To increase the amount of food we can grow in our garden each year, we had been contemplating how to make a more efficient use of the space available in our back garden without any large scale landscaping or demolition.
Raised vegetable beds were certainly the favoured option, but our requirements were not as straight forward as the last time we built raised vegetable beds in our previous properties. There were plenty more variables to consider this time, especially as were interested in more permanent structures.
So what were our requirements for our raised vegetable beds?
Well not to overcomplicate things, there were a few key points we needed to cover:
- We wanted a couple of them deep enough to grow root vegetables
- They had to be created on our patio and on the concrete spaces available
- The plots needed to last for many years
- They would be a permanent structure
- Decorated as a garden feature and part of the garden design.
After reviewing our requirements and reviewing our choice of materials, we decided to invest the time and money by building them with bricks and mortar. Neither of us are brickies and have never built own structures from scratch, but just how hard can it be?
Surely wooden sleepers would have been cheaper and easier?
Since the initial idea was put into production, several people have asked this question and it was something we considered. With wooden sleepers they would not stand the test of time, yes we could treat the wood, but as we are growing food we really do not want the chemical cocktail tainting our soil. Plus they would slowly rot away, especially with all the bugs burrowing into their new hotel, allowing them to rot from the inside.
Also to get the depth we were after and that the raised vegetable beds were to be sat over a solid concrete base, we would have had to stack the sleepers high and keep them from moving about, once our body weight or the weight of soil was pushing them outward.
Sometimes to scrimp, you can’t always invest in the cheapest option
As a longer term investment we already knew that the return on our money would take many years to recoup, so we tried to scrimp and save the best we could with the materials we needed. Many of the materials we sourced from the best deals we could find online and we bought in bulk, we found other uses for the surplus extras that I will cover in another post.
Ok, we get the gist so what did you do?
First up, I must add that most of these tricks we are about to cover we would have never known if it were not for my farther in law Paul. We had tried to make a start before he turned up, as we knew he would be straight down the garden to inspect our workmanship or lack thereof. Without his knowledge and guidance I am not sure how well they would have turned out. Anyway here are the steps we took:
- Planning & budgets
Before we made any purchases, I sat down and worked out the size of the spaces available for each vegetable plot, the size of each brick and drew up some diagrams working out exactly how many we would need for each plot, then added a couple extra just in case something went wrong. Also I worked out the cubic feet required to fill each plot with soil, which I slightly miscalculated (300 odd litres short), not taking into consideration density of the material.
- Sourcing the building materials
We ordered the bricks online via Wickes, they had a deal that if you ordered over 402 bricks you got them at almost half the price (18p a brick), the only thing was their website would only allow 200 items in the shopping cart (go figure?). It was quickly resolved with a quick call to their customer service team, though they still had to put it through as 3 separate orders. The funny thing was after purchasing all the bricks and cement I completely forgot we needed sand (yep a core ingredient in mortar, duh!). Off to a bad start, was this an omen of things to come? Haha.
- Check you have sufficient tools available
Well if you like to garden like we do, you should have the basics and maybe only require a pointing trowel. We found out that we needed the following:
- Spade (your giant stirrer)
- Watering can
- Wheelbarrow (perfect for mixing the cement)
- Spirit level
- Pointing (or masonry) trowel.
- Mark out the boundaries
After measuring up the size of our plot, we laid out the entire bottom layer of bricks into position to make sure we were happy with its size and shape. Paying attention to the corners and how the bricks would all fit together.
Tip: Don’t forget to clean and sweep the area first, so that the mortar binds better.
- Making the cement
Apparently wheelbarrows make the perfect home cement mixers (well we are scrimping) minus the machine or person to do the mixing. On the cement packet it states the ratio of sand to cement is 3 to 1, so I shovelled in 5 spades worth of cement and 15 spades of sand and had to thoroughly mix the two with my spade. Then we made a well in the middle of the mix and poured in the water making a nice puddle to prepare our cake mix. You can see why a cement mixer makes life so much easier, damn its hard graft mixing cement!! Eventually after mixing, adding water, mixing you eventually get partially runny slop (don’t make it too sloppy or it won’t bind the bricks).
- Get laying the bricks!
It’s a mucky job and frustrating if you have bricks full of holes! (like we did) but once you get going, you get into a rhythm it starts taking shape. With cementing the bottom layer to the concrete, we had to consider drainage holes for our vegetable plots, so every 3-4 bricks; we did not cement the gaps in-between so that any water could escape.When you come to the second layer, make sure the bricks are offset or interlocking so that structure maintains its strength.Our mortar spacing seemed to vary and was never perfectly consistent (far from it), but on average we aimed for 8-10mm layered thick, whilst trying to make sure the bricks were level.We tried to wipe off the excess that gets pushed out between the bricks when you position them and make it look professional. Most of the time we just used our fingers (or the pointing trowel) and run them along the gaps.
Tip: Cover up your mortar mix with dustbin liner or anything to keep it moist or you will find its dried out when you go back to get some more.
- Tidying up and letting them dry
After we had finished our sixth layer, we swept up all the leftover drying mortar mix, stones and any other mess we had made and filled in the holes. We hoped it would help with the brick insulation in the winter, but also it would make life easier when we were going to decorate the top.If you value your wheelbarrow and spade, make sure you wash them out with plenty of water before finishing for the day or you will find once it has set, that’s it stuck!
Tip: if the weather is cold overnight and there is a chance of frost, make sure you cover your brickwork with tarpaulin to protect it until its set hard.
- Weatherproofing the scrimpers way
To ensure that any water/moisture contained within the veg plot would not weaken the mortar anytime quickly, we applied an old “bob the builder” trick. We got a little PVA glue, mixed it with some water and applied it with a paint brush all over the brickwork and mortar to create a waterproof barrier. Obviously we made sure our drainage holes on the bottom layer were not PVA’ed so the water can still escape. It dries pretty quickly and will dry clear forming an invisible barrier.
- Add in your drainage
We purchased a couple of bags of cheap pea shingle to create our layer of drainage, got a broom to spread it all about to form an even layer about an inch thick.
- Those decorative finishing touches!
As we wanted these veggie plots to also act as decorative features and we had plenty of mortar left we decided to apply an inch thick layer on the top layer of bricks, that we would imprint our decorative stones and sea shells. We think they look very nice!
- Pour in your black gold (soil)
For the large plot, we then filled it with a tonne of top soil and a little general purpose compost. The whole time we were ferrying it from the front of our hose to the back garden, Sherrie was getting very excited with her black gold and everything we could grow in it.
We completed most of this over a long weekend and had plenty of breaks, though we did make a start on the foundations of the other two smaller veg plots.
These were to be positioned on a sloping patio surface and required some foundations to level them off. Really we should have levelled out the entire patio, but we opted out of that venture and might reposition some slabs with a step in the future.
Is it worth all the hard work?
Since we have built them and now have plenty of vegetables growing in each plot, we would say yes! They look good and working perfectly as planned, despite costing slightly more than we had hoped as we needed more cement and a lot more sand than I had originally calculated. Only time will tell if they are worth it, but the real test is when it comes to our harvest! We hope that with these new raised beds, we will be able to grow lots of extra food and enjoy those divine home-grown flavours and keeping our food bills low.
We have learnt a lot on this project and can now albeit not to a professional standard; build our own permanent raised vegetable plots on a fairly small budget. We would love to hear from you on your thoughts, comments or critique.
Have a lovely day!