About a month ago, I was pining for some additional growing space in my backyard. Eventually, we’re planning to do away with more of our grass and perhaps put in a bit more landscaping, but it’s likely not happening for another year or two. One night I was reading Gaia’s Garden and had a eureka! moment. Outlined in the book was a way to create a layered growing space that wouldn’t involve ripping up sod, tilling, or constructing raised beds!
In fact, the method outlined in the book seemed super cost effective because it would involve using materials I already had on hand. So I asked my husband if I could use a weed/grass covered slope in our backyard for an experimental growing space this year (he said, “sure, go right ahead”).
I’m excited to share with you my project, but I must include this caveat – this is truly an experiment and my first time building a garden bed like this. So while I’m happy to show you step-by-step what I did, please know this is definitely an “experiment in progress.” If you are serious about replicating what I’m about to show you, I highly recommend you pick up the book Gaia’s Garden (I was able to locate it easily from my library, but it’s also available for ~$18 on Amazon).
So here’s the before. Don’t judge; I know it’s horrible. This is what happens when 1) you decide you don’t want to use chemicals on your yard and 2) you don’t actually end up doing anything with the area.
First, I considered the area I wanted to use for this project. It’s pretty much full sun, and a slope. It also faces the kids’ play area and attracts many birds, bees, and butterflies. There are a few mature plants around the edges: a couple rhododendrons, a hydrangea, a lavender, and a couple random shrubby plants that I don’t know what they are. I decided to leave these and just give them a haircut. While I’m not a fan of rhododendrons (except when they are flowering), the little chickadees in my area are!
Also worth mentioning, a rather grassy mess of a ground cover up near the lavender. I was prepared to take it out and managed to remove half when I noticed a few bees flying under there. So I decided to leave the rest of it alone! Hey – built in pollinators, right? (Plus, I didn’t care to get stung!)
Step one. Decide the area you wish to use for your grow space. I used spray paint to mark it, but you could use string or natural materials or whatever. Cut the weeds and/or mow the grass down. You do NOT need to dig that stuff up – just leave it there! Next, if your soil is a bit compacted, take a garden fork and aerate it up a bit. (That’s what I’m doing in the picture above.) This is also a great time to work in any amendments you may have. I had sea minerals and worm castings handy, so I added those. Gaia’s Garden also suggests rock dust, bone meal, and kelp meal. (You can always test your soil’s fertility first to determine what it may need.)
Step two. Water the area well! In fact, keep that hose handy, because you are going to want to water down the area after each layer. What you’re essentially about to do is create a layered compost that will promote healthy plants and quick growing roots.
Step three. Add a thin layer of nitrogen-rich material. For me the choice was easy: fresh grass clippings! I saved this project on a day I also needed to mow my yard, so see? Win-win! Other options for this layer include manure, blood meal, or other greens (perhaps from your garden).
Step four. This was my favorite layer! You use cardboard or newspaper (hello, couponers?!), making sure to overlap the edges by a few inches to prevent weeds. If you are using newspaper, avoid any glossy sections as they may contain dyes harmful for your ground. In my case, I just so happened to have a couple large boxes from furniture, so perfect! It felt sooo satisfying “recycling” them here versus dealing with breaking them up and shoving them in my recycle bins. Make sure to wet down this layer, too. If you’re using newspaper, you may want to wet every few pages or so – don’t let them blow away!
This may also be the part you hope your neighbors don’t catch a glimpse of what you’re doing and suspect you’ve lost your marbles!
Step five. Not pictured, but add another thin layer of nitrogen-rich material. This will help the cardboard/newspaper layer to decompose and encourage wormies (yes, I call them wormies) up towards the surface. I used more grass clippings, plus some coffee grounds I’d picked up at Starbucks that morning for FREE. (If you don’t see the big bags of them in your store, just ask! (And you could probably ask ANY coffee place – it doesn’t HAVE to be Starbucks.)
Step six. Now you need to really pile on “bulk mulch” of about 8-12 inches. In my case, I had a bunch of straw I’d picked up from a feed store and never entirely used. But, you could also use any of the following (from Gaia’s Garden): “straw, spoiled hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, finely ground park, stable sweepings, wood shavings, or any mixture of these.” Make sure, however, you’re thinking about creating a carbon: nitrogen ratio of about 100:1 to 30:1. My straw was very high in carbon, so I made sure to work in more of the coffee grounds (nitrogen) throughout. Don’t forget to water!
Step seven. The next layer is compost. Unfortunately I did not have any ready so this was something I needed to purchase. But I was happy to do so knowing that I’d been able to provide so many of the other materials for this project for free! Ideally you want an inch or two.
Now this isn’t a step you need to do per se, but I wanted to find a way to shore up my slope a little bit. I found these fallen logs in a green belt near my house. I might have looked a little funny driving them home, but I do think they contribute well to the final look and feel of the project. It’s also a nod to hugelkultur, although to be clear, this is NOT a hugelkultur bed.
Step eight. The final layer is 1-2 inches of mulch. This will reduce weeds, help retain moisture and give a neat and tidy appearance for the neighbors! I used a simple bark mulch mostly because they had big bags of them for $3 the week before at Fred Meyer. Eight bags did the trick here – so a cost of $24.
Ideally you’d prep the ground in fall and let it sit until spring so the compost could settle a bit. But of course, I wanted to plant in mine right away, and so I did.
Before planting things willy-nilly, I considered the space. This area is the main viewpoint when my kids are on their playset. It is also the part of the yard the neighbors see over the fence. We have bees, butterflies, and birds (as stated earlier). And it’s very sunny and slope-y.
Given those factors:
- I wanted to choose flowers. My daughter LOVES flowers, and they just look nice for the kids and neighbors. They are also loved by bees and butterflies!
- I wanted to incorporate perennials. I wanted to choose a few varieties that would take root and grow and remain year-after-year so I don’t have to disturb the soil by a lot of ripping up.
- I wanted to choose a couple fun, fast growing annuals. I opted to plant a fairy-tale pumpkin at the top of the slope, near where I saw those bees. This should be fun for the kids to watch grow! The vine will be allowed to cascade down the slope.
Some of the plants I selected have multiple uses, too. These beautiful violets will attract pollinators, but they are also edible.
This comfrey, planted at the top of the slope will put down a large taproot, useful for stabilizing the slope. The leaves will activate the compost when added, and are also useful in a poultice for certain skin ailments.
While this project is still in its infancy, this pumpkin is giving me hope it’s going to work! Since planting it more than a week ago, it’s already doubled in size!
FREE Materials Used: Grass Clippings, Cardboard, Coffee Grounds, Straw
Materials I Paid For: Compost, Mulch, Plants (~ $120 total)
Time Involved: About 4-5 Hours (including time spent gathering materials)
Growing Space Gained: over 100 square feet!
I do believe this is THE most frugal gardening project of this magnitude I’ve done to-date! I’ll continue to share the progress with you.
Speaking of updates, I want to show you how the strawberries are doing in the Big Grow Bag I shared with you last month. The plants have gone gangbusters!
And our plants are covered with perfectly-shaped, beautiful strawberries. This is the absolute BEST success I’ve ever had with growing strawberries. In years past, the strawberries have been just ravaged with slugs in our raised beds! And while I’ve observed slugs in our other beds this year, I’ve yet to find ANY slug damage in our big grow bag!
This is another option if you are looking to extend your growing space NOW and do not wish to build raised beds. The big grow bags are as easy as can be and very reasonably priced (between $20 – 40 on Amazon, depending on the size). I’m not the only one raving about them – they have an average 4.5 star rating after 49 customer reviews. Make sure to check out my Grow Bag post for more information on how they work.
Phew! I know that was a longer post, but I wanted to be thorough in my explanation. I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider ways of gardening that are less expensive and may even use free materials you have on hand!
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:
- Lessons the Forest Can Teach you about Gardening
- 17 Creative Ideas for Frugal Gardening
- My Visit to Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest
- Growing Food in Burlap Sacks
What gardening projects or experiments have you been working on this spring?