Growing Food in Waste

Most people who grow food (or garden) want to try and do so in a cost effective and productive way, especially nowadays with the rising costs in pretty much everything! 

 Waste Not, Want Not

There is so much potential in much of the waste that humans, and indeed modern society in general now, produces…. and I’m not talking about *poop*!

I’m talking about organic waste here (again, not *poop*!) – anything that can and will break down naturally in to its component parts which will feed and regenerate the soil, create food webs for all the creatures and create structure in which your plants and vegetables will grow. 

A very flat mound at the start with just the cardboard and woody layer on first

These precious, and often simple, overlooked items are often found in your home and you will no doubt use them everyday there, or at work. These things make up some of the general household waste that gets thrown out, or sent off to be recycled, everyday. 

The humble newspaper….the cardboard toilet tube…..the paper kitchen towel (even or especially, when it has been used!). Or how about the cereal box you have just finished, or that cardboard slip from the pot of hummus in the fridge? 

A few barrow loads from the chicken barn floor – garden waste that the chickens have been picking over and popping in – that basically looks like compost already!

All these simple wood-based paper and cardboard products can be ripped up and not only should help create glorious compost when used as a ‘brown’, but can be used as they are to help bulk out containers, raised beds or a Hugelkultur mound! Why send it off to be recycled (which is a resource-fueled process in itself!) when you can reuse it yourself without any energy, fuel, cost etc. being used at all!

So, what is this Hugelkultur about? How can food be grown using cardboard and paper? What other waste can be used?  

Building It Up

Woody garden waste

Now, there are lots of ‘proper’ websites and books about creating Hugelbeds and many experts in this area of permaculture. I do not claim to be one of those, and my method of growing is experimental and intuitive, so my Hugelkultur practice is not going to be ‘by the book’ at all! And I am not going to write a big article here explaining it – but please see a couple of links at the bottom if you would like to further your knowledge. This piece is just to show you what I have done, how I have used some ideas, how I like to use a variety of ‘waste’ and what you may be able to try out yourself.

However, here is the basics – this method of growing creates a fertile mound which is based on rotten wood. Branches and twigs are laid down and other organic material is placed on top, like grass clippings and then a layer of soil or compost on the top in which to plant in. 

The mound slowly starts to take shape with some garden waste on top

This method can be done on the ground, sometimes the lower layers of wood being buried and it can even be achieved in a raised bed and used in a polytunnel or greenhouse. Indeed, many of our raised beds have been filled with branches and garden waste in a similar way, because the resources are there and we have no desire to buy and bring in so much externally-produced compost or topsoil that would be needed otherwise, if we can help it!

It All Goes In!

I am a frugal person by nature and I abhor waste of any kind….. but at the same time, I love the right kind of waste! Home made compost makes me happy, an empty cardboard box is a resource waiting to be used and a bunch of empty egg boxes are something I hoard for future gardening use!

I happen to live in a very special place and I am deeply grateful to be able to have the space and resources to experiment with my food growing. As well as trialing new varieties of crops and (inadvertently, usually) hybridising new varieties which do well where I am, I can try out different growing methods…. but even if you don’t have much room and even if you can only grow in containers, you can still use this method of using waste and building up a bed using Hugelkultur methods, tailored to your needs.

Sheep’s wool – I have used a mix of old and fresh wool

My own version of Hugelkultur encompasses all kinds of waste that can be utilised. As said before, cardboard and paper get used, as well as any green/garden waste I can get hold of. 

Well rotted compost – mostly made of grass clippings – not an ideal growing medium by itself but it is useful for a Hugelbed

Whilst my food waste and the majority of the green garden waste goes to make compost (in compost bays and bins), in creating my Hugelbeds I have used:

Tree branches, twigs and other woody stems etc.  – local / collected from the garden 

Old bits of chemical-free processed wood – local / found on site left over from projects

Egg boxes – local collection / saved from the recycling  

Wood chip – local waste from a tree surgeon, as well as our own chipping

Wood shavings and sawdust – local and created on site from wood working

Leaves – from trees and other plants 

Grass clippings – local waste from a neighbour 

Moss – from lawn stratification locally

Sheep’s wool – local waste product after shearing 

Top soil – processed from our own land, which involves a lot of weeding and sieving out stones and glass first!

Compost – home-made and purchased in bulk

‘Compost’ – rotted plant clippings, leaves etc.  that had been left in a pile in the open air for about a year 

Cut grass and nettles – collected from site 

Mole hills – from site (they were particularly active around the Hugelbed area!) 

Chicken ‘mulch’ – garden waste that we have given to the chickens which has been broken down and will contain some extra goodness from their poop!

Cow muck – we leave it for a year before adding a bit; from our neighbouring farm

Grass clippings – being collected after they have been drying for a few days in the sunshine!


…….and here we have the ‘completed’ growing space; our latest Hugelkultur bed experiment. It has recently been completed and has been planted up with some left over Summer and Winter squash plants, tomatoes, broad bean, kale, swede and broccoli as well as some companion plants. It has taken many months to create and get to this stage, beginning over the Winter months. It has been interesting to watch it take shape, as it got higher each time and then, it would shrink a bit as things started to rot down, only to raise again when more material was added.

I have seen Hugelbeds that were almost triangular in shape and very high, so I think what we have made is quite a gentle slope, but a definitely slope none-the-less! I have also seen Hugelbeds made of nothing BUT wood, and plants were planted into the gaps with very little soil around their roots; the hope was that such a large amount of rotting wood would create plenty of matter for the plants to grow into and feed from.

One of the last layers to go on – an open-aired, semi-composted mix of leaves, sticks and garden clippings

Here’s a quick step-by-step of how it was made:

1. a thick layer of cardboard was laid over the area chosen in the Winter when the grass had died down as an initial weed suppressant

2. suitable rocks were collected from site to both edge the bed and hold down the cardboard around the edge

3. fallen tree branches (recent and older) and any twiggy material was collected and laid on the cardboard

4. over this first, thick woody layer, a very thick layer of green waste, compost, toil soil, chicken muck etc. was added over a period of months 

5. a layer of sheep’s wool was put around the edge to help with slug and snail control (experimental) 

6. a layer of moss was laid over the green waste as an extra layer for water retention  (experimental) 

7. in certain places, some ‘compost’ and mole hill soil was placed where the main crop plants were planted 

It will be very interesting to see how the plants grow and what they produce, as well as how the location of the bed affects their growth and how the bed develops through the seasons. 

The beauty of this is that the bed will get added to, no doubt, over the years, with extra material being put on and a new cycle of organic matter being broken down to create growing medium and feed whatever is planted in it will begin. I suppose our methods are a mix of No Dig and Hugelkultur.

As a note, this particular space was chosen for this bed and specifically for using this method of building up a growing space because it was a natural rocky outcrop, otherwise unused and not good for much other than weedy grass. It could not be cut with the mower and was not very good for the strimmer either, so the best thing we thought would be to cover it! It catches the sun as well as some shade throughout the day, being beside the mature trees, but otherwise is in a good position on the ‘lower lawn’ area of our developing food growing area and garden. 

The finished thing for 2022 Summer-Winter growing season

So, do give it a go to whatever degree you can and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results! It can be a long process depending on where, when and how you can gather the materials and if you can store them, but it is a pleasant process of building up the bed. As well as using any good quality cardboard and paper (i.e.: without excessive ink and remove the tape!) you may be able to get green waste, animal muck, wood chip and grass clippings (without any chemicals like weed killer, harmful weeds in etc.) from local tree surgeons, gardeners, or neighbours etc. in your area.

Check our the ShareWaste App / online to connect with those who have such waste to get rid of and see who and what you can find! ShareWaste – Give your waste a second chance!

For more information about Hugelbeds and Hugelkultur, have a look at these articles online for reference: 

The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur | Permaculture magazine

How to Make Hugelkultur Beds for Growing Vegetables (

Author: Lucy