Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur

What the heck is hugelkultur??

Well hugelkultur is the idea of making raised garden beds by putting soil on wood.  In the above picture, you can see the concept at work on the hugelkultur we built this summer.  The wood is buried in soil and then planted on.  As the wood rots it acts like a sponge, holding all the moisture from winter and spring over the dry summer.  This way the plants growing over the wood can access all that moisture on their own and you don’t have to water them.

For a full understanding of hugelkultur, with lots of pictures and videos, head on over to Paul Wheaton’s site and read his article.

I am going to show you the hugelkultur we built this summer.

So the idea was to to create a very tall and steep hugelkultur, in the shape of a ‘U’, with the open side facing south.  This way we would be creating a sun/heat trap inside of the ‘U’ by sheltering this area from wind and trapping all the suns energy.  Inside this space should be significantly warmer compared to the surrounding area.  This will be key at the beginning and end of the growing season, when everywhere else is too cold for growing, this space will still grow.  So now we have just extended our season by a couple weeks at either end, just by building it high to shelter from the wind and shaping it to trap all the suns energy.  This would be an example of good permaculture design. 🙂

Let’s get to it and show you how it went.

Here you can see we got started by digging down about a foot and stacking the logs in such a way that they held together and created a sort of wall, which we then started covering with the soil we had just dug up.  In the background you can see the log pile we had accumulated.  We cut all these logs from an old pine plantation on the property and these were the standing dead that got shaded out.  Dead wood is preferable to live wood as it absorbs moisture more readily and decomposes faster.

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In this picture I am standing on the north side facing south and this is the western arm  (or right side) of the ‘U’.  You can see how steep and high the logs have been piled here (about 4.5 feet high).  Stacking nice logs like these  steeply and fairly tight together should help the hugelkultur hold it’s form as it rots over time.  When building with sticks and brush, the pile has a real tendency to collapse in on itself as the decomposition takes place.  Hopefully we don’t get too much of that here, but we will see as we continue to observe.

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Here we are now with the soil covering the logs.  We mixed up a bucket of different seeds, scattered them all over and then spread out a thin layer of wood chip mulch to help them sprout.  Tossing on a seed mixture will allow certain plants to grow in the conditions they prefer on the hugelkultur.  With  all of the different micro climates that have been created by making such a steep raised bed, seeds will germinate where it suits them best.  For plants that enjoy hot, dry, and sunny, they will grow best on the inside of the ‘U’ near the top of the bed where it is hot and dry.  For plants that enjoy cooler, moister conditions, they will grow better on the back, bottom of the ‘U’ facing north where it is cooler and wetter.  It’s also way less work than starting seedlings and transplanting each one where you think it should go. 🙂

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It has now been a couple weeks and you can see all the seeds have sprouted and are growing away!  We have also planted a couple fruit trees, kiwi vines, strawberries, plus more.  We started with this section of the ‘U’ as a test section so we could observe and then make any adjustments when we continued the construction.  As I talked about earlier, starting small, observing, and adapting to those observations, are key concepts to success.

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Here is a good picture showing the plants growing on the super steep sides of the hugelkultur.  You can also see some transplants that aren’t looking so hot at the moment.  Another bonus to starting from seed; they don’t get transplant shock.  Here you can see a  hardy kiwi vine at the top.  Below that is a jerusalem artichoke, and below that a comfrey plant.  On the right we have a small siberian pea shrub and a pear tree.

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After observing the awesomeness of the first section of the hugelkultur (and collecting a bunch more logs), we continued on with construction of the ‘U’ shape.  Here you can see I am on the north east corner looking in and you can clearly see the sun trap forming.  This is also a good view of the original section growing nicely on steep sides.

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In this shot you can really see the diversity of plants thriving on the test section of the hugelkultur.  Nearly the entire thing is covered in greenery and loving it.  You can see some corn on the inside of the sun trap growing where it loves it best; hot and sunny.  It is a little difficult to see, but there are a number of cucumber plants in the same area loving the sun.

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Here we have the rest of the ‘U’ built with soil on.  This picture gives a nice view again of the steepness, as well as a view of the logs under the soil.  So, having completed this section, it was time to observe some more.

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While observing, we noticed the chickens had gotten loose and eaten a great many of the sprouting seeds on the new section.  While eating, they did what chickens do best, and scratched a lot of the soil down off the logs.  Because of that the soil didn’t get covered in greenery and the fall rains started to wash more soil off the pile.  Lesson learned through observation; keep the damn chickens off your hugelkultur while seeds are sprouting!

So in the picture below, there have been a couple frosts and the few sprouts that did come up are dying from the cold.  The original section is looking quite good though.  It doesn’t seem to mind the frost too much.  I think this has to do with the dense plantings and the fact that they are off the ground on the steep hugelkultur.

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The next thing we observed, was that chipmunks LOVE the hugelkultur.  Here is a picture with at least 5 holes in one shot!  There are lots of holes all over where they go in and out of their den in the hugel.  I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing, as they are bringing all sorts of stuff in there, pooping, making nests, storing food.  All this will lead to an increase in soil fertility, which will help the logs break down and the plants grow.  I will continue observation on this before making any rash decisions.

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We have come to the end of the season, but there is still observation to be done.  We had our first snow not long ago, so I went out to see what happened with the hugelkultur.  The wind had been coming from the north east that night and blowing snow with it.

Here is a picture with the north east corner covered in snow.  But what about the inside of the ‘U’?  This structure was built with the intention of protecting the inside from cold winds and trapping the sun’s energy.  Let’s have a look.

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It worked excellently!!  You can see how the steep walls of the hugelkultur blocked all the wind and snow from getting to the inside on the eastern section.  This picture was taken in the morning, so the sun was just starting to come around and warm things up a bit.  You can see the top left corner is starting to have it’s snow melted.  If there were lots of plants covering the entire thing, I suspect it would have preformed even better.

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That’s it for now on this project, but I will keep observing and in the spring get back to work on it.

In the mean time you can check out some more detailed info on the progress thus far on my project thread at permies.com

You can also check out other people’s hugelkultur projects and learn more about hugelkultur in general at permies.com.

I strongly recommend reading Paul’s hugelkultur article .  In my opinion, the single best place to learn about it.