Raised beds are ideal for growing a whole host of plants, and are particularly popular for cultivating fruits and vegetables. Adding one to your garden is straightforward and will provide a focus for your gardening efforts.
There are many benefits to including raised beds. Not only can they make an attractive feature, but they are also brilliant for people with bad backs and knees or mobility problems, as they reduce the amount of bending and kneeling.
Raised beds also provide the opportunity for customising the soil mix, allowing for you to grow plants that otherwise would not thrive in your garden, while starting with a weed-free base. Plus, the soil in raised beds warms earlier in the spring than in the ground, meaning you can get a head start on the growing season.
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What can I grow in raised beds?
Pretty much any small to medium-sized plant can be grown in raised beds, but they are typically used for fruits and vegetables, or for flowers where extra height is desirable for viewing or maintenance. Consider growing the following:
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- Root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and beetroot are ideal for growing in raised beds as you have greater control over the quality of soil, which should ideally be free from rocks to allow them to spread out. Potatoes also thrive in raised beds, as they like loose, well-drained soil.
- Leafy greens such as cabbage, lettuce and spinach don't like water-logged soil, and raised beds offer better drainage than the ground. The height also makes it easier to keep an eye on them and harvest the leaves.
- Crops with a long growing season, such as onions, are ideal for raised beds as the soil warms quicker than the ground, giving them a head start. They also like plenty of organic matter, which is easier to control in a bed.
- Berry fruits such as strawberries and raspberries are easy to pick from raised beds. You may also find it easier to add netting to protect the fruit from birds.
- Herbs are always useful for cooking and add scent to a bed. Some varieties make ideal companion plants; try teaming basil with tomatoes as they make a delightful culinary pairing in the kitchen while the basil wards off pests in the garden.
- Herbaceous perennials that die back in the winter are garden border heroes, and make ideal plants for raised beds too – especially where you want to grow your own cut flowers.
- Shrubs can also be grown in raised beds where you want to create structure to the garden.
- Plants that don't suit your native soil are ideal for growing in raised beds as you can create your own soil mix.
Should I build my own raised beds?
Building a raised bed is a job that can be tackled by most people on a DIY basis. However, there are a number of ready-made timber raised bed kits available that will help make the job a lot easier. Most of them arrive flatpacked and simply need to be assembled. Try these stores for quick delivery:
Alternatively, you could buy a raised planter or trug with legs that can be sited on your patio, to keep your produce closer to the house. These are also supplied as ready-to-assemble kits, and are a moveable, less permanent solution – although they will be heavy when filled with soil.
Where to position your raised bed
The location of a raised bed is of optimum importance, and will largely depend on what you wish to grow in it. Steer clear of low, wet areas where the soil gets water-logged, and ideally site it within reach of the hosepipe.
With all plants it's important to look at their individual needs, as some require more shade than others. However, not many plants thrive in deep shade. For growing vegetables, a site that receives sun for most of the day is ideal.
If you plan on building more than one raised bed, then you need to allow enough room between each one. Make sure there is space to kneel down between beds.
How to build a raised bed
Raised beds can be built from a variety of materials, most commonly timber, brick or stone. More skill is required to build a masonry bed, so you may want to hire a professional, although it is a long-lasting option that is particularly well suited to incorporating seating. If you want to be able to sit on the edge of your raised bed, it should be around 40-50cm high and the sides 20cm deep.
By far the easiest and quickest way to build your own raised bed is by using timber planks. These can be simple scaffolding boards, but to ensure the bed is as long lasting as possible, it is best to use treated softwood or a more durable hardwood such as oak or Western redcedar.
- Before building your bed, you need to make sure the site is completely level and clear of debris and vegetation.
- Stake out the corners of your bed with wooden stakes or posts, around 5x5cm. The size of the bed will depend on the length of your chosen planks, which are commonly anything between 1-4m in length. For long beds, add extra posts along the sides, every 1.5m. Avoid creating a bed that's wider than 1.5m, as you'll struggle to access the plants.
- To create the sides of your bed, screw or nail your planks to the posts, with the edges of the planks bedded around an inch into the ground.
- Beds laid on free-draining soil won't need drainage, but if built on poorly drained soil or on a solid base, you will need to add a layer of gravel, stones or rubble, covered with a geotextile membrane.
- Now you can fill your bed with soil (see below).
- You'll need to give your raised bed a couple of weeks to settle before planting it. After this time, the soil may need topping up.
Which soil is best?
The beauty of adding raised beds is that you can create the perfect soil blend for what you want to grow. For example, Mediterranean plants dislike heavy, clay soils, but you could grow them in a raised bed filled with gritty compost.
Whether the plant prefers acidic or chalky alkeline soil is also a key factor, as it needs to have the right pH balance. Acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons and hydrangeas will respond to ericaceous compost, whereas alkaline lovers such as lavender and geraniums may benefit from the addition of mushroom compost.
According to the RHS, a good soil mix includes organic matter to enrich it, plus sharp sand to ensure drainage – try a mix of 7 parts topsoil to 3 parts organic matter and 2 parts sharp sand.