Create beautiful garden soil without the fuss of a hot compost

Organic garden soil is expensive if you buy it, even in bulk. At the nursery, it costs around $7 for a 1.5 cu. foot bag. So, if you have a large raised bed — or in our case, four large raised beds built last year in our backyard — that isn’t an affordable option.

The alternative?

Make your own!


We started by filling our garden terraces with gravel, which is a must for proper drainage. If we hadn’t, then there would be a chance the terraces would get waterlogged and the weight of it all would cause our work to break apart over time.

On top of the gravel, we placed a sheet of 15-year landscape fabric to keep the soil from filling in all the gaps between the gravel, which would also keep the water from properly draining. Then we added a layer of cardboard that I’d nicked from the paper recycle dumpster outside of the high school where I work. At the time, the cardboard and paper was overflowing. (Personally, I think using it in our garden is even better than recycling.)

We added a layer of leaves after the cardboard, which we’d collected from the curb of a friends’ house after she tidied her lawn last fall. And then I cleaned out the chicken coop straw and added that. Chicken manure is quite high in nitrogen and will help offset all the high-carbon items like cardboard and straw.

We kept adding layers of all kinds of things to each bed:

  • Cardboard
  • Chicken coop straw/manure
  • Leaves (what ever gets bagged and left on the curb in our neighborhood)
  • Coffee grounds and tea (from local coffee shops)
  • Rotting hay bales left over from our wedding

When the layers were close to the top, we gave in and purchased 2 cu. yards of organic garden compost mix from a local company called Silver Creek Materials. It was somewhat affordable and made it possible to plant sooner since it filled in the beds with about a foot or so of good soil on top (with the rest happily but slowly composting underneath).

Right now the three wood terraced beds where we dumped the compost mix are growing lots of yummy winter crops.

This bed is planted up with: broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, Swiss chard and beets. It will provide many greens and veggies throughout the winter season for my family. And some of the over-sized or bug-nibbled leaves will go to happy chickens.

The rock wall bed is still a work in progress and we added chopped up pumpkins that we collected after Halloween/Thanksgiving. The chickens roam in that part of the yard. So, they ate some of the pumpkin but left most of it to rot. They’re enjoying the bugs that have come to feast on the rotting pumpkin, and all their poop in the bed will create a wonderful space to plant tomatoes by spring — we think!


While the fastest way to make compost is hot compost (warm enough that the thermophilic organisms are actively working on breaking down organic matter)… it is possible to compost without the trouble of building a compost pile with the magic carbon to nitrogen ratio.

All organic matter breaks down over time. So, if you just make a pile of organic matter you want to compost, it will rot. How quickly depends on how much carbon and nitrogen is present in those materials.

I tend to find a lot of carbon-rich sources for making compost, like paper or bags of leaves. So, composting those items takes longer and involves more bugs than heat-loving microorganisms.

Side note: if you have a lot of nitrogen rich sources, be careful not to create a stinky mess. Bury it under or mix it in with higher carbon materials. Too much carbon is okay but too much nitrogen can be quite gross.


  1. An excellent use of recycled materials! I do something similar on my beds. A no till method of layering makes planting a breeze!!

    One more element you forgot with the compost is oxygen. In my experience, it trumps having a perfect ratio of nitrogen and carbon. To every pile, turn turn turn.

    • You’re so right! That is very important. I get lazy about turning, but that helps a ton. Also, I have an aerator that goes through the center of my large compost bin, which helps. Thank you for the feedback!!

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