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Core Gardening – How to Build a Healthy Garden That Feeds Itself

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Core gardening is an ingenious and thrifty gardening method that allows you to squeeze every ounce of nutrients from your compost.

Core gardening has many benefits, like nourishing your soil and conserving moisture. For that reason, core gardening is one of the best methods if you don’t have a big budget, want to maximize your garden’s water retention, or don’t have much time to spare.

In this article, we’ll dive into the details of core gardening. We’ll discuss how core gardening works, how to set up a garden bed with core gardening, and tell you some of the biggest benefits of this gardening style. 

So, let’s explore this brilliant gardening technique!

What is Core Gardening?

Core gardening doesn’t get much attention these days, but it really should! The core gardening method can help you keep your garden moist and fertile for an incredible amount of time. Plus, it’s very simple.

Core gardening is a method in which you fill a raised garden bed with compost and a thick layer of topsoil. This gardening method helps to keep the soil moist and warm while the compost also works as a slow-release fertilizer.

So, let’s talk more about how this gardening technique works and how you can do it at home!

How Does Core Gardening Work?

orange peel composting in garden
This gardening method relies on compost, which helps to maintain the soil’s moisture, nutrients, and temperature.

Core gardening works by trapping moisture and nutrients in the soil. In core gardening, you plant a layer of compost as the foundational core of your garden. You then place a healthy layer of soil atop your compost mound so you can grow veggies, plants, or flowers.

The main idea behind core gardening is that the compost core helps to nourish your soil like a slow-release fertilizer. Furthermore, compost is an excellent (and cheap) material to fill your raised garden bed with. 

Then, the healthy layer of soil on top helps to trap moisture in the garden bed. For that reason, core gardening is one of the best ways for people to minimize the need to water their plants

Because this gardening method helps the soil retain moisture, it’s one of the most popular (and oldest) gardening methods in dry places like in the sub-Sahara desert regions in Africa. 

How to Start Core Gardening in 4 Simple Steps

Curious about what it takes to start core gardening? As you’ll see, core gardening is one of the easiest methods and can work for almost any space. 

Here’s how you can start a core garden from scratch, even if you don’t have many gardening materials and can only muster a garden cart stuffed with yard debris or grass clippings!

1. Build a Raised Bed to House Your Core Garden

core-gardening-raised-garden-bed
While you can always use a trench or ditch for core gardening, starting your core garden with a raised bed is simple.

You don’t need a raised bed to start core gardening. You could dig a trench instead. However, I recommend garden beds for many new gardeners because they’re perfect for anyone who might not have much space or fertile soil to launch their core garden.

Raised garden beds can also save your back and knees – less bending over! Read why you might not want a raised garden here.

Building deep garden beds for your core garden is much easier and cheaper than you think. The only supplies you need are four planks of wood to serve as the barriers of your raised bed. You can then drill or nail your boards together in a square or rectangular fashion.

Don’t want to use wood? Here’s a cool article from Old Farmer’s Almanac that shows how you can build a raised bed using cinder blocks – plus how you can plant bonus strawberries!

You can also find a raised garden bed foundation on Amazon for less than a hundred bucks.

It can be tricky figuring out how many feet wide and deep your raised garden should be, which is why I’ve covered that in another article.

Many gardeners say you need to put a bottom layer of landscape fabric under your raised bed to prevent weeds from sprouting up. However, the genius of core gardening is that the core of your garden will not only break down and feed your soil with rich nutrients. It can also help to smother and obstruct any potential weeds naturally.

So, no landscaping fabric is required. Double win!

Learn More – My Straw Bale Gardening Experiment [With Photos!]

2. Gather and Layer Your Garden Compost Material

dry-grass-clippings-in-wheel-barrow
Compost is crucial for raised beds. Since beds are somewhat disconnected from the rest of the soil in the area, they can’t benefit from all the same naturally occurring compost materials like dead weeds, leaves, and other sorts of debris.

The next step is to layer your organic compost material inside your raised garden bed. The compost material you use is the secret of what makes your core garden a nutrient powerhouse.

If you already have heaping mounds of compost around your yard or waiting in a compost bin, that organic goldmine is the perfect foundation for your core garden.

Excellent Compost Ideas for Your Core Garden

  • Dry grass clippings
  • Plant clippings
  • Manure
  • Coffee grounds
  • Food scraps
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Straw
  • Hay
  • Bark
  • Wood chips
  • Branches
  • Twigs

Gather your organic compost content and stack it as the first layer of your core garden—the more organic goodies, the better.

Not only is this composting mother lode going to retain boatloads of moisture and provide a substantial nutrient boost for your core garden soil – but now it’s much less necessary for you to rely on synthetic fertilizer. Epic win!

3. Cover the Compost Layer With Premium Soil

core-gardening-cover-with-soil
Topsoil can help your raised garden bed act more like an actual forest floor than an isolated container garden. It’ll trap moisture, prevent the compost from washing away, and help warm up your soil earlier in the year.

Before planting garden veggies, add a healthy layer of nutrient-packed topsoil over your core garden compost mound. Aim to stack the soil at least 5 inches deep. Try to add enough rich soil so that the roots of your vegetables, flowers, and plants have plenty of depth to spread out naturally.

Over the years, consider adding additional layers of raised bed soil to help make up for the original core compost layers that naturally deteriorate with time. Food for thought!

4. Charge Your Garden’s Core

After layering your core garden, it’s time for an initial big soak, called “charging.”

To charge a core garden, you saturate the soil heavily, which allows the compost to absorb water like a sponge. This allows the compost to retain moisture for weeks at a time and keeps the average moisture level in the soil pretty high, even during a drought.

If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this great guide from MIGardener, Luke Marion:

How to Set Up Core Garden Bed - Core Gardening Method

Luke has also written a book on core gardening and several other hands-off gardening techniques, such as high-intensity spacing, remineralization, mulching, and more.

It’s a quick read, and Luke is very good at staying concise and offering tips that anyone, whether you’re in an urban or rural setting, can execute easily. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to make their gardens easier to manage!

Fantastic Read
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What Are the Benefits of Core Gardening?

There are various advantages of core gardening, but I count the following five as the most impressive – especially for new gardeners starting from scratch!

1. You Can Save Money on Soil

One of the biggest hurdles new gardeners face is that they don’t realize how only a few cubic yards of premium compost blend or topsoil can cost you a few hundred dollars. Plus, there’s often a delivery charge! If you have a large garden, the cost quickly stacks up.

That’s one reason that I love core gardening. Instead of filling the core of your raised bed (or trench) with soil, you can use the organic matter you find around your yard – for free.

2. You Can Save Money on Watering Your Garden

Have you ever looked at your costly water bill and fallen out of your chair? If so, then core gardening is a blessing!

Core gardens are perfect if you don’t have a well or a natural water source nearby. The sticks, hay, and organic compounds in your compost core act like a sponge – sucking up and retaining moisture that can nourish your garden.

So, this gardening style can save water, which is better for your pocketbook and the environment! Additionally, it allows you to be a bit more relaxed about watering your garden, which is a welcome advantage. 

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3. Core Gardening Automatically Feeds Your Soil

One of the best benefits of core gardening techniques is that the organic compounds that comprise the garden core release nutrients and enhance your soil over time. If you’ve ever suffered from lackluster, nutrient-deprived dirt in your garden, then core gardening can help turn your thin, lifeless dirt into thick, luscious, nutrient-rich soil.

Leaves, manure, sticks, hay, straw, and clippings from your yard work wonders. Hard compost items (like wood) break down slower and can feed your soil for years to come. Nice bonus!

Another advantage of core gardening is that it replenishes the nutrients in the soil below the bed. Over time, as the compost breaks down in your container garden, it will fertilize your native soil, leaving it better than you found it. 

4. Core Gardening Is Simple To Set Up

best-compost-bin-under-40-geobin
Are you tired of hauling in expensive soil and mulch for your raised setup? Core gardening might offer you some relief.

Have you ever manually unloaded a truckload of soil one wheelbarrow at a time and then filled your entire raised bed using nothing but a shovel?

Starting a garden from scratch can make your back hurt for a week! That’s another reason that core gardening gets a quick win from me. You don’t need to strain your back – as much!

This gardening style mostly requires compost, which you can collect in your garden bed over time. Then, you just need a thick layer of topsoil to seal in the nutrients and moisture from the compost. That makes for a lot less labor. 

5. Core Gardening Is Low Maintenance

Core gardening is drought-resistant and naturally adds nutrients to your soil over time. These two benefits make core gardening perfect for lazy gardeners of the world.

I’m only half kidding…

Of course, any gardening requires a ton of effort if you wish to produce worthwhile vegetables, plants, or flowers. But I think core gardening is less labor-intensive than other bed or container gardening methods, for sure.

Additionally, if you live in a hot area where it can be tricky to keep your soil moist, a core garden will save you a lot of work. This gardening approach is perfect for people in arid climates, as it will help your soil retain moisture for weeks at a time. 

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Still have questions about this brilliant gardening method? Let’s take a look at some of the questions we’ve heard about core gardening and go over the answers:

Can You Plant Seeds in Core Method Raised Beds?

You can plant seeds in core method raised beds after charging your core garden. Once you thoroughly saturate the compost core, the soil should stay very moist, which is perfect for planting seeds.

Can You Use Leaves in Core Gardening?

You can use leaves in core gardening. Leaves make a perfect brown matter base for your core garden, but it’s best to chop up the leaves to help them break down evenly and fertilize your soil at a constant rate. Other excellent materials for core gardening include grass clippings, straw, wood chips, and many more.

Where Is Core Gardening From?

Core gardening is a gardening method originally from sub-Saharan African regions. Traditionally, gardeners would dig a trench for their gardens, fill it with cut grass, then cover the trench with rich soil. These gardens retained moisture well enough to grow a garden in an arid desert.

Do You Need a Raised Bed for Core Gardening?

You don’t need a raised bed for core gardening. Instead, you can dig a trench or ditch into your native soil to create the base for a core garden. Once you dig the trench, fill it with compost, then top it off with some rich topsoil and thoroughly water it. Then, plant your garden and watch it thrive!

Final Thoughts

Have you thought about starting a core garden in your backyard? Please feel free to ask any questions about the core gardening method! And if you have tried it, we’d love to hear about your experience.

I brainstorm this stuff all day and love to interact with you.

More on Gardening:

Core Gardening How to Build a Healthy Garden That Feeds Itself

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2 Comments

  1. I’m interested in changing my beds over to core gardening however I’m not sure how to recharge a bed once the original materials has decomposed and how to determine when a bed needs to be recharged. I assume that you would need to remove the soil, add core materials and then replace the soil but was hoping there might be a less invasive and time consuming way to replace the core material.

    1. Hi nDiamond Street Gardener! That’s a great question. Recharging and refreshing a core garden is a winter activity, and you do end up needing to bury more compost in the soil. However, it’s easiest if you do it in little patches, digging up a hole, then dropping in a scoop of compost. I like to do mine in early winter after the first frosts so that I don’t have to be as careful about distributing the compost. Over winter, it’ll break down a bit on its own, and the rain will wash it around to make it more even.

      I hope that helps! Have a wonderful day!

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