FOR 25 YEARS I have grown my vegetables in raised beds, but the kind that you need to purchase lumber and bolts and use a saw and hammer to construct, then fill entirely with soil and compost. Lately I’ve been looking longingly at photos of a centuries-old, sustainable way of making raised garden beds called hugelkultur, or hill culture. “It’s like sheet mulching or lasagna gardening,” says Dave Whitinger of All Things Plants, who regularly lectures on the subject, but in hugelkultur, “wood is the first level of your sheet-mulched bed.” In print or my latest public-radio show and podcast, hugelkultur 101 with Dave (whose robust hugelkultur onion bed that is up top).
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HUGELKULTUR was the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, a conversation with Dave Whitinger of the thriving All Things Plants web community. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 15, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.
FOR DAVE (above), the idea of this style of recycling came from a walk in the forest—from the observation about how spongy and alive the ground is from all the years of fallen wood and leaves, and his wanting to emulate that. With some research, he and his wife found that it wasn’t a new idea, and that hill or mound beds with a woody base layer had been around for hundreds of years.
A Texas accent notwithstanding (Dave gardens and farms in East Texas, in Zone 8B), he tells me that hugelkultur is pronounced “HOO-gul-culture.” It’s a permaculture-style practice that uses woody debris including branches, twigs, and even logs as a resource, rather than burning them or removing them.
By capitalizing on woody debris, Dave says, you’re not importing and not exporting things, either–in other words, acting sustainably. “If you burn wood, you’re literally exporting carbon into the atmosphere.”
Starting a hugelkultur bed does look a lot like the preparation of a giant bonfire, however, at least at first. The basic steps:
- Accumulate wood (above, Dave’s giant hugelkultur bed at the start; you can start much smaller). The wood can be chips, branches, even whole logs or old firewood that’s getting punky (the bottom layer of an old woodpile, for instance). Ask your power company to drop a load for you if you don’t have a supply, but use what you have first.
- Site the bed-to-be in sun if you’re growing vegetables, but a shade garden could be grown hugelkultur-style, too, if you like.
- Mow the grass down on the area to be gardened. Then smother what’s there with cardboard. Don’t till.
- Pile up your wood. Make any shape that you want, perhaps a keyhole-shaped bed, or put several of those together, as Dave did, and you have “a mandala-shaped garden that you can walk inside.” His is 30 feet wide, “full of pathways all through it.”
- You can put borders such as stones, logs or 2-by-8-inch boards to define the bed, though Dave doesn’t bother with edging.
- Speaking of which: If you’re making a conventional raised bed like mine, put wood in first before filling with soil and compost and so on. Use woody debris as a base layer inside your boxes.
- Cover your woody base with compost, a little soil, straw, old manure, spoiled hay, grass clippings–whatever organic material you have, to a depth of about 12 inches on top of the wood. If you have Nitrogen-rich material such as fresh grass clippings, put them right near the wood to help it get started breaking down.
- Within a few days the bed will start to settle down–but Dave prefers to prep new hugelkultur beds in fall, well before spring planting. “I like them to spend the whole winter relaxing,” he says, “and get colonized by microbes and so on.”
- Be aware that you will be low on N at first–but, “the bed will give it all back in time,” says Dave. Newish beds do well with potatoes, for instance, which don’t crave lots of Nitrogen—but don’t try to plant your corn (a very heavy N feeder) on a new hugelkultur bed.
- Aftercare in subsequent years: As the wood breaks down, it will start to collapse somewhat. “We add compost to the bed whenever we’re planting,” says Dave, filling in planting pockets as needed at that time.
- Dave Whitinger’s slideshow and more detailed hugelkultur how-to provides further inspiration.
KEEPING THE “biomass” of all that wood right on site does more than make a great raised bed. It also gives the little creatures—fungi, mycorrhizae, bacterium, insects and more—the food they crave, and an ideal environment to thrive in.
Plants grown in a hugelkultur bed thrive, too—Dave’s hugelkultur-bed onions, for instance (top photo), are much more vigorous than those grown conventionally, and he has had excellent results with herbs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, gourds, peppers and much more. “I can’t think of anything that doesn’t do well in a hugelkultur bed,” he says.
The resulting crops are “miles ahead of people who are growing it with a field of triple-13 fertilizer,” he says, referring to store-bought generic synthetic bagged 13-13-13. Indeed.
(All photos from All Things Plants, courtesy of Dave Whitinger, used with permission.)