Tag Archive: raised bed

raised bedsDigging

There is no need to dig at all once you have adopted the raised or deep-bed system for growing vegetables. If you are preparing a vacant plot for planting shrubs or flowers, get rid of the weeds, dig in a thick layer of organic matter and from then on you only need to mulch and let worms improve the soil.

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed....

Hmm, not sure about this raised bed….

Further information:

Raised bed growing

Raised beds- RHS

Source: ‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’ (Reader’s Digest 1999)

Old School Gardener


multi level gdn

I love the use of space in this garden. It also looks like something you can create from pallets and other recycled materials and offers a very effective and, I think, beautiful answer to maximising growing space in small gardens.

Old School Gardener

The English Walnut- creating a planting poser...

The English Walnut- creating a planting poser…

Whilst on holiday in Suffolk, recently, one of my friends, Richard (who lives in Bristol), posed an interesting question:

‘I have a Walnut Tree in the garden and have been trying to grow some plants in a raised area underneath it, against a wall. This area only gets early morning sun during the middle of the year. I believe that Walnuts deposit some sort of poison in the ground which affects the plants? Over 20 years I’ve managed to establish a small selection of plants through trial and error (mainly the latter); geraniums give some cover and with a ‘Chelsea Chop’ may give a second flowering, but only towards the lighter edge of the bed; Ivy seems to do well; I can squeeze out some summer colour by planting some annual begonias but these need a lot of watering. I’ve also tried several different ferns, but none have been a success to date. Any thoughts about planting the area, especially towards the back, would be welcome.’

Not having come across this issue before I did a bit of research and also sought some advice from the RHS Member’s Advice Service. There are two main species of Walnut tree; Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) – most common in North America (and native to eastern areas), and the English Walnut (Juglans regia), the type most often found in the U.K. Walnuts -especially Juglans nigra– contain a chemical called “juglone” which can be poisonous (or allelopathic) to other plants. Juglone appears to act as a respiration inhibitor which deprives sensitive plants of needed energy for metabolic activity.  For gardeners this means that many plants growing in the vicinity of a black walnut tree will either be killed or will struggle to live, with yellowing, wilting leaves.

Leaves and nuts on the Black Walnut

Leaves and nuts on the Black Walnut

Juglone is found in all parts of the black walnut tree, but it is most concentrated in the flower buds, nut hulls and roots. Unfortunately the roots of a black walnut can extend 3-4 times the diameter of the tree’s canopy, so the area affected is quite wide. Toxicity is further dependent on the soil’s texture and drainage. All walnuts – including the English Walnut- produce some juglone, as do the walnut relatives bitternut hickory, hickory, pecan and shagbark. However the amount of juglone produced is insignificant, compared to the black walnut, and the effect on other plants is minimal, if any.

Tomatoes seem to be the most sensitive to growing under black walnuts. However juglone sensitivity is also dependent on other growing conditions and what will or won’t grow under one black walnut tree may be fine under another. However, here is a compiled list of flowers and vegetables that are considered extremely sensitive to juglone.

Turning back to Richard’s question, Guy Barter, Chief Horticultural Adviser at the RHS, says:

‘In theory English walnuts secret Juglone and we would advise that it is not underplanted – in any case they cast such a heavy shade that few plants will thrive underneath a walnut. Of course roots spread out beyond the canopy but interestingly we seldom encounter difficulties in the UK. All the same it may be well to avoid apples and tomatoes near a walnut tree, or at least make some experimental plantings in the first instance. In the USA the light levels are very much higher and underplanting options greater and it is not surprising that problems arise.’

Not very encouraging, eh, Richard? You seem to have had some success with plants nearer the lighter edge of his planting area, and if you want to persist with trying to plant up this and the darker inner area, you might want to start by improving the growing conditions; maybe you can prune the tree a little to raise the crown and let in more light? Having a raised bed underneath is good because you can deepen the soil above the tree roots; and maybe you can also try to replace the topsoil which could over time become affected by juglone? It might also be a good idea to add organic matter each year and at the same time remove all the walnut tree leaves and litter and dispose of these – it’s probably best to avoid composting it.

As to planting, for the inner area (assuming that you can find planting pockets large enough around any tree roots), I’d try out a few small to medium – sized shrubs and other plants that tolerate heavy shade and dryish soil – in effect trying to create an ‘understorey’ with plants of varying heights and in a combination to provide something of interest all-year round. If you go down this route then try to get healthy, well-established plants (2-3 years old and/or in 3 litre pots). As Guy suggests, you’ll have to ‘trial’ these to see if they’re up to the task! My recommended ‘planting scheme’ would include, for the darkest area (and maybe including some Ivy as ground cover):

  • Lonicera pileata– spreading evergreen shrub with small creamy flowers in spring followed by purple berries; height 60cm (2ft), spread 2.5m (8ft)
  • Hypericum calycinum (‘Rose of Sharon’) – spreading shrubs with yellow flowers from mid summer. Height 60cm (2ft), spread indefinite
  • Vinca minor (lesser periwinkle) – mat-forming shrub with trailing shoots and violet-blue flowers from mid-spring to autumn. Height 10-20cm (4-8in), spread indefinite
Lonicera pileata

Lonicera pileata

If you’d like to increase the variety of your planting around the edge (and lighter) area, you could try in addition to your geraniums:

  • Cotoneatser simonsii– deciduous or semi-evergreen with good autumn leaf colour; small pink flowers in summer followed by bright orange-red fruit. Height 2.5m (8ft), spread 2m (6½ft)
  • Mahonia aquifolium– evergreen with yellow blooms in spring. Height 90cm (3ft); spread indefinite.
  • Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Christmas box)- evergreen with scented flowers in winter. Height 60cm (2ft); spread 1.2m (4ft)

…and a couple of herbaceous perennials:

  • Bergenia– evergreen leaves may colour in winter; white, pink or red flowers in spring. Height 20-45cm (8-18in), spread 45-63cm (18-25in)
  • Tellima grandiflora – semi-evergreen, with greenish white flowers from spring to mid-summer. Self-seeds freely. Height 40cm (16in), spread 25cm (10in)

Tellima grandiflora

Tellima grandiflora

…and maybe one or two patches of bulbs/tubers?

  • Anemone nemorosa– white flowers from spring to early summer. Height 7.5-15cm (3-6in), spread more than 30cm (1ft)
  • Cyclamen hederifolium– attractively marked foliage and pink to maroon flowers in autumn, seeds freely. Height 10-13cm (4-5in), spread 15cm (6in)
  • Galanthus nivalis (snowdrop) – white flowers in late winter. Height and spread 10cm (4in)
  • Iris foetidissima (stinking iris) – blue flowers in late spring and orange berries in autumn/winter. Height and spread 40cm (16in)

If this all seems rather too much hassle, then you could always cover the bed with a landscape fabric and then put a layer of aggregate or other mulch- wood bark, slate chippings etc. This covering could be punctured at intervals for clumps of bulbs (see above) to give you some (simpler) interest throughout the year- and maybe end the years of heart ache trying to get things to work that just don’t stand much of a chance!

Sources and further information:

Black walnuts at About.com

RHS guide to planting under trees

Old School Gardener

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The finished 'Woodblockx' planter- soon to be home to an alpine collection

The finished ‘WoodblocX’ planter- soon to be home to an alpine collection

You may recall that two wooden planters in the courtyard here at Old School Garden, recently ‘bit the dust’. Not using pressure treated timber when I made these a few years ago was certainly a mistake. I was wondering what to do to replace them and a few weeks ago was approached by a Scottish company called WoodblocX to do a trial of their products- they make a range of raised planters, beds and ground support systems using an interlinking set of wooden bricks (or ‘blocX’).

Having looked at their comprehensive website, I decided to go for a raised planter (1350mm long by 450mm wide and 450mm high), and I’m hoping to use this both to replace the old planters and create a new feature – an alpine bed. This should be at the right height to be viewed from the nearby metal table and chairs in the courtyard and if suitably finished off will tie in nicely to the predominantly black and terracotta colouring of the many other planters and pots in this sheltered, sun trap setting.

Well, the planter was successfully delivered within a few days of ordering. Last week (having given the courtyard surfacing its yearly clean), I set about constructing it.

In with the new- my new 'Woodblockx' planter awaiting construction
In with the new- my new ‘Woodblockx’ planter awaiting construction

There was a pack of various leaflets and other material supplied with the pallet-load of parts and having checked these off against the list supplied, I wound myself through this material. Though comprehensive, the fact that there were bits of advice and information spread across more than one document initially threw me and I didn’t find any instructions specifically about how my planter should be built or look.

So I spent a few minutes working back from the diagram on the company website to see how each layer of the planter should be built up. I also began knocking in the various plastic dowels and wedges (which join each layer of ‘blocX’ together) to what I hoped was the correct configuration. Then I discovered that these didn’t match up to the next layer’s holes, as the next layer of blocX has to be laid like a brick course with no joints overlapping each other, so not all of the holes correlate. Still no problem, as I guessed that a couple of spare blocX had been sent and, as I discovered later, it is easy to just saw off the tops af any dowels that are in the wrong place! (there was also a good supply of plastic dowels sent so I could afford to waste a couple).

I decided to take another look at the literature I’d been sent and then – to my embarrassment – discovered a set of instruction diagrams for my planter showing which sized blocX should go where and which holes should have the dowels in! Though I hadn’t worked out the layout to exactly match that shown in these diagrams, I thought mine would work too, so I pressed on with the second and subsequent layers. Hammering in the dowels and then pushing home the next layer of blocX on top was very satisfying and I proceeded layer upon layer, to see my planter taking solid form before my eyes!

Using a rubber mallet, and green plastic tubing to hammer home the black plastic dowels was a doddle
Using a rubber mallet, and green plastic tubing to hammer home the black plastic dowels was a doddle

After the fourth and final layer of blocX then came the simple, but attractive capping, which really finished of the planter very tidily. This is knocked onto another set of dowels as well as four metal corner brackets which help the planter to hold its shape. The whole construction time- allowing for my careless beginning– took around an hour, was simple and good fun, giving ‘instant results’.

These planters can be used in open ground (they come with two long metal spikes which help anchor it into the ground), but in my situation, sat on clay paviours, the weight of the planter (especially once full of earth) will be sufficient to hold it in place. As advised by the Company I could have also fixed it in place with some angle brackets. I will add an inner lining of landscaping fabric to help protect the wood (though it is all pressure treated) and to avoid soil seeping out from underneath.

Though the rough-planed finish of the WoodblocX is attractive enough from a distance, I think I may sand it down a little and apply either some black wood stain or similar treatment to tie it into the rest of the courtyard planters. I’ll do a further article to show the finished item, planted up.

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So, what do I think of WoodblocX?

The planter is very solid and I think will last a long time- especially with the extra treatment I’m planning to give it. The solid construction does not look out of place in the ornamental setting of my courtyard and would also look smart in a more ‘kitchen garden’ context too. I should imagine that the construction system using the plastic dowels would be very effective in a ground retaining role too. The modular nature of the system opens up all sorts of design possibilities if you’re considering a multi/split level garden.

As someone who’s a bit of a DIYer (especially using reclaimed timber), I guess that I could have created a similar sort of planter for a fraction of the cost (the planter that I have would cost just under £200, including delivery). I doubt whether it would look as attractive or be as solid and long lasting though. So, if you’re after a smart look and solid construction, your time is limited or your skill level relatively low, WoodblocX offers an ideal ‘self assembly’ solution to your planter/walling needs. I have a friend who’s considering the system for edging a patio that’s surrounded by sloping ground, and I can imagine him setting this up relatively easily and so avoiding the need to engage a tradesman to install a (probably) more expensive brick or similar retaining wall. The company also offers telephone advice and support during your ‘build’ in case of queries (I didn’t take advantage of this).

So, all in all, I’m pleased with the result and enjoyed the construction process, though perhaps a ‘less is more’ approach to the literature the Company sends out would make the construction a little less daunting at the start. If you’d like to find out more, click on the link on the right hand side to go to the WoodblocX website.

Old School Gardener

PicPost: More Greens Dear?

Bravo S.BIAGGI/sculptural landscapes! Called “Future Feast,” this table is the designer’s symbol of hope, and is resting on local reclaimed redwood legs, using the technology of green roofs for its’ living surface: http://bit.ly/1cumYGk

Via Urban Gardens. Photo by Saxon Holt Photography.

Old School Gardener

PicPost: Florida Trunk Call

Florida, USA – The first European contact was made in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León – who named it La Florida (“Flowery Land”) upon landing there during the Easter season, Pascua Florida. (Wikipedia)

Old School Gardener

agrilife.orgThis is the first in a new series of articles aimed at providing some tips on using design successfully in your (or someone else’s) garden.

Do you have a disability? Maybe someone in your family isn’t as mobile as they were? Perhaps normal ageing processes are reducing your ability to garden in the way you once did? 

Disability can take many forms – it might affect someone from birth or early life or perhaps is the result of an accident or the processes of ageing. The UK Equality Act 2010 (which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) talks about a person having a disability ‘if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ The Act requires the providers of services to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for a disabled person in any place which members of the public are permitted to enter, which includes public parks, gardens and other open spaces.

The Equality Act and associated design guidelines, which seek to remove obstacles to access, enjoyment and use of public spaces, is also a useful starting point when considering the design of a private garden or open space for someone with a disability. This covers people who are wheelchair users, have restricted mobility, sensory impairments or a learning disability, but also those who might be affected by the conditions that are associated with the normal process of ageing; e.g. loss of stamina, arthritis, declining vision and hearing and reduced balance.

Public parks are making it easier for disabled users

Public parks are making it easier for disabled users

As with any garden design project asking the client what he/she wants to do in their garden is the starting point – and absolutely essential if the client has a disability of some kind. Detailed assessment of their abilities, interests and disabilites can be obtained through more specific follow up questions:

  • how far can you walk?

  • how far can you bend?

  • has everything to be done from a wheelchair?

  • what do you see?

  • what can you hear?

As well as these questions it is important to observe the client in the garden, around the house etc. to see how they walk, bend, the shape of their body, how they make a cup of tea (lifting, holding, carrying skills). Often people with arthritis have coped for so long they can no longer describe how they move, so it’s important to watch them. So, taking careful and detailed note of the individual’s abilities and desires is the critical starting point  for any assessment and design of a garden for someone with a disability.

At this point its worth asking – is the disability of an order or kind that means their current garden can be suitably adapted, or do they need to think about moving or perhaps becoming involved in more communal gardening activity which is more in line with their ability and physical strength?

If the answer is that they can ‘stay put’, then options open include not only physical changes in the garden , but getting outside help for tasks like lawn care, hedge cutting, or one off construction projects. This might be paid contractors but could also be helpful friends, relatives or neighbours. When looking at the garden, it might also be possible to change a person’s gardening routines and practices, such as installing raised beds if they can’t bend over or are wheelchair bound; installing automatic irrigation systems; making paths easier to use by putting lights along them, clearing vegetation away from them and perhaps putting in more defined edges as well as levelling uneven surfaces to make routes more obvious and less of a ‘trip and slip’ hazard.

Water features can be important in gardens designed to stimulate the senses

Water features can be important in gardens designed to stimulate the senses

Paths and seats

But it’s also important to look carefully at things like the gradients of paths. Following recommended standards can result in ramps or other structures which do not meet the wider or particular needs of the individual. For instance whilst a ramp might be perfectly in line with the standards, the user might be wary of using it because they are afraid the ramp will make them lose control of their wheelchair and they will go crashing into a low wall at a T junction at the end of the ramp’s run. A more suitable alternative might be to install a longer ramp (with a gentler gradient) going in a different direction and/or removing the low wall.

Path widths are another area that will repay close attention. A 1.2 metre wide path may not be wide enough for someone in a wheelchair who is being pushed – try to imagine pushing the person and trying to constantly get past the chair to talk to the person face to face, rather than constantly taking to the back of their head! With restricted or no sight, or a hearing impairment, a muffled or hidden face heightens the level of disability. And think about  a space where the wheelchair (or perhaps someone with a guide dog) can stop  and there is comfortable space for the carer/assistant/friend to sit alongside the wheelchair user for a chat. So think a parking space for the wheelchair alongside a conventional seat might be a good idea.

Paths also need spaces where turning is possible for both pushed and self propelled wheelchairs. If the client has restricted mobility but does not use a wheelchair, think about seat heights and surrounding space to allow for comfortable descent and ascent from the seat. The number of seats in a garden for someone with arthritis may need to be increased to make it easy for them to take frequent rests while walking about or gardening.

Path and other hard surfaces shouldn’t be totally smooth and slippery (especially when wet), but also not so ‘riven’ that they give a bumpy wheelchair ride. Resin – bonded gravel works well and looks good, though it is relatively expensive. Ensure that the client can get in and out of their house comfortably- how do they lift their legs over a door threshold? What surface do their feet connect with? Risers may need to be lower than the standard 150mm, and people with inflexible ankles may need steps rather than ramps.

'Disability' extends way beyond wheelchair users

‘Disability’ extends way beyond wheelchair users

Beds and borders

Design beds and borders with the abilities as well as the interests and desires of the client in mind. Checking the ability to bend over comfortably (including from a wheelchair or mobility scooter) is critical in deciding the height and size of any raised beds, For some garden tasks – clipping low hedges for instance – the wheelchair/scooter user may already be at the perfect height!

When it comes to planting, the usual considerations apply:

  • what’s the climate (and any microclimates) like?

  • what space is there?

  • what is the aspect?

  • what sort of soil is there?

  • what are the irrigation options?

But it’s also especially important to think about the senses of the disabled client and respond to their abilities as well as disabilities. So, can heightened attention be given to specific sensual experiences in the garden’s planting? For example planting  herbs for smell, planting things to touch – e.g. furry leaves such as Stachys byzantina (‘Lamb’s Ears’),things to taste straight from the plant (vegetables, fruit, flowers, leaves etc.) and planting grasses and other plants that create interesting sounds (and maybe also things that help to reduce noise pollution from outside the garden). It’s also worth thinking about how your planting will support wildlife. Getting any ‘free’ helpers in the garden by planting nectar rich plants or those that provide a habitat will all help to reduce the gardening burden for the disabled person. Planting should also be chosen which gives a range of visual interests – textures of foliage, bark etc; seasonal changes in leaf, bark and form; different heights and shapes by the way plants are grouped and massed.

Down sizing

But what if the client’s garden is just too big and can’t be easily managed? The option of garden ‘down sizing’ (perhaps coinciding with a reduced size house too) is a choice that suits many people, especially as age related disability starts to affect them. One option might be to offer part of the garden to a friend or neighbour to manage as a sort of allotment, What remains or perhaps a new, smaller garden area, can still provide varied and interesting gardening. Patios, courtyards, terraces and balconies all offer possibilities through container gardening (the larger the better to reduce the need for watering).

These containers should be frost proof and of a weight when full of soil and plants that means they can be moved (if this is required) – or perhaps they can be mounted on wheeled platforms available from garden centres. Window boxes are another useful option for balcony railings or window sills. These ‘shrunken gardens’ can be planted to give all year round interest (perhaps including some evergreen shrubs for instance) as well as low maintenance plants (e.g. bulbs and shrubs), height variation (perhaps by adding a trellis to the back of a container to allow a climber to be grown), using hanging baskets with pulley systems to make it easier to lower and raise them for watering (and/or using a ‘watering wand’).

Communal gardening

Finally, it may be that the client is no longer able to manage the full range of garden tasks and a more communal approach is appropriate. Sheltered, supported housing and residential homes often provide a communal gardening space which the residents maintain, perhaps with some outside help. Just as with the individual disabled person, where communal gardens are being  set up or developed it is important to involve the residents in the design process. Spending time talking to and understanding them and teasing out what sorts of garden they would like is vital, as is the involvement of care staff who will have another perspective on the way the garden can be used. For example, a garden with lots of hard landscaping might make sense for clients with a restricted mobility or who are wheelchair users. Similarly the planning of routes around the garden and the views out of individual bedrooms/ apartments are important design considerations

For the individual a more communal style of gardening offers scope for learning new knowledge and skills as well as sharing their own. This ‘garden therapy’ can extend into bringing in specialist assistance and advice, creation of libraries of gardening books/ other resources and provision of meeting places and outings to maintain and foster residents’ interest in the garden and gardening.

An accessible water feature

An accessible water feature

Different disabilities lead to different design responses and focuses, and whilst it’s tempting to focus on the needs of those who are wheelchair users, there are other conditions that are just as important. For example:

  • Arthritis reduces bodily strength, endurance and flexibility so start by looking at adapting tools, get special devices and modify gardening routines to cope – e.g cushioned hand grips, adjustable handles, different sizing options on tools. in time more fundamental changes to the layout of the garden may be needed.

  • Hypertension can be helped through gardening activity and so reduce the risk of heart disease – 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day is recommended!

  • Visual impairment may lead to a loss of focus or sense of depth, so ‘fine tune’ the garden: perhaps add ramps; improve storage of hoses; and refine gardening  tasks. Taping different tools in different colours can aid recognition – and retrieval from borders!

  • Reduced balance suggests a need for smooth walking surfaces, with good grip/traction, hand rails. Levelling uneven grass and paved surfaces, adding raised beds and seating at key points in the garden may all help.

Special tools can be useful for the disabled gardener

Special tools can be useful for the disabled gardener

To sum up – talking to the disabled person and achieving a detailed understanding of their desires, interests and abilities as well as their disabilities is critical when considering the design of a new garden or adaptation of an existing one. There are many ways of making the garden easier to access and easier to use and garden in. The client must know that you have listened and the design must show this and be owned by the client – even if that’s a close relative or yourself!


‘The Age Proof Garden’ – Patty Cassidy (Arness Publishing 2012)

‘Go Easy’ – Bella D’Arcy (Garden Design Journal November 2008)- see an extended article here

Further information:

Thrive- ‘Carry on Gardening’ – tips on garden design for disabled people

Gardening grants for the disabled

Accessible Gardens for persons with a disabilities- US Extension Learning Network

Raised bed gardening- Wiklipedia

Videojug videos on gardens for physically impaired people and others

Study of Sensory Gardens

Alzheimer’s Disease garden planning- Ask

Garden Design for all disabled gardeners – Pinterest

Equality Act 2012

Gardening for Disabled Trust

Old School Gardener

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