More than just attractive features, raised beds offer the solution to many common gardeners’ woes, from sore knees to poor soil conditions. Widely used to grow fruits and vegetables, raised beds also look beautiful planted with flowers and shrubs, adding height and interest to the garden.
If you suffer from joint or mobility problems, then raised beds can be built at just the right height for you to plant and prune in comfort. You could even make the frame wide enough to double as a seat, from which you can take in the sights and scents of your garden.
Poor soil can be the undoing of any gardener’s grand plans, restricting plant choice and making maintenance a challenge. However, raised beds present the perfect opportunity to create your own weed-free soil base, tailored to the needs of the plants you really want to grow.
Which type of raised bed is best?
Adding raised beds to the garden is a relatively easy task, and there are a number of options depending on your budget and skill level.
The simplest solution is to purchase a flat-pack kit, where the wood or metal is cut to exactly the right size with predrilled holes for assembling in position. You’ll likely need some basic tools, such as a screwdriver and hammer, to build it.
Aside from ease, the advantage of buying a kit is that there is a good choice of designs available, so you can choose one that will best suit your garden. However, this is usually a more expensive option.
If you want a smaller, less permanent bed for growing a few herbs or lettuces, then invest in a raised planter or trug with legs. You can position one of these on your patio, perhaps close to the kitchen so you can easily access your crops while cooking.
When it comes to building raised beds on a DIY basis, the main options are wood and masonry. Wooden raised beds can be as simple as a few scaffolding boards or similarly sized timber planks screwed or nailed to corner posts. But designs can be as elaborate as you desire.
Masonry beds require more skill to build, so unless you intend to hire a handyman you’ll need to learn how to lay brick or stonework. However, this type of bed is a more permanent feature that can harmonise with the exterior of your house, and is ideal for incorporating seating.
What should I plant in a raised bed?
All but the largest of plants can be grown in raised beds, but certain kinds will benefit more than others. Here’s a few ideas:
- Salads and other leafy greens are more easily harvested from raised beds, especially cut-and-come-again varieties. These types of crops don’t like to sit in waterlogged soil, so raised beds make it easier to provide drainage.
- Herbs are perfect for raised beds and are generally low-maintenance plants. Why not dedicate a whole bed to a herb garden to provide a feast for the senses as well as the dinner table?
- Root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips do well in raised beds as they ideally need rock-free soil. You can also more easily net your crops to protect them from pests such as carrot fly.
- Flowers for cutting, such as sweet peas and dahlias, can be nicely zoned in their own beds, and you can ensure they have the optimum soil conditions for maximum blooms.
- Berry fruits, such as strawberries and raspberries, can be easily picked from raised beds, and protected from birds. Also, raspberries, blueberries and cranberries like acidic soil, so if yours is naturally alkaline you can fill a bed with lots of ericaceous compost.
- Onions and other crops with long growing seasons benefit from being in raised beds. The reason for this is that the soil warms more quickly than in the ground, so you can start growing two or three weeks earlier in the season.
- Evergreen shrubs create year-round interest and structure when planted in raised beds, and can make striking architectural features.
Positioning raised beds
Where you should position raised beds depends on what you want to grow in them, as each plant has its own requirements for light – from full sun to total shade. For most vegetables, you’ll need sun for a large portion of the day, but some crops will tolerate a bit of shade – try leafy greens, broad beans, carrots and beetroot.
Choose a site that is level or slightly raised, rather than at low level or in a dip that could become waterlogged. Conversely avoid overly sheltered spots or right next to a wall, as the bed will get less rainwater.
If you’re building more than one raised bed, make sure you leave enough space to kneel down between each one – half a metre should do it.
Getting the right soil type
One of the main advantages of creating raised beds is that you can create an optimum soil mix. This is particularly useful when you want to grow acid-loving plants, such as azaleas and camellias, but you have alkaline soil; or vice versa for alkaline-loving plants like thyme and lavender.
You can fill your beds with a mix of two thirds' multipurpose compost and a third garden soil or John Innes. You should also add organic matter.
For the most conscientious gardeners, the RHS advises that the ideal combination for raised beds is 7 parts topsoil to 3 parts organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, and 2 parts sharp sand.
Watering raised beds
Water in raised beds should drain much more quickly than in the ground, but this does mean the soil can dry out, so you’ll need to keep on top of watering in warm weather.
Mulching the soil will help to retain moisture and add nutrients, but if you have a lot of beds to water make sure you can access them with the hosepipe, or for the ultimate convenience fit a sprinkler or irrigation system. Where possible, use harvested rainwater.
Feeding raised beds
You can easily feed beds while you are watering them, using a water-soluble fertiliser. You usually need to do this fortnightly, though it’s important to take note of each plant’s preference.
Alternatively, for a more low-maintenance regime, use a slow-release fertiliser, which is sold as granules or pellets. Simply fork them into the soil early in the season and they will gradually release food during each watering.
It’s also worth applying blood, fish and bone just before the onset of spring and then again in mid summer.
A major benefit of raised beds is that it’s easier to protect crops from pests such as carrot fly, aphids and even birds. These creatures don’t need much encouragement to feast on plants and ruin your hard work.
To protect beds, simply add a post in each corner and drape protective netting, such as Enviromesh, over the top. Alternatively, you can opt for taller corner posts when you are initially building your raised beds.