I’ve been watching this property throughout the winter, noted the keylines and how the water flows. I see what is swampy and filled with buttercups in the paddock. Although the forested areas (which are most of the property) have soft, loamy deep gorgeous soil from hundreds of years of leaves and needles and branches deteriorating, the area where the garden is has no topsoil. You hit bedrock literally an inch down.
To make matters worse, the former homeowners built a driveway that heads nearly straight down hill, towards the house and garage, and towards the garden. They brought in what must have been many dump trucks full of crushed gravel for the drive, the parking area and all the garden pathways. The end effect of this is to create a river that speeds surface runoff toward the house, the other structures and ultimately into the garden. When it rains, the parking area and the garden quickly become a rising lake.
To make the garden more productive and more flexible I’ve spent months digging out the compact gravel pathways by hand, removed the logs that held the old beds in place, brought in a dump truck full of topsoil. I’ve been slowly adding to that with composted animal bedding but with an area this large it’s going to take years to create a sponge big enough to soak up the excess water that I know is heading my way in April.
I’ve finally decided the best thing to do is create the ultimate raised bed. I’ll be digging out the topsoil and compost that I’ve brought in, and piling it up into large mounds three feet high to create small polyculture plantings.
To create the raised beds I’m gathering a wide variety of plant matter in various states of decomposition. Logs in various stages of rotting, branches, hay and wood chips from bedding, manure, leaves, compost and a shovel full of vermicompost complete with worms. I’ll create large mounds with this material and then cover them with soil and hay until planting time. The beauty of using such a large variety of plant matter is that they will release a wide variety of nutrients over a long time. The compost and wood chips and hay will begin releasing nutrients fairly quickly while the logs will release slowly over ten to twenty years.
Each mound will hold a fruit tree, fruiting bushes, a nitrogen fixer, a nutrient accumulator, and other edible or beneficial plants. Alliums and wormwood to thwart the mole, comfrey, lambsquarters, plantain, alfalfa, lupin, dock, clover, chamomile and others to accumulate and fix nutrients from the soil and the air, to attract beneficial insects, to eat or to admire.
The mounds themselves will act as sponges, soaking up that channeled water and act as a reservoir all summer long for those plantings. This provide moist, rich but well drained soil. For now I’m busy bringing in wheelbarrels of bedding and everything else from the forest floor. Once the beds are done I’ll provide a progress report.
Thinking back on how much money I’ve spent in my lifetime on cedar beds – if only I had known about this then! With our wet winters here in the Pacific Northwest, these free raised beds are quite brilliant. If you want to learn more about hugelkultur you can find some wonderful material in Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture
Have you ever tried hugelkultur? Do you think it might solve drainage issues you have in your garden?