What To Fill Raised Beds With & Where Do You Find It?

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I love having raised beds. Our soil here is horrible, and this has been a nice way to get started in our garden without having to wait a couple of years for the ground to be worked and amended. The only downside to raised beds is that it can get expensive if you aren’t careful. We were fortunate to have scrap lumber to build the boxes out of, but then we faced the question…

What do we fill the boxes with?

Last year, we did the cheapest thing we could. We filled some boxes with barn littler that we were able to get for free from a nearby stable. The stable owners were more than happy to use their tractor to scoop the manure/hay mixture into our truckbed to clean out their stalls. There was some fresh manure in the mix, but most of it was nicely aged and composted. We actually planted directly into it; the cucumbers especially loved it!

We also filled some of the boxes using the lasagna method. In the bottom of the box we laid a couple of layers of cardboard and soaked them really well. Then we covered that with dried leaves or grass clippings, barn litter, newspaper, more dried leaves or grass clippings, more barn litter, etc. until the bed was full, topping it off with a layer of more aged manure/compost.

The lasagna method worked well, but once it broke down and compacted the raised beds needed to be filled up more with additional layers, which was hard to do once the plants were established.

We also got turned on to a local guy who sells “compost” by the truckload. We bought some of his stuff and planted in that as well. I was kinda disappointed with it though, as it seemed to be more like mulch than good planting compost.

This year we found a local mill that sells “soil conditioner” by the tractor scoop. The guy behind the counter didn’t know much about it, unfortunately. It looked good, a lot like the stable litter we used last year but more compost-y, so we got a truck load. It cost $40 for two scoops, which was all we could carry.

I’ve topped off the beds with this stuff, and have already planted a few things in it. Everything is doing well, so far, and I plan on buying another truck load soon for more raised beds.

If you are interested in raised beds, you can also use the Square Foot Gardening method and follow “Mel’s Mix” to fill the boxes. Personally, although his mix is probably the best, I found that method to be too expensive. It requires many bags of vermiculite, peat moss, compost, etc, all of which comes in bags at the lawn and garden center. It would take a TON of these bags to fill several good sized boxes. I like buying by the tractor scoop instead.

I’m sure there are other ways to fill a raised bed. Starting your own compost pile will definitely help! I’d love to know how some of you fill your garden boxes, and what you’ve found to work best!


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Kendra
About Kendra 1103 Articles
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.

29 Comments

  1. Save all your coffee grinds (dry them) and your egg shells (crush them with a rolling pin in a storage bad. Banana peels (dry them too) wonderful to mix with your soil. Roses, cucumbers and tomatoes all love this.

  2. Is peat moss, vermiculite, and /or compost from city recycling chemical free? How do you know what is in it? We want an organic garden. I’m trying to avoid chemical estrogens because of cancer I had. Pesticides, herbicides and many other chemicals mimic estrogen in the body.

  3. When I started my raised beds Dad brought me a truck load of fresh “barn litter,” mostly manure, which I piled into one of the beds and let sit for a year, to age. Next spring I mixed some vermiculite and peat with it and planted stuff. That bed grew an absolutely wonderful dense crop of burrs, along with what I planted. Even the young burr plants had some thorns on them. I had to wear thick gloves and hand-pluck every last one of the things. No more barn litter for me!
    Know what you are getting. If the animals in the barn are “free-range” enough to eat some weeds, they may eat weed seeds, too, and some seeds just love going through an animal’s digestive tract.
    Sometimes farmers use a lot of insecticide in their barns too, to keep down flies. Also, the animals may be dosed with some of the antibiotics you are trying to avoid with your organic garden. Again, know the source!

  4. Thank you, Kendra. I must not of read closely enough. I thought you said that the first year you had filled them as cheaply as possible with just the barn litter.

    • Tammy,

      This year we’ve been filling our new raised beds with a mixture of free “compost” from the city landfill, which is made up of broken down leaves and grass clippings, and a truckload of compost from a local landscaping business for $100/dump truck load, which is made up of aged barn littler mixed with leaves, etc.

  5. Did you use strictly the “barn litter” and does this essentially just mean manure? Or did you add soil in as well?

    Thanks,
    Tammy

    • Tammy,

      As I mentioned, I layered the beds with different materials. The top layer was the “soil conditioner”, which was basically just a nice soil/compost mix. I’ve learned to be very careful with horse barn litter. It comes with some big time weed seeds, lol!

  6. We just started our raised beds this year. We filled them with bags of topsoil from Lowe’s for 1.25 a bag. Each bed took 4 bags and then we topped with 1/2 bag of composted cow manure, also 1.25 a bag. The topsoil looked more like compost than soil. The bags from Walmart look like soil. It was soooo easy to open bags and dump, and not have to shovel. These bags are also weed free which is a big plus to me. Everything we have planted is looking really good, and I am running out of beds, so poor Steve is going to have to make at least 1 more (this year).
    Love your blog. I have learned so much.

    • How big is your raised bed? I ask because we just moved and were going to start with an 8×8 raised bed. I’ve only been able to container grow in the past, since we lived closer to the city. I’m looking forward to growing directly in the ground.

  7. I am very lucky- a horse farm actually has a lot where they dump all their waste– it’s all free all we do is bag what we want(no pick up– just a suv)– I don’t use much other than that– alfalfa meal(cheap from a grain store) and Epsom salt( lilacs love it as do all new plantings) my yard can grow anything– we just till it in and then build the beds up and fill more with the compost— so wish I could till my whole yard and horse compost it!

  8. My husband gets Cotton Burr mulch which is what is left over after they harvest the cotton. He gets it from an organic place so that he knows it is pesticide FREE, but even more importantly, herbacide FREE…or else all our plants would just die. He pays $40/yard which is equivalent to your 1 scoop. I do know our city has wood chips for FREE. We haven’t gotten any yet. We want to make sure we get the fresh stuff so we can see more of what exactly they included in it. Hubby said our County Extension office would test soil, but they don’t give good options for testing for organic. It is based on conventional. We get to have a regular garden b/c we have sandy loam soil. Of course, he puts alot of good stuff in it. It just seems to grow larger and larger in size each time we go out there. Always something you want to add. Oh, got asparagus roots planted today.

  9. We also get coffee grinds from the local shop…and veggie scraps and unsellable fruit from the farmers market to make our compost…I would put an add on craigslist or a local free classified that you need grass clipping and leaves…we just ask that it not be from fertilized properties…there are a lot of people that like to bag their lawn when the cut it and that don’t mulch their leaves…

  10. Last year we had 1 raised bed & the rest we layered newspaper on the ground & added chicken manure from our chicken house & we also used bags of topsoil with holes cut out (Like Bibbi said above) for our cucumbers & squash. It all worked well but this year we decided to make more raised beds. My parents gave us their railroad timbers to make the beds & now we only need to buy a few more to complete the beds. We just had a dump truck load of topsoil delivered to fill the beds. We plan on laying newspaper on the bottom & mixing the topsoil with chicken manure. I can’t wait to start digging in the dirt & get the garden planted! I’m so excited that our garden is going to be bigger this year!!

  11. I just finished reading Mel’s Square Foot Gardening. I’m pretty sure I have the most recent edition and Mel’s mix is still advised. In fact, it is what a large portion of his gardening methodology is based off of. I do think that initially, this method will be spendy, but worth it in the end. Plus, from what I understand, you never have to buy any of it again. You simply add your own compost each time you replant a square. Mel is brilliant and I am so excited to try his methods!

  12. My DH filled our square foot gardens (the equivalent of 19 4×4 boxes) with Mel’s Mix. Since we could only carry what would fit in the back of the family mini-van and had to drive 50 miles to get the vermiculite, etc., it took him the greater part of a month to acquire all the ingredients and make the boxes. All our hard work is already paying off, though. Our strawberry transplants look fabulous and everything else is sprouting.

  13. We built two raised beds this year and bought a scoop of top soil for $30. This filled them nicely and we are gonna mix in some cow manure. This is my first year though so we shall see how it all goes.

  14. I have had the same issue. For now, I am using mostly containers and gardening that way. But in a Mother Earth News I saw an article that showed using the organic soil ‘bags’ themselves and cutting a hole in the top and punching holes in the bottom and using the soil that way. At least the soil will be in place for next year when I can build the boxes around it. 🙂 Hopefully, anyway. So far it is working out real well. I would love to be able to get some of the compost by the truckload too, but I don’t have access to a truck right now. Saving my pennies though. Thanks

  15. We have horrible ground too, but just kept turning the ground with horse manure~~~finally found a productable use for our 3 biggest pets 🙂 This will be our 2nd year gardening and hope to get a lot. Did really well with tomatoes. Corn and beans we planted too late and didn’t get much. This year we are trying to start seeds indoors to get a jump start on our short summer. Beans have just started to get leafs, yeahaaa!! I stumbled across your website and now am following via facebook. What an inspiration, thanks !!

  16. I built seven raised beds last year and have been filling them with whatever I can find here in the city: Lawn trimmings, autumn leaves, kitchen scraps, two year old compost, manure from Home Depot, etc. Our soil is dense clay, so this year I learned that gypsum helps make it more loamy. Bags of gypsum are cheap, but too heavy for me to lift! I have heard recommendations to get soil tested. Do you do that? I am not sure it is worth the effort. And the money.

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