Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hugelkultur- The New Garden Method

My garden club is really growing!  New members, fabulous demonstrations and garden tours are becoming the norm.

This week the local library dedicated their front window to our upcoming meeting.

The topic was Hugelkultur, a new way to garden that is gaining popularity in this region.
Hugelkultur means mound growing.

Hugelkulture isn't new really, its the way Mother Earth has been growing forever : trees fall, leaves blow in and cover the tree and new growth comes up from that area even in times of severe drought because the rotting tree becomes a sponge for water and retains it for long periods of time.

Brad, one of our members did a demo of the entire process at our meeting. Brad is always on the cutting edge of information and he isn't afraid to try new things in a BIG way.  He built his energy efficient home out of bales of straw.  This new gardening technique had captured his attention and we were all going to learn about it in one evening.

Before the demo could start there was important business to attend to  : The FEDCO seed order had come in !   and the box had to be opened while we all giggled and chatted about the seeds each of us had ordered.

 Once the box was opened, each paper bag in the box, with the recipients name was passed around to them.

It was incredible to watch the room light up with smiling faces.

I didn't order any seeds for myself this year, as funds are low here. I am going to make due with what I saved from last year and do as much as I am able to.   But I did get to TOUCH the Fedco box and Touch the bags of seeds and photograph my dear gardening pals laughing with delight and hope about the new planting season that will be here in 3 more months!  That to me was priceless.

Of course everyone brought food for us to nibble on during the meeting. Squash and raisin cookies, orange slices, herbal tea, and celery sticks stuck through black olives.  Being gardeners we called them "slugs on a stick."
You can see them in this photo in the right hand corner.  Delicious.

 As the seeds made the rounds Brad came in and placed a few small logs on the table in front of us.
They had dried mushrooms on them.  Of course most of us foodies thought it was some new kind of winter snack.

 Brad also put a large wooden box and broken sticks on the table behind us.

 He then started filling the box with dirt that he had brought from home.

 With the ground being frozen he had shoveled this dirt from his barn floor.

 He carefully filled the box with dirt, and some rocks.


 He made a ditch in the dirt and then filled it with the "logs and limbs" he had also brought.

 He covered it with dirt.

He explained that as trees rot they eat up a lot of nitrogen so you need to replace the nitrogen with wood chips, leaves, manure or compost.  And to also fill up all the empty spaces between the logs if possible with this nitrogen fill.


 To demonstrate this, Brad started dumping wood chips on top of the covered logs and then

 adding more logs to the top of the pile continually layering soil and woodchips and branches.

Once you cover the top with soil you can plant on it.  Don't plant root crops (carrots, potatoes, parsnips, etc) for 5 years until the logs and limbs have rotted some more. Plant them elsewhere.

You can't see it in the photo but there are berms and swales to catch the water when it rains and funnel it back to the logs under the soil.

Brad elevated and tipped the box to demonstrate how this method can successfully prevent soil erosion.

 Using dead trees, limbs, old barn beams and brush piles is a very efficient way to utilize the composting wood to build the soil and have a raised bed. The pile is a self watering pile since it retains so much moisture from the spring thaw, rainy days and other times of precipitation.  Rotting wood acts like a sponge. And garden vegetables thrive when planted on top of a well constructed composting pile or rotting trees.

There are many different ways to use the hugelkulture methods.  Dig a ditch and plant your rotting limbs or just lay them up on flat land and cover them with soil and plant from those mounds.  People out in the Midwest like the big mound methods since the mounds act as windbreakers too.  Some mounds can be 6-10 feet high.  In the mound method, each side of the mound has a different microcosm of weather.  There will be a sunny side, a shady side, a windy side and a cooler side.

Oh ... and this is a NO TILL method of gardening.

Wood is all carbon.
and there are THREE parts to soil:
INORGANIC- which is all the mineral parts, like eroded rock.
ORGANIC-which is living and non living material, like humus and rotting leaves, etc
BIOTIC- worms, bacteria, fungus spores, beetle eggs, etc

Add them all together plus some livestock manure and shavings and you have a very beautiful thing that you do not need to rototill. PLUS it would be difficult to rototill if you have all the branches and rotting trees just a few feet under the soil. Leave it all as it is and plant right on top of your newly created raised garden.

Brad also explained that wood is rotting good if there is mushrooms sprouting out of it, like the logs he dumped on the table earlier.

If you use softwoods (pine, fir, cedar) they do not break down as quickly as hardwoods. Softwoods are also acidic.  Its a good environment to plant berry bushes and other acid loving plants on.

Hardwoods ( maple, oak, etc) break down faster and are perfect for garden veggies. 

Layer your ditch with softwoods on the bottom, soil, compost, and hardwoods on top with more compost and soil to really get the best possible outcome.
Layering it all like a parfait or lasagna makes for a great biologic sponge to retain water for the plants growing above.

As the trees compost, it warms the soil and can extend your growing season!
You will get the best results in year 2 and 3 as the composting really "gets cooking" as it breaks down and releases nutrients.

Most people living rurally have big trees that have fallen down that need to be removed. Instead of dragging them off into the woods use them.  Most of us know a friend with a tractor we can borrow to make a big ditch, trench or hole and make a raised garden bed if we need to. OR you can do this in a smaller way according to your garden needs.

I am going to shovel out a few ditches and lay down all the hardwood branches that blew down this winter. 
I already have them stacked up.My composted chicken litter, leaves and cow manure will fill in the spaces between the layering.
Many dead trees blew down this winter and are lined up along the rural roads around here. I am going to go recycle them.

I will put the bigger logs around the outside of my garden as a boundary and the start of a raised garden and go from there.

"If" I can find a tractor with a front end loader or backhoe, I will dig out a 5 foot wide and 3 foot deep ditch along my hillside garden and drop all the trees, logs, limbs, leaves and compost in that 33 foot long row just for my squash and melons!

I am also going to break up the dead limbs really small and put them in my larger planters by the coop so they will retain moisture for the really pretty flowers I plant there in the summer.

There are so many ways to use this method.

A few words of caution:
 Do not use black locust, willow, box elder, black cherry, black walnut, canadian ewe,or butternut trees.
Some have toxic bark and the willow will sprout more willows and suck up all the water that should be going to your garden.

I have given you a quick preview of hugelkultur and how easy it is to do it with the materials you already have on hand.  With more severe weather and more droughts on the way, this is a method to create a garden system that will give moisture to your plants while building the soil and extending your garden season.

Paul Wheaten is heavily into permaculture and has a wonderful website.

Everything you want to learn about Hugelkultur, including fabulous photos with explanations, is right here

Now you know what you can do with all the tree limbs, tree trunks, old barn beams and brush piles you or your neighbors want to get rid of..

Bury them and plant right on top!

I would love to hear back from those of you who have read more about hugelkulture and what you think of it.   Willing to try it this year ?
If you have already tried this method I would also like to know what your experiences were. Good and bad.


  1. interesting thanks for the information

  2. Far too much work for this flatlander. I've more or less accomplished this by mulching the veg gardens for over 20 years. I have excellent mycorhyzal fungi growth there.

    But I have heard of this and it is supposed to improve poor soil hugely. And the no till part is crucial. I've been no till here in Sandy Loam/No Rocks land for the 2 decades.

    Attended the NOFA Soil Seminar the first of the month and came away with another 30+ pages of notes. Lots of concrete info, like recipes, etc. All about super soil health and nutrient density.

  3. Good post, lots of great info! How fun that you have such a great Gardening Club too! :)

  4. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop this week; I hope you’ll join us again!

    Kathy Shea Mormino

    The Chicken Chick

  5. We are members of a local gardening club too but I love how your club is so hands on it looks like a lot of fun! Thanks so much for sharing this post at "The Ole'Saturday Homesteading Trading Post" blog hop that is what this hop if for so we can not only have a glimpse into each other's lives but also learn and connect with each other just like we would have done at The Ole' Trading Post years ago and share our news. I hope you join us next week! I am going to show my husband that awesome erosion demo too!

  6. Thanks for the great post, I'll be back again soon to check up for an update.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service
    Tree Removal Brooklyn

  7. Very cool! You have a wonderful blog!! I'm your newest GFC follower from the “Waste Not Want Not” blog hop - this is my blog if you wanted to follow back:

  8. Very interesting! Thanks so much for sharing this on Waste Not Want Not Wednesday :)

  9. I have never heard of this before but it is certainly interesting. You will have to post on your experiences later on in the year.
    Thanks for posting at Wildcrafting Wednesday.
    Jennifer at The Entwife's Journal

  10. Really great information, thanks for sharing it on Wildcrafting Wednesday. :)