Do you want a system that reduces your need for constant watering and fertilizing your garden? One that allows you vegetables to grow their best in differing micro climates? This system exists and has been practiced in Europe for generations, and is now making its way into American gardening.
“Hügelkultur” is a German word meaning “hill culture,” or “mound culture.” Basically, it is a raised planting bed created by layering wood and other compostable materials under a layer of soil, in which the seeds and seedlings are planted.
Hügelkultur mimics the natural cycle of decomposition found on the forest floor. A fallen tree decays, providing food and shelter for other plants and animals, releasing nutrients and nourishing new growth for years. It also becomes more porous, retaining water and releasing it slowly back into the surrounding soil.
There are numerous benefits of this system, from preserving water to releasing nutrients to creating habitats for microbes and other beneficial insects. This is the answer to water retention and soil moisture in the beds.
So, how do we go about recreating this system in our small garden?
Building a small Hügelkultur bed:
- Gather reasonably straight tree limbs, branches and sticks of various sizes, about 3-4 feet long. The best wood to use is Apple, Birch, Popular, Willow, Alder, Aspen, Cottonwood or Oak. Do not use Black Walnut, Black Locust, Redwood, Eucalyptus, Cedar or Cypress wood. These have resins and toxins that are harmful for plant life for a couple of years. If you use Pine, realize that as it breaks down, it will take Nitrogen out of the soil, so you need to fertilize well until the wood has decayed.
If you have seen videos, they usually use large logs. In a small garden plot, you would gather smaller materials, such as limbs about as large around as your arm, branches and sticks about the size of your fingers. If the wood has already begun to decay, so much the better. Half-decayed wood will give your Hügelkultur bed a head start, as it will absorb water better than fresh wood, which still has to begin the process of decaying.
- Dig a trench in your garden bed. Place the larger wood pieces in the trench, with smaller limbs to fill the spaces in the trench. Add a layer of straw and other compostable material on top of the wood in the trench.
- Add another wood layer, composed of smaller branches and sticks. Cover the branches with compost, soil or excavated dirt from your trench to create a mound. This will be your raised garden bed. Again, if you watch the Hügelkultur videos, they often build a large mound, often 3 feet tall with steep sides. For a small plot, this is not necessary. Plant your seeds and seedlings on the mound.
Initially, the mound will be springy—you can press the mound down with your hand, and it will spring back. This is due to to the loose nature of the straw and branches underneath the layer of dirt. As the pile decomposes, or it is watered by you or mother nature, it will slowly sink into the ground.
A Hügelkultur setup takes 2-3 years to create the most benefit; it is not a one-season thing. The wood needs time to decompose. During this time, the internal temperature of the bed will rise. As the wood decays, it will become a water sponge, soaking up and storing moisture for your plants, as well as providing nutrients to your plants and other beneficial microbes.
My beds are smaller than normally seen in hugelkulture explanations. My 2017 beds are going to be 4×6 feet, and I already have a deep-watering system in place. My trench had to be dug around the deep-watering system (marked by the plastic bottles in the photos), so it was shallower and smaller than recommended. Because of that, I also used smaller wood pieces, and the final bed was not like the ones you usually see pictured, high with steep sides. Mine now is a gentle slope, but I will be adding to it next year in the spring before I plant the spring crops, and it will eventually be higher with steeper slopes. I’m thinking it will be about 12 inches high next spring.
Another option is to make even smaller hügelkultur beds in containers. Containers are notorious for drying out and needing almost continuous watering. To make this work in a container, add the wood pieces in the bottom of the container; cover with compostable material, then your soil. Water very well for a week or two to let the water saturate the wood. Then plant, and your plants will enjoy the water reservoir in the wood at the bottom of the container.
If you do this now, just as cooler weather sets in, you can have 3-4 months time before you plant spring plants. This will allow the bed to become saturated with water from winter rains, and begin the decomposition process.
Later, before you plant again, you can add more wood, compost materials and dirt, making the hügelkultur bed higher and setting the cycle in motion again. However, this is not necessary.
The mound, if high enough, and facing the right direction (east to west) will have several different micro climates. Sunny and hot on the south side, shady and cooler on the north. You can grow plants in places on the bed in the microclimates that they like.
Over time, the wood decays, releasing nutrients, and creating a healthy. biologically active climate for micro-organisms. You can also add worms to help the decomposition process along. AS the wood decays, it becomes like a sponge, soaking up water and slowly releasing it later to the plants and microorganisms.
My first Hügelkultur beds run northeast to southwest. My garden slopes down to the southeast, so I am planning on making more beds running northeast to southwest. This will slow the rain water running across the garden, prevent it from pooling at one end of the garden, and allow it to soak into the ground.
Last year, during the rainy months, my potatoes and tomatoes were drowned, as they were planted in a low spot. Hopefully, this will prevent that from happening again, because of the raised beds and trenches.
If you read my earlier post on Permaculture, this process covers the following principles: observing and interacting, catching and storing energy, using and valuing renewable resources, produce no waste and use small and slow solutions.
Can you see how this is all beginning to fit together? In combination with secession planting, companion planting and intercropping, your work in the garden will begin decreasing, so that you can begin enjoying the fruits rather than bemoaning the labor involved.
What do you think? What techniques are you using to make your time in the garden less painful and more enjoyable?