Mother Earth News Blogs >

Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Weeding Done Right

tomatobed - Copy

Araised garden bed made of local rock. Raised bed gardening makes dealing with weeds a lot easier, because one has a concentrated space to conquer.

Weeds are something every gardener has to deal with and, though the problem can be significantly reduced by raised beds and thorough mulching, a living piece of land will never be completely weed-free. Raised beds, indeed, have been a life-saver for us - when you just have to concentrate on keeping a few chosen areas completely weed-free, it's so much less overwhelming than looking on a whole plot of land and saying to yourself, "wow, this is a mess."

I am extremely sorry to say that many of our neighbors practice the reckless and short-sighted method of spraying their yards with extensive amounts of herbicide each season and, what’s more, shake their heads at us for being “loonies” who make things so much more difficult for themselves by refusing to use chemicals on our property. However, herbicides don’t just get weeds – they turn the entire area into a polluted desert, and that’s the last thing we want, thank you very much. So we try to do our early prevention work by pulling up young weeds as soon as we spot them, especially in and around the garden beds, and mow through what we weren’t able to catch up with every couple of months.

The best time to pull weeds is after a good rain, when the ground is nice and soft. Once our ground dries, it gets the consistency of hard clay and weeding becomes increasingly difficult. This doesn’t go for the raised beds, of course, which are always kept nice and fluffy. I have taught my kids to always give the beds a quick look-over and pull up every tiny weed they can find – sometimes we even make a contest as to who pulls up most.

The most important thing is not to let weeds go to seed – if you are diligent enough to pick those young weeds on time, you will have less of them next year, and even less the next, and eventually weeding will become a lot less time-consuming. Young weeds can be composted with no problem, but weeds that have already gone to seed should be burned, because you don’t want a new crop of those growing right in and around your compost pile.

This post was an excerpt from my book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Flax to Linen: Flowering to Rippling

Marilyn flax flowers - BLOG

I planted 'Marilyn' flax in March. 'Marilyn' is a variety of flax to grow to produce flax fiber for turning into linen textiles, as opposed to the flax varieties best suited to producing seeds to eat. There is much to know about growing flax to have good fiber to spin. It needs to be planted in early spring and will be ready to harvest about 100 days later.

About 30 days before harvest you will find your flax in full bloom—but only if you visit your plants in mid-to-late morning. Too early and the flowers won’t have opened yet; in the afternoon the petals will have begun to drop. At the less-than-optimal time of the day you will see a few flowers bloom here and there, but not the whole bed in bloom. My flax is blooming now. Take note of that week of full bloom so you will know when to expect to pull the plants for harvest. Yes, you will be pulling them from the ground, not cutting them. 

Once the flax is harvested, the seeds need to be removed, which is a process called rippling. Spread the flax stalks out on an old sheet laid out on hard surface and gently step on the seed heads. The seeds will come right off. The stalks can be bundled, dried, and stored at this point or retted. Retting will be the subject of a future post. Learn more about flax flowering, harvesting, and rippling at Homeplace Earth.

When it comes to saving seeds from your flax harvest to plant next year, harvest time can be a balancing act. You could harvest earlier than 30 days after full bloom and get finer fiber to work with, but the seeds won’t be mature. At 30 days after full bloom, the bottom of the plants will have begun to yellow, but there will still be some green in the upper part of the plants. You will get some viable seeds then, but if you wait a couple more weeks, you will have more good seeds. If you delay harvest until the whole plant is yellow, all the seeds will be mature but the fiber won’t be desirable.

Ireland has been known for its fine linen. To have linen that fine, the flax would have had to be harvested before the seeds were mature, leaving nothing to plant the next year. In colonial times, Pennsylvania did a brisk trade selling flax seed to Ireland, particularly through the Philadelphia port. In return, the colonists imported linen fabric from Ireland. One place to read about that is the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. As much as we talk about self-sufficiency, we have to realize that the world’s people have been trading and depending on each other for quite some time. Nevertheless, it is fun to explore the whole process yourself at home and produce your own clothes from something you have grown.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Get Your Pots Out!

“Rain in the spring is as precious as oil” ~ old Chinese proverb

I doubt if this old Chinese proverb would have many fans here in my hometown this spring. Admittedly, Oregonians love to complain about the rain almost as much as they love coffee and/or micro-brewed beer. We oft lament the lack of the weather forecasters’ ability to accurately predict the outdoor happenings; or even come close. The weather apps (yes, multiple) disagree with each other, and to make me even more irritable, change in the blink of an eye. I quit checking them; easier to just look outside and have great flexibility in the plan for the day.

Well, this year’s rain went above and beyond the average rainfall by breaking a 96-year-old record.  Most thought we were just being exceptionally winter grumpy, even for us Astorians. As we hit day 167 of straight “measurable” rain – all felt vindicated – but still very grumpy. Meanwhile, Portlanders are having the same gripe, yet two hours away over the coast range our rainy season rainfall is nearly double their 46.65 inches in the same period of time. We kind of don’t feel sorry for them.

I had a new wetlands that not so magically appeared in my lower backyard during all this record breaking stuff. I would not have been surprised to see a flotilla of water birds hanging out down there in the swamp. Soggy clay soil often keeps us at bay in the winter, but a full-on marsh? How does one work around that?

Here I am chomping at the bit waiting for the ground to get workable so I can do some outdoor housekeeping, mark some plots, and do a little digging and weeding. I need to get my garden seeded! But oh no, not in the cards. What can make the winter rains pale in comparison? Stepping off a curb in nursing clogs and right foot buckles under me. SPLAT! Spread-eagle onto the pavement I go. Skinned myself up royally like I used to as a kid. So stunned I didn’t even have time to feel embarrassed. Gathered myself up and tried to shake it off but that darn foot was really paining me. Long story, short – you probably guessed it – broke the dang thing. Dreams of vegetable seeds and plants swirled down the drain as the very clear x-ray showed the fruits of my gracefulness.

Not to be daunted, I was determined to find a way around my water-logged soil and broken foot. Containers! Although my immediate issues are temporary, for many it is daily life. There are over 54 million Americans living with some type of disability making activities such as gardening difficult, or thought to be impossible. Growing your own food, herbs, and flowers is a way of reconnecting with the world while nourishing our bodies, minds, and souls. I am here to tell you - regardless of disability, gardening is for everyone. It is all a matter of making adjustments. Garden therapy! Containers! Yes! I am excited! Let’s get to it! Okay, I will park the exclamation points (for now).

 IMG2001 2s-Media

Instead of getting overwhelmed with all the things that you can’t do – try to focus on things you can do and start small. Breaking an activity down into smaller, more manageable parts is an easy way to begin.


I will use the example of planting a pot of herbs. Choose herbs you like to use in cooking or flavoring your foods. Most starts grow very well in a sunny window (as long as you don’t have my cat noshing on them) and if desired, can be transplanted outside later. You can keep them in the house but they usually do better once outside if you aim to harvest frequently – these sun lovers want at least six hours of it a day.

You will need a pot with a hole for drainage, organic potting soil or seed starting mix, a coaster to keep the pot from ruining the sill, a small tub or similar to work in, and of course, your seeds.  You can recycle yogurt containers for a pot; just put some holes in the bottom and use the lid for a coaster. Gather supplies and put them where you will be working – you can do this at the kitchen table if you want. Rest. Have a snack. Pet that naughty cat.


I have one of those stunning mauve plastic hospital basins I use. You can use anything similar such as an aluminum pan or plastic tub from the dollar store. Working in one helps with damage and mess control. Start by moistening some soil and putting it in your pot. Rest again if needed. Rescue the packet of seeds from the cat and plant the seeds following the planting guide. Water well, yet gently, or you will flood your soil and seeds will spill over the pot’s rim. Place on your pot coaster in the window; take another break. Give the cat some catnip. (You can grow catnip indoors as well but I would strongly suggest keeping it in a locked, cat-free room. Trust me. I speak from experience with a huge mess and a very loaded cat.) Clean-up. Done!

Have a patio, deck, or similar? Many vegetables are adaptable to container life and vertical-growing. Cucumbers, peas, beans, squash, melons, and even small pumpkins can be trained up a trellis. Carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale, green onions, bush varieties of beans and peas, and tomatoes all can be grown in containers. Just make sure to choose the non-bush types for the vertical veggies, otherwise you might find yourself a tad frustrated and disappointed in the resulting height impaired crop.


Certain smaller varieties of berries are likewise suitable for containers. I have a “Top Hat” blueberry in a pot on my patio. This very pretty dwarf variety grows up to two feet high, is self-pollinating, and produces tasty treats in August. How about some day-neutral strawberries in a hanging basket? Or, newer thornless dwarfs such as raspberry “Shortcake®” and blackberry “Baby Cakes®.”

Companion planting is very doable in larger pots and you can and should include flowers! Stick some beautiful French marigolds (Tagetes patula) in with your tomatoes and peppers to deter root knot nematode invasions. I love sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritime) and its subtle, sweet scent and so do hoverflies (Allograpta oblique)! And what do hoverflies also love? The flowers of cilantro, fennel, garlic chives, oregano AND aphids, scale insects, caterpillars, and thrips! As an added bonus hoverflies are great pollinators. Not sure what a hoverfly looks like? They are those flies that look like wasps (smart group to identify with when you want predators to leave you alone). Except that hoverflies don’t have stingers, have fly heads, and only two wings compared to the wasps’ four.

Mother Earth News has a great companion planting chart here. The point is, you don’t need to do it all in one sitting and there is something extremely satisfying about growing, harvesting, and eating your own fresh organic food. Containers or raised beds make access and care easier. What edibles have you grown in containers?

Happy gardening! ~SSH

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Growing Your Medicinal Herb Garden, Part 3

One of the questions I get asked frequently is what herbs would I recommend for a small medicinal herb garden or for someone just starting out so they don’t get overwhelmed. This is part three of that series. Read Part 1 here; Read Part 2 here

Nettles (Urtica dioica)


I love nettles, the leaves are filled with a plethora of vitamins (high levels of Vitamin A, C, E & K), protein, chlorophyll, and minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium) making it quite useful as a vitamin drink. Juicing fresh nettle, preparing a nourishing herbal infusion, creating a “pesto”, or even using it as the spinach in a vegetable lasagna are all great ways to enjoy this herb while benefitting from its nutritive power.

I am fully aware that nettle is available to anyone who wildcrafts, so why do I recommend growing it in your herb garden? Because you know how it’s been grown and where it’s been grown. You have worked to create healthy soil and you aren’t spraying it with harmful chemicals. Furthermore, it’s growing right outside your door making it quick and easy to harvest, whether you are harvesting enough to make herbal preparations or even if you just want a little for your dinner preparations. To me, keeping things simple is key.

But what about the sting? Well, it’s a small price to pay, and honestly, if you harvest them correctly (wear gloves here) and either dry or saute/steam them, the sting is no longer a threat. Interestingly, nettle actually contains juices in its leaves that can stop the pain of a nettle “sting”. I was out yesterday looking at some nettle, I wasn’t wearing gloves and just decided to grab a leaf, roll it up, and eat it. I didn’t get stung, I decided to do an experiment and just brushed my hand against the nettles, sure enough, I was stung. I immedicately grabbed another leaf, worked it between my fingers until the juices were released and rubbed it on the sting. The intensity of the pain greatly decreased, I wasn’t that bothered by it so I didn’t keep the leaf on for long. A few minutes later, the sting seemed to begin intensifying again so I grabbed a plantain leaf, crushed it and applied it with total relief in a short time. The moral of the story here is grab it like you own it – nettles sense fear J

Nettle prefers rich, moist soil and full sun but will grow in shadier areas, the difference being that the plant in shade will produce less seed which can be harvested and used as well. Seeds are great for overwrought adrenals. The seed can be a little stimulating, if you dry it first this will decrease the effect.

As a nourishing herbal infusion it can help with fatigue, building and purifying the blood, and detoxifying (it has a diuretic property). This is also a wonderful herb to include in your diet and herb regimen if you are prone to allergies.

Preparations: Infusion, Nourishing Herbal Infusion, Poultice, Tincture, Juiced, Food


TYPE: Perrenial
SOIL: Moist, rich
SUN: Prefers full sun will grow in shade
WATER: water well until established
Propagation: Cuttings, root transplant, seed

Lavender (Lavendula)


Lavender is a beautiful, highly aromatic plant that is not too difficult to grow in the right conditions. It is one of those herbs that almost everyone recognizes by sight and smell. Who hasn’t enjoyed the scent of lavender in soap, lotion, or even in a room or body spray? Lavender is an antimicrobial which makes it a great choice for a room deodorizer with germ-killing capabilities. It is a calming herb that can easily be added to infusions and baths to help reduce stress and irritability and induce sleep. It also has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties making it a perfect herb when treating burns and bug bites. The essential oil has been used for many years to treat burns, eczema, reduce scar tissue and aid in healing infections (including fungal).

I don’t think you can have enough lavender growing so I choose a sunny spot that has soil that is well-drained. It doesn’t like to have “wet feet” so it really doesn’t require that much input. Watering once a week is generally sufficient during the driest months. Don’t put it in with something that prefers moist soil, it will not thrive and may not even survive.

Harvest the flowers when they are dry and make sure to dry them immediately to reduce the loss of the essential oils. The leaves can also be used but are not nearly as high in medicinal properties as the flowers.

Preparations: Get creative when deciding how to use this herb: floral bath, steam inhalation, infusion, oil, pillow, sachet for drawers, tincture, poultice, salves, lotions, & hydrosol (maybe you have a friend or know someone who makes essential oils like I do which gives me a great supply for hydrosols)!


Type: Perrenial
Soil: Rich, drier
Sun: Full Sun
Water: Water well once a week or so, let soil dry between waterings
Propagation: Seed, Cuttings, Layering

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.)


Many people cringe when I recommend growing comfrey. They see it as an invasive plant that will eventually choke out the rest of the herbs in their garden. Though this can be true, with a little management you can keep this from happening while benefiting from the diverse offerings of this plant!

First, I want to mention the few obvious things that are not medicine related: comfrey leaves are wonderful mulch makers and, because of their large leaf growth, will shade out competitors like any unwanted weeds that may pop up in your garden. Because they are deep-rooted they pull up the minerals found in the soil and bring it up to the leaf. Chopping and dropping these mineral-rich leaves puts those minerals back into the soil and adds organic matter (thus aeration) to your soil profile. Additionally, bees and other pollinators love the flower and if you grow a bocking variety you won’t deal with it reseeding itself.

As far as medicinal use, there is virtually no competing herb that can heal skin the way comfrey can. As a matter of fact, it can heal so well and quickly that you need to make sure the wound is fully cleansed and there is no sign of infection, it could get closed up inside. Comfrey is also well-known for its ability to treat sprains, swelling, bruises and historically even mend broken bones! It can also help alleviate osteoarthritis and other arthritic type pain.  Comfrey contains allantoin which stimulates tissue repair and cell proliferation. Which means it is also great in salves to use on areas that are troubled by irritation or rash.

Comfrey is a pretty flexible plant and can grow almost anywhere. However, it does prefer moist, rich, loamy soil and dappled sunlight. We have found that once it is established it grows really well, even in imperfect conditions. If you are wanting to control the spread I would suggest two things: do not disturb the roots. Every small root piece will grow into another plant. Make sure you are going to keep it where you plant it and don’t till the soil. Second, reduce its growth by chopping the leaves at least twice in a growing season, and dead head any flowers that appear. If it is growing in an area that you don’t want it, the best way to get rid of it is to keep its leaves so low that it loses all ability to continue growing. Do not go pulling the roots because you will likely not be able to get the entire root system out.

Preparations: Poultice, salve, infused oil, infusion


Type: Perrenial
Soil: Moist, Rich, loamy
Sun: dappled sunlight
Water: occasionally, once it’s established it can tolerate drought much better because if its deep roots.

This is for educational purposes only, it is NOT medical advice. One of my favorite medicnal herb books here!!

Check out our online community for ways to help in your local food movement, learn about more medicinal herbs and much more. Sean and Monica are available for consulting work regarding property analysis & design, and speaking engagements. 

Sean and Monica Mitzel are the proprieters of Huckleberry Mountain Homestead & Breakfast a Bed & Breakfast with a homestead twist! They live with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and methods for the property. The homestead is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted food forests, guilds and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. To learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Choose and Grow the Best Tasting Strawberries


Make the most of your strawberry harvest by choosing a spread of early-season, mid-season, and late-season varieties. Alternatively, grow everbearing (also known as day-neutral or perpetual) strawberries, which produce smaller quantities over a long period. A third type is the alpine strawberry, which produces tiny fruits with a very aromatic strawberry flavor. They can be grown as ground cover in beds between ornamental plants, and allowed to self-seed.

To choose strawberries in our Garden Planner, double-click on the strawberry icon then scroll through the drop-down list to select a variety. Or click the plus button and hover over the information buttons to view their catalog descriptions. You can also add your own variety with custom spacing, as well as planting and harvesting dates.

Choose a sunny spot if possible, but strawberries will also grow in partial shade. Fertile soil will promote better fruiting, so add plenty of rich organic matter, such as well-rotted compost, before planting. Space strawberries 18-24 inches apart in both directions, and plant them with the base of the crown, where the leaves emerge, at soil level.

Strawberries can be grown a little closer together in containers filled with quality potting soil. They will need to be watered more frequently because the soil in containers dries out quickly, but the fruits are less likely to be attacked by slugs.

You can force an extra-early harvest of strawberries by covering early varieties with a cloche or row cover from the end of winter. When the plants begin flowering, remove the covers on warm days to give insect pollinators access. This will give a crop up to three weeks earlier than normal.

Use special strawberry mats or straw to stop mud from splashing the fruits.

Water plants in dry weather to encourage the fruits to swell. Apply a high-potassium organic liquid fertilizer – for instance comfrey tea or a liquid tomato fertilizer – from when the first flowers appear until the plants have finished fruiting.

Keep the plants weeded, and in the first year remove any runners that appear. Once plants are mature, you can use some of these runners to grow new plants.

Beer traps can be used to keep slug numbers down. Net the fruits against birds, making sure to tuck it in at the edges to avoid birds becoming trapped.

Pick your fruits as soon as they’ve turned red, and eat fresh as soon as possible after harvesting for the best flavor and aroma.

Cut the foliage back once your strawberries have finished fruiting. Remove any straw mulch to your compost heap.

Learn more about growing strawberries in this video.

Get More Tips With These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes used to be easy to grow. Almost anybody with a garden would plant them often letting them sprawl over the ground in many directions. The long, hot, lazy days of summer would kiss the plants and the bees would buzz and fertilize them voraciously.


Then Came the Blight

Unfortunately, the rise of big box stores brought bugs and diseases from one part of our country to another. The blight, once in the soil, lives for many years and can contaminate new crops for a long time. Rain splashes the organisms up from the soil infecting first the lower leaves then moving up the plant. They get spots, turn brown, wilt and die. If you are lucky, you may get a crop before this occurs. If the weather is damp early in the season, you may not get a crop at all.

Soil specialists with whom I have consulted and interviewed in my book, “Celeste's Garden Delights,” have reassured me that—if your plants get absolutely everything that they need—they cannot be eaten by bugs (the sugars are too high) and they are not susceptible to disease. In our depleted soils, this is generally not the case. But last year I gave my tomatoes some extra care and the blight didn't make its appearance until nearly the end of the summer. Here's what I did:

I prepared my soil as usual adding organic alfalfa meal, greensand and Azomite powder. Then I forked it loose using a broad fork. Raking it flat, I placed a garden mat on top. This is a durable tarp with holes where the plants will go.

Then, I bought healthy, organic plants. Next, when I went to plant them, I dug a deep hole. Into the hole went one fish head, two crushed eggshells, two aspirin, some micorrhizial fungi and a bit of compost. Then the tomato was placed in the hole. More compost was added around the plant bringing it almost to the same level as the soil. Leaving a slight depression where the tomato was placed allows water to be directed right to the plant. Tamping it down very lightly (roots need oxygen), it was watered well at least a couple of times.

Next, a tomato ladder was placed around the plant and it was securely tied to it using strips of unbleached muslin.



String is too small and will result in cutting the plants. The lower leaves were removed to keep the lowest leaves on the plant far from the soil. If there are any flowers, it's a good idea to remove them as the point initially is to have the plants develop a strong root system.

It's a good idea to mulch the bed with some straw as this can also keep the soil down during the rains. As the plant grows, it's important to take off most of the suckers. The suckers come out where the leaves come off of the stem (see photos below). You want to let only two or three main stems go up the plant. When watering, it's a good idea to add some compost tea. Put some compost in a bucket along with a few tablespoons of molasses and fill with water. Stir every few days. Add a ½ cup or so to a can of water, funneling through a strainer.

plant with sucker 

As your tomatoes ripen, enjoy in salads and sandwiches. When there are more fruits than you can eat, consider putting them in jars for the winter. I will be doing my Power Point presentation on preserving the harvest at the Vermont Mother Earth News Fair. Come and join me!


Celeste Longacre and her husband, Bob, have lived sustainably for more than 35 years. They grow almost all of their vegetables for the year and preserve them by freezing, canning, drying and using a home -built root cellar. Celeste ferments much of the couple’s produce and makes her own sauerkraut, kimchee, and fruit and beet kvass. She is the author of Celeste’s Garden Delights and writes a gardening blog for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For more information, visit Celeste’s website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Experimentation with Hugelkulture


On the surface it makes sense that hugelkulture would provide many benefits including: increased microbial activity, low maintenance, decreased water requirements, increased planting surface area, nutrient release from rotting wood, turns a waste product into an asset and increased soil temperatures from some composting action.

However, we wanted to test it and be able to see those positive results for ourselves.

What is Hugelkulture?

Essentially it is taking course woody debris and fine organic matter and covering it with soil. This creates a raised bed with a microclimate that can be used to suit different plants in close proximity. In a nutshell, that is hugelkulture (mound - culture). The bed can be relatively small and low to the ground or hugel beds can carry on for thousands of yards and be six feet tall or even higher.  Sepp Holzer is probably best known for utilizing hugelkulture and the technique is well known in the permaculture world but is not exclusive to that movement.

What Are the Benefits of Hugelkulture?

Several points were mentioned above but let me expand on a couple of points.

One of the main benefits promoted with hugel mounds is water retention in the woody material that provides moisture for plants during periods of drought. Depending on climate and the site this could result in no need for irrigation or at the very least reduced irrigation. Have you ever walked through a forest and kicked an old rotted out log? It might not have rained for weeks yet digging into that rotted material and you find moisture. Rotted wood soaks up water like a sponge. That is what will happen inside of a hugel mound.

Another important help is that over time and depending on the condition of the wood when the bed was built will begin to decompose and give off heat. This can aid in germination of seeds and potentially prevent plant loss during a late or early frost. With that decomposition comes nutrient release and a reduction or elimination of other fertilizers. The increased microbial activity hastens the whole process building soil fertility.

How do I Make a Hugelkulture Bed?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be done below ground as in digging a trench filling it with woody debris and covering with soil or lay woody debris down on the ground and cover with soil. It depends on your climate, the site and your preferences. There is no fixed rule on how high, wide or long to build them. Let the creativity flow! Start with the largest logs and lay those down first, layer up with smaller material. If you have excess material like leaves, manure straw or any other excess organic matter you can add that as well. Fill in the gaps and crevices with soil and top the whole thing with 1-2’ of soil. Build to your liking and design.

What Type of Wood Should I Use?

If you are going to plant right away, then you will want to use “seasoned” wood. Wood that is partially decomposed already. If you are prepping the bed to be used several months from now then it would be fine to use newer wood. Preferably use a mix of cured and green wood of different sizes. Stay away from trees containing jugulone like black walnut and hickory. Also, if you have the opportunity steer clear of highly rot resistant wood like cedar and black locust. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to use some of that wood if it was well worn. Basically use what you have on site that is appropriate. Here, in North Idaho, we use predominantly birch, as well as fir and pine. For the fir and pine we only use well-seasoned wood to ensure the tannin levels are already lowered.

Our Experiment

We decided to put a hugelkulture bed in our food forest to test all of the purported benefits of the technique. We decided to keep if very simple by building a smallish bed that is about 10’ long, 7’ wide and around 4’ high. It has settled to about 3.5’ high. It was very important to us to test the moisture retention aspect of this bed. Therefore, we decided that we will not add any water. Whatever we get in rain is what the bed gets. In our climate, we get a decent amount of rain (avg 28” annually) but most people irrigate their gardens around here to keep them growing during the dry months. With that we build our hugel mound with mostly rotting birch of varying sizes. We also added some fir and pine into the mix. We planted a few items: cabbage, onions, beans, lavender, and mustard as kind of control plants to see what happens. We put the lavender on top and the other plants near the base. With the rest of it we seed bombed it. We took whatever seeds we had left over, soaked them and tossed them on the pile. Here is a partial list of the seeds we used: calendula, clover, beans, peas, squash, amaranth, lupine, and peppers to name a few.

As of the time of this writing we have not watered the mound in 17 days. In that time, it has rained here a decent amount so the true test will come later in the season. However, I will say that we have had very good germination from seed and the other plants are doing very well. This might not sound earth shattering to many people but what would happen if we planted all those seeds in trays and put them outside with no regular water? Likely a whole lot of attrition. We have also taken some soil temperature readings. Again, nothing mindblowing but we did get about a 5-degree warmer reading from the hugel mound than the soil next to the hugel mound. The numbers will likely improve more and more over the next couple of seasons.

So far we are enjoying the experiment and it will be fun to see what produces, what bolts and what dies! Time will tell and we will be documenting along the way. Check out our online community for great content! Sean and Monica are available for consulting work regarding property analysis & design, and speaking engagements.

Sean and Monica Mitzel are the proprieters of Huckleberry Mountain Homestead & Breakfast a Bed & Breakfast with a homestead twist. They homestead with their family on 40 acres and are using permaculture techniques and methods for the property. The homestead is a demonstration and education site where they teach workshops and raise dairy goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, and ducks. The Mitzels have planted food forests, guilds and enjoy wildcrafting and propagating plants. Sean and Monica can often be found speaking and teaching at different events. To learn more about the Mitzels, visit The Prepared Homestead. Read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.