By Sarah Giles
Growing vegetables in raised beds is becoming hugely popular – and with good reason. Because the soil is above normal ground level in them, even if only slightly, it warms up faster in spring, giving young plants a head-start. What’s more, it’s much easier to fertilise and monitor the soil in a raised bed than it is in the open ground. You can even bring in new soil altogether if you want to grow, for example, crops that prefer acid conditions but your normal garden soil is alkaline.
The beds can be as deep as you like – in their simplest form, they are just four wooden gravel boards nailed together with corner posts, giving you a working height of about 15cm, but of course you can also bring them right up to waist height if you prefer, using either wood or bricks. This is an especially good idea if you have a bad back or mobility problems, but deeper beds are inevitably more costly to install and to fill with soil or compost.
Getting started with your raised beds
You can choose to clear the area of weeds and grass before you lay down your raised bed or – a preference because it’s less hard work and usually more successful – you can follow the ‘no dig’ method. For this, simply lay a sheet of cardboard over the base of the raised bed, on top of any existing vegetation. Wet the cardboard thoroughly, then cover with a layer of soil or good potting compost to a depth of at least 15cm. Weeds and grass will quickly be smothered, and by the time any crops that need to get their roots down deep are big enough, they will easily be able to push through the decomposing layer of cardboard to the original soil below.
Raised beds can be installed on a hard base, such as concrete, too. But bear in mind that unless they are a good height, you won’t be able to grow long-rooted crops like parsnips. You’ll need to put a drainage layer in before adding soil or compost - 8cm of coarse gravel, stones or hardcore is ideal.
For more advice on building a raised bed, head to our guide. Once you’ve got your raised beds in place, these 10 veg crops will all work brilliantly in them – keep scrolling to find your favourites.
Seeds can be sown straight into your raised beds early in the spring, as lettuce doesn’t mind cooler weather. The warm soil in them means the salad plants will germinate quickly, and the plants will then be in full flow well before it’s time to start introducing other crops to the bed. If you pick individual leaves rather than pulling the whole plant, you should get four or five pickings from each lettuce. Sow new seeds until late June/early July and you’ll have fresh, home-grown leaves for most of the summer.
If it’s fast results you’re after, you can’t go wrong with a crop of radishes as they’re one of the quickest growing of all the veg crops you’re likely to plant – you’ll see their rosy-red shoulders appearing just a few weeks after sowing. Sow seeds at regular intervals from March to mid-August for a constant supply. You can never have too many radishes – did you know that as well as making a spicy addition to a salad, radishes are also great added to stir-fries?
Growing carrots in the open garden is near impossible if you have compacted or stony soil, as this will cause the roots to ‘fork’. In a raised bed, though, you can ensure the growing medium is just right for them. What’s more, carrot fly – the bane of all veg growers – can only fly very close to the ground, so growing your crop in a raised space puts paid to them immediately. Sow seeds from April to early July, and harvest a couple of months later.
They need good, rich soil and to be kept well-watered, both of which are much easier to achieve in the confines of a raised bed. They don’t need the soil to be deep, though, so long as they’ve got enough room for the roots to spread out horizontally (think how shallow a grow-bag is), so tomatoes are good even in the shallowest of raised beds. Sow seeds indoors in February and, depending on the weather, you could begin harvesting from early July. Find more tips on how to grow tomatoes in our guide.
This can be tricky to grow in the open garden but in a raised bed, where you can give it the light, open-textured growing medium it needs, it’s a doddle. Break open the bulb and separate the cloves, then plant them individually, pointy end up, in November (they need a period of cold to get going). In spring, they’ll be ready to harvest as fat new bulbs. Get more advice on how to grow garlic in our grow your own guide.
Picked at golf-ball size, home-grown beetroot is sweeter and more tender than any you’ve ever bought from a shop. The plants thrive in raised beds – just sow seeds directly into the soil or compost in early April and keep moist. Sow more seeds at two-weekly intervals until June and you’ll be harvesting beetroot over several months.
7. FRENCH BEANS
Any plant that grows up rather than out is a winner in a raised bed as it leaves you space to grow other things around it, so French beans trained up a wigmam are perfect. Choose a smaller variety, such as super-sweet, tender and reliable ‘Cobra’, or a fully dwarf variety like purple ‘Mistik’. Sow seeds in mid May and harvest about ten weeks later.
Peas work well in raised beds too, and are best trained up a netting support – install it along one side of the bed for best use of space. Pea seeds are often eaten by mice before they germinate outdoors, so sow them indoors in long ‘root trainer’ pots – with these, there’s less root disturbance (which peas hate) when you plant them out once they’re large enough to handle. Sow seeds in March and harvest from the end of June.
Just one plant will provide you with several courgettes a week over the whole summer. To save space, you can train a trailing variety up a wigwam rather than letting it creep along the ground - simply tie the main stem up a stake as it grows. Sow seeds indoors in April, plant out once the seedlings are big enough to handle and harvest about eight weeks later. Find more tips on how to grow courgettes in our expert guide.
10. THE THREE SISTERS
To really make the most of the space in one raised bed, try the clever combination known as The Three Sisters. Tall sweetcorn plants provide a support for climbing beans, while a squash plant scrambles around their feet, suppressing weeds and helping to shade the ground so that more moisture is retained. A good layer of well-rotted horse manure spread over the bed before your plants go in the ground is all that’s needed to give all three crops a boost. They should then supply you with an excellent harvest towards the end of summer. Perfect!
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