Sleepers really are one of the most versatile timber materials. They have a range of uses, both indoors and out, and commonly feature across a variety of landscape designs. However, one of their most popular and traditional applications outdoors is for building raised beds.
Because of their modular shape and great structural stability, building raised beds, that last, couldn’t be easier than when using sleepers.
More and more gardeners and homeowners are integrating the raised sleeper bed into their garden as both a functional and decorative feature.
Yes, we know we’re biassed, but raised sleeper beds really are an attractive and superb aesthetic feature for any garden, modern or traditional in style.
They are also ideal for gardens of all shapes and sizes, and a brilliant option if you’re trying to create a long-lasting garden feature, whilst on a budget.
You see, the great thing about making your own raised sleeper beds is that you can entirely customise them, and build them in a way that works around your existing garden features.
So, whether you’re short on space, or have a large space to fill, sleepers offer endless possibilities for complete personalisation.
From a growing perspective, many gardeners actually prefer to grow plants, fruits and vegetables within raised beds. The reason being is that sleepers offer superior drainage, which is ideal if your garden is known to be overly soggy or dry.
What’s more, with raised sleeper beds, you’ve got complete control over the soil composition.
You can negate issues associated with clay-based or rocky soil, by mixing up a soil composition that works to support the growth of the plants and flowers growing within your raised beds.
There are so many pros to opting for raised sleeper beds. Want to know how to build them?
You will need:
String, chalk or spare timber for marking out
Circular saw or hand saw
Staple gun/hammer (optional)
The first thing you’ll want to do is decide exactly where you’re going to put your raised bed.
The beauty of making your own sleeper raised bed, is that you can create them to a size and shape that works around your existing garden space.
For the purpose of this guide, we’ll run you through how to create a rectangular raised bed, but if you’re feeling adventurous, or want something a little different, raised beds can be built in a range of shapes, including triangular, hexagonal and an L-shape.
Don’t forget: plants often need high levels of sunlight to grow, so pick a sunny spot, to support the growth of your plants, fruits or vegetables.
Once you know where you’re going to position your raised bed, the next step is to measure the area, using a tape measure.
You’ll need to know this measurement before you buy your sleepers, to ensure that you have enough material to achieve the desired size and height.
Consider how tall you want your raised bed to be. For raised beds close to the ground, you may only need two layers of sleepers. However, for added height, you may need 3-5 layers of sleepers.
The next step in getting your raised sleeper bed project underway is clearing the area.
That means removing any shrubs, bushes and plants (roots included), and setting up a clear, flat surface ready to start.
It’s important that you take the time to do this properly so that you’ve got a fresh, obstruction-free space before you start the build.
Remember to set aside any excess soil that can be used later on in the process to fill your raised sleeper bed.
You want to achieve a smooth, flat surface. If in doubt, use a spirit level, to check before beginning the build.
Optional extra: for additional sturdiness, you may wish to lay a concrete foundation if you are planning to place your raised sleeper bed frame into a grass surface. Alternatively, you can use left-over paving slabs to even out a sloped area.
Re-measure and mark out your area, using string line and pegs, chalk or left-over pieces of timber. Make a note of your measurements – you’re going to need them shortly to cut your sleepers to size.
Now is the time to dig the trench, within which your bottom layer sleeper frame will be submerged.
Measure the width and depth of your sleeper (depth of sleepers should be measured with the narrowest side on the ground).
Use a measuring tape and shovel to create a trench that is the same width and depth as your sleeper.
Next things next, it’s time to cut your sleepers down to size.
Pull out your measurements and mark up your timber using a pencil
It may sound obvious, but for a square raised bed, all 4 sides need to be of equal length, and for rectangular sleepers, you’ll need two longer sides of equal length, and two shorter sizes of equal length.
Start by cutting the base frame sleepers, and lay them out of the floor to check that the lengths fit together as so:
Once you’re happy with the size of your sleeper base, you can continue to measure, mark and cut the remaining sleepers to size, ahead of fixing them together.
You could use a hand saw to do this, but in reality, this will take a long time and a lot of elbow grease. For the quickest and most accurate cut, opt for a circular saw.
Don’t forget: treat each, newly sawed end with Cut End Preserver to avoid rotting and fungal attacks.
To lay the foundation, pour a thin layer of aggregate (pea shingle or ballast will do the trick) into your trench, and smooth it out to ensure that you have a flat, smooth surface.
Next, mix your Post Mix as per the manufacturer’s instructions and pour into one side of your trench (if you’re making a rectangle shape, pour into 1 of the two long sides first).
You want to ensure that combined, the aggregate and the Post Mix only take up a one-third of the trench, leaving the remaining two-thirds for the base sleepers.
Once the first side of the trench is filled with post mix, place your first base sleeper into the trench. Use a spirit level to ensure that it’s flat.
Repeat step 5b, and if you’re making a rectangular shape sleeper bed, opt for one out of the two shorter sides next. Lay the shorter sleeper in place, on a right angle to the longer side.
Once you’ve used a spirit level to check that it is flat, you can screw the two base sleepers together using 240mm screws.
For better binding, drill into the side of the sleepers, inside out, rather than from the ends.
To complete the base, repeat steps 5b, 5c and 5d, using the remaining short sleeper length and the remaining longer sleeper length.
Next, it’s time to build up from your base foundation.
It’s recommended that you individually layer over the top of the base layer, overlapping the joints in a brickwork formation, for a stronger structure.
Start in one corner, as you did with the base layer, laying the sleepers on their narrowest side and screwing them together at a 45-degree angle to connect the two sleepers together.
Continue to build the second frame, using the remaining two sleepers to create the rectangular shape.
Screw the second rectangular frame to the base frame by using 250mm screws.
Screw at a 45-degree angle, downwards, from the second frame into the base frame.
You may wish to stop at two layers, but if you’re opting for added height, repeat this step with further layers until you achieve the desired raised sleeper height.
You’ll want to support the drainage of your raised bed. The whole idea of using raised beds is that you can achieve superior drainage, compared to ground-level beds.
To do this, fill the bottom of the sleeper bed with 100mm of pea shingle or similar aggregate.
To support the longevity of the sleepers used in your raised beds, you may wish to treat them.
All of our sleepers have been pressure-treated, and over time will change to a silver-grey. Treating the timber will slow the colour change.
Decking oil or cut end preserver will also help to keep the timber durable and strong when exposed to moisture.
For a splash of colour, you could also paint your raised sleeper bed a colour of your choosing.
Once any paint or treatments have dried, you’re ready to add the weed membrane.
A weed membrane will work to keep pesky weeds at bay, whilst continuing to support the free drainage of the soil.
Line the inside of the sleeper walls and floor with a membrane, attaching with a staple gun, or screws.
Top tip: For a neat and tidy finish, attach the weed membrane roughly 100mm below the top of the bed, so that it remains hidden under the soil
The final thing to do is decide what you want to grow in your raised bed.
It’s a good idea to figure this out first before you fill the bed with soil. Different plants require different soil compositions. So, once you know what you want to grow, you can create the best soil composition to support your plant’s growing conditions.
You can grow a wide variety of plants and flowers. If you fancy trying your hand at growing your own fruits and vegetables, raised sleeper beds offer the ideal growing environment.