Make Compost as Your Vegetables Grow

Crop productionSoil health


Imagine this. The rainy season is coming and you’re ready to plant your vegetables. Adding compost would be the perfect way to make your soil fertile. But you don’t have much compost available, and you don’t have time to make it.

You’ve cleared some land and the ground is covered with the branches, stems, and twigs that you’ve cut. You might also have some things such as sugarcane stalks, broccoli stems or maize stalks. All of these materials are made of organic matter, and they contain nutrients. But they take a long time to decompose and turn into compost. What can you do?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could snap your fingers and make compost overnight? Well, here’s an idea that’s almost as good. Today we’re going to talk about how to make a big hill of compost and plant your vegetables on top of it. Your garden will grow while the materials in the pile break down and turn into rich compost. And you won’t have to wait three months to plant!

Making the hill

First, dig a hole about 15 centimetres deep. Fifteen centimetres is about the distance from your wrist to the end of your longest finger. You can dig the hole as long and wide as you want. Just make sure it is large enough to hold all the biggest, thickest branches, twigs and stems you have. Place these big, thick branches, twigs and stems in the hole.

Next, add the grass or other plants you removed when you dug the hole.

Then add a layer of thinner materials, for example, stalks of maize or other kinds of grain. It doesn’t matter how much you add – just add whatever you have.

Next, add a layer of finer materials, for example, leaves, kitchen leftovers, and weeds. Keep adding smaller and finer materials to the pile.

Again, it doesn’t matter how thick the layers are – just add what you have. Then add a thin layer of grass clippings, and cover the whole pile with a layer of soil. The hill can be as high as 75 centimetres above the surrounding soil. Seventy-five centimetres is about the distance from your shoulder to the end of your longest finger.

Here’s a helpful tip. Make your hill slightly lower in the middle and slightly higher at the edges. Then, water will soak into the middle of the hill, rather than running off the sides.

Your hill is now almost ready. But before you plant your vegetables, there is one more important thing to do. You need to add some fertilizer to the soil, so that both your plants and the microorganisms that break down the organic matter in the pile will have enough nutrients to live.

Without this fertilizer, yourplants will not be healthy. So add some manure or other fertilizer to the pile. Now you can plant your vegetables on top of the hill.

Over a few years, your hill will begin to sink very slowly, as the materials in the pile break down and turn into compost. You can use the hill from two to seven years, depending on your climate. And you won’t need to add any fertilizer after the first year. In fact, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your garden is making its very own fertilizer while you watch and enjoy the harvest.


  • This script was written by Vijay Cuddeford, researcher\writer, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. It was reviewed by Daniel Sonke, Technical Resource Specialist, Ecological Concerns for Hunger (ECHO), Fort Myers, FL, U.S.A.

Information sources

  • Composting and hill culture“, in Amaranth to zai holes, by Laura S. Meitzner and Martin L. Price, 1996, pages 153-154. Published by Education Concerns for Hunger Organization Inc. (ECHO), 17430 Durrance Road, North Fort Myers, FL 33917-2239, USA.
  • Hill Culture: A Gardening Hint from ECHO“, 1993, 5 page booklet.Published by ECHO.