Hugelkultur on Rented Land

Reader Contribution by Don Abbott
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Hugelkultur is the German term for garden beds created with buried wood and other organic material. The woody ingredients break down over time, providing vegetables with nutrients and moisture, as the wood holds water and slowly releases much needed minerals. Hugelkultur is best implemented using timber that’s already on your site, and if it’s rotted, all the better. Breaking down over the next 5 to 10 years, the wood will eventually transform into rich beautiful soil.

Hugelkultur bed with turnips and leeks

Building My First Hugelkultur Beds

Two autumns ago, utilizing rotted firewood and fallen tree branches, I built four 8’ X 4’ X 2’ tall hugelkultur beds in my established fenced garden. As a renter with .91 acres under my “control”, I had already expanded my garden by 50% without asking the landlord first. I moved my fencing out 10 feet to the south, turning a 50’ X 20’ plot into a 50’ X 30’ one. Using cardboard and leaves as “pizza mulch” (versus the standard multi-layered lasagna mulch), the passerby couldn’t tell the difference. These new hugelkultur beds were also unnoticeable as I purposely constructed them in the back section of the garden.

Hugelkultur beds showing off their snow melting ability in the spring

Hugelkultur beds are beneficial to growing plants. As the material slowly breaks down, a little bit of warmth is created, giving you an advantage in the spring and later in the fall. They also keep humans (but not River, my Toy Fox Terrier) from compacting soil and allow plants better drainage while holding water for later in the season.

Standard raised beds are usually built with a frame to hold the soil in place, though this is not usually done with hugelkultur. You could camouflage your hugelkultur beds by using taller than normal sides in order to have room for wood, compost, and soil.

To see more detailed pictures of the installation, see my Building Raised Beds Using Hugelkultur.

One Strange Warning:

If you have a terrier, you may find your hugelkultur beds under constant attack. The smaller buried branches create air pockets which may allow small rodents to move in. If left unsupervised, your terrier will sniff out these little animals and start digging away. I’ve had to throw soil back onto my beds multiple times as terriers are tenacious (but adorable). We also had a nest of rabbits living on the top of one of the mounds (RIP little guys). I can’t really blame a terrier for what she was bred for.

Cover Cropping and First Plantings

After completing these, I planted cover crops (turnips, arugula, spinach, and clover) to minimize winter soil exposure. What amazed me almost right away is how the turnips grew in. One would think the southern side of the beds would receive more sunlight (especially with the Sun’s fall angle) and thus grow more vegetation.

Quite the opposite happened, with almost all of the growth happening on the northern side. My semi-professional guess is that the dry fall conditions made growing difficult but the northern side had less heat, which allowed it to retain more water. Goes to show you we humans don’t always know what nature’s going to do.

Hugelkultur beds with cover crops

I was also surprised the following spring when the cover spinach came back with a vengeance. This provided us with plenty of greens from March through June. The arugula did not survive but we did have a more than brutal winter here in Northeastern Ohio. The perennial red clover also made it back, providing needed nitrogen fixing and mulch during the beds’ first year.

One important piece of the hugelkultur puzzle is these beds take a little time (a season or so) to break down enough to become extra productive. During my first full year, I didn’t see a significant difference from my standard beds (besides the early spinach). I grew Jacob’s Cattle beans on two of the beds with normal results, though I do have to say picking the beans was easier with less stooping (oh, my aching back).

On the other two beds, I grew a variety of cucumbers, kale, peppers, peas, and beans. The cucumbers did well, as members of the squash family prefer raised beds and mounds. The kale also did well, with it mostly planted on the southern side. Started on the northern part, the peas came in early and were plentiful.

The peppers and green beans were much less successful. Part of the problem was the red clover I planted the year before. It grows much taller than white clover (it’s more common relative) and competed for sunlight with the other plants.

A second, bigger hugelkultur bed:

This year, opportunity and planning combined to provide Snarky Acres with another hugelkultur mound. We had several giant pine logs that were just sitting around attracting groundhogs. I’d had rented a chainsaw to cut some of them up but the biggest were at least 30 inches wide (not the easiest to move around without heavy equipment).

One summer day, the landlord dropped by with an excavator to complete some septic work and remove a few dying pine trees. After watching him rip out the trees with the machine’s claw (awe inspiring to say the least), the Snarky Girlfriend asked him to dig a trench and place the old logs into the hole. We have been good tenants for 5 years, so a good relationship has been built. Your landlord mileage may vary.

Our larger hugelkultur bed with leeks and onions

This hugelkultur bed is much bigger than the others (20’ by 6’ by 3’ tall) and has a different purpose. As it’s outside my current fencing and is shadier than my regular garden, I chose specific plants for it. I know from previous experience with groundhog and rabbit incursions which vegetables don’t get gobbled up by the local wildlife.

I planted several varieties of the onion family, including leeks, onions, chives, and Egyptian walking onions (a favorite perennial of mine). Joining the onions were turnips, horseradish, and herbs (oregano, parsley, dill, and fennel). To test my veggie predator theory, I also planted Swiss chard along the mound’s peak. It didn’t take long for them to be munched upon. I even found deer hoof prints in the bed by fall. The rest have not been bothered so far (fingers crossed).    

My Advice to You

I would advise that you go slow and small when building your hugelkultur beds at a rental (or anywhere really). Create just one or two smaller beds to start out and work up from there. Remember that installing hugelkultur beds is labor intensive considering all the wood gathering and shovel work.

Also carefully evaluate where you will be placing them. Building within an already flourishing garden is a great idea. Unless people knew what they were looking for, they might not even notice them. Plus a garden area is usually not expected to be the neatest part of the yard, so not having sides shouldn’t be a deal breaker.   

The second reason to take your time is the rounded hugelkultur structure creates different microclimates (like the turnips above). For example, I have found the large bed’s north side didn’t grow much in its first year. Turnips that started quickly died off. It might be because of a lack of sun or the drought we had.

I have a sneaking suspicion I need to add compost and soil to the south side in order to bring more of the bed into the sunlight. You will find hugelkultur beds conceptually simple but much more complicated once in practice.  

My final piece of advice is only you can determine if this type of project is doable on your property. Depending on your landlord and neighborhood (homeowner association, etc), you may need to obtain permission first. You’ll know if it’s something you can do without asking. Worst case you might need to undo all your hard work. No matter what, as with any new project, you’ll learn something in the process.

Note: If you want to see how these beds fit into my overall rental situation, please go read my Gardening While Renting post.

Don Abbott(aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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