I dig gardening that is low input, high output, patterns itself after nature, and literally builds soil. Hence, I dig Hugelkultur. Hugelkultur (‘hill culture’ in German) is essentially raised bed gardening on top of rotting wood. The premise is simple: In forests, fallen trees rot over years, even decades in some cases. And along the way they provide a number of ecological services as the nutrients are cycled back into the forest through fugus, and the rotting wood store immense amounts of water. In the latter stages of decomposition, tree roots will literally grow into the rooting wood and new plants and trees will sprout on the top of the fallen “log” as it finally becomes part of the new forest floor, though still in a raised mound. Hugelkultur seeks to do all of this, but faster, and in a way that maximises harvests, while reducing the input of the gardener – specifically in fertilizing and especially irrigation.
I have not had the chance to start a Hugelkultur bed yet for two reasons – at my suburban home there is no surplus of rotting wood, nor is there a surplus of soil. Hugelkultur takes a goodly amount of both. BUT, as fate should have it, some good friends have recently purchased an abandonded farm and and we are working together to create something rather special there. As we started the clean up, and started our third quite large pile of dead wood I thought that this may be this may be the time to avail myself of some Hugelkultur. The fact that the municipality stores its finished compost right across the street and is willing to load it for free if they are out on the loader (literally – I can’t make this up) helps a bit too. So here goes. Making them is simple, but pictures often help to make the case.
First up, we laid out some cardboard pallet slips – these are to suppress the significant pasture weeds that are prevalent, well, everywhere at the farm. These slips are WICKED useful – 4′x3.5′ (1.2 x1 m) and can be found from most any warehouse or retailer that deals with palletized freight. WAY easier than sheet mulching with newspaper!
Next up you need to make a nice pile of sticks and logs. A variety of sizes is good, but try to get at least some that are 4″ or bigger in diameter so that it will takes years and years for thme to rot down. Remember the point is for this to take a goodly long time. The final bed will be a mound, so your logs should be too – higher in the middle, and lower at the edges. Finally, get your House of Pain on and jump around on the sticks and logs to mash them on down so that they are packed down fairly well.
Once the logs (good and dead) are laid out, its time for the compost. It takes a significant amount of soil/compost to make one of these. This bed s 8 x 15′ (2.5×4.5 m) and if it about 8-9″ thick – that is about 4 cu yards of material once it works it way through the logs. I was able to cheat – I gots me B.A.R.T. -the Big Ass Red Truck.
Then its a matter of shaping the compost/soil mix around and you are done. This bed will be planted to a spring mix soon – lettuce, radish, pak choi, and spinach- all of which will be done in time for the 5 hills of winter squash to go in. The 3 of us, the new owners Mike and Ellen and myself, built this in under an hour. Granted we had the wood piled nearby already and had the HUGE advantage of a large dump truck and a loader to load it, but this is a simple way to garden.
One concern that often comes up is that all the carbon will “lock up” nitrogen as it decomposes. That is a fair concern, but the reason that this works is that using full logs and stick, the surface area relative to the weight is low compared to wood chips, straw, or (gasp!) sawdust. Bacteria are the prime issues with locking up nitrogen, and the primary decomposers here will be fungi. Still, we’ll keep an eye one, but the fact that the top is pure compost should allay any nutrient fears.
Hugulkultur – beats the hell out of burning that pile of dead limbs sitting out back!
Be the Change