Raised beds or no raised beds?

Yesterday I received a catalogue from a supplier of horticultural products.  These range from planters and raised beds to green house equipment, tools and lawn care, with much else besides.  Two years ago I bought a very useful stand which holds my pots of young seedlings off the ground and away from slugs but I have never found anything else that I want or need in the catalogue.  Whilst sipping a cup of tea I idly leafed through the pages – lovely pictures of immaculately clean people and thriving, nay burgeoning pots, troughs, cloches, cages, beds and benches.

Raised beds feature prominently in the catalogue and this started me thinking about the pros and cons of purchased wooden raised beds as I have never used them.  When I started growing polycultures it happened in a slow, organic sort of fashion, there never was a grand plan to commence; I just used the first part of the garden that lent itself to a few experimental perennial veggies.  After that I annexed other areas, all of them small and strangely shaped, as well as infiltrating veggies into flower beds and anywhere else I could!

I have used masses and masses of mulch materials on the polyculture patches effectively raising the level of the first patch well above the original ground level.  The difference in level is accommodated by a sloping edge, rather than a barrier.  A few experimental patches in the front garden that will be planted this spring / summer are currently mounded high with mulch and compost.  Unfortunately one looked rather like a small shallow grave and offended my partner who reduced its height a bit.  The others are more rounded and all of them will settle to some degree.  However I like the rounded nature of it all and feel that I am getting the benefit of providing deep soil for the veggies in a very natural way.

Of course raised beds are reachable from all sides and therefore don’t need to be trodden on.  I do walk on my polyculture patches, but only when absolutely necessary and along narrow, defined pathways – I know where they are, though it is not obvious to look at them.  This is a trade off due to the small areas available – if I made wider more obvious paths there would be precious little growing space left.

This spring the growing area is going to be extended, by dint of moving an area of decking into a shady corner and removing the remainder of the back lawn.  It is possible that I could use this extended area to experiment with a raised bed, but thinking about it I feel an innate prejudice against introducing something with such straight lines and which does not originate from the garden into it.

I believe that I am providing an effective and sustainable way to produce perennial veggies and don’t have any qualms about not using raised beds.  However I am very interested to know what other people think and what your experience is.  All comments are therefore very welcome.

Returning to the horticultural catalogue what bothers me a bit more is that with the raised beds they supply plastic liners and topsoil to fill the bed with.  As far as I can see the liners effectively isolate the bed from the soil it sits on, cutting off exchange of nutrients, soil life and water and making it like a giant pot sitting on the patch; and the notion of transporting topsoil around the place makes a mockery of reducing your food miles if there are transport miles implicit in the soil it is grown in.

This afternoon I had a walk round Attingham Park, a local National Trust property.  My favourite part – apart from today’s show of snowdrops in the woodland – is always the walled garden with its lovely display of organically grown veggies.  The adjacent yard used for raising young plants has an area of raised beds which are made by edging with hazel borders and shown in the picture below –.  I assume they are made on site and they seem to be a better solution than purchased wooden edges.  Some time in the past I did try to make some using branches cut from the hazel in our garden, but there was not enough for the job.  However I am going to cut some willow branches off soon and perhaps they would be able to be pressed into service.  I also noted that Attingham’s walled garden has no raised beds – they use deeply manured beds set between paths of woodchip and they grow huge crops during the summer.

Please do let me know your experiences of growing with and without raised beds and what you think of the technique.

About Anni Kelsey

I love forest gardens and forest gardening, nature, reading and everything good about being alive. I have written two books - the garden of equal delights (2020) - about the principles and practice of forest gardening; and Edible Perennial Gardening (2014) - about growing perennial vegetables in polycultures, which is basically forest gardening concentrating on the lower layers.
This entry was posted in Forest Gardening, Perennial Vegetables, Permaculture, Polycultures, Telford Garden and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Raised beds or no raised beds?

  1. Ann Eggleton says:

    I have half-raised beds. I garden in a valley on quite a slope, get problems with run-off from heavy rain etc, so I have fixed beds with planks around, and the surface of the bed is horizontal – it’s terracing really. The paths are fairly narrow and the extra productivity from the beds certainly offsets the lack of productivity from the paths. But all gardens have trodden areas, does it matter if some are permanently trodden and others movably so? I have very light silty soil which compacts easily, better not to tread on any area that might be used for growing. Having said that, I do grow potatoes and climbing peas and beans on larger areas, for convenience. But they are less easy to manage, more digging and soil disturbance, more hard work! “Informal” mounded areas sound lovely, but I am sure would slump and wander downhill on my garden.


  2. Bridget Foy says:

    I’m a big fan of raised beds as I garden on heavy wet soil. Raising everything up gives better drainage and enables me to grow parsnips and carrots.


  3. gaynor says:

    Hi Annie
    I do use raised beds on my allotments, I keep these for my root veg and onions. The ground warms up I think quicker than the flat ground, I also never walk on these beds so the ground doesn’t get compacted. I also have moveable raised beds that I move about the site (one year I’ll have them in an area then next year there moved to another part) these I use for my courgettes, cucubers etc. I use the flat ground for potatoes and brassicas, most other veg I grow in raised beds I find they are less work and easier to mulch using less compost than the flat area because you don’t mulch the pathways
    I think its horses for courses so to speak but you do need more space to have raised beds because you have more unused areas for paths..


    • gaynor says:

      On the other hand to add to what I said an old friend of mine said he would never use raised beds because you can’t eat paths, I spose he had a point.


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