~ the traditional way ~
In January 2012, I was feeling the ache for spring, and there was very little snow on the ground. I set off around the 20 acre property looking for dead and down wood that I could scavenge. I found lots of dead Saskatoon bushes (a.k.a Serviceberry) from a fire that burned through here several years ago. I also found plenty of pine that had been laying around for a long time. Above you see the start of my first ever Hugelkultur pile.
Why wood? I had just finished reading "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway and Sepp Holzer's Permaculture book, which had filled me to the brim with great ideas to try. Our soil tends to be highly compacted with no organic matter, lots of rocks, and locally goes by the term, "moondust." So the idea of growing food in rotting wood really appealed to me. As the wood breaks down, it provides three main functions:
- Water retention -- the plant roots sneak down into the wood and soak up water
- Air availability -- air pockets form as the wood decomposes = self-tilling
- Warmth -- decomposition generates heat, extending the growing season
Just wood? No. As you would suspect, you need nitrogen too. Kitchen scraps, manure, grass clippings, spent grains from brewing -- whatever you can drum up for nitrogen should be added in. The great thing about hugelkultur is that there isn't a set recipe. Using what ingredients can be found, you improvise as you go along, and see what happens.
In the above picture, you can see a layer of leaves, as well as some darker wood that has been partially burned (biochar, but that's a topic for another day). The green pine needles are just decorations added by my daughter as part of our "Pineville" game, and are not recommended for hugelkultur due to the high amount of resins that can be allelopathic, inhibiting plant growth. Pine in general is not known for being a great hugelkultur wood, but if it is partly rotten, I find it works great. The main thing is to use what you have available to you, and be willing to experiment.
In this photo, spring is well on its way, and I've added some soil as an outside layer to the hugelkultur pile. I've also transplanted some wheatgrass onto it, from indoors where it was growing in my windowsill (I'd already eaten all the wheatgrass I wanted from it).
Here you can see a layer of pine needle mulch over the whole pile, and the wheat grass is taking off. The mulch is important to help keep moisture and heat in, and to protect the soil from the elements. You want your pile to be tall and steep, up to 6 feet tall and as steep as you can reasonably keep the sides. This pile had shrunk to half its original height by the end of the first growing season.
One fun part is deciding how to angle your bed. If you face one long side to the southwest, you can have a hot side and a cool side for tomatoes/peppers and for greens, respectively, making your own little microclimate.
As the animals began to take interest in my little hugel garden bed, I started erecting sticks with the plan to put up fabric walls around it for protection.
This pile was made mainly from small diameter wood and had lots of interstitial spaces between the limbs. This contributed to how much it shrank over the growing season. You can use large diameter wood too, I just didn't happen to have any at that point.
I like using old sheets, linens, etc. as fences for extra warmth and so the animals don't notice the green growth as much. On this day, my daughter was harvesting some wheat with scissors, and I was putting up some sheets. They look pretty junky, but they work.
The red cabbage is going gonzo by this point, whereas the plants from the same source that I put in the ground were wimpy and struggling.
Radishes also loved this hugel bed. There were also large tomato plants, butternut squash plants, and onions, all growing on this one bed. Everything thrived.
This is one of two red cabbages that grew on my first hugelkulur bed. Both did very well growing in rotting wood. On the other hand, the other two from the same set of starts were a sorry sight, which I had planted in my regular in-ground garden bed. Neither even formed a head. Yeah, hugelkultur!
That was the growing season of 2012. In November 2012, I began incorporating all of my above-ground hugel beds into a large scale below-ground rotting wood project, which will be the focus of this blog as time goes by.
Have you tried growing food in rotting wood?