New Year, New Beds

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Life on Pig Row, Raised Beds, How to make raised beds

The new raised beds took a backseat after the death of my Dad in August, safe to say that I didn't particularly want to do anything in the garden. The wonderful summer we experienced went with my Dad and the first storms blew in hours after his cremation. Since then the raised beds have been sat there, Carol has carried on with the chickens, bringing in the harvest and cooking some wonderful meals. What little gardening I did, dragged on, it took me weeks to cut the hedges and I never got around to lowering the hawthorn hedge in the orchard. I planted some garlic but my heart wasn't in it, losing someone you love has no words, losing a parent who was loving, funny and supportive, is like the soil beneath you crumbling away to nothing. My Dad would be cross at me for not getting on with a job that I started. He always said, 'Finish what you start'. So, six months later on an unseasonably warm winter's day I am out in The Field with string, a spirit level, tape measure, shovel, spade and fork to get a least three of the raised beds in. If I can do that, maybe wherever my Dad has gone to he'll be smiling, so let's crack on with the job half finished in July.

datum line

Getting raised beds straight in a garden that is not plumb isn't easy, it's all about working to a datum line. This is basically a piece of string that it straight that you can work from. That means if the string is straight with the garden, and in this garden it is more about being straight with your eye, then everything that comes from that line will be in line with that straight line. Got it? A lot of lines there, Andrew, a lot of lines. A datum line is set up in the photo below. A line running straight across the garden for the two top beds to be placed against, you can then set a ninety degree angle (see that photo) running down the hill or plot, this will be straight because it's at ninety degrees. There are times when writing a blog post when you wished you filmed all this but I am not in the right frame of mind to be on camera yet. Sometimes datum lines are taken from a house or building, working under the premise that the building is straight and square. Our house was built around 1700 and their string was damp. However, it is good design practice that if you are near a house, and we are nowhere near, to use the house as a marker for these lines. So that from a window the garden can be seen in snapshots rather than as a whole. Any good use of string means either symmetrical or balanced (balanced is often about the vertical rather than the horizontal, so that an obelisk echoes a bush on the opposite side of the garden). We're opting for symmetrical as this garden draws on the idea of the French potager garden, small growing areas in an intimate, secluded area (bar the chickens to the north in their run, this is a hidden garden now and is the only hidden part of the garden at Pig Row surrounded by 6 foot hedges).

Symmetrical beds

The upshot is simple for the symmetrical look, I have a piece of string that runs the length and width of the plot. You can mess around with these if they look like they're not running straight. I did. Your best friend during this whole process is the tape measure to help you get the right distances, trust your eye too, this is not engineering so you can be off a little if your eye says, 'That's right'. We have a margin of error of around 0.5-1 cm (up to 2.5 inches). Remember that most plots and gardens are not square and you will have to have some margin of give so that the beds and paths will be square and straight, and allow you to use a wheelbarrow. You don't want to be taking a wheelbarrow down a path that keeps narrowing until you are stuck between two beds, this is not an action movie, no one has ever done high speed pursuit down a narrowing alleyway with a wheelbarrow full of horse shit. If they have, they have never admitted to it from their bath.

Datum line

Our main path is in the middle of this symmetrical design of six beds, three on either side of it. The main path is 104 centimeters wide (just under 41 inches in pounds, shillings and pence), the four side paths between the six beds are between 72-73 centimeters (just under 29 inches). These side paths will be leveled along the width of the garden; the raised beds themselves are leveled with a spirit level and this creates a terrace effect in the beds. The overall rise from top to bottom of this plot is around 21 centimeters (just under 8 inches) from the top of this area to the bottom, this is a gentle slope compared to what it was. When we first started the garden the slope was steep enough for a tree root stump to roll down the length of the 1/4 acre.

Raised beds

To give you an idea of what a load of compost has done over eight years to this slope, look at the photo below. This is the same area, looking down hill in 2010 because when we photographed uphill we couldn't see all the planting. By building up the soil level and using hedges as terracing buffers over the years, we have kept back the soil within smaller gardens. Placing the existing soil from the paths into the 3 foot by 5 foot beds (approx. 91 cm x 152 cm) means we can start to terrace the paths in this area and improve drainage.

Garden, Life on Pig Row

The creation of a new raised bed garden takes less time than I thought, thanks to the use of those pieces of string. I get the beds level by merely using a spirit level, making sure the bed width running up the hill is level (not with the surrounding soil). To do this I dig four holes, as all the beds come with legs to be sunk into the ground (yes they will rot but not for a long time). This allows for us to adjust the level of the wooden beds as they go in by driving them down with a mallet (use a piece of wood between the mallet head and the bed to stop damage). It took me sixty minutes to get three beds in, and with my Dad in my ears, I finish the job, completing the next three beds in half the time. Now all we have to do is dig out the paths for gravel and put the soil in the raised beds, add some brick steps where the main path rise is too much (meaning the gravel will wash down slope if we do not do this) and brick edging; we have loads of these (which will afford some narrow beds around these raised beds for perennials), and then add self binding gravel but at least with the beds in, we can start to plant this summer.


  1. I know how you feel, lost my dad a couple of years ago. He was the one that grew me in the garden. Feel lost without him many times over.
    At least the garden's looking good.