In the dark, cold days of winter we embarked on the making of our raised vegetable beds. I drew three tiny rectangles on the plan of the field and began to search around for something to make the edges from which wouldn’t be crazily expensive. So that’s a no to durable, hardwood sleepers then. In the end I settled on a combination of eco-treated softwood sleepers and cheap bits of wood for the less visible edges.
I began to mark out the edges of the beds with posts and string. It was immediately obvious that my usual hap-hazard approach of pacing out and judging by eye was not going to work because the distances involved were causing lines to converge in a slightly alarming manner. The result was a giant spider’s web of coloured threads containing no right-angles.
The second attempt involved my husband and was surely foolproof; he is a practical man, living in a world of precise measurements and clearly defined events. His approach involved Measuring The Diagonals. The result was a lessening of the spider’s web effect but there were still no right angles! We gave up, slightly shaken (me) and very cold (us both).
A friend came to stay: The challenge was issued. Much indoor measuring and knotting of string ensued. Surely the application of a masters degree, further qualifications in physics and a longer tape measure would solve the problem. It did. (Although I suspect this may have been at least partly due to a general averaging out of mistakes and a lowering of my expectations.)
Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be a cataloguing of our surveying mistakes. Rather, I wanted to record the success of the Charles Dowding method of raised bed construction. The method was as follows: Once the rectangles had been marked out, the sides of the bed were fixed together and placed directly on to the grass. They were filled with organic matter – mostly horse manure from our kind neighbours – to a depth of 4”. And that was that.
I should mention at this point that it quickly became apparent as I tried to fill the beds using wheelbarrows of manure, that my ‘tiny rectangles’ were actually enormous and would require equally enormous volumes of horse poo to fill. We bought a trailer… And even after this it took us many weekends of shovelling, transporting and recovering to fill the beds, resulting in a ‘just in time’ scenario where the beds were being planted up at one end and still being filled at the other. Consequently the manure was a bit fresher than it would have ideally been but lots of things have grown well despite this (potatoes, squash, beans). Some things fared very badly (lettuce, direct sowings of seeds) but most seedlings just seemed to turn a sad shade of yellow on planting out, before settling in happily (strawberries, tomatoes, nasturtiums).
More significantly, the grass has not grown through the manure and neither have most weeds. There are a few things which I am having to remove by hand, including thistles, field bindweed and the odd dock, but generally the whole area has been very manageable and good to work with. A more challenging problem is that the heavy mulching has resulted in a booming earthworm population, causing much interest by the local badgers who are repeatedly digging craters in the bed to find the worms. Our initial hope is to deter them using a sprinkle of manly hormones in liquid form, but that’s another story…