Give your garden some culture: Hugelkultur!

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As you know, at LCA we’re all about saving water and keeping fertilizer use to a minimum. So when we heard about a gardening technique that can mitigate the need for feeding and watering plants — in some cases, for the entire season — we knew we had to share.

A raised hugelkultur bed after one month. If you dig deeply enough, you can create a hugelkultur bed that's flush with or only slightly above the ground.  Image courtesy Paul Wheaton, richsoil.com

A raised hugelkultur bed after one month. If you dig deeply enough, you can create a hugelkultur bed that’s flush with or only slightly above the ground.
Image courtesy Paul Wheaton, richsoil.com

It’s called hugelkultur, and it’s a sustainable gardening practice that’s hundreds of years old. It relies on rotting wood to provide nutrients and moisture for a raised garden bed.

The preparation can be a bit daunting for some, especially if it’s done on a large scale. A proper hugelkultur bed — one that can go all summer long without water — is at least 6 feet high.  That means a lot of digging — a snap, if you have access to earth-moving equipment; an aggravation if you don’t. Fear not: Smaller-scale hugelkultur beds are possible and work quite well; however, they will likely require occasional watering in addition to regular rainfall.

Basically, you need to dig a pit deep enough to bury a good deal of rotting wood (old is OK, but rotten is better). It can’t be just any wood, though. According to Paul Wheaton, who writes about permaculture here, cedar, black locust, black cherry and black walnut are poor choices. Some inhibit plant growth, others are resistant to rot. Bigger pieces of wood will work better — you can even use whole trees — but smaller branches and sticks are fine, too. In fact, if you have a brush pile you need to get rid of, this is the perfect solution. (Take care if you’re using scraps of building lumber and ensure that none of it is pressure-treated, because it will contain arsenic.)  

Pile a layer of compost, leaves, grass clippings, manure, or all of the above, on top of the wood. Follow that with a layer of topsoil, heaping the soil until the bed is mounded and at the height you want. After that, you’re ready to plant. The rotted wood will hold moisture and keep nutrients from washing out of the bed. It will also supply nutrients as the logs rot.

Viola, you’re done!

How does it work? Essentially, the rotted wood traps water and releases it as the plants need it. As the wood breaks down, it also adds nutrients and organic material to the soil – just like a compost pile — and leaves space for your plants to send their roots.

If you’d like more in-depth instructions or just want to know more, check out the following webpages:

Richsoil.com

Permaculturenews.org

 Hugelkultur, the ultimate raised garden bed