Rotting debris, intentionally piled as if sculpted, is beautiful. What some cast aside as worthless becomes valuable. What had been reviled is renewed. Redeemed, if you will.
Ripe for obsession, I was introduced to hugelkultur through the impressive urban farming efforts being undertaken by The Duluth Grill.
Pronounced “hoogel culture,” it’s a style of gardening that has persisted in Germany and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. A simple concept, it pretty much amounts to nothing more than a mound of buried wood.
Obsession met opportunity. A neighbor found himself with several piles of apple tree logs and brush. Another neighbor, in an act of utter irresponsibility—the one with a full view of my backyard through their kitchen window—was conveniently away for an entire weekend. They returned from a short vacation to discover a 20-foot-long tangle of logs, branches and brush. (We wound up getting far more logs than is seen here, but I was unable to get any pictures of them. However, the mental picture of creepy crawlies boring into them as they slowly rot away is adequate enough. Josiah and I beat the Prius like a work truck as we filled it with heavy 10-foot-long logs for the effort, after which he proudly exclaimed, “This was the best day of my life!” The statement is either a testament to his love for work, gardening, riding in the front seat of the car for the first time, or a lack of quality time with dear old dad. Probably all four…)
What began as a mess, is transforming into functional beauty.
To help things along, I scoured the forest for several loads of large, rotting logs just teeming with life. Atop the tangle of woody debris, I added leaves, fruit and vegetable waste, as well as numerous buckets of used coffee grounds from my neighborhood coffeehouse: Amity Coffee.
Premium, locally roasted coffee grounds are dumped onto the mound five gallons at a time. In addition to increased fertility, the immediate area smells wonderful.
Rotting wood creates an enormous initial draw from the soil’s nitrogen—the fuel for composting carbon—so it’s crucial to add manure as well.
I got mine from Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch. My need for horse excrement provided a marvelous pretext for working a pitchfork near graceful horses within a lovely setting, and to brush up against their laudable mission of connecting the beautiful animals with at-risk children.
In a display of remarkable salesmanship, I successfully bartered a copy of my book for a load of processed grass. Thus, I’ll spend the rest of my life waiting for the opportunity to win an argument after hearing, “Your book isn’t worth you-know-what.” Now, and I’ll ask the reader to forgive a little bragging here, I can assure you that it’s worth at least 48 cubic feet of pure excrement (and probably twice that).
Barns. Horses. Pasture. The experience of idyllic countryside is reason enough for any urban gardener to import manure. I look forward to a visit to West Amity Stables some time soon for the same purpose.
The site of my friend backing his trailer up to a steaming pile of goodness filled me with happiness and thanksgiving. Friendship and renewal go together like peas and carrots.
Our family’s chickens and an odd duck are pleased to produce a steady supply of waste material as well.
Fall is the perfect time for allowing them to peck and scratch for bugs atop the new mound, whilst I engage in various chores on our small patch of land. Nothing beats listening to the football game on the radio—as opposed to wasting a beautiful Sunday afternoon in front of the teevee—while working in the yard alongside my small flock of genuflecting congregants.
Immense satisfaction has come with this investment into a hugel bed that should pay dividends for 20 years or more. Topsoil will ultimately round out the mound, which will top out at around four feet in height. It’ll be ready for planting in the spring, but like fine wine aged to perfection, the passing of time will only make the garden richer.
These mounds are renowned for conserving water to the point where irrigation is virtually unnecessary. Rotting logs within this mound will swell with moisture like sponges, and give it back to the soil as needed.
The process mimics soil creation on the forest floor. Years of fungal and microbial activity within the deep soil of this raised garden bed will provide rich soil life, nutrients, organic material, air pockets for roots, and more.
Irrespective of results, this long-term, no-till garden will be rewarding. My gardening efforts have lacked inspiration for some time. Hugelkultur is so counter-intuitively weird and interesting that I just had to give it a try. In addition to soil building, gardening for the long haul is a soul-building activity.
Following a job-loss and the ongoing stress of redrawing my vocation, working with the land is essential to healthy living.
(FYI, most of the above appeared here this past weekend. Naturally, my column is almost exclusively a chronicle of obsessions.)
Here’s the finished product after tucking it in for the winter under a thick, healthy quilt of chopped leaves. The mound, slope included, will be used for strawberries, vegetables, and even some floral activity. I can’t wait to see lovely nasturtium draped down the side of that rotting, wood barrel…
From this angle you can see the remnants of two failed beds (due to too much shade in that area and too little devotion on my part). This is a consolidation from four beds to one, and a reduction to a little more than half the former veggie garden space. In this case I find reduction to be rather expanding…
Here’s a short list of hugelkultur’s many benefits. A little hugel google will turn up quite a lot of information for you, but here’s why I did it:
- Grow your garden without irrigation or fertilizer. As the logs rot they become impressive sponges as they soak up moisture. This is released back into the soil as needed.
- This is a gift to your future self. The garden should last 20 – 30 years as the logs slowly release their nutrients into the soil.
- As the wood shrinks down, tiny air pockets are created for roots to sink down into utter goodness.
- It’s a self-tilling garden, and it will only get better with age. Apparently results can be muted in the first year as the wood only begins to rot, but much of my material is already pretty well rotted.
- The composting process will warm the soil slightly, thus extending the growing season somewhat.
- The deep soil will be incredibly rich and loaded with soil life for years to come. I’m excited just to observe this. Nutrients are bound up in the wood, and slowly released to all this microbial activity, as well as your precious crops.
- Once again, however, it’s just freaking interesting. Regardless of results, my imagination and passion for gardening has been recaptured. We’re already members of a CSA, so this satisfies the “What’s the point?” question that comes up from time to time. Now it’s all about the process.
- What would ordinarily go to waste is being put to good use. The gathering of materials has been most rewarding, and has provided for further interactions with neighbors, local businesses, etc. (I have a sign out front for leaves, collect coffee grounds at the local coffee shop, manure from the ranch, logs and debris from neighbors and well-wishers, etc…) Even the barrel was just moldering away in a new neighbor’s yard. I’m pleased to have it end its useful life in such a beautiful way…