I have discussed how to make rich soil, how to use companion plants, how to use square foot gardening, and the concept behind a permaculture swale. I also did an into hugelkultur. I going to dig into another concept today that ties in with all of this “no-till”, permaculture gardening techniques later on. I want to talk about Hugelkulture, what it is, and how it is done.
Hugelkulture is a German rooted word meaning,”mound culture.” So, in the name, we can venture a guess about what a hugelkultur bed is. It is a big mound. Typically a five to six foot tall mound. People that build these mounds usually follow a basic outline (VERY IMPORTANT: EVERYONE CAN DO THIS DIFFERENT and SUCCEED! Can be above/below ground. Different things added. Etc.):
DIG A DITCH: Dig a rectangular hole in the ground that is about 3-4 feet wide and a couple feet deep and 5-20 feet long (your choice). If they want this bed to retain the most water, it will be built on contour (perfectly level) with a slope.
FILL IT WITH WOOD: Wood is a favorite filler for the bed because of its insane amounts of energy during the breakdown process. Think of all the things we burn and how hot and long hardwoods burn. The same energy used to burn it is given off during breakdown. People can really put much more than wood in there. Almost any plant life can go into a hugel bed. There are a few trees that you don’t want in your bed though. They are Cedar, Black Locust, Black Walnut, and Black Cherry. Good trees are alders, apple, cottonwood, oak, poplar, willow (dry) and birch. As wood decomposes, it requires a lot of nitrogen, so to replace this nitrogen, many hugelites will plant beans (legume-adds nitrogen to the ground) the first year on the bed, may add small doses of urine to it (high nitrogen content, but salt is not good for bed), and will add lots of green mass to the wood (grass, straw, compost, and other green biomass).
COVER WITH COMPOST: This goes with what I just said above. Add an inch of straw and 2 or so inches of compost (there IS much room for adjustment to all of these numbers). This organic material will assist in the nitrogen that will be stolen from the wood decomposition and will add some oranisms that will start composting the wood right away.
SOME ADD A FUNGAL SPRAY: This step is not always used, most people don’t use it, but it can help if you use a nice organic fungal spray to get it started. The fungus that results in the bed (with or without the spray) covers an insane area, creates what is called “humus” and is rich black soil full of nutrients. If you are adding good organic matter in the bed, you can get the fungus started pretty quickly with nothing else. At this time your bed should be at ground level, give or take a foot. I would try to make it a little below the ground… six inches to a foot.
TIME FOR THE DIRT! We fill back over the trench with all of the dirt. We will probably have to add more dirt from another location, or buy some. It would not hurt to sprinkle a little compost, straw, or grass in with all of the dirt in layers. When all is said and don’t, you should have a bed of around 5-6 feet tall and a slope of 70 degrees, however many people only build their beds to 3-4 feet.
PLANT YOUR GARDEN: I am not going to go into organic or permaculture gardening since I went over that in all of my gardening posts mentioned above. You will plant most of them on the sides of the hugel mound. With the steep slope, it is easy to reach all of the veggies.
MULCH YOUR BED: Place a thick layer of mulch on top of the bed made of wood or straw and maybe even grass. You don’t have to till this bed. Even if you don’t believe it, tilling will only make more weeds in a bed. The mulch will keep most weeds away and keep moisture in. When weeds do pop up, it will be easy to pull because most of their root system will be in the mulch.
Why do people build hugel beds like this? It is known that these beds will absorb and hold water in the wooden cavity, and even the dirt above it. The plants can tap into this reservoir. As the wood decomposes, and it turns into humus, it will actually retain more water. The fungus will also help with the retention. We have a very good rich bed of soil and all the water we can dream of. A couple people claim that these beds require NO watering, and hold so well, that they actually have to build them slightly off contour, so they can drain a little water. These beds can also extend your growing season by a month or so, depending on where you live, because the decomposition creates heat that will keep the bed warmer during the colder months.
Hugelkultur is the answer to many of the problems that people have had with no-till organic farming. If you have the land to build this system, you can create tons of food in an organized and unique garden, since these beds REALLY extend the amount of surface area to plant in.
Hugelkulture is a great idea when you have the room to build these beds.
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