In my first urban homestead in Portland, there was a large cedar tree in the front yard. As I looked out my living room window, the first thing I always saw was hard packed, barren dirt under this tree. I tried to plant groundcovers, shade tolerant veggies, ANYTHING! But nothing would grow. Finally, I stumbled upon a gardening technique that was ideal for the dry wasteland out my window, hugelkultur!
What is Hugelkultur, anyway?
Hugelkultur, (HOO-gul-culture) is raised beds made large logs and branches at the bottom. The large amount of carbon in the rotting woods stores TONS of water! Hugelkultur beds are ideal for gardening in very dry areas with minimal irrigation. As I build new garden beds at our Texas homestead I try to add as many logs onto the bottom as I can. The beds are also a great way to compost large bulky branches you may have on hand. Rotting wood that might not make great firewood is just PERFECT for a hugelkultur bed.
Plants grow bigger and be healthier in a hugelkultur garden bed because of all the available nutrients that become available as the woody base layer breaks down. The trick to gardening is awesome soil, and if your soil stinks, start building it! A hugelkultur bed will be producing nutrients for YEARS. Even if you have super hard, dry soil, you can just skip trying to dig into and start building UP.
I didn’t dig into the soil at all when building mine. It was so packed down and dense around the tree, I could barely dent the dirt with a shovel! Also, as the wood rots it will leave small air pockets in the bed, which makes it easy for your plants to send out many strong roots. Another bonus is that the composting provides a small amount of warmth, which means you can get your plants going earlier in the season.
How To Make A Hugelkultur Garden Bed
Building a hugelkultur bed is pretty straightforward. If you can dig, start by digging a foot or two down in the area where you want your bed to be. This makes it easier to top the bed with topsoil at the end. Save that topsoil nearby! Next, pile up branches, logs, and other woody materials in the trench. The taller the better! The higher you can make your bed, the less often it will need water. (It also makes harvesting super easy). You can even make them as tall as you! Just make sure to have a wider base the taller you go. A five foot base is good if you are building yours quite tall.
You can make your hugelkultur bed in any size or shape you want. You can stick with traditional lines, or you can get creative and make a circle garden. Keyhole gardens are a popular design, and you can combine the two principles and make a hugelkultur keyhole garden! You can even use your hugelkultur mounds as berms for directing and harvesting rain water on your site.
Once the big logs are down you can add in sticks and brush. Put larger stuff on the bottom and work your way up to the smaller material. Good things to layer in the middle is chicken manure, dried leaves, household food scraps, wood ash, virtually anything compostable! If you pulled up sod to put in your bed, put it upside down on top of the bed too. Once you’ve built it up as high as you want it, pile in the top soil or finished compost that you can plant in.
You can edge the finished bed with logs, stones, or even broken up concrete recycled into urbanite. I went back and edged the cedar tree hugelkultur bed with urbanite when we made our driveway garden.
What kind of wood should I use?
You can use either hardwood or softwood trees in your hugelkultur bed. The hardwood will break down slower and release nutrients slower. So if you have access to both types, put the softwood nearer to the top of the pile so that in the early years of the pile they provide nutrition first.
There are a few types of trees that don’t break down well, so it’s best to place them at the bottom of the pile. These include, black cherry, cedar or juniper, and pines. Do NOT use black locust (it won’t decompose) or black walnut (it will inhibit growth).
What should I plant in my hugelkultur bed?
Once you have your soil on, plant! You can do perennials or annuals, although it might be a good idea to start the first year with annuals that don’t require much nitrogen. Potatoes are a good choice, as well as legumes that add nitrogen. After the first year or two, go crazy! Plant whatever you want! I started my hugelkultur bed with strawberries, wheat grass and kale. (I tried blueberries, which didn’t make it, but given that I’ve NEVER successfully grown blueberries despite trying every year, I don’t think it was related to the garden bed.) In later years, I added feverfew, irises, lilies, periwinkle, and chard. Not bad for dead dirt under a cedar tree!
If you are unsure this is the right type of garden bed for you, you can always start out with a smallish bed and plant annuals. Then once you see how awesome it is, make a bigger one! And each year it gets better and better as everything breaks down. This is like hardcore lasagna gardening, and is a great way to build your soil.
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