Raised Beds

The advantages of raised beds are numerous and range from decreased need for weeding through to the ergonomic benefits to the gardener of not having to get down to ground level. Although we do have other garden beds on the property, the three raised beds we constructed a few years ago have proven to be the core of our gardening endeavours.

Raised Beds

A slice of life in the raised beds.

The first thing I should say is that if we had to build them again we would seriously consider a different construction method. In theory, using large panels of concrete siding and cinder block end walls was a decent way to go. It was cheap and easy. In practice, inadequate attention to fundamentals has required us to do a lot of bracing and additional construction which has reduced the initial cost savings realized by going that route. On the other hand, pretty much any other method we have looked into has either a ridiculous initial cost associated with it or a relatively short lifespan.

The beds themselves are nominally 16’L x 4’W x 2.5’H, though they are a bit generous in all dimensions and there is variance among them. They are within a few degrees of a perfect N<->S along the long axis. After initially filling them with soil using the tractor, they are occasionally amended with some organic matter, along with a degree of drop-and-chop while harvesting our vegetables. We recently discovered a source of cheap local composted cow manure and I will, at some point, write an entry on our various composting efforts around the property.

Side panels in place, end walls going up.

Planting is exclusively my wife’s domain and I basically just follow orders regarding watering, harvest etc. The beds are organizationally divided into halves and crops are rotated accordingly. Although you could loosely divide the planting season into three parts (early, mid, late), there is sufficient overlap such that you will never see the entire garden in transition at any one time.

We did run an experiment on two sections one year using PVC hoop frames and cheap plastic to see how well things overwintered. The cover worked well for cold-hardy crops but were inconvenient and the plastic barely limped through to the following year. Still, there was enough promise that a more sophisticated and user friendly hoop system is being considered for future winters.

3 responses to “Raised Beds

  • Knowing what you know now, both problems and success with your concrete beds, what would you do differently if you were to raise more of them?

    • I’d consider a few possibilities:

      – making all sides, including the end walls, from the panels. This would mean cutting them, but there are worse problems to tackle. I’d then build a couple removable forms and cast the corners with concrete/rebar.

      – building the concrete walls inside the concrete panels and then drilling/running rebar — even the thin stuff — trough the panels and the blocks. At that point you could pin-and-pour a couple of the channels down the courses of blocks and the rebar would keep the rest from pushing outwards as well as pinning the panels to the sides of the walls.

      – looking more seriously at the new plastic decking options. My understanding is that they have some issues with discolouring etc. and people sometimes pull decks out. If I could find someone scrapping a plastic deck, that would probably make awesome raised beds .. at least to a certain height (soil is a bit like water, so pressure outwards at the base is going to be largely dependent on the height of the dirt on top)

      – not shy away from building a fairly hefty wooden rim at the top. It would be nice for structure, but more importantly would give a really solid base off which to work for the erection of hoops etc. for covering them in winter. On the other hand, more materials is more cost and you’d also be adding width. You want to keep your beds narrow enough that you can easily reach the center from either side.

      – We’ve been looking at building some decking, including some storage/seating along the end walls of the beds closest to the house. Knowing this, I would have considered building that part at the time and integrating it into the end walls.

      Overall, though, I have been very impressed with the raised beds. I would encourage people to make them if afforded the space/time/resources/inclination.

    • A new thought on this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c2__yoS2d4

      This looks like a viable substitute for a low bed of planks. It means redoing it every so often but you can’t beat the pricing and it wouldn’t be that much work if you had hordes of volunteers like ZSC can raise.