Hugelkultur: a first time for everything

This is the first time I get the chance to have a large garden, and the biology major in me just NEEDS to experiment. I think I’m completely incapable of picking one gardening method.

When you commit to growing organic, there are so many options: square-foot gardening complete with the must-buy book and very specific bed structure and contents; the landscape garden using interplantings of varying sizes and textures; the honest raised bed bringing your vegetables above the plains to heat up faster and hopefully avoid some critters; and perennial food forests with their fruit tree guilds and years of patience.

There are an endless number of ways to coax nature into working with you in the organic garden. So clearly my first choice was to pick the most labor intensive. Yes, I chose the one that begged for digging.

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The German technique of hugelkultur is defined by the burying of wood, preferably wood that is already overcome by fungi and starting to get crumbly, but any wood will do as long as you give the bed or mound time to age before you plant it. (New wood tends to leech nitrogen out of the soil initially.) You can dig a trench or hole to bury large pieces of wood followed by smaller sticks and twigs, then leaves, and finally top it off with soil. Alternatively, a hugelkultur mound begins by laying the stuff on top of the existing ground and working your way up to a giant about 6-8 feet high but I thought that would weird out the neighbors too much.

The benefit of a hugelkultur mound or bed is that the buried wood serves as both food and water. The decomposing wood slowly breaks down into all the nutrients your plants desire, a perfect organic fertilizer that can last years. The buried stuff also acts like a sponge, taking a long drink every time it rains, creating a personal aquifer of sorts for your veggies during dry spells. Unfortunately, hugelkultur itself does nothing for weeds; you’ve got to mulch heavily for that. You can’t expect one method to do everything!

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Anyway, the morning after Christmas, I was still on a messed up sleep schedule from working nights, and I found myself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6am. Yeah, my life is hard sometimes. No one wants to play that early in the morning and the sun takes another hour and a half to rise. I killed time making Scottish breakfast tea – there is none better, don’t even try to convince me otherwise – and eating oatmeal squares cereal…very slowly.

Finally, it’s light outside! Well sort of. I walked out to a cloudy, foggy, cool morning that belongs on a hike somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains but had somehow lost it’s way and wandered into my humble backyard. I started digging my trench – about 1.5 feet wide by 10 feet long, dimensions dictated by the tree roots – in a large red hoodie I lovingly stole from my husband. His hoodies are so washable, you know? I hate getting my sweaters dirty.

Halfway into digging the hoodie was on the ground somewhere – I’ll wash it, don’t worry –  and I had hit a large tree root snaking its way through the middle of my dugout. I was aiming for a depth of about 1 to 2 feet, but the existing resident here dictated that the middle of my trench would be about 8 inches deep. No matter. Part of this whole permaculture business is not to fight Nature to hard. She always wins.

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When I finally put my shovel down I felt more empathetic toward Shia Labeouf’s character in Holes, being acutely aware of every muscle in my back: lats, traps, and rhomboids. I somehow had plenty of wood to lay down, between the tree droppings scattered around my property and the rotting posts our home’s previous owner had long ago nailed down for his forgotten garden beds. Again, the water birches, elms, and oaks on my property produce tons of twigs and leaves, so I piled those on, and then spread some composted cow manure, mushroom compost, and the old clay-laden soil on top. The end result was a lovely raised bed, and since the soil I had taken out of the trench would have left me with too high of  a mound, I left half of it right next to the hugelkultur bed, making an adjacent raised bed that I also amended with compost.

I broadcast the whole double bed with a cover crop mix of rye, clover, hairy vetch, and daikon radish, then clothed it all in straw I bought at Home Depot. This straw gave me a nasty case of buyers regret because it is literally riddled with grass seeds itching to sprout everywhere, so instead of saving me from the weeds, it creates work. Major backfire! But it’s not too bad, those guys are definitely not as aggressive as the native weeds in my yard who won a war against the traditional lawn decades ago.

I look forward to planting my hugelkultur bed and it’s neighbor to see how they compare with each other. I’m starting out with a yard that is hardpan and clay with patches of good but trodden down soil, so I’m hoping that this method jumpstarts the fertility of at least part of my yard, given that no-till methods or setting up plant guilds may take several years to reach peak returns. Also, interplanting and creating guilds benefits from a lot of hands on knowledge of maturation times, growth patterns, and plant relationships that I don’t have yet. But I will! Just give me a few years with my biology experiments.

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