How to create a compost or trench bed for vegetables

A trench bed is like a compost bin, dug into the ground and consisting of alternate layers of fresh green ‘live’ organic material, brown ‘dead’ organic material, fresh manure and soil. Note that each layer of dead or live organic matter is covered with soil & watered before another layer is added.

Trench beds are worth considering if you have extremely poor soil of if you live in a dry climate. The result is better water retention, good soil aeration and an on-going supply of nutrients for micro-organisms and plants. It’s important to keep feeding the soil organically thereafter for long term success.


Gather a spade, water (hosepipe or buckets), live organic matter in bags/piles: green garden and kitchen waste, moist seaweed, horse or cow manure or any other fresh untreated organic matter, dead organic material in bags/piles: newspaper, sticks, dead leaves & cuttings and any other dried out organic material. Compost is optional if you want to plant soon. You will also need four 1/2 metre long sticks (to be used as markers).


Measure out your trench (however long you like but no wider than a metre (for easy reach). Dig out 30cm of top soil (pile it besides the trench, remove stones).


Dig another 30cm of sub-soil (create a separate pile and remove any stones).
Loosen the base of the trench with a garden fork.

Cover the base and sides of the trench with cardboard or newspaper. Moisten with some water.

Lay sticks on the bottom (or other rough material) up to a height of 20cm.

Place 10cm of your subsoil over the sticks. Give a light shower of water.

Place 10cm of dry/dead organic material over the subsoil. Water lightly again.


Lay 10cm of green/colourful live material over the brown material (I included rinsed seaweed), cover with a layer of soil and water.


Place bits of horse or cow manure over the green layer and water, add some soil & water.


Repeat the layering process until your trench is full (leave out the stick step).



Place 1/2 metre long sticks at each corner of the trench to use as markers.

Place the topsoil you dug out earlier over the top. The bed will now stand about 20cm higher than the ground but will drop with time. Add compost (one bucket of compost per m2), level out & water well.


Place a mulch of your choice onto the ‘skin’ of the soil to protect it.

The bed is ready to be planted (wait for a month if you prefer to leave out the composting step). Just add a little patience and before long, you’ll be so glad you put in the effort.


Once your plants have taken, feed them with a liquid natural home-made fertiliser every week or so and compost every now and again. Avoid walking on the bed to keep it soft and aerated.



8 thoughts on “How to create a compost or trench bed for vegetables

  1. Col, I followed trench gardening principles learned on Soil for Life course with Pat Featherstone. One is supposed to rest it for a couple of weeks before planting. Haven’t fed again to date except for the odd sprinkling of ground coffee beans but want to start experimenting with ‘liquid manures’. Want to use seaweed, dandelions, nettles, comfrey et al !! xx

  2. WOW! Thats looking brilliant. Well done Lana! Do you think one could use the same principles in a wooden grow box (skipping all the digging part? One would have to bring in soil obviously…..

    1. Hi Colleen and thank you!!

      I am sure it will work well but perhaps ‘teas’ might do the trick too ie. if you’re already buying in good soil?

      Example, my friend Jenny has been making ‘veggie milkshakes’ by whizzing up all her organic waste in her blender. She has been experimenting on a particular section of her garden and says that ‘there are more earthworms per cubic centimeter in this patch than anything I’ve ever seen’.

      I’m going to visit her soon to check it out. Will hopefully do a blog post on her magic potion! It’s lovely experimenting in the garden. On that note, such a gorgeous snail shot today xx Lots of love to youuuuuu xx

      1. Hehe thanks Lana. Yes I would LOVE to know more about Jenny and her whizzed up waste….that rhymes I think 😉 It really is fun. I have only used small containers to date as I have a small garden but my son in law has made me a veggie box on legs so I am going to start that soon 🙂 Hugs xx

      2. Colleen, fantastic re your son in law’s gift (how sweet is that!). Your idea to apply the ‘compost bed’ to a container makes perfect sense. I’ve been doing a similar thing with all my pots & they have earthworms living in them as a result. I’ve re-written the post above and the final recommendation (as per the course I did): Once your plants have taken, feed them with a liquid natural home-made fertiliser every week or so…. ie. best of both worlds!

        I look forward to sharing more gardening thoughts with you in future, especially since we’re both growing vegetables near the sea. One thing I’m trying to get hold of is a reliable planting schedule for the Western Cape and also a picking schedule for WC ie. what’s in season when, what to plant when. (I have several but don’t know how reliable they are). Love to you, Col x

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