don't think I got the depth of material right, so I'll be trying again next year. Good point re topping up the beds, I'll have to do that once I've harvested the alliums.

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  9. We had similar raised beds for years, but they were made of wood and finally rotted out. Late last summer we replaced them with 4’ round livestock watering tanks. The tanks are waist-high on me (I’m 5’2”) so now I don’t even have to bend over to weed! We live in a Maritime climate (Seattle, WA) and so we tend to have cool, overcast weather. The new tanks warm up quickly and my tomato plants have good-sized green tomatoes on them :D

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Hi Kath - your tanks sound wonderful! A few houses ago, I had an old water tank in the garden. I so wish I'd bought it with me, I could have used it several times over!

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  10. You must be so pleased VP. Allotment neighbour and I both use raised beds and reckon you can pack

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  11. Ooops - was going to say that you can plant more closely than recommended as long as you feed well :)

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    Replies
    1. Feeding's been OK so far Anna, as I've used fresh compost. I reckon I'll need to add some chicken manure ready for the next crops though.

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  12. I had a fab picture and email from Wendy showing the raised beds on her rooftop veg plot in London. Sadly I can't show you her picture, but here's her email:

    Hi!
    Thanks for your raised beds article. I thought you might like to see the verdant abundance that I've managed to coax out of six inches of soil. (On my rooftop vegplot) The revelation for me last year was how well climbers do in such a shallow bed. (Especially nitrogen fixers). So you can see that this summer I've increased the trellises and wigwams for peas, climbing French beans, runner beans, climbing courgette and cucumbers.
    If you have pesky perennial weeds, just lay your beds down on horticultural matting, it lets water percolate, but will deter the most intrusive of roots.
    And it's much easier to improve the soil in a raised bed.
    Mine have leaky pipes buried in them.
    I can happily send you a list of the stuff I grow well in a shallow root run. And the stuff that doesn't. Surprisingly radishes don't do so well!
    Best wishes,
    I always enjoy your posts!

    Here's a link to Wendy's Roof Top Veg Plot blog :)

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  13. It's always interesting seeing what other people have been doing.

    This year was my first attempt at growing my own veg. I've never been much of a gardener so it was more a contrived experiment than anything that was particularly well planned. I'd grown some Apache chillis from a kit on the living room windowsill and had decided I wanted to be more adventurous on that front, this progressed to tomatoes, peas, beans, beet leaves and root veg with mixed success. Our back garden is largely paved so I put a variety of pots and tubs out. I was also given one of those plastic greenhouses that helped the seedlings, sadly the winds knocked it down and the cover is folded up in the shed whilst the frame is stacked at the back of the garden. It may need replacing entirely.

    We did well with our potatoes and enjoyed plenty of meals from them. I only planted a handful of pea and bean plants but they gave a reasonable crop per plant. The birds decimated the perpetual spinach, beetroot, radishes and even the carrot tops so we only got to enjoy the perpetual spinach for the first month of growth. The beet and chard never got a chance. They even had a go at the chilli plants but I got a sizable crop from the jalapenos, Santa Fe Grandes and Ring of Fires. The cherry tomatoes did well too.

    We've dug up some of the paving slabs and turned them on their side to make a raised bed for the coming summer but unfortunately due to their age and composition they've cracked and fallen so instead we're looking at assembling wooden kit form beds in the same area http://www.woodblocx.co.uk/blocxbox2475x1500x450mm-p-1609.html

    Rather handily we have been able to scoop up several barrows full of dead leaves from the ground in the nearby park so we've spread this over the exposed soil and poured the contents of this year's used growbags and tubs over the top. A friend has also offered to drop a few sackfulls of well rotted horse manure around.

    I pledge to make a more organised attempt with the veg this year. Although we used netting over half of the plants the sparrows were sneaking in so next time around we'll make sure the netting is more secure. We're also hopeful that slightly denser arrangements of plants in the larger container as opposed to lots of small pots will help. Certainly the chilli plants that were clustered together did better than the isolated ones.

    In the meantime I've got some winter radishes and parsnips that I'm hoping will be of a reasonable size.

    ReplyDelete

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