When we grow food, we have to think about the soil. That’s where the crops get their daily recommended, and in turn, that’s how our food becomes nutritious. The minerals and micronutrients in the soil fill our carrots and lettuce and tomatoes and apples and all the other fruit, veg, grains, and legumes with what does a body good.

With a few tricks played here and there, gardens can be designed to fertilize themselves and minimize the workload of gardeners. Rather than tilling and toiling, gardeners can utilize their minds instead of their backs to create bountiful landscapes that handle composting, watering, and weed control in one swift swoop. Doesn’t that sound fantastic!

Well, it’s totally possible and, often, much easier than making the standard rowed garden or even building conventional raised beds. In fact, there are several different designs that make use of compost, not just as a one-time amendment but as an ongoing fertility driver in cyclical growing systems. In other words, things can get sustainable really quickly.

Keyhole Gardens

Rather than having long rows that stretch for eons, keyhole gardens take the raised linear row and bends it around a central point, leaving a small entryway somewhere and a small circle in the center, i.e. a keyhole.

People use the circle in the center as a compost bin. As they add compost, the nutrients from it seep into the raised garden surrounding it, becoming instantly available to the crops growing. Water gets absorbed into the organic matter so that it is readily available and nutrient-rich for the plants growing in the bed.

Any weeds, pruned material, food scraps, or rotting harvests can be added to the compost area as it becomes available. The compost bin at the center of the garden produces compost, which can be spread atop the garden for added fertility. Then, the compost bin starts to fill again.

Hügelkultur Gardens

Hugelkultur gardens are a great way to use rotting firewood, fallen branches, or debris from severe weather events. The idea is to take all of the woody material and bury it beneath a layer of soil. As the wood slowly decomposes, it will provide fertility to the soil around and above it.

To build a hügelkultur garden start with the woody material. Wood with a bigger diameter will make the growing mound last longer. Once the wood is in place, fill the cracks and crevices with other organic matter, such as leaves, grass clipping, weeds, and so on. Finally, cover the organic material with a layer of topsoil, four to six inches thick.

Hugelkultur gardens are typically about three feet tall, three or four feet wide, and as long as the material can last.

Compost Bucket Beds

Compost bucket beds utilize repurposed buckets as compost bins and feed nutrients directly to the soil around them. This allows for small batches of organic material, such as kitchen scraps or weeds from the bucket bed, to help with fertilizing the garden while crops are growing.

It starts with digging a hole large enough for the bucket—food-grade five-gallon buckets are ideal—to fit into and pile the excavated soil around the hole. Before putting the bucket in the bed, drill several holes into the bottom half of the bucket. Bury the bucket about ¾ or more deep, leaving just the rim sticking out of the soil. Keep a lid on it and add compost material to it when available.

Watering via filling the bucket is a great way to provide nutrient-charged drip irrigation to the roots of the crops planted around it.

Trench Composting

Trench composting is yet another great way to use compostable materials right in the garden to feed plants as they grow and provide fertile soil once the compost matures. This is a more conventional-looking garden with straight rows, between each raised row compost is being piled in the adjacent trough, and, consequently, nutrients leach through to the crop roots.

Then, next year, when it’s time to plant again, last year’s trough, filled with freshly decomposed and ready to provide lots of vitamins and minerals to this year’s crop. Each year the trench moves so that the garden is revitalized year after year.

Lasagna Gardens

One of the classic no-dig garden designs, lasagna gardens is essentially a huge compost pile built atop the ground to grow vegetables in. It’s called a “lasagna garden” because the organic matter is layered like a lasagna, usually alternating brown materials (carbon-rich stuff like leaves, wood mulch, straw, cardboard) with green materials (nitrogen-rich stuff like fresh grass clippings, food scraps, compost, and recently pulled weeds).

When planting in lasagna gardens, small planting pockets are created in the bed, filled with compost, and sown with seeds or seedlings. The bed breaks down over the growing season, providing super fertility for the crops. Next year, the gardener can just add a couple of new layers to keep the process going and growing.

These are great methods for making agriculture, particularly home gardens, self-sustaining. The garden waste and food scraps that come from the garden go into to making the fertility for the next crop. The process repeats again and again to keep the beds vitamin- and mineral-rich. Plus, they make fun experiments.

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