First, of course, what in the world am I talking about?
Hugelkultur (from the German, hill culture) is a method of building a garden bed. It hails from the permaculture world and means building a bed either by piling up wood and branches on the surface of the soil or digging a hole (or trench) and laying the wood in the hole.
Next soil is piled on top to bury the wood.
Why would anyone do such a thing, you may well ask. Three things, really:
- To obtain a nearly no-need-to-water bed
- To improve soil tilth and nutrients
- To have an excuse to say “hugelkultur”
Wood has a very high moisture content. As it decomposes, it continues to absorb water like a sponge. Having a base of rotting wood beneath a garden bed is like building your garden on top of a dense, sodden sponge that is in the process of becoming rich humus.
Getting excited yet? I was, especially when I read tales of beds of tomatoes that made it through the summer without watering. I like the idea of all that good stuff down there, attracting worms and other decomposers, soaking up and storing rain, breaking down into fabulous soil.
For my bed, I decided to dig a hole. For those of you with a lot of space out in the country, digging a hole is probably an unnecessary step, but with a small suburban garden, I wanted it to blend into the garden rather than having it look like a big ol’ hugel. I also didn’t have a source of fill dirt, and using the soil from the raised bed which I’m replacing plus the soil I dug out of the hole will be needed to cover the wood completely.
Next, since the soil under there was just so completely dry I gave it a solid soaking to get things going. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this but it seemed logical. And tasty.
Now I got to take advantage of the fruit of what is usually the bane of my gardening: huge, mature trees. Many suburbanites take their fallen limbs to the curb for pickup, but since we don’t, we have a bunch of wood perfect for hugelkulture–nice, spongy, rotting wood just waiting for me to discover hugelkultur.
Fresh cut wood can be used for this method, but I had enough of the ready-to-rot stuff so I decided to use that. It will break down faster.
Filling up the ditch was very satisfying. I got to clear out some old wood and know it was going to turn into vegetables.
All the dirt I removed to make the trench went on top of the wood, with a couple of soakings along the way to get everything cooking. As I did, I layered in the contents of a bag of organic fertilizer. Overkill, surely, but I couldn’t resist. It would give my tired soil a boost while I waited for the benefits of hugelkultur, which really begins to come into its own beginning in its second year.
After planting some cover crop seeds, it was ready for a straw blanket and a final soak. I’ll be sure and report on the hugelkultur bed from time to time and let you know if it really is as no-water as it promises to be.
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