Making garden beds on the cheap
I started our garden from scratch in the middle of a paddock just over a year ago. We had the area dug out into three terraces (about 250m2!) but putting in garden beds has evolved as I’ve had time to make them. In theory I love the idea of having custom built raised beds that will last for years and make the whole garden neat and tidy. In practice I tend to re-use things rather than see them go to waste and most of our money has gone on the house build so I’ve had to be resourceful when it comes to creating them. And I’m not especially neat and tidy. Here’s a sum of the materials I’ve used to make the beds and the pro’s and con’s.
We had lots left over from our house build and I’ve used them to make probably half of my beds. They were not technically cheap as we did pay for them but the supplier supposedly wouldn’t take the excess back so we were stuck with them anyway. Getting them second hand would be cheaper.
- Pro’s –
- Easy to make a sturdy bed and get some height.
- Durable – they will last years.
- Heat retaining.
- Cavities are perfect homes for slugs and snails.
- Two bricks high is ok but any more becomes unstable. I’ve had quite a few collapses, even when just pulling weeds out from between them.
- Tap in stakes at the corners and along the walls to hold the layers together and make it more stable.
- Cement the bricks together to make even more stable.
- Fill the top row or use non cavity bricks to stop slugs and snails making homes.
BRICK RETAINING WALL/BED
On a sloping crumbling bank I used more of the house bricks to make a retaining wall with the top being a garden bed. This was a great way to retain the bank which constantly grew weeds and fell away more and more. The height of the bed is perfect to access from the lower side – no bending to tend to it. I wasn’t initially convinced I’d made a wall that wouldn’t fall down but it’s lasted six months so far. I’m hoping I’ve got enough of my hated left over bricks to make another one. It certainly isn’t the most elegant or straight brick laying job but it functions well.
- Pro’s –
- A retaining wall and raised garden bed – double function which I love.
- Long lasting and heat retaining.
- Con’s –
- Time consuming to make.
- Not especially easy to make – especially if you want it to be perfectly straight and have a nice finish on the mortar (mine isn’t in full view so I let that slide).
- Notes and changes –
- In the bottom of the bed I left some gaps between the bricks for drainage. This would have weakened the wall as it wasn’t all mortered together so not necessarily a good thing to do.
- I filled the bottom of the bed with sticks and twigs etc for more drainage.
- I didn’t think about the whole thing collapsing forward until part way into making it. We used some rebar to hook into the front of the bricks (you can see it in the photos) then buried logs into the bed that the other end of the rebar hooked around. Hopefully this would stop the forward tip. For the next bed I would make more of a U shape which would be buried further back into the bank from the bottom row.
- The back row of the garden bed isn’t mortared to the rest of the bed – it’s just bricks laid haphazardly in the ground to finish it off.
Also from the house build these are little squares of block tapped out of the blocks used to make our foundations. (I’m sure there is a proper word for these, somehow we call them biscuits). These were basically free and would have ended up going to the tip. They did make a good bed because they’re wider and more stable than the bricks.
- Pro’s –
- As for the bricks it was easy to make a sturdy bed.
- Heat retaining.
- Lots required to get any height.
I sat several pipes together in a wooden box and filled them with soil. The box I lined with plastic so it would retain water. While it seemed like a good idea my courgettes and cucumbers didn’t do very well in this set up. Maybe the pipes aren’t big enough to accommodate the roots? Maybe it was a good idea and I just can’t grow good courgettes and cucumbers in our still exposed garden as they’re struggling again this year.
While still making beds I’ve used whatever I can to plant into. I prefer planting into the soil as tubs need alot of watering and don’t seem to get the soil activity beds do but they still work ok.
- The strawberries in a couple of old baths have done really well and are easy to net.
- Another bath I made as a ‘self wicking’ bed. The concept of this is to have a water proof bed (bath in my case), create a void in the bottom quarter which fills with water, lay some sort of cloth over the void that water can draw up through (I used some netting with old towels on top) and fill the top with soil. There is an overflow hole half way up the bed so it doesn’t fill with water in winter. A pipe runs down into the void to fill it with water as needed.While I like the concept of this (not needing to water in summer – just fill up the void once a week or so) we’re only going into summer now I can’t be sure that it’s working. One problem is that the plants haven’t grown well enough so I don’t think the roots are getting down far enough to draw the water up.
- I used our compost bins to make a couple of raised beds which I could put close to the fence where they wouldn’t be in the shade. Because they are so deep I filled up the bottom with logs and twigs to create drainage and reduce the amount of soil needed. I also had the cunning idea to use some netting and terracotta pipes to create a shute which I could throw my veggie scraps down to compost away in the beds. Unfortunately this wasn’t so cunning as a rat loved the idea and dug down and up through the beds to get at the scraps – completely destroying the carrot and parsnip seeds I had planted. The soil also slumped down over time and will need topping up once I’ve harvested and emptyied them.
Earlier I posted about the hukelkultur beds I made. I dug down, laid the foundation with logs and drainage coil and mounded the soil on the top. While I think the foundation of the bed works well and the time spent on putting in drainage will pay off in winter, the exposed sides of the beds have been a nightmare to manage and I’ve had disappointing results in two of the beds.
- Birds are constantly in there digging up the seeds and seedlings despite my netting and renetting and because there aren’t sides the plants get flung out. In contrast the raised timber beds haven’t had the same issue and are also easier to drape protection over.
- Every snail and slug seems to easily access the beds to eat my beans. Two months on I harvested about five beans despite planting, protecting and replanting. I can’t use any snail bait because of the puppy.
- He also likes the Slug gone wool pellets I’ve been using and can easily get at that and anything else interesting in there (such as toilet rolls I tried to use to deter the slugs).
- One bed I planted with potatoes but it was very hard to mound them up on the slope so I lost alot as they were too green to eat.
- Mulch was also very hard to keep on the sloping sides of the beds.
Changes – once I’ve harvested from the beds I’ll re-do them with sides to make them easier to manage.
TIMBER RAISED BEDS
By far the easiest beds to manage have been the timber beds we made out of macrocarpa. We had a tree come down which we had milled into various sizes and some of the scrappier bits we have no plans for we used to make three raised beds. They haven’t had the same issues as losing mulch as the mounded up beds and are easy to protect from birds and puppy with a big of netting. The timber won’t last forever but I should get a good few years out of it. Macrocarpa is one of the few timbers that doesn’t need tanalising to protect it so we were lucky to be able to use it in the garden. In hindsight I would have got the saw mill guy to make more we could have used.
Raised garden beds would be my preference and I think it would be worth the investment. Even if they weren’t timber (eg using some sheets of iron) would be better than having the low or no sided beds – I can see I’m going to have to re-do my three mounded beds so skimping on spending time on that initially has cost me time in the long run.