I love gardening in raised beds. It is one of the simplest ways to have success with a vegetable garden. That doesn’t take anything away from all the other methods of gardening, only that I believe that raised beds are a great way for gardeners of all backgrounds and skill levels to garden successfully.
The best reason to like raised beds is that the gardener can control the soil. Good soil is paramount to a great garden and if you can master that everything else gets much better along the way! Raised beds are also great for beginning gardeners because it helps with organization. So how should you fill raised beds? And even more importantly how can you fill a raised bed cheaply with good soil? Take a look below at six great methods for filling your raised beds on a budget!
Filling Raised Beds with Compost
Compost is the ultimate soil. Gardener’s Gold! Good compost is rich in organic matter, has good moisture retention, great for soil structure and can provide lots of nutrition for plants. The problem with compost is getting it cheaply in enough quantity to fill a raised garden bed.
How Much Compost Will Fill A Raised Bed?
If a 4 ft x 8 ft garden bed is 6 inches tall we can calculate how much compost will be needed to fill it. It’s a simple volume math equation of 4ft X 8ft x 1/2ft. When we do the math it tells us we need 16 cubic ft of compost. 1 yard of compost is the equivalent of 27 cubic feet so we know we can divide that out and reach .59 yards of compost.
For Comparison: You can buy compost or soil from local sources for around $50 to $60 per yard.
That’s great to know but how do we get that much compost? There are a number of ways to find compost material. Yard waste, kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds from coffee shops, juice waste from juice bars and restaurants. Nearly anywhere that uses vegetables and will have scraps may be able to give you compost material.
Animal manures can also be thrown in the compost bin, more on that below!
Compost takes time to break down so while you are working on this method to fill your raised beds try one of the next couple.
Use Woodchips to Fill a Raised Bed Garden
Last year I completely filled a raised bed garden with woodchips. They were in the process of breaking down and had been sitting for a while. You can call tree companies and request to be added to their drop off locations. Often they need places to drop the woodchips off rather than take it to a dump.
Woodchips do come with a certain amount of risk. It’s possible that the woodchips contain pesticide and herbicide residue from highway work. It’s also possible there may be a number of weed seeds from the trees. The pesticides and chemicals will leach away eventually and there may not even be any at all to begin with.
I used the woodchips in my tomato and pepper beds and had the fewest issues with disease I ever have had in my garden. Part of that was due to the top later of soil was like a mulch which did not splash diseases onto the plants as would happen in bare soil.
Grass Clippings to Fill a Raised Bed
I use grass clippings to fill my raised beds all the time. The clippings are a free resource from my yard and since I don’t use any pesticides or herbicides on the lawn they are a completely organic resource.
The important point when using grass clippings to fill raised beds is to only use grass that is without obnoxious weed seeds in it. Also avoid avoid using Bermuda grass or any other invasive rhizomematic grass for this as those grasses may spread into your beds from the cut grass. (Trust me, it is miserable to have Bermuda grass in a vegetable garden!)
Take the grass and layer it on the bottom of the raised beds then fill over the grass clippings with other materials like wood chips, compost, or leaves. Let it break down for a couple weeks then plant your transplants in the bed.
Filling a Raised Bed with Leaves
Tree leaves in the fall are an amazing source of organic matter. Have you ever looked at the forest floor during a hike and noticed how dark and rich the soil appears? That’s due to the organic matter broken down as a result of the lead drop every fall. Since leaves drop in the fall that would be the best time to gather as many leaves as possible to fill up your raised beds.
Often you can gather leaves for your vegetable garden beds for free from your neighbors who won’t be using them. You can even drive around town and pick up leaf bags from people who are setting them out for public waste to come and get them. Leaves are a great resource that in most cases you can get for free to fill your raised beds. All you need is a little time and labor to gather the leaves.
Hugelkultur gardening is an excellent way to fill your raised beds. I did this a few years ago with my metal raised beds. Hugelkultur gardening is a permaculture technique where logs, branches, woodchips, and other organic matter is mounded. The organic matter breaks down over time and feeds the soil. The logs and branches retain moisture and the beds tend to create a little heat while the organic matter is decaying.
Using Animal Manure to Fill Raised Beds
Animal manure can be a great source of organic matter for raised beds. When using animal manure you want to be careful that you are using aged manure. That means it isn’t fresh and that maybe it’s been sitting around for a few months before use. For garden use horse, cow, chicken, and goat manures are all suitable if they are no longer “hot”. Try to make sure that they are aged at least 6 months or longer.
Horse stables and local farms are a great sources to get animal manure for free or at least a very low cost! Contact some local farms and see if they would be able to load up a truck load for you. If it isn’t aged then find an out of the way spot in your yard to dump it and cover it with leaves, grass clippings, or sawdust to mask the smell as it decays and ages to perfection!
If you raise backyard chickens or rabbits gather up their droppings along with any wood chips or bedding that comes along and toss that in a pile for aging.
The BEST Method to Filling Your Raised Beds
The absolute best method to fill your raised beds cheap is to use a combination of all of the above! Hugelkultur can be your raised bed base, with grass clippings, manure, leaves , and woodchips all layered and mixed together. Finally top off the raised bed with finished compost and you will have an amazing and productive garden because it has an amazing soil structure with lots of organic matter. All of these methods can be done with almost no cost at all, just a little sweat equity!
6 Cheap Ways to Fill Raised Beds
To sum it all up the list below are how you can fill your raised beds efficiently and cheaply. The goal is ALWAYS to fill raised beds with good soil. Since there are many ways to build that soil try using the different methods in this post and experiment to find one that works for you. Always remember that the best vegetable garden starts with the soil. If you work on it your garden will be 80% of the way to success!
- Grass Clippings
- Animal Manure
Buying Soil at a Store
One final note, you can buy good garden soil for your raised beds from the store. In fact I used to make my own soil mix for pots but have found that buying soil saves me time and energy that I could spend in better ways. I still fill my raised beds using the above methods though. If you have to buy soil at a store I recommend looking for organic soils. Those soils should be marked with a label saying OMRI approved. (Organic Materials Review Institute is a non-profit organization that determines if products are approved on the USDA’s organic programs.)
The reason I go for organic is because I am more likely to have clean soil without synthetic additives. If you have to spend money on building soil because of material availability or due to time it’s OK. Just keep these other cheap ways to fill raised beds in mind and collect the organic matter over time to refill your raised beds in the future.