Building Soil with Small-Scale Hugelkultur Beds

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For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice of Hugelkultur, let me start by telling you it can be a lot of work! Don’t get me wrong, the results are spectacularly rewarding, especially with patience. The actual method of Hugelkultur mounds involves digging a trench or pit, and putting rotting logs in it. The logs are then covered with the soil excavated from the pit, and sometimes compost and then are left to rot.

The concept is that, after the logs have degraded, they make excellent soil: Picture a forest floor here, this is how soils are created. In the meantime, before the logs are completely rotted, they act as sponges, wicking up water that penetrates the soil, reducing the need for watering and fertilizing at the same time.

Hugelkultur Technique at the Garden Scale


 

If digging a large trench and rolling logs in it seems beyond your capabilities without heavy machinery, fear not. We have implemented this concept on a smaller scale in our own garden and nursery production space with great results.

The process is basically the same; mimicking the powers of nature to create soil through layering, but the mediums are a bit different. What we’ve found works the best are materials that are usually pretty available to most folks, but these can be altered or substituted for whatever you’ve got on hand — this isn’t an exact recipe or science!

Outline. First, what we usually do is outline where we want to put our bed, using rocks, sticks or whatever you have on hand. This step isn’t entirely necessary but helps if you like a neat appearance.

Broadfork. Next, we broadfork inside the boundaries of where the bed will be put. This step is also not completely necessary, however we find it really helps to aerate and create water channels in the tough and compacted clay soil that we have here.

Weed barrier. After this, we usually start with a compostable weed barrier: soaked newspaper, cardboard, whatever you have on hand that can prevent weeds from popping up through the layers.

Woody debris. After this, we used woody debris such as thin sticks and bark. This is at the bottom for a reason as it will take the longest to decompose. It helps to break the sticks up into smaller pieces, that way there is more surface area for bacteria and fungi to do the lovely work they do!

Grassy debris. Then, we add some straw or hay. Preferably straw, as it tends to not have the seed heads on it, although anything will work. We used a combination of pretty rotted hay (spoil hay) and very seedy mulch hay. We spent some time weeding for sure, but it was much better than tilling the ground and disturbing all the Life there!

Wood chips. Next we like to add our favorite ingredient; aged wood chips. This sounds fancy, like an aged miso paste or wine, but really it’s just wood chips that have been sitting for a while and have started to decompose. You’ll see small white threads (called mycelium, which are various types of fungi that are primarily what decomposes wood) spread throughout the pile, sometimes making clumps of wood chips. Our pile was sitting for about a year, so the bottom of it had almost become soil at that point. This also helps to compact the hay or straw a bit.

Keep in mind you can use fresh wood chips too, although they take a bit longer to get going, and fresh wood can rob nitrogen from your plants. Wood chips can be available for free too; just ask your local tree service or power company (they often trim underneath power lines) if they can drop a load off at your place, the worst they can do is say no.

Compost. Finally, we added some compost on top. We got some nicely composted manure and shredded bedding from a friend who keeps three miniature donkeys. It wasn’t completely “finished” compost, but that’s okay! It actually helped decompose some of the material underneath. A good idea throughout this process is to make sure that you water every layer nicely, this creates a favorable environment to the heavy lifters of composting: fungi and earthworms.

None of these steps are absolutely critical, the important thing is that you have fun improving

your soil! The layers help to quickly build up your soil and increase the nutrient value as well. We have seen tremendous improvement in soil structure and fertility in as little as one growing season.

You can reap an abundant harvest on just about any type of land, help your soil and the Earth at the same time, with just a little bit of sweat and labor. Now that’s what I call regenerative!

Michael Perry and Schikoy Rayn operate Sacred Circle Homestead, a small-scale, low-tech perennial nursery focusing primarily on medicinal and edible species utilizing principles of permaculture and indigenous wisdom. Learn about the classes they teach at their website or at The Trillium Center, a healing center where they hold workshops in Burlington, VT. Read all of Michael and Schikoy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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