This month's Monadnock Earth Journal:
This year I’m planting a hugelkultur bed. I know, I’d never heard of it, either. Turns out this agricultural technique has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries, though I just learned about it this year, thanks to YouTube. It means “hill culture” or “mound culture” in German, and although it can be used to grow any kind of plant in any part of the world, it seems to really be taking off among backyard vegetable gardeners in North America and Australia, along with other techniques of permaculture.
This is an area I’ve been trying to learn more about, since I’m interested in connecting with the Earth, eating real food, and seeing how much money I can save on nourishing my family. So, I figured I would give hugelkultur a try, especially since my yard is mostly one big hill, and also since I’d run out of scrap wood to make raised beds and this technique would not require any purchase of new materials.
The idea is, by layering organic materials like woody debris and leaf litter with soil and compost, you create a bed that supports the same biological process that happens naturally on a forest floor, namely decomposition. Why would you want this in a garden? Four main reasons are: building fertile soil (a rare and precious thing in New England, especially in my yard where the “soil” is really sandy), retaining moisture (the wood on the bottom layer of the bed acts like a wick so you don’t have to water so often), making use of old, dead wood that can’t be used for anything else, and increasing the amount you can grow in a given area by adding vertical space (especially important if you have a small yard).
With the help of some more experienced growers who wrote about their experiences (like Paul Wheaton, the “duke of permaculture”), I figured out what to do. My son and I dug a 1-foot deep by 4-feet wide furrow down the length of the garden, setting aside the sod and soil for later. Into the trench went the cut-up limbs of the damaged birch trees that I’d had to take down at the end of winter, along with half-rotted and mostly-rotted logs (some from my property, others from the side of the road that I picked up and threw in the trunk of my Civic), and sticks from the brush pile. On top of that went all the leaves the girls and I raked, and on top of that went the dirt we’d dug, with all the sod clumps turned upside down and buried. Next I raked in a layer of compost, which I’d been building over the last two years with fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and bedding from my chickens and my neighbors’ alpacas. Now I had what looked like a giant raised bed, but with its own built-in irrigation and soil generating system. I planted parsley, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and Brussels sprouts for my first bed, mulched them with straw, and watered. At this point I had spent a good number of hours digging, lugging, raking, and sweating, but I hadn’t spent a cent on lumber, soil, or fertilizer.
We’ll see how it all turns out. I haven’t decided whether to border the bed with wood mulch or cardboard, and it will be interesting to see if this will all cut down on weeding as some articles say it will; but it is, for me, a happy experiment. That’s what learning sustainability is about, sometimes — not knowing what the future will bring, but being willing to try something new, to learn and adapt. It’s also about sharing knowledge and resources; I might not have found this potential solution if others hadn’t posted their own hugelkultur lessons online. So, in the spirit of adventure and community, see what new thing you can try to live in harmony with the planet. Good luck!