HOMEGROWN Life: The Making of a Hugelkultur Bed

Reader Contribution by Farm Aid And Homegrown.Org
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This post appeared on HOMEGROWN.org. Contributed by Rachel at Dog Island Farm

Oh yes, I’m going to be talking a lot about hugelkultur
beds because we just finished our first small 10?

section of it this
afternoon. While it didn’t take very long to do, it was a lot of heavy
lifting. Most of the work was actually clearing out the bed of
raspberries (that never have produced a single berry) and weeds and then
digging a foot of dirt out.

Building a hugelkultur bed doesn’t actually require you to dig up the
dirt and sink it, but what can I say? We’re gluttons for punishment?
No, actually, our soil has been so nicely amended and had this great
texture that we decided to dig it out so we can add it back to the top
of the hugelkultur bed. And in the past when we used to do raised beds
we always found that when we included native soil in the beds they
always did a lot better. My guess is that the native soil includes
micronutrients and microorganisms that compost doesn’t have.

We then laid down sheets of cardboard. Of course, this is another
step you don’t have to do but because we have such a problem with
bindweed (which can have viable roots as far down as 20?) we decided
that putting down cardboard would create a barrier to help stop the
bindweed but eventually break down once it was no longer needed. Once
the cardboard was down we started tossing wood of various sizes onto the
pile. and a few old artichoke stalks for good measure. The wood is the
key to hugelkultur. While it breaks down over time it will absorb water
like a sponge while also releasing nutrients. The water absorption helps
reduce your water use. If you make large 6? tall beds you can go
without adding any additional water during dry summers. Since our bed is
not that high we’ll still have to supplement with summer water but we
can definitely cut back since a bed that’s only 2? tall can hold water
for approximately 3 weeks. This leads to another important thing about
these beds. You have to build them before the rains come, which is late
fall here, so they can absorb as much water as possible before you can
plant them. It’s best to use rotting wood which will hold more water and
is also less likely to tie up nitrogen in the soil. Also avoid certain
woods such as black walnut, cedar, redwood, black locust and eucalyptus
which either contain rotting inhibitors or contain compounds that are
toxic to other plants. Fruit tree wood also has a tendency to be too
hard and take too long to start rotting.

After we got all the wood in place we placed a good thick layer of
poultry litter which consists of straw with chicken and turkey manure
and quite a few feathers (just because they are currently molting).
Poultry litter is the best way we’ve found to get a compost pile up and
running quickly so we wanted to use this directly on the logs to help
get the breakdown process started. Again, this isn’t necessarily a step
you must do to build a traditional hugelkultur bed, it’s just a step we
chose to do.

Another step we chose to include was to cover the poultry litter with
finished compost that we picked up at the local recycling/composting
facility. $4.31 for a truckload, which you just can’t beat.

The final layer, which is really the only other thing you have to do
besides using wood, is covering the bed with soil and smoothing it out.
Yes, it’s a lot of work but the work we do now means we won’t have to
work later. Hugelkultur beds are kind of self-tilling and since they are
raised they’ll never get walked on, which compacts the soil. We’ll
definitely finish off this one bed, hopefully getting more of it done
tomorrow and then we can start thinking about doing some of the other
larger beds. Eventually if this works out for us, I’d like to do all of
our beds this way.

My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was
always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. My
focus these days, instead of arts and crafts, has been farming as much
of my urban quarter acre as humanly possible. With my husband, we run Dog Island Farm
in the SF Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a
kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard I’m in the
kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!