Lots of ideas are buzzing around the permaculturoshere right now but few have landed at gardens, homesteads and prog eco farms with the intensity of hugelkultur. Why is this? Is it the deep, gutteral voicing that makes hugel (said ‘hoogle’) as enchanting to say as learning a new word as a child, like pssgetti? Is it the mental picture of a 7 foot tall Germanic Gaul hauling and entire tree out of the Black Forest over his shoulder to build a mountain of sprawling vegetables? It’s this and about a dozen other reasons why hugelkultur is just freaking awesome and worth a look for your next project.
Hugelkultur is ecological gardening for the dude who thinks gardening is something only hobbits do while pattering about between sips of tea. It’s an excuse to get out the chainsaw (or the two-person buck saw), move some earth around, and start stackin a mound and growing some vegetables.
What exactly is hugelkultur and how does it work? Let’s back up and take a look.
As alluded to, hugelkultur is German in origin and roughly translates to “mound culture” or “mound cultivation”, i.e. growing on a mound. It is simply building a raised bed by putting the wood on the inside, preferably low grade rotting wood that has no better use, and the soil on the outside. The resulting mounds may be anywhere between 2 feet to 8+ feet wide, 2 feet to 6+ feet tall, and as long as one wishes to build. They can be built in a straight line, a winding path, on flat ground, slopes, oriented any direction of the compass, and on just about any soil type. The design possibilities are huge, and only some of them have been thoroughly explored and reported on.
So what’s going on and what are the benefits of hugelkultur?
1. Self fertilizing. Wood contains a huge amount of nutrients that are locked away and are released over time as decomposition occurs. The nutrient composition is generally balanced to what growing plants need since the nutrients mostly originate from plants too. Hugelkultur mimics the natural process of wood decomp that goes on in forests all the time and simply speeds it up by adding a soil layer over the wood right at the start.
2. Self tilling. Air pockets become trapped in the mound and settle and move around over time, generating a tilling effect. This supports a diversity of soil life, including microbes, fungus and earthworms that are vital to the soil building process.
3. Self watering. Water soaks into the logs like a sponge and is released over time as called for by plants. Even in very arid climates and drought conditions hugelkultur mounds have been reported to provide good yields of crops without irrigation. So say goodbye to the hose, watering can and six pack of beer you have to sacrifice to the neighbor when you go on vacation.
4. More grow space. Basic geometry says that when you have a triangle, the sum of the length of the two sides is greater than the length of the base. How much greater depends on the steepness of the sides of the mound; steeper sides = more grow space. At
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a 60 degree angle the grow space on a hugelkultur mound is double that of a flat bed with the same footprint.
5. Variety of growing conditions. The south side of mounds will tend to be warmer and drier, while the north sides are cooler and more moist. This allows the grower to experiment with plants at the margin of their USDA hardiness zone, i.e. if you live in zone 5, you may get away with growing a zone 6 plant on the south side of a hugel mound. Vice versa, in a very hot, exposed area, more tender plants like lettuces will do better and tend to be less bitter on the north side where they are partially obscured from harsh sun and heat.
There are other benefits of hugelkultur mounds such as a heating effect from the decomp process that warms the soil earlier in the spring and later into the fall as well as water and nutrient accumulation at the base of the mound which makes for good tree and shrub planting sites along the edges of mounds. The potential of hugelkultur to turn woody debris into food is huge and mounds are awfully dang fun to build and design with, but a few words of caution are necessary.
1. Don’t put anything into the mound that will contaminate your food or stifle the soil life. This means no paint, no pressure treated wood, no stained wood, and avoid cedar and softwoods because they have anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties (the basis of soil is life, don’t kill it).
2. Shrubs and berries can be placed on top of mounds but not trees. These should be sited next to mounds as the mound may not hold the root system securely and the tree may topple prematurely if placed on top.
3. The angle of the sides should be 45 to 60 degrees. This is about as steep as you’re likely to be able to build it before the soil sloughs down. If the mound is flatter, air will not circulate as well and there will be a greater tendency for the wood to moulder and a foul smell to occur. No bueno, go steep.
4. Finally, don’t forget the value chain. Furniture grade wood, lumber, fuel wood, maple sugaring stands, mushroom cultivation grade logs, and in most cases trees for the sake of trees trump the use of wood in hugelkultur mounds. Hugelkultur can use low grade wood that has fallen naturally, or when felled intentionally is done so with an eye toward sustainability.
I hope you’re psyched to get hoogleing. Here are a few pics from a backyard mound to get you started.