Tall raised beds are a perfect solution for gardeners who are physically disadvantaged but can offer real advantages to all gardeners, as they provide real scope for fertility and healthy root development.
As we get older and less mobile or have problems with our backs, less bending down reduces back strain, as well as enabling us to keep growing our own produce.
This is when extra-tall raised beds really come into their own, although wooden raised beds are always a great way to grow commonly used plants, vegetables, fruit, and herbs conveniently on your patio. Rather than us having to bend down to the vegetables, we can effectively bring the vegetables up to us, making it much easier to use, manage and maintain our raised beds.
They can also easily be located in a convenient site at the back of the house for easy access while maintaining good levels of sunshine, shade, and shelter, which can maximize vegetable and fruit yields.
When constructing the raised beds
One of the first things we need to think about before constructing our beds is their ease of use for us, and it’s important that we take into account just how tall we need the top of the bed to be ‒ for a sensitive back, hip height is usually about right.
Of course, a bed that might be perfect for someone who is five feet tall would be far too low for someone who is six foot six inches tall, but the great thing about these beds is the fact that they can be adjusted to suit the height of the prospective user.
It’s also very important when considering the construction that you remember that you will not be able to reach quite as far across, so working on a maximum of no more than twice the reach you have is generally a good rule of thumb.
For most people, the reach will be about 2-3 feet, so the maximum width for your bed should be approximately 4‒6 feet, or you could construct a square bed with 6 feet sides, which would still give you reasonable access to the center. Having a long reach, I grow in one bed with internal dimensions of 6.5 × 6.5 feet.
Raised beds can be made from wooden planks or purchased as pre-sized kits of wooden blocks. Some can even be customized for size and height. Alternatively, heavy-duty railway sleepers could be used, and these can be designed so you can sit on the sides of the bed, allowing you to work on it in comfort. I grow in all of these types of beds, and they have all been very successful.
In addition, adding fixing points or brackets for adding netting hoops, cages, protective fleece, or netting makes it simple to keep your crops extra safe from pests, the elements, and birds.
Tools for your raised beds
When gardening in a raised bed, it’s not just a matter of being able to reach into the bed with your hands; the tools you will use for a tall raised bed will be quite different from those you might use for everyday gardening ‒ long handles can be particularly unwieldy when working at a taller height, whilst most of our hand tools like hand weeders are easier with slightly longer than usual handles.
There are also a number of specialist tools designed for working in raised beds, and they are far easier to use. Critically, you won’t need a lot of tools; my own three essentials are a hand hoe for keeping the beds weed-free, a hand trowel with an overall length of around 15 inches for planting and adding compost, and a small hand cultivator/rake for loosening soil prior to planting or adding the feed.
Raised beds have a distinct advantage over and above your standard garden vegetable plot when it comes to the usual pests ‒ the simple fact that beds are raised makes them less prone to attack from certain insects. Carrot root flies, for example, tend not to fly over 17 inches above the ground, so become far less of a problem.
Filling the raised beds
When filling the beds, remember that you have a very deep bed, and you will ideally want to make maximum use of all of that growing space. The best way I have found to fill the beds ‒ especially if they are taller than 17 inches ‒ is to fill them first of all with a bale of hay or straw, which will create a gentle hotbed when you first start to use the bed.
Hay and straw are both cheap and readily available and will break down slowly, adding fertility to your bed. This is much better than just filling the bottom of the bed with rubble, which really adds little to a bed’s productivity.
On the top of the bale, we then put layers of green waste, compost, or well-rotted manure, and if you have either any used grow bags or multi-purpose compost, you can put that in layers as well. It’s a bit like building up a lasagne bed in layers, leaving 6‒8 inches at the top of the bed, although if growing in lower beds, we would regard this single layer as our entire growing depth.
The top layer is where we are going to sow our crops, and it’s certainly well worth investing in quality compost to cover the top layer. Ideally, what you want is compost designed for growing vegetables and fruit throughout the season. Normal multi-purpose compost is designed to grow in for just a short period of time, but there are specialist composts out there.
The soil in raised beds often warms earlier in the season, and stays warm for longer periods than traditional ground beds, and by using this particular method to fill our beds, we can start the process with a gentle hotbed effect.
Raised beds tend to get more sun and retain more heat without dispersing it into surrounding areas, as the sides of the beds also absorb the sun’s rays. The wood surrounding the soil effectively helps to retain and maintain the heat, thus encouraging better plant growth.
Because the bed is filled in this way, overwatering is also less of an issue, and you’ll get a greater amount of moisture throughout the bed to encourage perfect growth. If watering with a can or hose, it’s quick and simple, or you can install soaker hoses for easy management that require very little input from you once set up, but produce great yields.
As the bale of hay or straw slowly composts down, your bed will begin to sink, but it will sink at such a rate that you can either top up the surface between crops with compost or you can mulch your bed around any growing crops. The process will give you sufficient time to make lots of your own compost or to collect well-rotted leaf mould or very well-rotted manure to use as a mulch.
Because we’re growing in what is, in effect, a large container, it can also be very beneficial to add some rock dust to make sure you have all the available minerals present in your growing medium. And fish, blood, and bone is always a good feed to add, as it covers most of the needs for the majority of commonly grown crops.
One advantage of using well-rotted manure during the original construction of your bed is the fact that you will be putting worms into the bed. Worms mean that each time you add a mulch as a top-dressing, the worms take the compost down to the lower levels, aiding drainage and putting nutrients into the root zone of your growing vegetables.
So, you will only ever need to fill it completely once at the very beginning. It doesn’t even matter whether your bed is on soil or on a solid base such as concrete; using this method will create the best possible growing environment for crops.
Tips for growing plants in raised beds
Beds such as this are perfect for growing in what is known as “square-foot gardening,” where the bed itself is divided up into equal squares, with different items planted into each square. Starting each crop off in modules, or buying plants in, also means there should never be any empty or unused space in the bed, as we can replace and replant as soon as we crop each vegetable, thus maximizing our returns.
Because you’re growing in a smaller space than a normal open-bed vegetable garden, it’s also worth concentrating on crops that are either difficult or impossible to obtain from your normal vegetable suppliers or crops that are simply very expensive when you can obtain them.
That way, you are at least getting the maximum return from your small space. For instance, winter salads are fantastic if you can go outside and pick them from your own garden, and picking them leaf by leaf will extend the growing season rather than just pulling each one up for a single meal or two. Much of the salads available in the shops in winter are flown vast distances to get here and are often relatively tasteless.
We can also incorporate flowers along the edge of our beds for decoration (or even edible flowers, if you wish), and herbs like rosemary or winter savory will cascade happily over the sides. Edible flowers certainly work very well in a ‘mix and match’ growing system, as they give us color and flavor but often also attract beneficial insects.
Various types of fruit will also grow well in a raised bed environment, as you can tailor the soil to suit them with less difficulty than in an open bed. Exquisite tasting “Fraises des Bois” strawberries can be grown underneath blueberry bushes, as both grow well in ericaceous (acidic) soils, and the strawberries will be happy in the shade provided by the taller blueberries.
This article was submitted by David Peters.
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