Hugelkultur Time

For us, winter marks the beginning of “hugelkultur time.” Once we’ve had a decent amount of rain and the ground has softened, we can dig in with a shovel and start to layer in the elements of a brilliant permaculture practice called “hugelkultur.”

The practice is simple.

  1. Dig. You dig down about a foot (or more if you can in these hard clay soils). The area should be the growing area–so if you’re planning a 10-foot bed that’s four feet across, you’d dig out that area one foot deep.
  2. Line the bottom. Line the bottom of the bed with welded wire so gophers and ground squirrels don’t tunnel their way into your garden goodies. This is a pain, but it’s worth it.
  3. Add wood. Place small logs and tree branches along the bottom of the bed. Put the larger pieces down first. This should consist of trees that break down pretty easily–soft woods like oak, maple, apple and pine. Avoid treated wood and alleopathic (toxic) species like black walnut and black cherry. You can stack all of this about six to eight inches high.
  4. Add manure. Dump a bunch of horse manure on top of that. I say horse manure because that’s what I know. I’m sure other manures work too. Also, I know the source of our manure (our horses) and I know that if we ever have to give a medication to our horses, that manure gets separated out and trashed versus integrated into the garden. So, I’m sure you could use a variety of manures. Just make sure it comes from a good source. You should apply the manure in between the logs and branches and then fill it up to the top of the hole (ground level).
  5. Add soil. Place a few inches of garden bed soil on top of that. That’s what we use — raised bed mixture from San Pasqual Valley Soils. In traditional hugelkultur (which means “mound” culture), farmers and gardeners will build really big mounds or hills and plant into the sides of these hills. For my 4×20 garden plot, I opted to put about four inches of soil on top and keep it small and simple. A year later, this has already compacted down, so I’ll be adding more manure and soil.
Tomatoes growing in our hugelkultur garden mid-December.

The magic of hugelkultur

Next, the magic happens. This consists of:

  1. The logs and branches soak up water all winter. When the soil dries up in spring and summer, the wood releases the moisture back into the soil, reducing your irrigation needs.
  2. The logs, branches and manure will compost in place. In a good compost pile you’ll have nitrogen (like manure) and carbon (like wood or paper). Thus the wood-manure combination makes a perfect compost that will continue to feed your plants for years as these elements break down. In addition, as the wood and manure compost, they release heat and help to keep the soil warm. I was wondering why my tomatoes didn’t die after a recent frost and I think the hugelkultur soil may have helped.

Now, you have a nutrient-rich bed that holds moisture and continues to feed for years. Note I did fertilize the bed with liquid fertilizer because I had some heavy feeders, like winter squashes and pumpkins, growing in the mound. However, I stopped feeding in July and the bed continued to produce well into December.

San Marzano tomatoes going strong into the end of the year.
Tetsukubota squash in December.

Hugelkultur in raised beds

I loved our hugelkultur bed so much I applied the same concept to our raised beds. We took out all the soil, made sure the welded wire was in place and then built up the beds. It worked beautifully. Now all of our beds–including beds in my little East Garden–are getting built taller (up to 3 feet)–so I can apply hugelkultur principles.

I think if I had a gardening series called “Lazy Gardening,” hugelkultur would be a (very short) chapter. While it takes effort to dig the hole (I outsourced this to our yard guy), once it’s set there’s so little to do.

Last pumpkin of the year–Blaze pumpkin growing in the hugelkultur bed.