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Raised Beds and Soil Rehab with Yard Waste

Clean up

Over the last two years, here in South West Pennsylvania, a snow and wind storm knocked down a few trees in the back yard. This provided both resources and opened up a nice hole in the canopy where I could put those resources to use. The first thing I wanted to do was collect all of the yard refuse, both to see what I had to work with and to view the uncluttered land.

The tree began to coppice naturally from the upturned ground as well as from what was left of the trunk. This area was left untouched, filling with lots of wild carrots among the grass.

My clean-up expanded to include two neighbors’ steep hillsides that were full of carbon. After I harvested it, the underlying plants exploded with growth. After seeing what I was up to, other neighbors offered me their grass dumping pile, a lot of very dry branches, a load of aged horse manure, and some urbanite. Together with all my piles of yard waste and I had access to quite a large amount of resources. Big, small, and straight branches, dry pampas grass, “straw” from the hillside, a small amount of alfalfa hay, a pile of thorny brambles, and rocks from an old flower bed border would be converted into something more productive….

The spaces under the piles were always nice and wet even when it was warm and sunny for a few days in a row, showing that by covering the soil you can retain moisture. The piles were spread out over several places in the yard — this is just a few of them.


The soil is heavy clay. When wet it easily rolls out to 150mm (6in) or more. In areas around the foundation, the soil had been cooked into bricks! To counteract this I will incorporate a large amount of organic matter over time as well as adding some gypsum each season.


The fall before I had mixed the leaves with some old grass clippings, covering them over winter. The pile was not very big and did not break down much over the winter. I started turning it in the spring and mixed in some anaerobically decomposing, rich black stinky grass that had accumulated over years of mowing and dumping. It broke down to a rich compost in a few weeks.

The Plan

Here is a simple map I drew to give an idea of what the overall goal was. I was too late to plant the fruit trees this spring. Hopefully fall will provide me an opportunity to get them in. In the mean time I can focus on improving the soil.

Creek Bank

Several years ago the creek was slightly rerouted to prevent constant flooding. This resulted in a mound of fertile soil from the previous creek bed as well as a low spot in the yard. I filled the low area with branches and some dry grass then topped it off with the fertile mound of soil. This got rid of the mound of soil, almost filled the low area, and used up a number of twisted branches that I could not build with.

On this newly flattened area I planted heritage raspberries and a cherry bush. There is room here to plant two dwarf plum trees. I planted potatoes, beans, and more tomatoes here to help break up the clay and add more organic matter to the soil. The weeds and grass that grow here is chopped and dropped every few weeks. I leave the creek bank uncut to prevent erosion until the perennials grow bigger. Erosion is an issue further downstream; I hope to address this during the summer.

On the other side of the creek the soil was more heavy clay. I tilled it by hand with a shovel, added gypsum, and carted in several loads of compost. Lastly I covered the paths I would walk on with dry pampas grass and the areas around the fresh transplants with dry grass. I planted a few vegetables here and there to take advantage of the small size of the berry bushes. The tomato is growing very slow compared to the ones in the raised beds and the radishes are looking less than spherical. I plan to use more plantings of radish, let gone to seed, as a slow till that adds organic matter as well as a trap crop for flea beetles that were nibbling on my young tomato plants.

On the creek bank are Blackhawk raspberries and a tayberry that will be trellised over the creek, to colonize the other side of the bank.

Blueberries were planted on the south-facing north hill and in the center. Heavy spring rains drowned the Duke variety, but Bluecrop and Jersey are doing great. The native black raspberries on the right remain, as well as several others that were transplanted out to another part of the yard.

Also on the creek bank is a stand of Phyllostachys atrovaginata, Incense bamboo. This should grow to 6-9m (20-30ft in this climate) with a stem diameter of 50-75mm (2-3in) and provide a renewable building material (and edible shoots). Bamboo along the creek bank will also assist in preventing any future erosion. When I planted the bamboo, I divided off two sections of the rhizome about 50cm (20in). One was planted directly into another area of creek bank and sprung up in a matter of weeks.

Raised Beds

Raised beds seemed to be a good immediate solution to the clay soil problem, as well as being able to utilize a number of hard to use resources, namely the logs. I laid out the large logs as walls for the soon to be raised beds. I dug up the grass inside the walls, partially turning it over and adding some manure and gypsum.

The layers of the bed include alternating nitrogen and carbon layers of straw, compost, 100mm (4in) sticks, and some dry grass. The final two layers are the compost I planted into and the straw mulch to keep it cool and moist underneath.

Using a selection of the straight, medium sized branches and jute, I constructed a primitive trellis. The birds loved both the trellis as a perch and the abundance of straw for nest building. I am sure I will be cursing the birds one day, but today I am happy to accept all their nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich droppings as well as their free pest control..

The “finished” product. Over the summer and fall I will continue improving the yard while creating all the compost I can.


  1. Great Post Mark, including the pictures. This is just the sort of information that will benefit a lot of people. Nothing organic is disposed of or goes to waste. I have been doing something similar though on a smaller scale at my place but you have given me some fine ideas to improve my work. Thank you.

  2. Excellent demonstration of the practical application of permaculture principles using on-site natural materials (including the neighbours!) to improve the soil and to transform the site into a productive space. Well done, this is great stuff!

  3. Glad you posted all these pics and what you’re doing. I’m doing a hugelkultur (ala Sepp Holzer) in my yard this year to take advantage of free yard waste / branches. I saw a few local yard waste removers were going to take yard waste to the dump and I convinced them to save $$ and dump it in my yard. Have turned it into 2 long rows of tall dirt-covered piles that should take years to break down and give me more (vertical) planting room in my small garden.

    I love when we reuse our resources and convert them into something that helps the soil rather than throw it away. Each landscaper was curious what I was going to use the waste for.

  4. Great use of fallen trees, we do similar thing putting them around our trees with mulch inside.
    Do you plan any Guilds, N-Fixers, Perennial Veg besides the fruit trees you’re putting in?

  5. the same goes for me too. We have a particualrly poor draining paddock with high clay content.
    what ratio of gypsum did you use?

  6. We have a clay paddock up the top of our property. I like the sound of the gypsum. What ratio did you apply to yours? I have spare potatoes here. I might try planting those in some compost in pockets around the edges of the paddock.

  7. Jack, I plan on growing guilds around all of the fruit trees as well as installing many perennials. There are annual legumes planted all over the yard right now to aid in improving the soil. I also apply my urine every few days to whatever part of the yard is being worked on.

    Margaret, I put 13kg (30lb) of gypsum into a little less than 90m2 (1000ft2). I added about 250ml (1c) in each of the holes I dug for trees/bushes. This was per the instructions on the gypsum. The plan is to continue adding a little bit of gypsum at the beginning and end of each season, and a lot of organic matter, each year until the clay is banished.

  8. Lovely stuff! I check here every day to see just these type of examples to learn from.
    We have found a large variety of fungus and mushrooms growing on the logs we put around our trees and many appeared on the ground between the beds, the largest grew to 14inch across !
    We are sometimes at a loss for N-fixers especially shrub sized as support for saplings of fruit trees. Elaeagnus species is one we will try as well as Pigeon Peas.

  9. I’m getting acquainted with Permaculture thru the internet, after hearing about it a year ago. Fine stuff. Very heartening to get to know about stories like yours.I’ve been practicing organic gardening, but I strongly believe I should upgrade to Permaculture.

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