Uber Raised Beds – aka Hugelkultur

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?

12 Responses to Uber Raised Beds – aka Hugelkultur

  1. I have no plans for hugel beds myself, mainly because what I grow in the garden is in all likelihood not perennial but is either annual or biennial. I think you have a great plan, Annette, especially with shrubs and trees: permanent things like trees and shrubs have an affinity for fungi, which is what helps in breaking down the limbs, trees, and leafmatter falling on forest floors so they’re very symbiotic. Animal poop/bedding, compost, grass benefit the quick needs of annuals. (Pick up a copy of James Nardi’s Life in the Soil, very very entertaining and enlightening read. http://www.amazon.com/Life-Soil-Guide-Naturalists-Gardeners/dp/0226568520/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323969589&sr=8-1)

    I do something similar though with quick-starting cold-weeny plants like squash: I literally seed them into a huge pile of poop, under black agricultural weedblock cloth; the row is about 24″ high in the middle (I make a slit in the top and plant the seeds there). No competition and no cold feet.

    Otherwise, I dig trenches and lay perforated drainpipe…with our clay and heavy rain here, things sometimes just won’t drain. It doesn’t rain much where you live, does it? ;) hah

    • Nuts, now it’s too late to put that on my Christmas list…but I’ll get a copy somehow. It’s hard for me letting go of the garden for what may be another year but I feel like I really need to work on the soil here first. Let go and let garden…

      I do plan to put annuals in each polyculture as well, especially lettuces on the north and east sides where they will be more shaded. However, they’ll be the reseeding and wilder varieties for the most part. And mainly because that is what I want to experiment with the most. I’m hoping that I won’t need to water these gardens at all which will be great since I’m fencing around the areas so that I can keep ducklings and turkey poults in there until they get big enough to free range the forest.

      And wow El, who knew there was wet clay soil to rival ours? The picture of the wet clay up around that digging crawfish burrow was amazing!

      • Oh yeah, wet clay soil…what’s funny is that burrow photo was taken after a bit of a drought of about a month! I should show you my beefy arms and back after I do what seems to be annual ditch-digging exercise, where I lay another 40-80′ of drain tile. (here’s an example: http://fastgrowtheweeds.com/2008/04/29/on-sweating/) Sigh. One day, water is just going to run OVER the garden and not stick around. Then, well, we’ll probably move or something… Can you put a ditch or a swale in to divert the water coming off the driveway? What a stupid thing to have to contend with, they must not have been gardeners!

  2. The master plan is to divert that water through the paddock in a drainage pipe and excavate a small pond in the corner where all the buttercups are. They outline the natural depression nicely…and then the ducks can move over that way instead of me having to worry about the goats being out on wet pasture. :) One thing at a time…good thing you get your workouts in at Club El!

  3. Good use for the Xmas tree!

  4. I am doing a sort of hugelkulture of desparation, starting from the wish to get rid of piles of prunings and old tree sections, combined with a super wet area in our yard that we didn’t know what else to do with. We piled tree parts as high as we had materials for, which was more like 18″ than three fee. We oriented them so they would slow down and soak up the water running down the hill, or stand out above our winter swampland, and covered the wood with whatever available organic matter we had. I had one last summer that was mostly pretty green wood. I put in some annuals and some perennials, nothing really took off. It struggled to keep its plants going, till just near the end of summer something clicked and a huge pumpkin vine sprawled out of it’s interior and covered the whole bed. It was like the green god awakening, how it went from a pile of branches to a hill that could support plant life. Once the frost killed the pumpkin, I looked inside and saw a lot of mycelia. I hope next year the hills are ready for some good perennial action.

    I am brand new to the idea of permaculture, and I can see that it is a lifelong duet between me and the contours of the property, not a solo on my part. But it makes so much sense, I feel so motivated to try.

  5. I have got to stop reading this blog. I have spent most of the winter whining about the short days and spending my after work time in the recliner surfing the net. I think I’ll make it a goal to do half of the work you do….well, maybe a third :)

  6. We are fortunate not to have drainage problems so my raised beds continue to work well for us. However, the use of rotting wood deep within the base of the beds is something that we inadvertently have done with several bed areas and I do think it improves the growing potential of the beds due to greater microbial activity and the better water holding capacity it provides. Our garden is in a cleared area of a dense mixed species forest. The felled logs and giant roots of long since dead trees are buried in much of the garden area and are as a consequence deep down as the base of many of my grow beds.

  7. This is great! I have been doing this sort of by accident with all of our fallen and cut trees and branches, leaves and fern fronds. I feel very encouraged that there is a benefit (aside from the general cleanup) to all of this heavy work! Can’t wait to read the hugel kulture book.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Irene it was freezing today and the ground was frozen solid but my shovel sank right into those mounds and little puffs of steam erupted from them. I was able to plant the blueberry and currant bushes no problem. It was quite lovely!

  8. I just put straw all over my big hugelarea. It looks so nice, like a newly made bed. :) (You’d never guess that there was rabbit poop underneath.) I finished the hugel kulture book and he is very inspiring, like Joel Salatin.

  9. Pingback: April Gardening Challenge Round 6: Be Lazy | Sustainable Eats & the Dancing Goat Gardens Communal Project

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