Installing a high raised bed: Garden update

I’ve decided to put in a high raised bed on one side of the back garden. We are still working on the drainage problem and I will write a lengthy article about this once it’s all sorted. Part of my waterlogged clay drainage plan is to build a high raised bed (30cm tall by 2m wide by 1m deep) which can accommodate a whole load of the displaced soil from other areas of the garden (it should take about 0.6 metric tons of soil, if you put those measurements into a calculator).

This came about because we have about 3 tons of soil that’s been displaced from digging 50 metres of drainage trenches around the garden. The soil type we have is heavy clay soil, and although we have a south-facing garden, the fence at the bottom is 4 metres high so that part of the garden is in shade for most of the morning, and even in this heat (I measured a 45 degree ground temperature two days ago) the clay soil just can’t dry out because behind the 4 metre high fence is a huge garden whose ground level is 2m above our ground level.

This means all the water from their garden comes to ours. Their garden is the lowest on their street (the street goes uphill from there) so we’re getting water from about 20 houses percolating into our back lawn.

It’s squelchy.

Even with the drainage ditches (which have created a beautiful stream water feature in our garden), it’s too waterlogged to grow anything useful or interesting. And I can’t have a pond and a water garden because I have a toddler (and will soon have 2 under 2) who can drown in an inch of water.

So instead I’m building up. The positive about clay is, it’s fantastic for holding nutrients in the soil for plants. It’s just the drainage that’s an issue. So I’m making adjustments to the soil (more on that later) to make it drain better.

The plan is to grow onions over winter in this raised bed, or to plant green manure (to fertilise it naturally), and dig that in, ready for squash or pumpkin planting next year.

Being quite pregnant, a very raised bed is great because it means less bending over to work with my plants. I used offcuts of recycled wood and built each side separately (long sides are 2 metres by 30cm, short sides are 1m by 30cm). Once each side has been made, you can nail them together using square chunks of wood in each corner to give them stability and strength.

First of all, I prepared the site by laying down some thick (but not waterproof) weed control fabric (aka weed proof membrane) to kill the grass and weeds that were already here. The membrane stops the sunlight getting to the grass and it dies because it can’t photosynthesize.

There was a lot of moss in this area and weed control fabric isn’t much use for that. However, iron sulphate works well for moss. Usually, iron sulphate is used to acidify soil (to make so-called ericaceous soil, suitable for erica, heather, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, citrus plants and other acid-needing plants). Since moss thrives in waterlogged alkaline conditions (especially in shady areas), acidifying the soil can help with this.

My problem with this method was, when the soil is this waterlogged, all that will happen is the water will dilute the iron sulphate until it’s not very effective (any acid or alk. We would need to drain the area before using that remedy on the moss. Instead, I dug over the whole area after removing the weed control fabric so the moss was dug into the soil. It needs light (even a little bit) and oxygen to survive so this was another effective way of getting rid of it.

The wood needs to be thick enough to hold a ton of soil and remember, that soil will be wet, which will shorten the life of the wood if it’s untreated. However, untreated wood is better for your plants because the chemicals from treatments can leach into the soil. With a large bed this is less of an issue.

The structure was easy to make and here’s instructions, if you want to make one, too.

Instructions for making a high raised bed:

You will need:

6 pieces of wood (length 2m, width 2cm, height 10cm)

6 pieces of wood (length 1m, width 2cm, height 10cm)

4 square corner posts (length/width 5-ish cm, height 30cm)

12 screws or nails

Method:

Step 1: Attach 3 pieces of 2 metre wood to 2 of the square corner posts, using one corner post at each end of the wood. Repeat this step with the other 3 pieces of 2 metre wood and the other two corner posts. These are the two long sides of the bed.

Step 2: Attach 3 pieces of 1 metre wood to one square posts at the end of each long side. These will make the short sides of the bed. Repeat with the final 3 pieces of 1 metre wood. See diagram above (the green lines are the square posts and the grey dots are nails or screws).

Step 3: Put your bed where you want it. That’s it!

Once the whole structure was complete, I sited it in the ground. I left a 6-inch (15cm) gap between the end of the bed and the fence, to protect the fence and to ensure better drainage from the higher garden behind ours (I don’t want their garden draining into my onion bed haha).

Because I used recycled wood, one of the long sides has an extra piece of wood nailed on the inside that doesn’t appear on the plans.

Next, I filled it with soil. This soil was all extra stuff from digging drainage trenches all around the garden, so if we didn’t find a use for it, we would have to figure out how to dispose of it, which seemed weird, because it’s soil.

The soil needed to be adjusted to it useful for growing plants, which involved adding sand and manure. The sand will improve drainage and the manure will increase the nutrients available for plants. You can’t use just any old sand, however, and there are several ways of adjusting soil.

You also need to take care not to use the soil too soon after you’ve made adjustments to it, because the repaired soil needs time for its structure to change after you’ve worked on it. I’ll go into detail on how to adjust your soil in another article.

I removed the turf all around the bed, too, and replaced this with gravel for better drainage and access to the bed. Clay soil suffers badly from compaction when it’s waterlogged, and walking on it will literally damage the peds (the individual cells of soil) by making them platy, so they can’t absorb water, which makes the waterlogging worse.

Compacted soil also makes it hard to grow anything. You can see this out and about if you’ve ever walked past a farm gate where cows have stood around, compacting the soil with their hooves. In summer, when that soil dries out, there will usually be a bare patch around the gate where things don’t grow so well. Compacted soil can produce dangerous conditions around farm animals (especially cows) as their feet can get stuck in it and then they might get injured.

In a garden, the main issue with compaction around walkways (where you’re not growing your flowers or vegetable crops anyway) is that it looks really unsightly. It also usually produces a very sticky mud that attaches itself to your shoes and refuses to let go, resulting in lots of scrubbing to get them clean!

Overall, then, soil compaction is not great for a number of reasons, and it’s best to avoid it wherever possible.

Switching the turf for gravel around this bed should also reduce the chance of excessive grass/weed growth around the edge of the bed, which has been a problem with my much smaller (120cm by 120cm by 15cm high) bed which is currently housing most of my crop for this year.

Also, the gravel looks pretty and will mean I can work on the bed without having to wear wellies to keep my feet dry!

So there you have it, that’s how we changed this dark, squelchy corner of the garden into a large high raised vegetable bed.

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

Bees have been in decline for about the past 15 years. I believe it was 2006 when David Tennant uttered the immortal line on Doctor Who: “Why are the bees disappearing?”

It was a question they never answered. Because no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no noisy battle with the Daleks could fix the problem. The bees ARE disappearing.

And here’s why: Human interference. For centuries, we have systematically gone on a campaign of building, and humanity’s collective footprint has become far greater than our ancestors could ever have imagined.

There are plenty of green spaces outdoors, but they’re the wrong kind of spaces for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. We have acres and acres of monotone green grass verges, green roundabouts, green front gardens which we mow weekly to keep it to a socially-acceptable height. We’re more worried about offending the neighbours than preserving the insects who literally keep us alive.

Without pollinators, the plants will stop growing. They will die out. Then we will die out. Even meat-eaters.

So making your garden a haven for pollinators is quite important. Here’s five tried-and-tested ways to do it (even in small gardens).

  1. Plant a buddleia (aka buddleja): This shrub is also known as the butterfly bush for a reason! In full bloom, the buddleia’s fluffy-looking flowers attract dozens of butterflies and bees.
  2. Mow your lawn less often: Switch to a two-week schedule instead of weekly in the fast-growing summer months. This encourages things like clover, daisies and buttercups to grow in your grass, all of which will attract bees (and look amazing).
  3. Put up a bee hotel: This is a specially designed place a bit like a birdhouse but especially for bees. In the circular holes in the wooden structure, solitary bees can hang out. You can buy a bee hotel online.
  4. Put up a butterfly hotel: Like a bee hotel, except this one has long, thin entrances designed for butterflies (and to keep out things that might harm them).
  5. Dedicate a section of your garden as a wildflower area. You can either do this by not mowing your lawn in certain areas or by scattering wildflower seeds in a dedicated flower bed or container. Packets of wildflower seeds are perfect for cultivated land like lawns and gardens. Do be careful of scattering wildflower seeds in woodlands or other public spaces, however, as they can force out native species of flowers.

So there you have it, five ways you can attract pollinators into your garden and make your lawn a friendly space for these vital species! Have you done any of these? Let me know in the comments!

Container gardening update

So my back garden is now baked solid with its clay soil, and all my vegetable crops are in containers or my 120cm-squared (four foot square) raised bed. Here’s an update on how it’s all going!

My goal is to be self-sufficient although that’s not likely this year since I struggled to buy many of the seeds I wanted to grow, couldn’t buy many containers to put it all in, and the soil here was too poor to plant most things straight into the ground (waterlogged clay that goes solid in summer).

So far this year I’ve managed to start the following plants from seed:

Spaghetti squash x2

Courgette x6 (2 surviving currently)

Purple sprouting broccoli (one square foot of broccoli)

Tomatoes (tumbling Tom variety) x4

Peas (one square foot of peas)

Onions (from bulbs) (four x 1 square foot in the raised bed, plus a container of bad clay soil).

Lavender (one propagator full)

Echinacea x8

Sunflower x2

Results so far are as follows:

The vegetables:

The spaghetti squashes are probably the hardest to grow and definitely the least resilient. They insist on growing really tall and curly, they refuse to stay attached to the poles I fixed them to. One of them has a stem which has split open in two places when I tried to re-attach it to the pole again. I don’t see it surviving to the end of the week. How these plants survive in the wild is anybody’s guess. Maybe they’re a very cultivated hybrid.

The first batch of courgettes died immediately when planted out in early May. I now know they have to stay indoors longer and be put out later. The second batch of two courgettes were planted out yesterday into the raised bed, 60cm apart (as per the instructions on the packet) and seem to be doing fine so far despite being smaller and younger when I planted them out than the first batch were.

The first batch of purple-sprouting broccoli was in mint condition when I put it out a month ago. Since then, it established itself with some difficulty. Then a bird ate it and now it has no leaves but it still seems to be alive. I don’t know if they will grow back. The second batch of broccoli went out yesterday. I need to get some netting or something to keep birds away.

The tomatoes have been easy to grow. No special treatment. They just sat on my kitchen windowsill forever until it was warm enough to plant them out. They are now happily sitting in containers and two of them have tiny green fruits developing while all of them have yellow flowers. The main issue with them was ensuring they were in big enough pots to grow as much as they liked.

The peas were also easy. This is my second year growing dwarf peas and I know this time that they need to be picked when the pods are small.

The onions are all doing great. The ones in the good soil in the raised bed are about 5 inches taller than the ones in the container full of bad clay soil. So that’s busted the myth that onions prefer bad soil. But it also proves that they can grow in waterlogged clay soil with no major issues they’re just a little smaller.

The fruit plants:

The blueberry bush is flowering in its container. I don’t think we’ll get fruit this year but I may be surprised. I bought the plant in December and kept it indoors until April. You can’t change the container or re-plant a blueberry bush in May and it was a bit of a mission to get it outside in time for the end of April, due to my hyperemesis gravidarum being in full swing in April and through May. I think we were saved a bit by the cold May this year.

The blackberry bush is also happy in a container. I’m thinking of keeping it in a container even if we can make the necessary soil adjustments, just because blackberry bushes can be quite invasive (the brambles at my old house in York produced incredible berries that made great jam but OMG they grew fast and suddenly were everywhere, which seemed to offend my mother-in-law who tried to rip them out).

The two dwarf cherry trees I bought last March are still happy in their pots. They are living at the front of the house for the time being until I can plant them somewhere permanent. They are self-fertile but I think they enjoy each other’s company.

The Flowering Herbs

In an amazing surprise, I went to weed the cherry tree containers yesterday and discovered some chamomile growing in there. I’ve tried to uproot it and re-plant it in its own pot, but I think a good amount of the root snapped off so time will tell whether the chamomile will re-root or not. I’m really pleased about finding it because it must have seeded from the chamomile I grew last year, which I was sad about leaving in a hedgerow to mark a rabbit grave.

In another surprise, my echinacea has sprouted, and a second seed sprouted in the same pot, so I carefully re-planted that in its own pot about three weeks ago and it’s established itself really well since then. Both echinacea plants are thriving and I can’t wait to see the flowers. Echinacea is THE hardest plant to grow from seed in the UK/Ireland. I have two more pots with seeds in on the windowsill in the downstairs bathroom but I am not expecting them to sprout since I planted them over a month ago. We’ll see.

And my lavender, also notoriously difficult (but not echinacea-hard) to grow from seed, was finally ready to move outside today. It’s actually looking like lavender, now (very tiny lavender) which is so exciting! I learned this week that lavender won’t flower until its second year, which may explain why it’s so expensive to buy flowering lavender plants in the shops.

Only one of my two sunflowers has sprouted but it’s thriving and I moved it into a bigger pot two days ago. I’m hoping we can harvest and store the seeds as they’re one of my favourite sources of protein.

So that’s my gardening update, how is yours coming along? Let me know in the comments!

First harvest of the summer

unripe blackberries
Unripe blackberries… these have got 2 or 3 days to go before they’ll be ripe.

ripe blackberries
Ripe blackberries… totally different to blackcurrants (but everyone thinks they’re the same thing), blackberries grow wild on brambles; I love having them in my garden.

I just had a stressful 4-day visit from the housework police in-laws (mother-in-law’s line of questioning included such gems as “why don’t you knock a wall down between your toilet and your kitchen?” and “why did you do an archaeology degree?” and “can I rip out all the brambles, you don’t want those brambles!” oh, and my favorite, “you might die before [my husband/her son]; I know plenty of people who got cancer and died in their 30s”), despite that, I am feeling like a goddamn domestic goddess…Perhaps a lesser known one, such as the goddess of drinking tea, or the goddess of sitting in the house on sunny days watching re-runs of I Love Lucy instead of hitting my daily word count.

I don’t know, anyway, I went out to collect some of this year’s harvest from all those plants I keep trying to grow, and this was the results:

blackberries
Blackberries, potatoes and baby carrots.

 

As you can see, the blackberry crop is doing extremely well. The carrots are very small because I basically emptied an entire packet of carrot seeds into a container and sprinkled soil over the top. Yesterday I plucked out about 1 in 2 of them and, of the ones I pulled out, I moved most of them to two new containers of soil (the ones the dead peas were in) and the ones that wouldn’t fit anywhere were in this picture, I topped and tailed them, then cooked and ate them. The potatoes were originally Red Roosters and Charlottes, but some of them cross-bred so now I have brown potatoes with red spots. I only lifted as many potatoes as I wanted for one meal, so there’s tons more tatties in the garden.

I’m getting another planter this week in the hope of planting mizuna (leafy greens) this week and I’m considering starting some cabbages or Brussels sprouts maybe for over winter; these are the last two weeks to plant them until next year.

Things which were unsuccessful: Peas – I totally overestimated how much sunshine they needed and they shriveled and died even in the non-stop cloud we’ve had, I didn’t know to water them extra. Coriander (cilantro) – I keep buying packs of cori seeds and they keep turning out to be parsley. Weird. Leafy plants – Any leafy plants (including zucchini/marrows) seem to get ravaged by creepy crawlies, even though I keep doing everything I can about them. The only thing with leaves that survived was 3 of the 4 sunflowers I planted, but it’s not time to pick the seeds yet, so I will show you next month. Sweetcorn didn’t even try to grow, it never even sprouted.  I’m considering cloches for next year’s leafy plants.

Next year, I want a blueberry bush and a cherry tree to move us closer to being self-sufficient, especially since fruit is so expensive.

Raindrops on Roses: Weekly Photo Challenge

I looked out at the ethereal water droplets bathing the garden and I couldn’t help myself.  I had to go out and get soaked taking these pictures. This is my entry for the Weekly Photo Challenge since the theme is Spare and the sky had all this spare water in it (so it rained a lot):

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – tiny snail nestled amidst the petals.

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – an adamant ant.

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – and leaves too!

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – the drip is about to fall

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – screw the roses, give me the thorns (!)

Raindrops on Roses invoke delight and inspire
Raindrops on Roses – the water has turned this rosebud into a glimmering jewel.

Seen anything wonderful today?

BUNNY SANDWICH SHOCK AS GARDENERS MOW LAWN

Katie, left and Fifer, right, made a bunny sandwich with another rabbit.
Katie, 3, left and Fifer, 1, right, made a bunny sandwich with another rabbit.

Gardeners in York today were left shocked after three rabbits piled on top of each other to make a bunny sandwich, on what is set to be the most overshadowed Rabbit Awareness Week of the Year, since it has clashed with Mental Health Awareness Week.

The three rabbits, known locally as Fifer, Katie and Sebastian, all of Heworth, York, were said to have suddenly snuggled up at the same time. One local lawn mower, who asked not to be named, said: “I was just getting ready to cut my grass, when I heard a noise from over the fence. I looked over, and there were three rabbits just piled on top of each other, fast asleep. I couldn’t believe nobody had put them on Youtube.”

Sebastian, 10, photo from file.
Sebastian, 10, photo from file.

Jim, 37, was making a cup of tea when he heard the commotion. “I dropped my spoon and ran outside, but I was too late. They had already piled on top of each other. When I tried to take a photo, someone started a lawnmower, and the rabbits startled and fled.”

Pet rabbits have a history of cute behaviour, showing up regularly on the front of birthday cards and being the mascot for Easter. Set to outperform cats and dogs this year, they are the fastest-growing pet in the UK, according to Pets At Home. The overlap of Mental Health Awareness Week and Rabbit Awareness Week is particularly unfortunate, since many people experiencing mental health problems find a houserabbit to be a therapeutic and soothing pet.

The Houserabbit Society warns caution to people newly aware of rabbits, however: “Rabbits need more than just a hutch.” A spokesperson said. “They need mental stimulation.” Clearly, the free range play area offered to these three York rabbits is working wonders for their natural curiosity and social skills.

“Two months ago, they were biting each other’s noses. We had to keep them separated. Now they’re virtually inseparable.” Says Jim.

Clearly there are advantages to living near such friendly bunnies. The anonymous local gardener said: “My kids love watching those rabbits. They keep asking if we can get one.”

Happy Rabbit Awareness Week. And Mental Health Awareness Week. I think we could all be more aware of the mental health of rabbits; and the benefits to our own mental health of having rabbits.