Wood, plastic, concrete

When we first moved in, the garden of Chez Snail was far from interesting: a lawn, a patio, a rotary dryer and larch-lap fencing. That was it – no flowers, no shrubs, no vegetables, nothing. So, we set about changing things. The fencing went the first night… at least one of the panels did, as it blew down in high winds! We soon discovered the lack of soil, and embarked on a scheme to rectify this.

We didn’t have much compost at the time, so we started by using log rolls to create some slightly raised beds in which to grow vegetables. We hoped slowly to improve the clayey subsoil that was our growing medium. Sadly, this just didn’t do the trick – productivity wasn’t good, we were creating little compost and the garden was so wet that the logs rotted. Round about this time we planted a willow hedge along the back of the garden and we knew that this would generate some compostable biomass.

More squashes

Beds made from reclaimed railway sleepers

And so we decided that some more robust and deeper raised beds were required. After careful consideration, we decided to use old railway sleepers. We knew that these would not rot plus we were keen to be reusing a resource rather than sourcing from new. In many way these have been a great success. I think they have been in place for about 10 years now. We bought in some topsoil to get the beds started, but then we upped our game with composting – collecting leaves and moss from friends, getting our neighbours to give us their grass clippings, using shredded willow (it now grows about 10 feet/3m every year) and making use of cardboard, paper, kitchen scraps and dog poo – and the fertility of these beds has remained high. On the down side, old railway sleepers do ooze tar in the sunshine. They are a real challenge to install because they are very heavy, unwieldy and tough to cut. Looking back, I’m glad that we used them and I think the beds we made with them have many years of life left.

IMGP5678Next we moved on to an area of garden where we wanted to grow soft fruit. Despite the success of the railway sleepers, we decided to try using a different material for this large square bed and opted for planks made of recycled plastic. The facts that these are relatively light, do not rot and (according to the manufacturers) can be worked with using standard woodworking tools were all factors that made them appealing. As it turned out, the first two points were correct, but the last one was simply not true. Mr Snail (you may be aware how much he loves DIY) really struggled to work with the plastic… which (unsurprisingly, on reflection) did not behave like wood at all and was a pain to drill and saw. In addition, it is very bendy and so the edges of our beds have bowed out as a result of the weight of the enclosed soil (even though it’s only about 12 inches/30cm deep).


Those are link-a-boards that Aliss (rip) is perched on

The third area of the garden that needed dealing with was the chicken’s patch. Poor things had sloshed about in mud in the winter and experienced ground like concrete in the summer, so we decided that they needed a bed of wood chip, which they could churn up and fertilize and slowly convert into soil. In this case, with a light substrate, we decided to try using link-a-boards – these are made from recycled plastic, come in 1m lengths and fit together with plastic pegs. They are about 6inches/15cm in height and can be placed on on top of one another to make deeper beds. These were a joy to use – they were light, portable and slotted together easily. They don’t rot and have been perfect for enclosing woodchip. We used two on top of each other for a depth of 12inches/30cm.

My earliest planting of potatoes

Up-ended flags enclosed this bed

As we wanted more growing space, we started eying up the patio. In this case the materials to construct the bed were right there in front of us – the paving slabs. Mr Snail levered them up (they weren’t very well fixed) and used them to define a progressively larger and larger bed, which eventually became J-shaped. This was what we called our ‘rubbish bed’ because all the materials were reused. It contained no ‘soil’ just compost made from garden waste, paper, cardboard , old potting compost etc. As a site for squashes, this bed was unsurpassed!

Slabs back as a patio

Slabs back as a patio

But life moves on, and the limery plans meant that the rubbish bed had to go. We saved all the compost – some of it was incorporated into the railway sleeper beds and some is in storage in rubble sacks. The paving slabs, now in their third incarnation, are back being used as a patio and the compost is destined for the new block-built deep bed. After all the problems we have had with flooding and our experience of all these other building materials, we concluded that blocks were the only viable option for the new deep bed. It’s going to be filled with home-made compost, with wood, cardboard, paper and moss in the bottom and we’re hoping for some good root crops – carrots and parsnips in particular.

Obviously, different materials have different qualities and you have to choose the right one for the job, but I must say that the plastic wood is my least favourite and not something we will be rushing to use again.


This post was inspired by a conversation on Facebook with Ann L. and Sarah H.


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  1. You have helped me out some today. I have the railroad ties being used as terracing to hold back the mountain of clay goo they call dirt here. It’s awful. There are shrubs planted in it and some lemon mint but I’m afraid to plant anything edible as I was told the creosote in the ties would contaminate the soil. So now I’m looking to build planting beds for my edibles and need to find a workable material. Just one more project in a long list.


    • We have not had any problem with contamination (the seepage is minor and not really a problem unless you sit on it). If I were you, I’d go ahead and plant your edibles.


      • That’s a relief. You have no idea how many have told me not to plant edibles anywhere around them. I’m working to break down the clay by burying my compost there. I’m not allowed to have a compost pile here so I hide it. Crazy people. Mine were always sweet smelling and not rodents bothered them. Thanks.


  2. Ah the benefits of experimentation! Isn’t it amazing what we learn when we try stuff out. It’s good to hear of your experiences with these. I’m sorry to have missed that conversation on fb – I’m rarely there these days!


    • It started with Sarah asking me why we had chosen to rely so much on concrete in the current construction (there are environmental issues with its use – CO2 emissions, extraction of aggregate, embodied energy etc). Since the process has been a long one, it seemed a good idea to actually document how we go to where we have… hopefully providing relevant advice and info for other folks. Also, I wanted a post today that didn’t make us all cry!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Like you, I’ve experimented with a variety of materials. When I was a single woman, I never contemplated railway sleepers, they were simply too heavy for me to move alone, but I’ve also gone the log and paving slab route. Roofing in Australia is commonly corrugated steel sheets, and these make really excellent side panels for raised beds, the downside being that you have to work them with an angle grinder. I would never contemplate using recycled plastic edging for the simple reason that the hot and constant sunshine here would degrade it within a very short time, and then the whole job is to do again.


    • Yes, whatever you choose needs to last, otherwise you’re back to square one in short order. I am fond of the railway sleepers, but my word they were a challenge to work with.


  4. The Belmont Rooster

     /  June 6, 2015

    GREAT POST!!!! You have had a wonderful journey!


  1. Wood, plastic, concrete | The Snail of Happiness | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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