Building tall permaculture raised beds

What on earth is that thing in the garden? Arks? Prototype boats?

Permaculture raised beds. With the weather appropriate tops to save the crops from hail and snow. And with frames to keep the beasties out.

This needs a closer look.

I’m typing fast as we have some marvellous storms coming our way and the power might go out.

It has gone all inky black outside with the percussion of smashing thunder on the horizon. And zings of lightning flashes. All quite marvellous. (Well it will be marvellous if the modem doesn’t blow up.)

I’ve just done the mental inventory of what is still plugged in and what is at risk. I think we are fine. Next step look at lightningmaps.org to check how far away and how violent the storm front looks.

Manageable. On the scale of trois gouttes (three drops), disappointing, good soaking, Biblical, and Better Call the Bulldozers – I think we are in for good soaking with thunder. So that’s fine. Not Bliblical.

Off I go.

The top potager is a space that has modified over time. I used to cultivate it much more intensely. Potatoes, raspberries, asparagus, lilies and other cut flowers. But I lost the battle to the weeds a few years back.

Oh look, how about this for a trip down memory lane. Back in 2007 when I thought you had to weed and hoe and have bare soil between the weed-free crops.

Mulching with nitrogen rich grass cuttings? Golly. Unenlightened times.

And then growing clover as a weed suppressant. I used to mislay Artur in the jungle up there.

I did enjoy the construction of the fence. That felt like I was winning a battle.

Especially after losing the whole part of the garden in the seriously Biblical storm of October 2013. Very much a call the Bulldozers event.

So it has been a pared down operation while I devoted a lot more time to the lower potager and its raised beds. 

The location is fiddly as you have to climb a steep bank to reach it. And its raison d’ĂȘtre – the underground spring above it – does not flow as merrily as centuries before. For the past two years I have relied on the overflow hose from the source up in the mountain. I fill barrel loads and store it up. But by June in heatwave season it is not running.

Trying to get a hose up here with any decent pressure when your tap is 80 metres below in the bread oven near the house… let’s just say it’s a marvellous workout for the arms but a bit dull watching the trickle of water coming out.

So for now I’m happy with just asparagus (and self-seeding coriander) and a newly planted raspberry bed in the permaculture bed at the top end closest to the underground spring. And those cuttings from the jostaberries – which have fruited in only their second year since being struck in the ground (we raise our toast and jostaberry jam in glorious salute!)

Then there is an awful lot of nothing much in a long skinny terrace. A lovely spare bit for the cat to loll while I’m picking asparagus. And a good easy non-treacherous route to the stinky nettle and comfrey ‘tea’ barrels at the top. And the compost heaps.

You do not want to be carrying a sloshing bucket of the stinkiest liquid feed and worrying about trip hazards.

And then just two weeks ago David was lamenting that his kale patch down behind the stables was a disappointment. A cabbage moth had snuck into the inexpertly secured cage and the kale were munched.

So new beds had to be found. Somewhere. Or he would give up on this gardening lark altogether. And I like our reliable cavolo Nero supplying us with good greens over the autumn and winter and early spring.

Deer are a challenge anywhere on the lower terraces. So that location was out. Plus wild boar, badgers, hares and foxes. So there is no re-creation of David’s preferred method of open ground and a hoe to control the weeds in that area of the farm.

Oh and you have to somehow have a water supply.

Pause. 

Now that I think about it. We could have just built some more raised beds exactly where the patch is located. It’s mostly flat. The access is easy along the orchard terrace…..I might ponder that next year. It’s a good shady space (overhanging cherry tree) perfect for kale, and I have already got the guttering for water harvesting from the stable roof and three barrels lined up.

(Sorry to ruminate while I type, I’m just kicking myself for not thinking of that. I guess you don’t want to undo a vegetable garden mid growing season. But the kale plants were small, I could have dug them up.)

Just by chance David ran into our favourite builder Etienne at the supermarket. He had been meaning to get in touch as he had a spare week in between other clients and would we like something built? We had to make up our minds fast, as he was about to head off on the summer boating adventure he takes from June to September. (Yes, he built his own boat.)

Please!

So in a rather rushed afternoon (rushed for me, not much ruminating as you can see) he agreed to replicate the raised beds in the lower potager. But on a narrower site up at the top. It was the only place I could think of.

And dealing with the tricky slope. That requires a lot of pencil and paper to work out the drop if you want to keep a level raised bed.

Cue a fast visit round to the sawmill to see what offcuts we could use.

These are to be strictly rustic raised beds.

By chance Laurent hadn’t put all his offcuts from the Douglas fir production through the monster chipper yet. He sells the resulting product for wood chip fired heating systmems.

I left Etienne to choose the choice bits (a great 50 euro investment – we stockpiled for future projects ‘just in case’) and we beetled back and forth with long lengths of wood hanging out the back of the station wagon, hoping like mad not to meet anyone coming the other way. Luckily it’s only a five minute drive with just one serious hairpin bend round the chateau and one washed out track to get out of the sawmill entrance.

Fear not, you won’t get a gallery of road shots again.

I had to lift the soft fruit shrubs that were in the middle of the weed proof fabric to get ready for building.

And Etienne started unloading. (Note health and safety builders’ attire. At least he is wearing work boots.)

Nicolas had built the tall raised beds in the main potager in 2020. If you are keen look up the post in January 31st 2020. I just did to refresh my memory – pre Pandemic, those were the halcyon days. His building style was different.

He did the end structures first. Then linked with the long sections. Etienne went at it the way a boat builder would. More angles and spirit levels and clamping of the wood in place to get it just so.

I was only called upon to hold bits while he checked the levels and then I left him to it.

A steady supply of coffee and one trip to Madame Felix for extra screws and it was up in three days.

All done with scrap wood, a great carpenter and a roll of wire mesh for the tops.

I only have wire mesh for one of the raised beds. But Etienne left the batons in place so I just need to unroll and then hammer in. What a good egg. And he has calculated how much metal mosquito netting I need for the screens. It’s going to be the biggest investment of the whole structure. But metal is going to outlast any sort of other lesser material over time.

I just need to build up the courage to face the onslaught. Madame Felix is ferocious.

And just yesterday I climbed into the little boat and hammered in the fabric that will protect the wood from rotting faster than this storm will take to blow over the mountain and we are back to drought.

The second raised bed (boat) is a very narrow little one indeed. But I want to have easy access to the asparagus patch beside it, so it had to be skinny. But I must admit I do feel like getting out the oars and sailing away to a milder climate when I walk past.

The removable frames have been elegantly created with boat inspired offcuts. And locks that hold them in place against the wind.

It’s all ready for the filling.

And this autumn I will plant up more trees on the boundary so it (ahem) blends in a bit with the background. More trees! More rain. More raised beds.

And once I’m over this bout of sciatica, the fun begins with the filling. I have the list.

I have most of the raw materials (I need to chip again). I just need to be able to haul and lift and bend.

Next week.