Last year we built a couple of raised beds in our veg patch. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for ages and lock down gave us the perfect opportunity. The veg patch is at the bottom of the garden and luckily for us, was already full of delicious and established fruit like rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, plums and apples.
There was a large bare section in the middle that was up for grabs for us to grow anything we wanted, so we had a go at the usual patch to plate favourites like potatoes and snap peas. The trouble I had though was every year when we came to dig over the patch I would end up snapping a garden fork or getting a rotervator stuck. The soil was so heavy and I was terrible at watering it. One year some potatoes were entombed in what felt like concrete. It was baking hot that year. I couldn’t break the ground with a garden fork using all my might. I tried adding Strulch and sand and digging over until I was hunched over in a middle aged stoop, but each year the same series of calamities happened; either veg getting entombed or trampled by rampaging kids, tomatoes wilted and peas were savaged by rabbits.
To build our beds we bought sleepers. These are just regular construction sleepers measuring 2.4m long x 200mm x 100mm and we placed them long edge up making them roughly 15 inches deep. This has worked out fine and if we wanted the beds deeper it wouldn’t be too much trouble to build another layer on top at some point. Luckily (or rather unluckily) we had a couple of dry stone walls collapse the year before and after rebuilding one of them we had tonnes of small stones left over that we couldn’t reuse so we dug out footings for the sleepers and filled these trenches with the stone and then sharp sand to make the ground line as level as possible. The sleepers went on top and were bolted together with giant screws longer than my hands.
We had some black plastic left over from some other project, I forget now and we used this to line the sleepers to protect them from the damp soil that was going inside and filled the bottom with a little more of the stone chipping and sharp sand again. To fill the beds we used two tonnes of decent top soil intended for veggies. We bought the best we could find that wasn’t too pricey, as there seemed little point in building the beds and then filling them up with poor soil. It wasn’t quite enough to go to the top, but we figured over time with mulching and top ups, that would be fine. We could also have lined the bottom with weed suppressing membrane or cardboard to stop weeds coming up through the bed, but we didn’t do this and so far haven’t had any trouble.
The first time we planted the beds up we didn’t really have any measure of how much to sow and what to grow, we sowed so much lettuce, it was hilarious. We ended up with a hedgerow of it. It was glorious for salads (many, many salads), but in the end we had to admit defeat. My friend took armfuls home for her delighted rabbit and guinea pig. We composted the last of it. We also grew spinach, chard and carrots. It was pretty successful overall and for relative newbies to growing veg, we were really happy. I did wonder if the following year (this year) would be a bust because we were growing in all that brand new top soil our first year, so I made sure to add compost.
Once all the veggies went over in late Winter. I ate the last of the kale (none of the vegetable dodgers in our house would) and covered the beds in black Polypropylene floor protection sheets we had used for a plastering project in the house. This was the perfect material to reuse every year and not particularly recyclable. I was really happy to put it to good use. The beds slept through the Winter like this until last month when we took the sheets off and lightly hoed. The soil looks perfect and we’ve already sowed and germinated lines of various salads, coriander and carrots. Maybe too much salad again! I am far and away the biggest veg fan in the house, but even I can’t eat everything and this year we’ve chosen to grow what we think will get eaten. It seems an obvious thing in hindsight, but in prior years I’ve put in loads of courgettes and tried growing broccoli and cauliflower that didn’t work well and I may just as well buy from the shops. We ended up with bucket loads of courgettes that only I will eat and the broccoli and cauliflower bolted. The same thing happened with a Swiss chard forest that I couldn’t munch my way through. Salad, potatoes and carrots will usually get eaten so we’ve gone with those to start with. As a wild card I’ve tried plug plants too with leeks and sweetcorn. The kids like sweetcorn and I love the idea of growing and harvesting corn. Slowly we are figuring out our favourites and most fun things to grow.
The rabbits are very interested in what is going on and I find it easier to curb their enthusiasm in a raised bed by framing the inside with chicken wire held up by bamboo. The walls of the raised bed help support it and add a little extra barrier.
The other motley crew we battle with endlessly is the Pigeon Maffia. The Pigeon Maffia run quite a racket in our garden from daubing everything in sight with poop to stuffing themselves with all the garden bounty, the gooseberries are their favourite. We have baby gooseberry bushes growing all over the garden germinated by pigeon poop power. These birds waddle around the garden picking fights or just leaning against the walls, they seem too fat to fly. They have it good here. Last year I had enough of sharing with them after the entire gooseberry crop disappeared in one day, so in addition to the chicken wire we also bought some netting and a frame and covered the best gooseberry bush. The wild ones are left for the wildlife.
The fruit cage worked out really well. The only trouble was the grass and weeds growing through it and getting tangled, so to be even more organised this year I laid membrane and woodchip. We also planted a few blueberries here (albeit a bit close together), but they seem to be doing fine. They apparently fruit better in pairs and I couldn’t help but buy two of two different types. I’ve given them a spoonful of sequestered iron at the start of the growing season, as they like acidic soil, and I did the same when I planted them. I’ll add the net as soon as the fruit starts to look tempting.
We are especially lucky to have inherited a healthy rhubarb bed with loads of crowns of rhubarb, which everyone loves, even my most fussy child. I mulched in Spring and when the crowns started to appear covered one with an old IKEA bin to force it. This is a great way of getting your hands on early sweet rhubarb and is no more complicated than putting a bin over the top. You can buy beautiful clay rhubarb forcers with little lids on top, but they are really expensive. I will alternate which plants get forced each year to allow for recovery time. If you are planting rhubarb for the first time, give them a year to establish before you harvest any. Choose a sunny spot and water well. To pick rhubarb tug on a stem and it should come away in your hands. I go around the plants choosing stems that come away without too much of a fight and I don’t pick too much from one crown. We stop picking some time in June and just leave the plants be to recover and do their own thing. Only use the stems and compost the leaves, don’t eat them, they are poisonous. We haven’t been terribly adventurous with our rhubarb to date, we simmer it in a saucepan on the Aga with a little sugar. It breaks down really quickly and we either eat it with yoghurt or make a crumble. I keep jars of crumble topping ready made up in the fridge just for the rhubarb feast.
We grow flowers in amongst the patch to encourage pollinators, which should in theory fertilise flowering veg plants and buoy them along into producing a decent crop. I have huge swathes of wild geranium in the border next to the rhubarb, which is great. This is where I steal chunks from if I have bald spots in the borders in the main garden, as it is so easy to dig up sections, split it and plant again making many new plants for free. I’ve also sown pot marigold which are very easy and put in a cutting patch (this is optimistic) with dhalia tubers hiding under a thick layer of wood chip. There are no signs of anything from them yet, so we shall see. I’ve not done this before and we had a lot of frost so they might have to come out and we can try again next year.
Behind the (likely dead) dhalias there is a section given over to herbs. I let the mint run a bit wild as everyone loves a Mojito and to be honest it’s not taken over to the point where I’ve felt alarmed. When we first moved in I planted rosemary, sage and a small bay plant, all three of which are now ginormous. I clip the sage back to keep it in good condition. I wish I had planted a rosemary hedge, but maybe this is something for another year. I might try making rosemary cuttings to get a hedge going. I’m not good with cuttings, but it’s always worth a try.
In the other half of that section we started with just half a dozen strawberries, which have since doubled many times over. Every year we plant a few extra and we grab all the little suckers and train them over to make new plants. Strawberries eventually go woody and don’t last forever so we keep the patch ticking over like this adding more and grubbing out the old ones. As far as I can see there’s plenty of room for more plants. More on strawberries in this post (Strawberry Feast Forever).
Lastly and not least we have Autumn fruiting raspberries which are nice and easy to deal with because at the end of the Autumn fruiting, at some point, you cut them all back right down to the ground. This is easy to remember and I get around to it at some point in the Winter. The kids help. If you are putting in this type of raspberry for the first time cut them back after their second year, leave them to do their own thing the first year whilst they establish.
The veg patch is one of my favourite parts of the garden. It’s genuinely the part where we have tried things to see how they go and not worried about it too much. Some years we get loads of raspberries or plums or rhubarb and some years we don’t. Some years we have great success and others ‘self sufficiency’ becomes a family joke. We’ve had a cherry tree in for around three years now that’s yet to produce more than a pair of cherries and I’ve not tasted one yet. A little pear tree we planted has been very gutsy and already produced a few edible pears. Regardless of what grows or fails to grow, it’s a lovely place to spend time. The veg beds have made it much easier to plant and manage crops like salad, spinach, carrots and all the usual seasonal sow and eat veg. It’s a constantly changing allotment that we all like to hang out in and a few times a year stuff our faces with whatever is ripe. I don’t think any of the raspberries have made it as far as the house yet and especially love to have kids playdates in strawberry season. The strawberry patch is quite wild, so it’s a game of hide and seek. Yesterday I sowed kale and spinach and I’m always happily surprised when I see little rows of plants appearing. I’m not sure why I thought they wouldn’t. The rabbits are no doubt looking forward to their share. I need to buy more chicken wire!