How to Cheaply Fill Large Containers for Growing Squash and Beans?


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We've been creating our garden for about three years now and have purchased a great deal of compost. In that three years the price for compost has gone from about 4p a litre to 14p a litre. It's just too expensive now.

We have got a fair amount of garden compost, and a big container full of cow manure rotting down. But this is needed for topping up our existing beds and tubs.

I've purchased 10 x 80L containers for growing beans and squash in a sun trap area at the front of the house. It's a gravel surface, so whilst I can remove the gravel and put down some sugar and manure before putting the containers on top, I do need those containers to provide a decent depth of soil.

So, what do I fill them with? I'm thinking:

1. It's autumn, so there should be plenty of leaves around. I thought I'd put a thick layer of these at the bottom of the tubs for water retention. Perhaps along with some torn up cardboard.
2. I have access to as much horse/cow manure as I want - some of it is reasonably well rotted, but not completely. I thought I'd add a good, thick layer of this next.
3. Finally, a mix of garden compost and coir (I purchased a big batch of this last year) to create a layer of perhaps 4 inches on top?

I have some wallflower and pansy seedlings so I thought I'd plant them in the container now for some winter colour. Am I correct in thinking that my containers should be in good shape for squash and beans by June? I thought I might add some worm castings at this point.
 
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Myself and Meadowlark are having good luck with old rotten tree limbs and compost and soil. I fill up a container about1/3 full of rotten limbs then add about 1/3 compost and shake it down a little and then add in enough garden soil to come within about 2 inches from the top. I haven't tried squash yet but everything else I've grown grows really well. Not very much soil is involved and the container is light enough to move around easily.
 
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Myself and Meadowlark are having good luck with old rotten tree limbs and compost and soil. I fill up a container about1/3 full of rotten limbs then add about 1/3 compost and shake it down a little and then add in enough garden soil to come within about 2 inches from the top. I haven't tried squash yet but everything else I've grown grows really well. Not very much soil is involved and the container is light enough to move around easily.
Yes, I had seen that thread. I know that squash are hungry so wondered if wood would be enough? Did beans do well for you? I'm growing Greek Gigantis, Jacobs Cold Cattle Beans and Cobra French Beans.

In Scotland slugs are a big issue - I have some concerns that wood would make a good slug habitat, but then so too would leaves and cardboard I guess? We're probably going to use slug nematodes anyway so I guess that ceases to be an issue.

What do you do in subsequent years? Just add a bit of compost on top, or empty out and start again?
 
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This is the first year I have tried the Hugelkulture method, i.e. rotten wood limbs, twigs etc. compost and soil. I got a late start due to a hail storm but I successfully grew Giant Marconi and Yelo Wonder peppers along with a Sun Gold cherry tomato and presently I am growing Chard, beets and lettuce, which are all doing great. I don't know yet what I will do next year concerning the old wood. I will dump out the stuff in the containers after the plants I have growing now are finished and look and see what is going on. This has all been an experiment to see if this type of gardening is feasible or not and so far everything looks really good. Next year I will grow some of everything. I am growing in 10 gallon fabric containers.
 

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Yes, we started out as a feasibility experiment using the Hügelkultur technique in containers. All seven of my veggies in the experiment in Spring were successful.... see the original thread.

Now, I have moved past feasibility toward optimizing the technique. This fall I have over 25 different (and increasing) veggies in HK containers measured against in-ground control plants. I'm seeing great success thus far. Without question, the best leafy veggies I have ever raised have been in the HK containers.

One very important thing I learned in the Spring was that the HK containers require more water. In spring, I was overly concerned about treating HK plants identical to in-ground plants for the purposes of the experiment integrity...including soil, fertilizer, and water.

However, by limiting the HK plants to the same amount of water as in-ground plants, I actually hurt their production, perhaps significantly. They need a lot of water, more than in-ground plants.

The absolutely incorrect poster who declared on that original thread that HK containers would not drain well was foolishly, totally wrong and cost me some production in spring.

Not anymore. My HK plants are well watered...and they are equaling or in most cases exceeding the in-ground plants in production. I'll publish the fall spreadsheet again next month in the original thread and it will have a lot of data.

The worst producing veggie in my experiment was butternut squash which came in at 62% of in-ground plants. I have absolutely no doubt that the butternut squash in the HK container was significantly harmed by the lack of water. I could see it but held back because of the experiment. I fully expect with ample water that butternut squash in the future HK will meet or exceed the in-ground plants.

For me, this is no longer an experiment. Also, it is NOT something to help me garden as I get older.

Rather, it is a valuable tool which I will employ to grow selected veggies for our veggie supply. As with any tool, it can always use sharpening...optimizing for production....and that is what I'm working on now.
 
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Yes, we started out as a feasibility experiment using the Hügelkultur technique in containers. All seven of my veggies in the experiment in Spring were successful.... see the original thread.

Now, I have moved past feasibility toward optimizing the technique. This fall I have over 25 different (and increasing) veggies in HK containers measured against in-ground control plants. I'm seeing great success thus far. Without question, the best leafy veggies I have ever raised have been in the HK containers.

One very important thing I learned in the Spring was that the HK containers require more water. In spring, I was overly concerned about treating HK plants identical to in-ground plants for the purposes of the experiment integrity...including soil, fertilizer, and water.

However, by limiting the HK plants to the same amount of water as in-ground plants, I actually hurt their production, perhaps significantly. They need a lot of water, more than in-ground plants.

The absolutely incorrect poster who declared on that original thread that HK containers would not drain well was foolishly, totally wrong and cost me some production in spring.

Not anymore. My HK plants are well watered...and they are equaling or in most cases exceeding the in-ground plants in production. I'll publish the fall spreadsheet again next month in the original thread and it will have a lot of data.

The worst producing veggie in my experiment was butternut squash which came in at 62% of in-ground plants. I have absolutely no doubt that the butternut squash in the HK container was significantly harmed by the lack of water. I could see it but held back because of the experiment. I fully expect with ample water that butternut squash in the future HK will meet or exceed the in-ground plants.

For me, this is no longer an experiment. Also, it is NOT something to help me garden as I get older.

Rather, it is a valuable tool which I will employ to grow selected veggies for our veggie supply. As with any tool, it can always use sharpening...optimizing for production....and that is what I'm working on now.
Someone on here mentioned that leaves are great for retaining water. @Oliver Buckle - was it you?

Would leaves among the twigs and branches help hold water? Like a little reservoir at the bottom?

I think one of my main objectives is to reduce cost/resources. What I love about my raised beds is that all I need to do is add a couple of inches of garden compost each year. I'm hoping that I can achieve the same with my containers.

That wood (and in my case, leaves, manure) is all going to break down into good soil. So my hope is that as the volume decreases through decomposition there will be room to add a layer of compost on top each year. Very low cost and very low maintenance after the first year?

One of the possible drawbacks I see is heat building up too much in the containers and destroying the soil life - or drying out too much (by accident). I think it was Oliver that mentioned he dug his containers into the ground a bit, and I'm thinking that might be worth a try?
 
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From both theoretical and practical standpoints, I disagree with both of the above points on heat buildup and maintenance.

First, there are few if any hotter places to garden than Texas in August. This August was extremely hot for even Texas.

In August this year I started 7 different lettuce plants in HK containers...each thrived. It was stunning to me. They continued to thrive through September. If heat was a problem, it would have manifested itself at that time.

Second, regarding maintenance with compost. Most compost is 1-1-1. The nutrient most needed in HK containers over time IMO is nitrogen. Nitrogen is used by the veggies and also by the materials breaking down in the container. It must be replaced. My solution is to use my garden soil which consistently tests out to NOT need added nitrogen or P or K for that matter. My soil is enriched with N-P-K naturally with cover crops and manures.

My initial approach to sustaining HK containers will be to always rotate crops and replace part of the soil with my garden soil after each harvest...free and easy and high probability of success. Time will tell.
 
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Someone on here mentioned that leaves are great for retaining water. @Oliver Buckle - was it you?
Leaf mould rather than leaves. If containers are filled with various soils, clay, sandy loam etc. and a given volume of water poured in the top of each leaf mould is the soonest to finish draining excess at the base and also holds the greatest volume of water.
And yes, I kind of like half burying containers. It started with pots in the greenhouse over winter, a bigger mass is less likely to freeze, so stand the pots together and fill in around them, and carried over into other situations. Seems to have some benefits.
 

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The only advantage I can see with burial of HK containers in Texas is wind protection for the plants inside the container. I get that by not filling my containers to the top leaving several inches to protect young immature plants. Much easier than digging big holes. Heat build-up is just not a problem I have seen.

Also, I did not use any leaves in my containers and would not recommend them because when they break down, they remove nitrogen from the soil and from the plants. That's why I and I assume Chuck only used rotted, composted materials.
 
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This is all very interesting.
To explain my thinking here (and please say if you think I'm wrong) - my idea is to compost my materials in situ. So for example, I could collect leaves and manure now (and twigs, logs etc) and find somewhere in my garden to rot them down. So why not just put them in the bottom of my big, deep containers now?

My winter pansies and wallflowers should (?) happily grow in a few inches of good quality compost/soil sitting on top of the leaves and manure?

My first hungry crop (beans and squash) will be planted in June - 8 months away - by which time I'm thinking the leaves and manure will have rotted down enough to provide a good source of nutrients? At planting time I could add another layer of soil/compost/worm castings and allow time and soil life to mix it all up over time?

So of course, I could add slower to rot down things like wood at the very bottom (where the roots don't need to go), and layer my 'ingredients' according to how quickly they'll compost. Each year the volume will reduce allowing me to add the inch or two of garden compost to the top that I do with all my raised beds.

Perhaps in earlier years using shallower rooting crops that won't go down to the deep, unyet composted layers?

Another advantage to this is the pansy/wallflower growing should 'test' my manure to make sure it's not contaminated with any herbicides (I've read this can be a problem with horse manure).

Meadowlark - you know my experience is limited, but I have noticed MASSIVE differences (especially in the amount of watering needed) when I cut the bottoms off my containers and place them on the ground. Any old soil will do - even a rubbly driveway. I'm guessing that this connects them to the soil life and also allows moisture to wick up from the ground? I don't want to cut the bottoms off of these particular tubs as I want to be able to move them for house maintenance, but I'm thinking big drainage holes will be good enough and I plan on using the trick of sugar and manure put down on the ground under the containers to get the soil life building up beneath my pots.
 
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This article (only the author's opinion) is that decomposition of wood in hugelkultur won't rob the soil of nitrogen and starve the plants. Fungi breaks down the wood (rather than bacteria) and that doesn't rob the soil of nitrogen to a significant degree. Also, it's only the soil immediately in contact with the wood that's affected. Better still - after an initial robbing of nitrogen the wood (and leaves?) will start to RELEASE nitrogen?

So, if this is correct (and if leaves work in the same way) I should make sure the leaves and any wood are at the BOTTOM of the container to provide a water reservoir. Manure (which will be rotted down in a few months), then compost/soil would sit on top of this for the roots of my plants to grow into. Gradually that bottom layer of leaves and wood would shrink in size and turn to good, nutritious soil?

@OliverBuckle - is there any research or theory behind your approach of 'firing' your clay in a woodburner? Or is that just something you've discovered by accident?

I'm looking for you guys to pick holes in my plan - I want to get this right first time!!! LOL

I love the idea of my containers being like a layer cake, with more and more nutrients being produced each year as the layers rot down at different speeds.

 
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The fungi rather than bacteria breaking down wood and not using up the nitrogen makes sense, it is something that had been bothering me.
You won't get much in the way of nutrients from leaves. I deal with them by making a circle of a length of chicken wire, standing it on end, and filling it up. After a year or so it will reduce to about a third of the volume, good stuff, but not for the nutrients.

Look up 'sintering' The terracotta is formed when clay reaches about 500 degrees and points melt joining up and making porous material, dunno where I learned about it, its one of those things I just know. I can remember digging deep to get pure clay and making coil pots with my little girl, she's 30 now :) I have always fancied making one of those really big coil pots that are fired by filling them with dried twigs before putting them in a fire, it seemes such a great way around not having a kiln but still getting something to heat evenly.
 

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The article was interesting even though the author admitted zero experience with Hügelkultur and did not address Hügelkultur in containers anywhere that I saw.

Some other thoughts I had reading it, in no particular order:

1) very little attention is given to the soil in the top layer, unfortunately. It has far more impact on success or failure in using HK containers than the other layers. Far more important.

2) the degree to which the wood used in the first(bottom) layer is already decayed makes a big difference in nitrogen immobilization. Same for the second layer. However, I didn't see that accounted for.

Wouldn't it make far more sense to select wood/materials for your HK container bottom layers that is already releasing nitrogen?

Couple that with nutrient dense soil in the top layer and you have a recipe for success.

3) there was no waiting time in our experiment between planting and container construction....at least for me. I planted immediately both spring and fall. after building each tub. I knew my top layer garden soil was/is first class. See # 1 above. I also knew my wood layers were made with decomposed materials and nitrogen immobilization was very unlikely.

4) The article asked, "Are Plants Grown in Hugelkultur Nutrient Deficient? " again without regard to the critical top layer of soil. My soil test lab assigns a nutrient density score to the submitted sample indicating the likelihood of producing nutrient dense foods from it. My score for the soil in my HK containers is 94%.

Meadowlark - you know my experience is limited, but I have noticed MASSIVE differences (especially in the amount of watering needed) when I cut the bottoms off my containers and place them on the ground.

Cutting the bottoms out of the containers does not make sense to me. Completely defeats the purpose, IMO. In my original post on using HK in containers I illustrated the drainage used. It has been very successful.
 
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The article was interesting even though the author admitted zero experience with Hügelkultur and did not address Hügelkultur in containers anywhere that I saw.

Some other thoughts I had reading it, in no particular order:

1) very little attention is given to the soil in the top layer, unfortunately. It has far more impact on success or failure in using HK containers than the other layers. Far more important.

2) the degree to which the wood used in the first(bottom) layer is already decayed makes a big difference in nitrogen immobilization. Same for the second layer. However, I didn't see that accounted for.

Wouldn't it make far more sense to select wood/materials for your HK container bottom layers that is already releasing nitrogen?

Couple that with nutrient dense soil in the top layer and you have a recipe for success.

3) there was no waiting time in our experiment between planting and container construction....at least for me. I planted immediately both spring and fall. after building each tub. I knew my top layer garden soil was/is first class. See # 1 above. I also knew my wood layers were made with decomposed materials and nitrogen immobilization was very unlikely.

4) The article asked, "Are Plants Grown in Hugelkultur Nutrient Deficient? " again without regard to the critical top layer of soil. My soil test lab assigns a nutrient density score to the submitted sample indicating the likelihood of producing nutrient dense foods from it. My score for the soil in my HK containers is 94%.



Cutting the bottoms out of the containers does not make sense to me. Completely defeats the purpose, IMO. In my original post on using HK in containers I illustrated the drainage used. It has been very successful.
I'm not ignoring all your comments - I need more time to think and digest what you're saying.

But two things:

1. Cutting the bottom out of my pots DOES make a difference in my climate. Significantly so. Our climate isn't as dry as yours so it COULD be that the ground underneath is always moist and the pot will wick up water if I fail to water it enough. I also wondered if it had something to do with connecting the container to the soil life in the ground?

2. A question for you. Is your plan to empty your pots and start again each year? Or to just top them up with a bit of compost each year? I'm trying to work out for myself how to use this efficiently as possible. So am I using wood etc at the bottom of my big containers as a way of composting whilst growing? Or am I planning on using this process to gradually release more and more nutrients (from the soil life) over the years?
 

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....2. A question for you. Is your plan to empty your pots and start again each year? Or to just top them up with a bit of compost each year? I'm trying to work out for myself how to use this efficiently as possible. So am I using wood etc at the bottom of my big containers as a way of composting whilst growing? Or am I planning on using this process to gradually release more and more nutrients (from the soil life) over the years?
Asked and answered
...
My initial approach to sustaining HK containers will be to always rotate crops and replace part of the soil with my garden soil after each harvest...free and easy and high probability of success. Time will tell.
 
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We've been creating our garden for about three years now and have purchased a great deal of compost. In that three years the price for compost has gone from about 4p a litre to 14p a litre. It's just too expensive now.

We have got a fair amount of garden compost, and a big container full of cow manure rotting down. But this is needed for topping up our existing beds and tubs.

I've purchased 10 x 80L containers for growing beans and squash in a sun trap area at the front of the house. It's a gravel surface, so whilst I can remove the gravel and put down some sugar and manure before putting the containers on top, I do need those containers to provide a decent depth of soil.

So, what do I fill them with? I'm thinking:

1. It's autumn, so there should be plenty of leaves around. I thought I'd put a thick layer of these at the bottom of the tubs for water retention. Perhaps along with some torn up cardboard.
2. I have access to as much horse/cow manure as I want - some of it is reasonably well rotted, but not completely. I thought I'd add a good, thick layer of this next.
3. Finally, a mix of garden compost and coir (I purchased a big batch of this last year) to create a layer of perhaps 4 inches on top?

I have some wallflower and pansy seedlings so I thought I'd plant them in the container now for some winter colour. Am I correct in thinking that my containers should be in good shape for squash and beans by June? I thought I might add some worm castings at this point.
.
If you can, get down to the beach, with a trailer, or line the boot of your car & put a couple of bins in it.
The shore has loads of dead seaweed on it here in Luce Bay.
Make as many trips as you can and pile it high; it'll rot down over the winter.
Swap a little of this rotten seaweed for some of the materials you were going to put on your established beds & ALL the leaves on your established beds too. (I'll get to the leaves later)
Put a good layer of seaweed into each of the new containers, topped off with the manure & compost you've pinched from your established beds.

Do NOT line the bottoms of your new pots with leaves; they will destroy your drainage.
The best place for your leaves is on top of your established beds, as they will have worm populations which will thrive on leaves, as they love the cellulose. Their output (up to half their bodyweight each day), is fertiliser gold.
Any left, you can move aside as you plant, & you have a great mulch.
 
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.
If you can, get down to the beach, with a trailer, or line the boot of your car & put a couple of bins in it.
The shore has loads of dead seaweed on it here in Luce Bay.
Make as many trips as you can and pile it high; it'll rot down over the winter.
Swap a little of this rotten seaweed for some of the materials you were going to put on your established beds & ALL the leaves on your established beds too. (I'll get to the leaves later)
Put a good layer of seaweed into each of the new containers, topped off with the manure & compost you've pinched from your established beds.

Do NOT line the bottoms of your new pots with leaves; they will destroy your drainage.
The best place for your leaves is on top of your established beds, as they will have worm populations which will thrive on leaves, as they love the cellulose. Their output (up to half their bodyweight each day), is fertiliser gold.
Any left, you can move aside as you plant, & you have a great mulch.
We're just 10 mins from a beach, so no problems getting seaweed. Normally we put it in the compost heap, but will try your suggestions. Thank you!
 
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The article was interesting even though the author admitted zero experience with Hügelkultur and did not address Hügelkultur in containers anywhere that I saw.

Some other thoughts I had reading it, in no particular order:

1) very little attention is given to the soil in the top layer, unfortunately. It has far more impact on success or failure in using HK containers than the other layers. Far more important.

2) the degree to which the wood used in the first(bottom) layer is already decayed makes a big difference in nitrogen immobilization. Same for the second layer. However, I didn't see that accounted for.

Wouldn't it make far more sense to select wood/materials for your HK container bottom layers that is already releasing nitrogen?

Couple that with nutrient dense soil in the top layer and you have a recipe for success.

3) there was no waiting time in our experiment between planting and container construction....at least for me. I planted immediately both spring and fall. after building each tub. I knew my top layer garden soil was/is first class. See # 1 above. I also knew my wood layers were made with decomposed materials and nitrogen immobilization was very unlikely.

4) The article asked, "Are Plants Grown in Hugelkultur Nutrient Deficient? " again without regard to the critical top layer of soil. My soil test lab assigns a nutrient density score to the submitted sample indicating the likelihood of producing nutrient dense foods from it. My score for the soil in my HK containers is 94%.



Cutting the bottoms out of the containers does not make sense to me. Completely defeats the purpose, IMO. In my original post on using HK in containers I illustrated the drainage used. It has been very successful.
Nitrogen rich soil can be a problem when growing potatoes , (too much leaf, not enough tuber) so my question is, "Is potato growing compatible with hugelkulture containing well-rotted wood?"
 

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That is an excellent question. I'm working on finding an answer.
 
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Would you believe - a huge, rotten tree has just lodged itself across the burn (stream/small river) at the bottom of my garden. It must be about 25 foot long and 2 foot diameter. Absolutely rotten. Most of the time it's just a trickle of water but a couple of times a year we'll get a massive, raging torrent. Chances are the rotten tree will be lodged there for months to come, giving us plenty of time to hack lumps off to use for our containers.

Fate?
 

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