Spring’s here and it’s time for beds

A simple frame plonked on the grass will give you a veggie garden in a jiff, explains Kitty Scully.

Whether you plan to grow vegetables in open ground, containers or on windowsills, understanding your soil and knowing how to build it up, is the key to producing great vegetables. This should be taken into account before you consider sowing crops.

To quote one of my heroes, Lady Eve Balfour (1899-1990), founder of the UK Soil Association: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.”

There are many ways of preparing soil, from not digging to double digging and single digging or to simply building raised beds. There are also many ways of improving soil, and if you take the time to nurture it and build it up, you will reap the rewards and be nurtured by healthy strong crops in return.

A question I’m often asked is whether to use raised beds or just sow direct in the soil. I suppose in the ideal world, we would all sow directly into our garden soil on open ground but alas in the real world, this can be challenging . Hence the upsurge in raised beds. Apart from dodging hours of digging, raised beds are a great way of getting up and growing quickly.

If your garden lacks a decent depth of topsoil, or you have wet and heavy soil, you can bypass this by simply plonking raised beds on top. You can also turn a lawn or even a gravel yard into a vegetable garden by building beds on top. The deeper the raised bed, the better the results and once your frames are in place, fill with manure and good topsoil and voila! — you are ready to sow.

Remember that a raised bed could simply be a mound of soil or soil enclosed in a wood/ stoe/ plastic/brick/slate frame. The height of a raised bed can range from 10cm to 60cm, the latter being particularly kind to your back.

Raised beds improve soil drainage, reduce pernicious weeds and cause soil to warm faster, allowing you to sow earlier in the season. Beds should not be wider than 1.3m to enable you to reach the middle without stepping on the soil and causing compaction. All of these benefits lead to improved soil structure, which in turn leads to higher yields from a smaller space. Beds also assist in organising your crop rotation and furthermore, they look great, are easier on your back and once in place, they are straightforward to manage from season to season.

In short, they are one of fastest ways to get a decent, deep layer of fertile soil and they can yield up to four times more than the same amount of space planted in rows. This is not only because of loose, fertile soil, but also due to efficient spacing. Less space for paths means more room to grow plants. However, when planning paths between your beds, ensure to leave enough room for manoeuvre, especially with a laden wheelbarrow (2ft — 3ft being the norm).

If you are looking out your window at loads of lawn and decide that you want to reduce mowing and convert some of this green space into a greener, food-producing space, raised beds will also offer a quick fix. Once bed-frames are made, just plonk them on the grass and follow the steps below:

¦ Mark out the area where you intend to lay your raised bed. Strim grass/ lawn before placing bed. It’s best not to build beds wider than 1.3m as you need to be able to reach the middle of the bed without standing on it.

¦ Place your bed on the strimmed area, ensuring it is as level as possible.

¦ Lay out thick cardboard or layers of newspaper (at least 6/7 sheets) inside the bed, making sure all the grass is covered. Avoid using cardboard and papers that are coloured with high glossy inks.

¦ Place a good bottom layer of well-rotted manure on top of the cardboard.

¦ Fill your raised bed to the top with good topsoil. I’m a little bit dubious about buying in other people’s top soil and would encourage you to use your own, where possible. However on a positive note, buying in topsoil does offer a means of overcoming fundamental problems such as contaminated or very poor soil, or no soil at all.

¦ Early March is a good time for making beds as they need to be left for a couple of weeks to settle before planting.


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