7 Easy Ways to Fill a Raised Garden Bed for Cheap!

Do you want to ditch the how but keep the garden? Raised beds are a great way to eliminate digging and tilling in your garden. But it can cost an arm and leg to fill the boxes with store bought soil.

You may feel you need a second mortgage just to grow your garden, but we are here to tell you that you are wrong! We’ve found seven easy ways to fill your garden bed that won’t break the bank (or your back)!

We’ve even found one method that only requires hay. That’s right, just hay. Curious? Keep reading.

raised garden beds

Lasagna Gardening

When I first learned about lasagna gardening, it blew my mind. Now, I’m not talking about growing a garden full of tomatoes, basil, and oregano to make a lasagna. I’m talking about a technique in which you create your garden bed by layering many different materials, just like when you assemble a delicious lasagna. 

This type of gardening is also sometimes referred to as sheet mulching and is popular with permaculturists and no-till gardening fans. The idea is that rather than tilling the soil, you build on top of whatever is there. You create layers with different types of organic material. Over time this material breaks down into rich, organic soil perfect for planting. 

Once you have your raised bed built, you can begin to build your lasagna garden. You can find many different recipes for how to layer the material in your garden, but I’ll share an easy method that can be done even if you don’t have a lot of organic material to start with. 

First, start by laying down a layer of cardboard or newspaper. This layer will help keep the weeds out in the beginning while your material is breaking down.  On top of the cardboard, you will want to lay a layer of good comport or rich soil. This gets you your base.

Now we want to alternate layers between green compost, brown compost, and manure — just like if you wanted to speed up your compost

Your first layer will be green compost. This includes fresh leaves, organic kitchen waste, and grass clippings. Think materials that are green and wet. Then you want brown compost. That’s your dry organic material like dry leaves and twigs. Finally, add a layer of manure.

You can alternate these layers until your raised bed is almost full. Then cap it off with another layer of good compost. Finally, cover the whole thing with mulch to protect it. 

Over time the organic material will break down and leave you with a raised bed full of rich homemade soil.

Hugelkultur

hugelkultur bed building process

A few years ago, you probably had never heard of hugelkutur and may still not be able to pronounce it (I know it’s a tongue twister). Long popular with permaculturists, the age old planting method is having a modern revival. So what is it?

If you translate hugelkutur, you will find it means hill culture, and that’s exactly what you do — build a small hill or mound that you then grow on. Hugelkultur is an excellent choice if you live in a wooded area or have lots of branches and brush because you create your mound out of logs and plant debris.

You can create large mounds– we’re talking five to six feet high. Make them wider at the bottom, and they can narrow as the height climbs. Over time these mounds will break down and settle to maybe only 2 feet tall.

Now,  before you start your mound, you will want to dig a trench for your bed. You will want to mark out a plot roughly 4 X8 feet. Then dig down about 12-18 inches deep, trying to keep your trench level.

Once you have your trench, then you can begin filling it will wood. And the more rotten the wood, the better. You want to create a rich damp environment to create a super fertile garden bed. But you are not limited to just rotting logs. Add brush, leftover lumber, or whatever you have lying around. Once you have added all your wood, you want to build a lasagna garden on top.

Layer green and brown compost with a small amount of manure. Cover with compost. 

If you build your hugelkutur mound in the fall, it will be ready to plant come spring. And you will be amazed at the bounty you will get from those beds!

Ruth Stout Gardening

An avid gardener, Ruth Stout was born in the US in 1884. Eventually, tired of digging, hoeing, and weeding (who isn’t?), she decided to stop. That’s right– Ruth stopped all her those laborious tasks. Instead, she heavily mulched her garden with hay. And what do you think happened?

That’s right. Her garden flourished. 

Ruth Stout wrote about her method during the fifties and sixties for the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening. She also published several popular books and became known as the Queen of Mulch. 

So what exactly does the Ruth Stout Method entail? The truth is not a whole lot, which is why it is so appealing. The only material you need is hay, and if you don’t have that, you can use another mulching material. But the truth is hay really does work best.

Mulch generously around your plants with the hay. And I mean generously. You can use up to eight inches of hay! I know it seems like a lot but trust me. Rain, sun, and weather are going to break all that hay down in no time flat. 

The idea here is that you are mimicking what already happens naturally. Leaves and other debris fall to the ground and provide a natural layer of mulch. This layer helps prevent weeds, and as the debris breaks down, it nourishes the plants. 

You can also watch this video about the Ruth Stout Gardening:

Back to Eden

Gardener and arborist Paul Gautschi developed the Back to Eden Method. In 2011 a documentary film, he shares the story of his lifelong journey to return to the Garden of Eden. Essential to this is the quest is the Back to Eden Method of gardening. The documentary is free to view online and has popularized this method. 

This method combines a more Christian approach by looking to attain the ideal garden like Eden. But while the philosophy behind it may be more religious, in the end, as the website states, Back to Eden farming isn’t so different from the other methods we examined (1).

“Back to Eden Gardening is a regenerative organic gardening method that practices no-till and organic growing principles.”

Like so many of the other methods we have looked at so far, Back To Eden comes down to a system of sheet mulching. As we mentioned when we discussed lasagna gardening, there are many different methods of sheet mulching. Back To Eden differs from the others by relying heavily on the use of wood chips rather than hay or other mulching materials.

Core Gardening

When you really look into Core Gardening, you’ll find the idea behind it is the same as with a hugelkultur. Both methods involve a “foundational core” of compostable organic material. With hugelkultur it is focused mainly on rotting wood for that foundation. If you don’t have an unlimited supply of rotting wood, core gardening may be a better way to approach this method.

Here you will want to start with an empty raised garden bed. You will want to layer inside of it with any organic compostable material you have. Food scraps, leaves, twigs, grass clippings, you name it. This is what is going to break down and feed your garden.

Once you have a substantial layer of organic material in the bed now, you will now add at least 5 inches of the best soil you have around. While five inches may seem like a lot of soil, that’s a lot less than you would use if you hadn’t added all that compostable material first. Plus, keep in mind this soil is where you will plant your veggies.  

Straw Bale Gardening

Straw Bale Gardening is a different approach than mulching, like we’ve been discussing. Rather than mulching with hay, like in the Ruth Stout Method, here you use baled straw as your growing medium. You do want to make sure you get straw rather than hay, so you don’t have seeds sprouting during the preparation process.

Once you have your straw bales, you will want to place them in direct sun. While they don’t require you to put them in a raised bed, you absolutely can. Just make sure you have them exactly where you want them. 

Straw bales become much heavier once you start the preparation process.

You want the bales placed on their edge, so the cut ends of the plant stalks are facing up. The baling twine should be around the outside. Bales can be combined to make larger beds but don’t make them so large you can’t easily tend them.

straw bale gardening

Now that you have laid out your straw bale garden beds, water them. That’s right, pour on the water. You want to really saturate these bales because the goal is to get them to start to decompose. Then you can layer some compost on top and plant away. As the straw bales begin to break down, they will nourish your sprouts. 

You probably want to stick to smaller plants on these types of beds. The straw isn’t strong enough to support tall growers like tomatoes or corn. However, you can take advantage of the sides of the bales and tuck in strawberries or other similar plants around the sides.

Make Your Own Compost

One of the cheapest ways to fill your raised beds is to make your own compost. You can do it as simple as just piling all your organic waste into a big pile and waiting, but that’s not the most efficient way to build compost. Inevitable trying that has you wondering– How long does it take to make compost? 

There are lots of ways to speed up your compost, but one of the key components is to turn it often. However, if wielding a pitchfork every day isn’t your thing, you should consider investing in a compost tumbler. Turning your compost can cut down composting from months to just weeks. Meaning soon, you have turned your food and yard waste into rich compost to fill your raised beds.

Final Thoughts

There are a whole host of ways you can easily and cheaply build and fill raised garden beds. Not only are these methods easier than digging and tilling your soil, but they are also better for it too. Many of these methods were developed by carefully observing what was already happing naturally in healthy ecosystems and mimicking it.

So now that we’ve shown you how easy it is go out there and start planting! You can have fresh produce growing in your garden before you know it!

FAQs

The best ratio of green to brown compost is difficult to say. Some people will tell you as much as 3-4 parts brown to 1 part green. Others will tell you to use equal parts brown to green. So what is right? 

The issue is that the correct ratio is 30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen. However, when building your compost pile, you don’t really know exactly what the carbon and nitrogen ratios are of your green and brown material.

You can create in as little as 3 weeks. You can create compost faster by turning your pile regularly, maintaining the proper moisture, having the correct C:N ratio, and keeping the compost material small. Other factors like the size of your compost pile and temperature also affect how quickly the material decomposes.

Permaculture is a term coined by Bill Mollison by joining the two words, permanent and agriculture. It is a system of agricultural and community design that looks to natural systems to inspire a more self sufficient and sustainable approach to production and organization for communities.

  1. Back To Eden. The Feature Film. Retrieved from: https://www.backtoedenfilm.com/#/
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