Bed System for Growing Vegetables

The Bed System for Growing Vegetables

In a bed system, the ground is divided up into a number of permanent beds by paths. The beds are narrow enough for all work to be done from the paths, so that there is no need to tread on the soil. While beds like this can be used for fruit, flowers and herbs, they are usually set up to grow vegetables. They look noticeably different to a conventional plot.

Bed System for Growing Vegetables Since there is no need to have space to walk between them, crops can be planted more closely and be distributed evenly over the bed in blocks rather than rows. This gives a higher yield, which should more than compensate for the space lost to the paths.

The bed system has a number of advantages: it helps improve the soil structure because compaction caused by walking on the soil is avoided; you can plant, weed and harvest beds during rainy weather, when a conventional plot would be too wet to walk on; and valuable supplies of compost and other organic materials are concentrated on a smaller growing area and are not wasted on ground that will become path.

Close spacing of crops means that weeds are quickly smothered and less weeding is necessary, especially for leafy crops such as carrots and beetroot. Furthermore, because the plants are spaced evenly over the bed you have more control over their size at harvest: closely spaced onions, for example, give smaller bulbs which are a more convenient size for many people.

Shape and size of beds

The beds do not have to be rectangular — they can be parts of a square, segments of a circle or any other shape, provided you can reach to the centre from the paths. Most people find that a comfortable width is about 1.2m (4ft). Paths can be as narrow as 30cm (12in), although you should make them at least 60cm (2ft) where you want to take a wheelbarrow.

A bed can be any length, although it is sensible to set a limit or it can be a long walk to the other side: 2.5-4m (8-1/2 — 13 ft) is a good length for vegetable beds. If possible, orientate rectangular vegetable beds so that their length runs approximately north—south, as this will minimize the shading effect of tall plants.

Raised beds

Where drainage is poor or the topsoil thin, beds can be raised above the level of the paths. They must have a high edging to retain the extra topsoil, compost and other organic materials that are added.

However, even beds that are not deliberately built up tend to become slightly raised: as they are cultivated, organic materials and air are mixed into the soil, increasing its volume, whereas the paths are compacted by feet and wheelbarrows.


Unless they are artificially raised, beds do not have to be edged. However, a permanent edging can help keep them defined, preventing soil getting onto the paths and loose path material from getting onto the soil. It will also protect newly sown or planted crops on the bed edges.

For most beds an edging 10-15 cm (4-6 in) high should be sufficient. Raised beds need a higher edging — about 30cm (12 in) is usually the maximum practical height. There is a wide choice of materials to use: new wooden planks, scrap wood, bricks, tiles, slates and kerbstones. The choice depends on what is available locally, the size, shape and function of the beds, and how much you want to pay.

Wooden edging is convenient for rectangular vegetable beds. Mark out beds and paths with pegs and strings and cut wooden boards to fit their length and width. Wood 10-15cm (4-6 in) high and 1.8-2.5cm (¾-1 in) thick is ideal. Cut pegs 23-37cm (9-15 in) long from wood approximately 2.5 x 3.6cm (1 x 1-2/5 in) in cross-section to hold the boards in place. Cut one end of each peg to a point. Nail a peg to each end of all the boards and, for a long board, at intervals along its length — approximately every 1.5m (5 ft) is about right for 2.5cm (1 in) thick board. Thinner wood will need more pegs. Use a lump hammer to knock the boards into place.

For beds which are curved or irregular in shape, wooden boards are not so suitable. Here, you could use shaped concrete kerbstones, frost-resistant bricks, tiles or half logs set into the ground.


The paths between the beds can be left as bare earth and hoed or they can be covered with a light-excluding mulch, which will not only keep weeds down but keep your feet clean. Suitable mulches include newspaper under straw in an informal situation and polypropylene sheet under woodchips for a more ornamental finish. Sawdust is another simple and cheap alternative suitable for paths between vegetable beds. Top up the mulch regularly.

In a formal garden you could have brick, paving or gravel paths. These are more expensive and more difficult to lay, but they are easy to maintain and have a long lifespan.

Spacing of vegetable crops

Spreading plants out over an area rather than growing them in rows reduces competition between them for nutrients, light and water and is a more productive use of space. There are several ways of getting an roughly even distribution across a 1.2m (4ft) bed.

Equidistant spacing

In this system of spacing, the plants are grown in staggered rows, with each plant an equal distance from all the others. This is the best layout for closely spaced crops. To get the spacing correct, check the distance of each plant from its neighbours by using a stick cut to the required length.

Square spacing

This involves the plants being grown in rows with the in-row spacing the same as the between-row spacing. Use this layout if the distance between plants is such that you can only get two or three across the bed — it allows more plants to be accommodated.

Staggered rows

This is the best way to lay out very widely spaced crops where there is only room for one in the width of the bed.


Simply plant out transplanted crops in the required pattern. For direct-sown crops there are two options: you can “station sow” them in the same pattern (that is, sow two or three fine seeds or one or two large seeds in every place where an individual plant is required) then thin them later to one seedling at each station; or you can sow in accurately spaced rows and thin the seedlings in the row to produce the final layout.

What spacing?

The spacing of plants on a bed system will be somewhere between the in-row spacing and the between-row spacing of the crop on a conventional plot. For example, Chinese cabbage normally spaced 30cm (12in) apart in rows 45cm (18in) apart on a conventional plot would be grown at an equidistant spacing of approximately 37cm (15in) on the bed system. The exact distance will depend on your soil and situation.

On poor, dry soils some crops may require a wider spacing in order to obtain sufficient water and plant foods. In a damp climate a wider spacing for some plants may help to prevent fungal disease.

With vegetables such as onions and cabbages, the spacing will affect their final size. Within limits, the more space you give them the larger they will grow. Reducing the spacing can produce vegetables of a more convenient size for many families and also increase the overall yield. For example, if you plant summer cabbages at an equidistant spacing of 60cm (2ft), you are likely to get the biggest heads that the variety is capable of producing. Reduce the spacing to 35cm (14in) and you should get a higher total yield of heads which are smaller but still of a useful size. However, there comes a point when reducing the spacing further is counterproductive because none of the plants have room to grow to a size worth harvesting.


Where the water table is near the surface or the subsoil is of heavy clay or rock, rubble drains are effective in a small plot. Dig a trench 60-90cm (2-3ft) deep and 30cm (12in) wide, with a slope of 1 in 40. Half-fill with rubble, top with gravel and replace the topsoil. If there is no ditch or drain to which the drain can connect, lead it to a soakaway. Dig a hole 1.8m (6ft) across and at least 1.8m (6ft) deep. Line the sides with unmortared bricks, fill with rubble and top with turf.

On a large plot you may need ditches or land drains. Ditches should be 90-120cm (3-4ft) deep and slope outwards at a 20-30° angle. If the land slopes, dig a cut-off ditch to intercept water from higher ground. Dig another parallel ditch at the bottom of the slope. Connect the two by a ditch or a land drain. Discharge the water from the bottom ditch into a soakaway or stream. Land drains are sections of earthenware or perforated pipe. Dig a trench 60-100cm (2 – 3-1/4ft) deep and 30cm (12in) wide and lay the pipes on a 5cm (2in) bed of coarse gravel. Cover with a similar layer of gravel before replacing the soil.

On poorly drained land it also helps to grow crops using a bed system.

Suggested Spacing

Artichokes (Jerusalem) 37cm (15in)

Beans (broad) 30cm (12in)

Beans (dwarf French) 15cm (6in)

Beans (runner) 15 x 60cm (6 x 24in)

Beetroot 13-15cm (5-6in)

Brussels sprouts 55-75cm (22-30in)

Cabbage, winter 45cm (18in)

Calabrese 15-30cm (6-12in)

Carrots 15cm (6in) or 5 x 20cm (2 x 8in)

Celery, self-blanching 15-25cm (6-10in)

Courgettes 60cm (24in)

Lettuce 15-30cm (6-12in)

Onions, maincrop 10-20cm (4-8in)

Parsnips 10-20cm (4-8in)

Peas 7.5cm (3in) or in rows *

Potatoes 30cm (12in) earlies, 38cm (15in) others

Spinach beet 23cm (9in)

Sweetcorn 30-45cm (12-18in)

Swiss chard 23cm (9in)

* Although an even distribution of plants over the bed works well for most crops, there are times when other spacings are more convenient:

Beans (runner)

Tall varieties can be grown in a double row along the middle of the bed or up a wigwam of canes at the conventional spacing.


Maincrop can be station sown at 10cm (4in), but it is less time-consuming and makes weeding easier if you sow in wider rows 15cm (6in) apart and thin to about 5cm (2in).


Short leafless peas can be grown at an equidistant spacing of 7.5cm (3in), but most varieties are best grown in close double rows or bands, either across the bed with 45cm (18in) between the bands or up the middle of the bed.


Can be grown at close equidistant spacing of 30cm (12in) for earlies and 38cm (15cm) for others, but will have to be mulched instead of earthed up.

28. January 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Fruit & Veg, Kitchen Garden, Organic Gardening | Tags: , | Comments Off on Bed System for Growing Vegetables


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