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How to Make Instant Garden Beds

A common problem when just starting a garden is dealing with the fact that we’ve not had time to condition the soil, fostering it into something heaving with fertility. Or, maybe we just aren’t that far into gardening yet anyway and don’t know what to do. Basically, it seems we are left with the option of using what we have and hoping for the best, or we can spend a heap on importing soil and compost and such. Fortunately, there is another route, an inexpensive way to make garden beds instantaneously.

Often referred to as lasagna gardens or sheet mulching, an instant garden bed requires little to nothing being brought in, and it can be cultivated right away (though it will get nicer as time passes). It begins with kitchen scraps, maybe some manure (or other high nitrogen items), old cardboard boxes or newspaper, and some mulch material such as dried grass, straw, or shredded leaves. In other words, most of what we need is already around waiting to be used.

Step One: Food for the Worms

One of the nice elements of this kind of garden is that it doesn’t require digging and tilling. Rather, whatever grass or weeds are growing in the garden space, leave them right where they are. Fresh green material provides a good boost of nitrogen.

Atop this, add a bucket full of kitchen scraps (no need to wait for it to compost) and, if available, some well-rotted manure, whatever is around: horse, rabbit, cow, chicken, etc. If manure isn’t available, other high nitrogen items would be more fresh grass clippings or spent coffee grounds from the nearest coffee shop.

Whichever nitrogen materials are used, they should be mixed together and completely cover the area where the garden will be. If there isn’t enough, just build what the material allows and add more growing space later.

Step Two: And Darkness Falls Upon Them

Once the rich nitrogen mixture is in place, it should be covered with several layers of wet cardboard or newspapers. Go ahead and soak these beforehand, which will help with adding moisture to the bed, holding them in place, and kickstarting decomposition. Not only will the worms like this, both for blocking the sunlight and traveling, but the cardboard will snuff out any weeds that might try to pop up from below the garden bed.

After the “sheet” mulch is put into place, add a thick layer, even up to fifteen centimeters of carbon-y mulch material. Straw is easy to buy. Pine needles will work, as will leaves or hay, though these may have seeds that will sprout and require a little extra maintenance in the form of weeding. Putting the mulch deep and dense will help keep the garden moist and will start the process of soil building. The mulch material should cover the entire bed, particularly all of the cardboard.

Step Three: Grow Some Food

The garden at this point is ready for plants. To put them in, clear out a space in the mulch, all the way down to the cardboard. The cavity should be something akin to a deep bird’s nest. Fill that with some quality topsoil and plant directly into it. For a little added bonus, if available, add some compost or worm castings.

Once all of the seedlings (or seeds) are in place, water the garden and there you go.

This way of building a garden is fantastic because it can be extended bit by bit as materials and time become available, or even as the season develops. It’s easy to add on new sections of garden whenever the moment arises, and they are instantly ready to plant in.

For a more in depth look at instant gardens, check out this video of Geoff Lawton himself making one.


Header Photo : Instant Garden (Courtesy of Keith Rowley)


Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Does the layer of coffee grounds have any effect on the growth of the plants?
    I have read studies that show coffee grounds applied directly around plants inhibits growth and was wondering if this would have the same result.

    1. Nothing should be added to existing plants. Pull any addition back 5-6” to prevent stem rot, otherwise coffee grounds are fine, in my experience,

  2. High Matt,

    coffee grounds serve as organic matter. It absorbs nitrogen (nitrate, urea, amino acides etc.), water, and micro organisms. The same is valid for char coal.
    Absorbtion of nitrogen causes some growth inhibation.

    Best wishes Michael

  3. Hi
    I’m just setting up four wicking beds (mid-September) and hoping to plant out/sow seeds by mid/late Oct. Would you recommend this approach in a wicking bed? Would the water be able to wick through the bottom layers after just one month breaking down? Also once the lower layers are broken down and the overall be drops but the plants are already growing, how you would you recommend adding further layers to build up the soil? Or is this something that needs to happen after a season and the plants are eaten/removed…? Thank you :)

    1. Hi Melissa I was also thinking of using this method with a wicking bed. Can you tell me if you tried it and if it worked?

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