Seed Programs International

Compost Basket, via CEC
Compost Basket, via CEC

Today’s we’ll talk about composting — right in the middle of your garden! But first, what do we mean by a “smart garden” idea? Many people think that here at SPI we do a lot of teaching of how to grow vegetables. The truth is actually the opposite: we do a lot of learning. Our program philosophy is to engage local leaders to share gardening skills and ideas with seed recipients. Their skills and ideas are truly smart gardening: these techniques use every available resource already on-site to minimize waste and cost. Water is considered a precious, finite resource -- a worldwide truth that is too easy to ignore when we have an apparently infinite supply coming out of our hose. Gardening can feel easy where amazon.com, Wal-Mart, or our local store sell every type of soil amendment or tool we might need. But this type of gardening uses a lot of resources and can be expensive for the gardener. By learning from regions like East Africa and Central America, we can save money, reduce household waste, and maybe even grow better vegetables and flowers.

Today’s idea is the compost basket. “Basket” is not a literal term, but instead refers to any structure you might build in the middle of your garden to hold compost. U.S. gardeners are fond of composting in a special pile or bin and then carrying the finished material to the garden. But this work is unnecessary, and the missed opportunity comes when rain falls on the pile or moisture seeps from a covered compost bin: much of the wonderful soil-enhancing nutrient potential is lost into the dirt nowhere near your garden.

Instead, steal this idea practiced all over the world, coming to us most recently from our collaborator Sostine Mukhebi at the Kenya Department of Agriculture: compost right in the middle of your garden, and then water your garden through the compost pile. Here’s how:

  1. Make a tube or bin-like structure out of material of your choice. It can be about 2 feet wide and 4-5 feet tall; a section of wire fencing rolled into a cylinder works well. If you’re more of an artisan you can form a truly basket-like structure from woven sticks or vines. Place it in the middle of your garden bed and mark its footprint. Remove it.
  2. Dig out this area below ground level. Sostine recommends 60 cm (about two feet) but your soil might make that difficult; do what you can. The width of the hole should be about the same. Put your bin structure in the hole and fill up to soil level with a mix of rocks and organic material. This initial effort to ensure below-ground drainage will help the good stuff from your compost pile reach your vegetable plants’ roots.
  3. Prepare your garden bed around the compost basket just like you usually would. Allow 6 inches from the basket to where your first plants grow, just in case the level of nutrient flow from your compost is very strong.


Keyhole Garden, Ethiopia, Photo by David Snyder via Nifty Homestead
Keyhole Garden, Ethiopia, Photo by David Snyder via Nifty Homestead


Now that your compost basket is proudly centering your garden bed, just add any compostable material: kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, old oak leaves, lawn clippings, and aged manure from livestock or poultry. Periodically layer in sticks to keep air flowing through the pile, as it’s hard to turn the compost. If your neighborhood sports wild critters like raccoons, rats, or bears, avoid any prepared foods more fragrant than vegetable peelings, or build the bin from a sturdy narrow gauge type of fencing and keep it covered.

Water your plants as normal when they are very small, but as they grow, or in addition, water the garden bed via the compost basket in the middle. This is an especially good use of “greywater” such as rainfall captured from your roof, or water leftover from the kids’ play pool on a hot day.

Want to learn more and see diagrams and examples?

This article from Nifty Homestead shows many examples of keyhole gardens which are a type of round raised bed with a compost basket in the middle. Notice how many different ways the compost basket can be built!

This article from Hungary highlights compost baskets as an especially appropriate method for urban areas with limited good soil.

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Seed Programs International

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Asheville, NC 28815


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Seed Programs International (SPI)

Seed Programs InternationalSeed Programs International (SPI) is a non-profit, tax exempt, non-governmental humanitarian organization.

We work thorough other humanitarian organizations, church groups, service clubs and individual donors, to provide quality seed to impoverished communities in developing countries enabling them to grow some of their own food. In addition to seed, SPI provides critical seed expertise and experience operating seed based self help programs.”

SPI is operated by individuals with over 50 years seed industry experience plus over 20 years experience in vegetable research and production. We also have 15 years experience operating programs that have successfully shipped seed to over 70 countries on five continents. SPI has shipped enough seed to plant over 1,000,000 vegetable gardens, providing more than 20 kinds of vegetables that are rich in vitamins and minerals often missing in people’s diets.