Friday, March 16, 2012

Garden Expansion - Hugelkultur I

Spring project. Last year's potato patch is in left foreground.
      When I took this photo last summer, I labelled it "Spring Project" and tucked it away in the deep dark recesses of the computer. Now I hear it calling to me "Is it spring yet?" Crocuses are blooming, daffodils are coming up, seedlings are hardening off on the porch. Yes, it's spring! Time to get to work!
       My garden plan has corn, beans and squash growing in the foreground, potatoes in the background. Black locust stumps, roots and saplings, brambles, stinging nettles, poke weed, crabgrass and a whole slew of other weeds have to go. Then there is this abrupt three-foot drop somewhere back there, running parallel to the old corn crib you can see on the right.
       I received notice a few days ago that the seed company has shipped the potatoes we ordered! I need to get this ground ready. (Think music from Mission Impossible!) The area needing clearing measures about 90 by 25 feet, and my operating tools are a shovel, wheel barrel, and loppers. It looks like a huge project, but any project becomes doable if you divide it into manageable tasks .
       My first task will be dealing with that three-foot drop. For decades this entire garden area served as a pen for my in-laws' black Angus bulls. What the bulls left behind mixed with stirred up dirt and flowed with rain water downhill to the fence, where it backed up and eventually formed the slope. The soil there is probably deeper and richer than anywhere else on the property. We have talked in the past about putting some sort of retaining wall there, but every idea for building one has been too costly and/or labor intensive. I have a plan to use that rich soil, eliminate erosion, conserve water, and make use of some unsightly old wood that's been rotting nearby for years.
       I will build a hugelkultur.
       This is a German word that translates to "hill culture." This is a permaculture technique which is  really simply a different kind of raised bed. I will be digging out a ditch at the base of the slope, cutting into the slope itself. I will fill the ditch with rotting logs, fresh-cut logs, branches, and twigs. On top of all this goes straw, garden and yard debris, last year's corn stalks, and sod (placed green side down), with a final topping of the soil I dug out earlier. I will make the hill higher than the upper level of the slope. I should level the ground on the upper side parallel to the hugelkultur so that runoff will stop and seep evenly into the ground, where the rotting wood will absorb much of the moisture, decreasing or eliminating the need for watering. That wood will warm the soil as it decomposes and will extend the growing season for whatever I plant there.  Vining plants are said to do very well on these beds, so I will probably plant some of these.
       With all the reading about hugelkulturs I've done recently, I've never seen one used quite this way, but I'm doing trials here, and putting it together this way seems so logical. If anyone sees a reason why this should not work, I'd like to hear it.
       This is, of course, not exactly a permanent feature. As the wood rots, the hill settles and becomes a much lower pile of soil. With a hugelkultur, you can create good soil where there was none before!
       I will use a shovel to dig out and remove the crabgrass and as many stumps and roots as possible. Why not till? It takes repeated tilling to kill crabgrass. I would still have to dig out the roots and stumps. Rocks, pieces of an abandoned 1959 Galaxy Fairlane 50, farm equipment fragments, and buried fencing would all make tilling a nightmare. Besides, tillers are noisy. There's a certain peace working with a shovel, something almost elemental.
       If you are thinking that building a hugelkultur is labor intensive, well, yes, sort of, unless you compare it to setting dozens of posts to hold the planks to hold the dirt, which will still have to be moved. I'm kind of excited about the whole idea of hugelkulturs. They can be anywhere from two to seven feet tall and are usually narrow with steep sides. Are you considering trying one? Consider all the advantages: water conservation, soil improvement, increased growing space, increased growing season, an ecologically friendly way to use otherwise unusable wood. Stay tuned to see how this and my other hugelkultur projects fare!
       For more about hugelkulturs, visit


  1. I am staying tuned--even wondering if I should try it in my wild yard.

    1. Debbie, so glad to read your response. As I've told another reader, you can start with a hugel two feet high, three feet wide and six feet (minimum) long to see how it works for you. Would make a great raised bed along the edge of your property, or if you go higher, a berm in front of your house. There are endless possibilities!