Yesterday we dug in on a project that has been on my wish-list for no short of four years. A permaculture hugelkultur bed.
Hugelkultur is a fancy German word that means, "Hey, sweet thing! Turn that brush pile into a garden!"
Okay, I made that up. But seriously – that's what it is. A gigantic brush pile covered in soil that turns into a gorgeous raised bed that grows gorgeous veggies without so much work.
Why bother with such epic yet untidy garden habits?
Because hugelkultur turns your plants into happy, healthy, water-conserving ninjas, that's why. Hugelkultur beds also sequester carbon (bonus!) and once built will crank out amazing veggies for years and years.
Yes, the benefits of hugelkultur are many. Here are a few favorites.
Rotting wood is a sponge.
With hugelkultur (even in a drought year) you can get away without watering a hugelkultur bed more than once per season, when the rest of the garden is desperate for a twice-a-day soaking. This alone is enough to convince me to build one. Less water pumped from the ground just makes good sense.
Bye bye, bindweed.
On my site anyway, hugelkultur should help with weed control by getting my garden up and away from my existing, questionable soil that is loaded with invasive bindweed. I'm all for this plan. (Meaning: I need all the help I can get.)
And there is also the contour effect. We live in a valley. That means our entire property slopes, one way or another. Mostly to the south. Hooray for southern exposure! But gardening on a hill? You'll hear much less yee-haw from me on that.
The first year we lived here Pete build some simple stepped beds out of scrap lumber. They give us a fairly level surface in which to garden, but when heavy rains come (which they do, every summer) I worry that my tomatoes are headed to the creek.
As I learned more about permaculture, I fell in love with the idea of berms or swales to hold back rainwater and prevent erosion.
But hugelkultur swales? Even better! Running these beds parallel with the slope of the earth will help prevent erosion.
As you can see, the benefits of hugelkultur just keep coming.
A wild hair had me putting the bed in on Monday afternoon with the (less than enthusiastic but still appreciated) help of my kids.
Pete, working from home, spied us through the window and took an hour-long break to pitch in because he can't stand seeing hard labor done without grabbing his work gloves and helping, too.
Hugelkultur beds are deceptively simple to build. Here is what we've done so far, and how we did it.
1. Choose your site.
You can build a hugelkultur bed directly on the sod or on turned soil. We used our existing garden bed.
Dig down to create a less obtrusive bed, or build right on the surface. It's up to you. (We built right on the surface because in my book, more work = silly. I've got enough to do.)
2. Gather your materials.
Hugelkultur should be free.
Ours was. Three brush piles from various places around the farm plus some log-ends from a box elder that Pete cut down were plenty. Our Solstice tree even made it's way into the mix. It's a brush party!
It's worth mentioning that you don't want to use cedar, black locust, or walnut in your bed because cedar and locust won't rot and walnut will inhibit the growth of your garden plants. But a bit of pine or other conifers in the mix is fine. In fact, if you want a low pH bed for some reason (for a blueberry bed, for example) go wild with the conifers.
3. Start with the big stuff.
Log ends can be stood on end or laid down. I laid mine so that they were perpendicular to the slope of the hill for more stability yet less height.
There are really no rules here so throw some interpretive dance into the works and do whatever you want.
5. Next add branches and brush.
Now add more.
I think we spent just under 1 1/2 hours hauling and stacking branch from all corners of our farm. Pile it up! The more the merrier.
As a bonus our farm looks great!
If you live in town and don't have a decent supply on hand many towns have a city compost where you can pick up brush and branches for free. Also ask your neighbors or the power line crew. Post what you're looking for online and see what you can gather. Heck, drive around looking for brush piles set out for pick up.
Most people will be thrilled to have you take their waste organic matter away, even if they do think you're a little strange.
6. When you run out of brush you're done with the first phase.
Or, for a more thoughtful method, you can be done when you decide your bed is tall/big enough. I have seen huge hugelkultur beds and tiny ones. At 3 1/2' to 4' tall before adding soil ours is in the small to medium range.
7. Next comes compost.
(No photos of that step yet because, well, because we haven't done it yet.)
After you complete the layer of brush and wood it's time for compost, soil, an/or manure. Feel free to add dried leaves or straw at this point as well. Use whatever you have.
We'll be piling ours with composted sheep, goat, and chicken manure and hay from the barn, but you can use anything you can get your hands on. If you build your bed in the fall you can even use "hot" (fresh) manure. It will compost and settle during the winter.
8. And then plant.
Since we're excited to use this bed right away we'll be covering it in approximately 12" of compost. And then we'll plant immediately.
We'll plant cool-weather crops on the north side and heat-lovers on the south side.
I will keep you posted on our progress as we add the soil and compost and plant our seeds and starts!
If you are curious to learn more, this article is a good place to start digging in (as it were).