Experimental projects in the garden: Raised wildflower beds July 16, 2017 18:44 2 Comments

Raised beds from Apple binsMy garden is a continuous work in progress. In true 'pioneering / let's give it a whirl' spirit, I’ve recently been cracking on with another experiment in recent months. And it's now time for the big reveal. But first, the backstory...

I have two small dwarf apple trees and a few cordon apples running along the fence between myself and my neighbour. When I planted these, I had visions of bountiful harvests of apples.


No such luck.

Despite fairly good growth since the apple trees were planted around seven years ago, pollination has been abysmal. The bugs and beasties seem totally disinterested and zoom straight past. As a result, I get just a handful of measly looking apples each year. Undeterred by my lack of success, and enthused by a magnificent meadows talk I'd heard, I originally wanted to create an area of wild flowers directly under the fruit trees to help encourage pollinators. However, on sharing ideas and swapping notes with family and friends, it turns out that you need to leave a little space under fruit trees to ensure that pests and diseases don’t start to impact the trees. Or, at very least opt, for herbs and flowers that will provide good companion plants to the trees. 

Plant B was the creation of raised beds from old apple bins. By having flowers at a higher level I thought we might benefit from a little more height, interest and privacy in our garden. It would also limit the amount of damage that could be done by footballs and little feet whirling around. And, if I'm honest, there was a touch of whimsy about the whole project too. In my native Kent countryside, apple orchards are a precious sight around the county and I love seeing old apple bins piled up on the side of orchards, ready to be filled up. It reminds me of my childhood spent on an apple farm, making camps with my sister while my Mum and her friends picked the fruit. 

Wildflower raised beds - July 2017 Denys & FieldingFull of enthusiasm and nostalgia, I zipped along to my nearby friendly farmer to acquire a couple of bins which cost me just £10 each. Can you imagine buying a planter of that size for anywhere near that price!? Bargain. While apple bins are large, I can confirm that you can load them up into a grubby old estate with absolutely no problem at all! 

Having got them home, I put them in position (they are surprisingly light but their size means this is a two man job really) and then started to get them ready for planting. These steps included:

  1. Lining the inside of the apple bin with plastic sheeting. I used a thick black polythene which I secured to the apple bin with the help of a craft staple gun. 
  2. Cutting holes in the base of the plastic. This is to help with drainage. I was careful to only make holes between the slats of the apple bin underneath. This is to make sure that water can  run straight to the ground, rather than directly onto the wooden base of the bin - hopefully extending its lifetime for as long as poss. 
  3. Adding plenty of old bricks, broken pieces of terracotta pots and stones, again to improve drainage but also to ensure I didn’t end up having to find too much soil. These bins are big and I knew they would take a lot of filling up. Talking of which....
  4. Filling up with leaves from around the garden: This would save on having to find or buy lots of top soil. It also gave me something useful to do with all the leaves that have been piling up in and around the garden. For a bit of added oomph I slung in a good few barrows of horse manure.
  5. Leaving everything to ‘settle’  - I left the leaves for a few weeks to decay a little more and drop in level thinking 'that will level out soon'. Er, no. Throughout the winter, I piled on more and more leaves, debris and general tut from around the garden. Without fail, within a week, or so, the level had rotted down and I had to repeat the process. This went on until the end of April. Seriously. Worried that I wouldn't have enough time to plant up or sow seeds, I nabbed a load of top soil which was going spare from a friend. This is the experimental bit really. I had no idea if this concoction will prove too rich for seeds or if it will have them doing cartwheels...
  6. Now the fun bit - adding seeds and plants. I bought a mix of wild flowers from Paul at Meadow in my Garden. Paul was brilliant at allaying my 'rich soil' fears. I had heard that wildflowers tend to like a tough life - not too many nutrients in the soil etc… so I wasn't entirely sure if my cocktail of leaves, manure and soil will be too rich. Paul recommended the perfect seed mix, but I still was worried. I thought my efforts at soil making may somehow manage to kill these seeds before they really got going. To guarantee some colour and enjoy some immediate results from all the shovelling that had gone on for months, I added a geum in each apple bin along with an achillea and verbena. 

Gardening tips - Denys & FieldingThe whole project has cost no more a very thrifty £35.00. But the result is worth tenfold. I needn't have worried about the wildflowers. Paul's recommendation was spot on. Within a week of sowing, seedlings were up and visible. In fact, the wildflower growth has been prolific. It's been fascinating to watch these gorgeous blooms spring into action. Every time I have had to work away for a couple of days, I've enjoyed coming back and seeing how much things have moved on. The icing on the cake has been the sight of all of the butterflies, bugs or bees in our garden. Absolutely incredible. And, thanks to a dry, warm Spring, and perhaps the late introduction of a few more pollinators, we also have more fruit than ever on our apple trees. 

But more than that, I've a real, deep affection for these raised beds. The verbena sways around with butterflies clinging on, unperturbed by the movement. The cornflowers with their electric blue tones, keep coming and coming. The achillea is a huge hit with the bees and hover flies. There is absolutely no maintenance, with the exception of watering. Don't even think about weeding. What's a weed in amongst this lot? I've no idea. The lines are so blurred, you just live and let live. Free and easy gardening and thanks to the weather, lots of long, sunny evenings to just sit back, take stock and enjoy.

*Article originally part of a series written for the Girl in a Hard Hat blog