Turn compost heaps into raised garden beds

Turn compost heaps into raised garden beds for a sustainable method that will mean less work in the long run and better vegetables.

We can argue long into the night that this or that way of composting is better; it's all hot air. What is important is that make every effort to retain every morsel of organic material in the garden; nothing must go to the dump.

How we then deal with it is of lesser importance. This Hügelkultur method appeals to me; perhaps slightly more work in the short term but with huge benefits if you are into this garden for the long stretch.

Humus

Compost heap 225

We had a compost heap up against a concrete wall for about five years. We realised it was prime space for a garden bed so moved most of the friable material away and started planting. That was probably nearly a decade ago; it remains our most productive patch of ground.

That compost heap left behind something in the soil that has had lasting benefits. Probably humus but likely other nutrients for our veggies too. It's just one small feature of what is being called backyard permaculture.

Labour saving

The hardest part of composting is carting organic matter some distance across the garden; and then when it has broken down, barrowing it all the way back to your beds.

The Hügelkultur method means turning every bed first into a compost heap and then planting your seedlings on top of it. Don't cart those corn stalks across the garden; build them right there in situ into a new pile that will soon become a very fertile patch.

Drainage

Compost heaps can become water-logged in a wet season. No air can get in and they become anaerobic; far less break down and they will stink. Methane and other noxious gases are  produced.

The foundation

Compost pile foundation

The base of this new bed needs to be built of a layer of decomposing logs. They could be several feet in diameter or just a few inches. If you have chopped down a tree and don't know what to do with all that timber, make it the foundation of your first raised garden.

The logs can even be placed on end but that means digging quite a deep hole. Damaged and discarded wooden pallets could be used provided they weren't made of treated timber.

Watch your back, though. Moving large logs is slipped-disc stuff. Obviously this Hügelkultur bed will last for many years; likely you'll never have to do it again if you build a heavy-duty foundation. Try and make the base at least 15cm deep; perhaps a foot or more.

The tradition of centuries suggests the base should be about 40% of the heap; don't fuss. Put the measuring tape away! It doesn't need to be beautiful and regular; it will soon be covered for a very long time.

A layer of sticks

On that foundation of logs toss a layer of sticks of all shapes and sizes; in depth perhaps half of that of the log foundation. Now you have a base that will allow excess water to drain away and air to circulate.

Raised compost bed; laying the baseThe base: logs covered by sticks

Plant waste

Raised compost bed: layer of plant materialAdding plant material to the raised compost bed

The third layer can be made of any plant waste; rotting leaves in autumn, grass mowings in summer and cuttings from say your hydrangeas. Even those roses prunings that are so hard to get rid of because you won't be putting your fingers down there for years; the thorns will have decomposed completely.

This is a permanent structure; you won't be barrowing the compost away to another bed.

Together with the base you are making a structure that will retain water; but allow an excess to drain away. It means a lot less time spent, hosepipe in hand.

Make it quite thick remembering it will infiltrate the base below and decompose quickly; tradition says about a quarter of the whole structure.Take your time here; it could be a month or more, so keep adding extra material before you move onto the fourth layer.

Some like to turn it into a mound to stop compaction, others a level bed; follow your own guiding star.

As it decomposes heat will be released; this is useful as seeds will germinate better and plants keep growing as the cooler autumn weather sets in.

Hiring a powerful mulching machine could be useful here; avoid the Mickey Mouse models. Perhaps you or even your neighbour want to tear down a hedge or some thick woody stuff. This is the perfect place for that friable material and otherwise irritating stuff that you might be tempted to send to the dump. 

Kitchen scraps could also be dumped in here but they may attract vermin. A worm farm with a tightly-fitting lid is a better bet; to keep the rain and rats out.


Worms in worm farmThe wonder of worm farms

Pine-bark would be fine, even some layers of coarse sawdust; though rather acidic in the context of the whole bed it will slowly decompose. This is an excellent time to add any ash from your wood stove. 

A few shovels of cow or horse mature would not go amiss. I let my chickens loose on the heap. Yes, they will take some of the worms but that means richer eggs; and they leave behind their droppings. It's all about trying to work with nature rather than against it.

Hens gourmet meal

A layer of compost

Your fourth layer is fairly thin; perhaps a wheelbarrow from one of your heaps. This incidentally is the place to seed your Hügelkultur bed with creepy-crawlies. If you have a worm farm, a few shovelfuls of vermicompost would be perfect.

compost wheelbarrow optVermi-compost

A layer of soil

And finally a layer of garden soil to top your new raised garden bed; it could be a couple feet deep or even more if you used large logs in the foundation.

Perhaps wait a few weeks for the whole structure to settle, add more soil and get your Hügelkultur bed level and ready for planting your first tray of cabbage seedlings; kale, peppers or strawberries?

A complex of Hügelkultur beds

Notice how developers build a new complex. They start with the foundations of the first house and then as the brickies get going, work begins on the next home.

As you are building your first bed, keep thinking ahead. Either right adjacent to it, or in another part of the garden where you know there will soon be a pile of organic debris, start your next raised Hügelkultur bed.

Help your neighbours

It is strange but most likely you will notice your neighbours carting bags of leaves and the grass they have mowed to the dump; little they see in Nature that is theirs[3]. You can help them, they will be delighted, by coming to some arrangement about the compostable material they are constantly having to dispose of.

Lots of work

Perhaps you are thinking this is a lot of work; why go to all the trouble? First up, this is a once off; you won't be tackling this garden bed again probably for a decade. It is a permanent structure; and you will save your back not having to turn and dig out compost heaps, barrowing all that black gold to where you want to plant new seedlings.

This raised compost heap you will soon find is a garden bed on steroids; your veggies will thrive!

Barrowful of butternutMore food than you can possibly eat

Cardboard

There's a move worldwide to turn beautiful lawns into vegetable gardens. Mowing is hard work, takes valuable time and maintenance of the machinery is expensive. There is no need to first dig out the grass; simply cover it with two layers of cardboard and lay your foundation for a raised garden bed.

Three metres long by two wide would be quite an ambitious start. But soon you'll be piling on the grass cuttings instead of taking them to the dump or a compost heap at the bottom of the garden. There is likely to be a rainwater tank nearby that you can use to irrigate your veggies.

Turn compost heaps into raised garden beds by all means but also do some lateral thinking; there are many variations on this theme. Like turning that unproductive lawn into a veritable source of fresh, organic fruit and vegetables.

Good food is becoming very expensive and increasingly difficult to find at any price. The Blue Zone people who live such long healthy lives would say start growing your own veggies. The sunshine, the exercise and the exposure to nature all will do us a power of good.


"There is increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health."

- Clinical Medicine (PMC6334070)[2]



This is the lifestyle for those who don't like being sick, taking pills and constantly having to consult doctors. Instead they spend their time and energy turning compost heaps into raised garden beds; and growing their own food.



"It has been estimated that 20% of Medicare beneficiaries have five or more chronic conditions; and fifty percent are taking 5 plus drugs."



I cannot tell you what a blessing it is that neither the good wife nor I, in our midseventies have any chronic conditions and take almost no medicine.

Instead we turn compost heaps into raised garden beds, grow our own food and even brew our own alcohol; and watch very little television.

It's the Cyan Zone philosophy; combining blue issues of wellness with a passion for green things; caring for the planet. The red-hot anger of inflammation and pain stays far distant.

cyan
23L carboy and 10 litre demijohns for mead

Turn compost heaps into raised garden beds

Turn compost heaps into raised garden beds for long-term improvement of both your vegetables and by extension your own wellness.

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