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To say Huw Richards is an expert at building raised beds is an understatement. The young author and dedicated allotment gardener has made a name for himself with two books (a third is on the way), not to mention countless videos on his eponymous YouTube channel, which he started when he was 12.
This bank holiday weekend is a great opportunity to get ahead with vegetable growing for spring and summer. Huw’s step-by-step guide to building your very own raised bed, plus all the planting suggestions you need, is the perfect way to get started on the right path.
Raised beds can be found in all sorts of locations, sizes, and styles, and are a fantastic tool for vegetable growers. Let Huw convince you why raised beds help to make growing vegetables easy.
Veg in One Bed by Huw Richards (Dorling Kindersley, £16.99). Buy now for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk
Good reasons to grow vegetables in a raised bed
Size – this small, defined space is easily manageable when it comes to adding nutrients to the soil, staying on top of weeds and pests, and planning plant spacings.
Practicality – being above ground level, a raised bed is easy to work in without standing on the soil and compacting it.
Microclimate – the soil in the bed will warm up more quickly than the ground in spring, and drain better after heavy rain.
Convenience – raised beds are easy to build and take apart, which is especially useful if you are living in rented accommodation. They can even be built on paving slabs or concrete, allowing you to grow vegetables where there is no soil depth.
The ideal size
There are many opinions on the ideal size of a raised bed, but I have chosen 1.2m x 3m (4ft x 10ft), as I feel it is perfect for starting your vegetable gardening journey – easy to build and fill with soil, and with plenty of space for growing. A depth of 30cm (1ft) will suit almost all vegetables.
Choose your raised bed
A rectangular raised bed of this size is really straightforward to build and needn’t be expensive either. It can be built in a garden or paved yard, or even on a roof terrace.
A quick online search brings up an overwhelming number of raised-bed styles to choose from. I always build my own beds, so I’ve given a list of possible building materials below.
If you want your bed to sit on a hard surface, use a strong material, such as thick hardwood or bricks, as you won’t be able to drive posts into the ground to reinforce the sides.
Decking made from recycled plastic is my chosen material. It has a lifespan of around 100 years and doesn’t leach chemicals into the soil.
Scaffolding boards are a cheap option, but they are narrow, and their lifespan is only around five years. They are also too thin to easily double up for extra depth.
Wooden boards made of sustainably sourced hardwood are usually about 5cm (2in) thick. Treated wood lasts longer, but avoid chemicals that leach into the soil.
Brick-and-mortar beds are long-lasting and strong, but need to be built on firm ground to prevent the walls from shifting.
Galvanised steel sheets last well and can be screwed to corner posts. Sheets taller than 30cm (1ft) can be cut to size, or sunk into the ground for extra support.
What you need
6 decking boards (3m x 15cm/10ft x 6in)
8 posts (60cm x 5cm x 5cm/2ft x 2in x 2in)
Electric drill with 4mm (⅛in) drill bit and screwdriver drill bit
40 countersunk stainless steel screws (80mm x 5mm/ 3in x ¼in)
A spike, such as the end of a chisel and point crowbar
How to build your own raised bed
To build your raised bed, have all your tools to hand before you start. If you can, find a willing helper, as this job is much easier with two people. The boards I used were only 15cm (6in) wide, so I doubled them up to get the 30cm (1ft) bed depth I wanted. If your site is covered by particularly long grass or weeds, mow it before you start.
Keep four full boards for the long sides of the bed. For the ends, measure and cut four 1.2m (4ft) sections from the other two boards. Cut eight 60cm (2ft) posts to anchor the bed
Lay the boards out flat on the ground and then balance the first layer of boards on their narrow edges. Use a spirit level, or smartphone app, to check that the boards are level.
Where the ground is uneven, dig a narrow trench using a spade so that the footprint of the raised bed is as level as possible.
Hold a long board with a short board butted up to the side of it at a 90-degree angle. A set square will help to ensure that you get a right angle.
Drill pilot holes through one side of the long board, so that the screws can travel easily into the end of the short board. Then screw the long and short boards together. Repeat this process in the other corners to complete one layer of the bed. Repeat steps 2-5 to make another layer. Keep the two layers separate for now.
Position the first layer of the bed on level ground and balance the second layer on top. Place a spike just inside one corner and use a mallet to hammer it into the ground about 30cm (1ft) deep. Replace the spike with a corner post and use the mallet to hammer it into the hole so the post top sits just below the top of the bed.
Repeat for each corner.
Drill a pilot hole through the sides of the bed and screw the decking boards to the corner posts from outside in.
Use your spike and mallet to create a hole 1m (3ft 3in) along one long side of the bed, and hammer a post into it. Then screw the post in place. Repeat 2m (6ft 6in) along the same side of the bed, and then 1m (3ft 3in) and 2m (6ft 6in) along the other long side.
Different grades of topsoil are available, but try to buy topsoil enriched with organic matter. If you can only get regular topsoil, fill the bed to about 8cm (3in) from the top, add a 5cm (2in) layer of peat-free multi-purpose compost, and mix the top 15-20cm (6-8in) of compost and soil together using a fork.
Check that the topsoil you buy has a slightly acidic pH. A pH of 6.5 suits most vegetables, but any reading between 6 and 7.5 will be fine.
What to plant in a raised garden bed
Get started with radishes
Sowing your first crop into the perfectly prepared soil of your bed is an exciting moment.
Radish is perhaps the easiest vegetable you can grow because, just four weeks after sowing, it is ready to harvest. This rapid growth means that radishes easily out-compete weeds.
Any variety of fast-maturing summer radish will work, and when picked young and fresh, the roots are juicy with a hint of heat.For a succession of radishes to harvest to the end of May, sow your first row now and another row next to it two weeks later.
Tie a 1.2m (4ft) length of string to two sticks and use it to mark out a straight line across the width of the raised bed. Pull a rake handle or cane along the length of string, creating a wide trench around 1cm (½in) deep.
Sprinkle radish seeds along the trench using your thumb and forefinger, like a pinch of salt. Try to sow evenly, spacing seeds about 5mm (¼in) apart. The plants will push away from each other as they grow.
Cover the trench lightly with soil using your hand, label it to mark its position and remind you which variety you have sown.
Water with a watering can fitted with a rose. Soak each section of soil for two seconds before moving on.
Protect from birds
Although birds help to control garden pests, they can also feast on sown seeds and the leaves of growing vegetables. Preventing bird damage is simple, but does require the right kit.
Bird netting is the best way to protect crops, but good-quality netting is expensive. Buy netting that is 1.8m-2.4m (6ft-8ft) wide so that it will cover tall plants.
Protect crops by placing canes topped with plant pots at the corners of the bed and along the long edge. Lay netting over the top, and secure its edges with pegs or bricks.
If a bird becomes trapped, wear gloves to let it out or cut the netting to free it.
Other vegetables to grow in a raised bed
Sow Swiss chard seeds directly into the soil of the raised bed. Thin them out once the seedlings appear.
Transplant runner beans into the bed after the last frost. Build a wigwam out of bamboo canes to support them as they grow.
If you are already growing potatoes, earth them up to encourage the tubers to grow, and use horticultural fleece to protect them from cold on frosty nights.
Add bamboo canes to support broad beans.
Sow lettuce and protect seedlings from slugs and snails.
Water radishes to ensure that they don’t flower (and become bitter-tasting before they are ready to harvest).
Pick the outer leaves from lettuces to enjoy a fresh harvest while keeping each plant cropping for longer.
Pull radishes once the tops of the colourful roots peep above the soil and reach about 1cm (½in) across. Sow another row before they are finished.
And on the windowsill…
Sow dwarf French beans into individual pots and keep them warm.
Pot up kale seedlings and keep them on the windowsill to develop.
Water runner beans regularly, and make sure to harden them off before planting outdoors later.
Turn and water young leeks in pots as they continue to grow slowly.
The raised bed in May (at a glance)
Think you’re too late to start growing? Guess again. The plants listed below have a rapid growth rate and some may even start to flower after a few weeks.
These plants will put on rapid growth and may even begin to flower later in the month
Flowers will appear on your broad beans – the first flowers of the year in your raised bed
Seedlings should start to appear in the bed a week or so after sowing
Harvest lettuce as it matures, for fresh spring salads
Transplant runner beans into the raised bed beneath a wigwam of canes
Best thing about May
You can transplant your tender vegetables outdoors.
Young plants often require lots of watering while they get established.
Watch out in May for
Late frosts can damage or kill tender vegetable plants
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