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!

Grandma’s Blackberry Jam Recipe

So I made blackberry jam, and I canned it, which I’ll talk more about at the bottom of this post.

Blackberry jam.
Blackberry jam.

Here’s the recipe I used (it was very simple). This is a standard jam recipe but it’s vegan and gluten free:
1. Go pick some blackberries. I got 300g. Blackberries grow wild on brambles.
2. Weigh them (and wash them thoroughly, throw out any bad ones).
If you didn’t get many (you need at least 200g really – that does an 8oz jar of jam, when you subtract the stuff that will burn to the bottom, but for lots, preferably 500g-900g), freeze them and wait for more to ripen, then pick/wash more.
3. When you’re ready to make jam, weigh all your blackberries together.
4. Measure out the same amount of golden granulated sugar (it’s a 1:1 ratio blackberries to sugar). Maybe other sugar types also work, I used golden granulated.
5. Put the berries in a pan with a big tablespoon of lemon juice (this will help preserve the fruit) and about 1/4 cup of water, and bring to the boil.
6. Simmer straight away for 15 minutes.
7. Add the sugar. It will take a lot of stirring and a lot of waiting to get it all to dissolve.
8. Once it’s dissolved, turn the heat up as high as you can and boil for 10-12 minutes, until the blackberry gloop reaches 105 degrees C (220F) which is the setting point. Don’t stir, but if you smell burning, it’s done.

Blackberry jam.
This is what it looks like when its set after the white froth was scraped off.

9. Take off the heat, skim off any white froth from the top, and let it settle for a few minutes (you can put it straight in jars at this point but I wanted to check it had worked.
10. Put in (sterilized with HOT water) jars, seal them if you want to.

About canning, storage times and such:
I used these quattro stagioni jars in 8.5 ounce size, which I found for a good price on the shelf at Homesense (they’re one of those places that has different stuff each week), I liked them because they’re made to take the high temperature and they’re vacuum sealable for food safety (although one of mine didn’t seal) and they sell replacement lids (70mm or 2 3/4 inch is the size for the 8.5 oz jars, although that is NOT cheap for 2 jar lids, so I hope somewhere starts doing them cheaper). You can use any old jar for jam, but you should use a fresh lid each time because you can’t fully clean the lids, which is why I bought jars to use.
If you want to read about home canning in more depth to ensure you’re doing it safely, this free guide from the USDA is phenomenal (I’d start with this section). I highly recommend it for people thinking of canning (which means putting in jars – that confused me for a while) other garden produce, although I’m still undecided on what to do with my carrots when they’re fully grown.

If you vacuum seal the jar with the blackberry jam in it, and don’t open it again, it’s good for 1 year (the jars I linked to have specific instructions to seal them in hot water, I managed to follow them using a bucket as I didn’t have a big enough pot). If it doesn’t vacuum seal (the popper in the lid still pops up) it’s good for 1 month. When you open it, it’s good for 1 month.

Anyone else done any canning or jam making? Got a different recipe/method? Let me know in the comments!

blackberry jam
Sterilized jars.