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.