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.

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!

Container gardening: 12 mistakes I made

Last year, we were living in a cottage that had zero garden. It was in the middle of nowhere and literally all we had was a space the size of a standard apartment balcony around the back door. In that space, we had to be able to store our bins as well as hang out our washing.

I started container gardening in March 2020, having previously had a “regular” garden at our house in England. I started most of the plants from seed, with the exception of trees.

Gardening for me has always been a process of making mistakes and learning from them for next time. When something works first time, I am amazed. Here are the mistakes I made and what I learned from them:

Never plant out too soon

A lot of packets of seeds say “plant out when risk of frost has passed” but they don’t tell you that’s a proper gardening date that varies based on your region. You can find out your last frost date by searching for it. If you really can’t find out, don’t plant out until after 20th May in the UK.

If you plant out too soon, the night temperature will be too cold for your young plants to handle and they will freeze to death.

Move new plants into bigger pots when you get them

I bought some trees, including two lovely dwarf cherry trees and a raspberry bush. They were from different garden stores and arrived separately. The trees were very obviously in need of bigger pots when I got them, so I put them straight into the big containers they have lived in for the past year.

The raspberry bush came in a 5 litre pot and even though it was quite a big plant I didn’t think it needed planting up into anything bigger. So I left it.

This was not a good plan. More on the raspberry next.

Don’t put hardy outdoor plants beside a radiator that’s hotter than an active volcano

Worried about protecting my raspberry plant from frost, I’d read that raspberries won’t crop if they get too cold in their first two years, so I decided to keep it indoors until May. I popped it on the deepest windowsill in the kitchen. It honestly didn’t occur to me that being next to a radiator would cause any problems. Our heating was badly-controlled and was only on or off, it had no thermostat (this was a rented house). When the heating was on, the heat from the radiator rose into the air and killed half of the raspberry plant (you can see it in the picture for this article, it’s the plant with yellow and brown leaves sat on the white plate).

Don’t listen to well-meaning but badly-informed people about plants, especially if they are not container gardening

I put the raspberry bush outside, still in that 5l pot. Its leaves turned white and then brown, and my aunt told me that it wasn’t a bush at all and I needed to separate the “canes”. So I dug it out and, stupidly, pulled the plant apart trying to save it, until I found out it was all attached and had one main stem beneath the soil. If it hadn’t already been dead I would lose a lot of sleep over this.

Cress on kitchen towel needs watering 3x daily

I was really excited about growing cress as it can be done indoors with no special know-how (allegedly). It’s aimed at children so how hard can it be, right? Wrong!

Cress dries out (like, the paper towel shrivels up and goes hard) about 2-3 times per day. It needs so much nannying and constant attention that it really only works if cress is the only baby in your life.

Unfortunately, I have a human baby to look after, so time after time my cress dried out and died. I got it to crop a grand total of once without it immediately drying out and dying, and that was scattered over soil, not on kitchen roll. I ate most of that. I haven’t really mastered cress or other microgreens very well.

Pick your veg when they are ready

I bought pea seeds that were advertised as ideal for container gardens. I planted 4 in a big pot and put them outside. They grew perfectly. I hadn’t counted on needing to stake them and so they grew sort of curly near the soil until I sorted that. They never got very tall, and I’d expected them to reach 2-3 feet (bearing in mind regular pea plants can easily reach 6-ish feet or 2 metres-ish). Pea pods grew and went fat and green but they were tiny. Maybe 4cm across.

I thought they were still growing, not quite understanding that dwarf plants mean dwarf crops. So I left them. They turned yellow then brown and died. I picked them at that point and even tried one. It was bitter and inedible. I should have picked them when they were ready instead of waiting for them to look like full-sized pea pods.

Echinacea doesn’t grow easily in Ireland

Echinacea is a coneflower native to North America. I wanted to grow it because when the pandemic hit, the shelves were emptied of echinacea tea by all the sensible people who know about its immune-boosting properties.

It is really hard to get it to grow in Ireland especially if you follow the instructions on the packet. It has taken me 8 attempts to get one to sprout, then it immediately died, and two more attempts to get one to live a month (and counting).

Don’t assume seeds will be easy to get next year

I also successfully grew chamomile, another of my favourite tea-herbs. I got a bumper crop in a 60cm trough, enough to last for months if I’d cut and dried it. When our rabbit Timmy died, we buried him in a hedge, and we planted the chamomile on his grave.

It’s always been a readily-available plant in the shops and online, it never occurred to me that would be the last time I’d see a packet of chamomile seeds. But it was. I would have brought the perennial plant to our new house if I’d had any idea about how hard it is to get chamomile in Ireland these days.

It’s okay if the soil goes moldy

The first time my propagator got a layer of white mold over the surface of the soil, my seeds (broccoli microgreens) hadn’t sprouted yet and I threw the lot away. The third time it happened, I left it alone and the seeds grew through fine.

Now I understand that if I’m covering a plant pot or propagator to keep seeds warm, it’s a fact of life that the soil will go moldy before the seeds sprout. I haven’t done anything wrong.

You will need more containers than you think

I couldn’t grow all the things I wanted to last year because there wasn’t enough space in the kitchen to start them off (I had nowhere else to do it), and even if there had been, there were no containers to put it all in. In the UK, all the garden centres got emptied of their stock las year due to fear of food shortages, and I was lucky to get three containers and two troughs but it wasn’t enough for all the seeds I was waiting to plant.

Small plant pots blow away in high winds

We had several big storms last year and every time, my smaller pots blew away and ended up either on next door’s drive, in the hedge, or completely AWOL. I lost two mint plants, a sunflower and two broccoli because one rowdy wind storm began overnight. The storm was so bad it actually brought the wall down next to where my plants were standing.

In the morning I had to walk around searching for my plants, putting them back into pots and sitting them on my storage bench again. A thyme plant sadly died from all of this. I’m not sure what the best answer is, but now in bad weather I move all my pots up against the house, using the bigger containers to form a protective palisade around the little ones.

The baby plants were indoors for longer than I expected

This one doesn’t apply if you buy everything ready-grown from a garden centre or nursery, but if you grow from seed, it will take 15-60 days for them to germinate, then they have to grow big and strong enough to go outside and the risk of frost must pass and some plants have to slowly acclimatise to outside over a series of days or weeks!

On average, plants started from seed lived in my kitchen for 2 months. This made it impossible to do successive planting and I’ve had the same issue this year (but less stressful as our house is double the size of the old one but places to put plants are still limited due to having a curious toddler on the loose).

Bonus tip: Cut microgreens and cress with scissors if you don’t want to eat soil/other weird stuff.

So that’s the twelve (actually 13) things I learned from container gardening last year. The plants were in my house much longer than I’d expected due to living so far north. That alone helped me plan my gardening for this year a lot more effectively.

Overall, last year’s experience with container gardening has made me a more resilient problem-solver when it comes to growing food. When I discovered in February that our new, huge back garden was a waterlogged heavy clay soil which was terrible for gardening, I wasn’t phased, and have switched to a raised bed and a bunch of containers for this year’s plants, because it was too late (and lockdown has closed down everything) to adjust the soil in time for this year’s growing season.

I think every gardener could benefit from learning how to do container gardening.