How To Fill Raised Beds More Affordably

Rather than buying soil in bulk, you may be able to source materials from around your garden.

Raised garden beds willed with greens

Alabama Extension / Flickr

If you want to create new raised beds for a kitchen garden, it is possible to do so far more affordably than you might imagine. You do not necessarily have to bulk buy materials to fill them. Often, you can make use of natural materials already available in your garden or around your neighbourhood.

Rather than filling raised beds with finished soil/compost mix, you can begin to fill your beds using organic matter. This organic matter will break down and compost in place. There is a wide range of different types of organic matter that you can use. In essence, anything that you would place in a composting system, you can compost in place within a new raised bed. As in a composting system, the key thing to remember is that you want a good mix of brown (carbon-rich) and green (nitrogen-rich) materials.

All that organic matter will provide food for micro-organisms, and help build healthy soil to support healthy plants. It can also help in retaining moisture, to help make sure your raised beds do not dry out too quickly.

Organic Materials to Consider

For deeper raised beds, the base layer can be made up, hugelkultur style, of woody material. This can be branches and twigs that have fallen from mature trees. And those you have pruned from trees and shrubs in your garden. If growing on grass or a weedy area, a layer of cardboard at the base can also help reduce the incidence of weeds coming through. But it will break down so your raised bed will still be in contact with the wider soil ecosystem.

On top of and around any woody material, lay grass clippings (from an untreated lawn), and any other leafy green material you can find. The more variety, the better. Annual weeds, fruit and vegetable scraps, and any other green plant matter you can find can all be piled in.

If you have collected fall leaves, these are great for the carbon-rich layer. The dead leaves and foliage from any perennial plants, straw, dried bracken, shredded untreated cardboard are all things that can be used.

Continue to layer up green and brown materials to continue to fill your raised bed, making sure that there are not any large pockets not filled with material.

compost mound for a raised garden bed
Building a hugelkultur bed.

Rosa Say / Flickr

If you can get your hands on some, well-rotted manure is an excellent ingredient to include to supply nitrogen and other nutrients. If you do not keep livestock or herbivorous pets of your own, you might be able to source manure in your local area – from a farm, a pet shop – even a zoo. Just remember that (with the exception of rabbit manure) it must be well-composted before use.

The Top Layer For Your Raised Bed

Often, the most difficult thing to source for free is the compost, topsoil or loam that you use to sow and plant into on top of the other organic materials in your raised bed.

Things are far easier if you already compost at home. If you do so, you may already have a source of compost to lay on top of the other materials. If you do not already create your own compost, you might consider doing so right away.

Rather than buying compost, look to see if there are free sources in your area. In some places, municipal compost is given away or sold back gardeners very cheaply. Just make sure you know what exactly has gone into the compost before you decide to use it.

You can also use soil from elsewhere in your garden to top off the beds for planting. Depending on the soil type and its characteristics, you might use this soil on its own, or in combination with some compost or other brown organic material. When creating a new raised bed, it can be a good idea to do so at the same time as working on another project – making pathways, or digging for a pond, or other earthworks, for example. That way, you can transfer the soil you displace from one location to another.

If you are displacing areas of a lawn or grass-covered area, the sods you remove can be stacked upside down. Though it will obviously take time, the stacked turf should turn into loam, which will be useful for topping garden beds.

Another project that will not provide you with the material you need right away, but which will help you with filling new raised beds in coming years is collecting fall leaves and making leaf mold.

Look forwards, and think about strategies to employ to make things easier in the future. But for now, use whatever soil, organic matter, or compost you can get your hands on. It might not provide ideal conditions right away, but you can build healthy soil in your raised bed over time.