by Gail Snyder
“Hugelkultur” is the kind of word my dad would’ve loved. If I’d called him up and said, “Hi, Dad! I’m making a hugelkultur garden,” he would’ve interrupted me immediately, giving it endless variations—hoooooglekultur; hewglekultur—of Dr. Strangelove pronunciations, laughing at his own wit. It’s the kind of word that encourages silliness.
And actually, as a gardening technique, hugelkultur totally lives up to the wacky spirit of its name. It’s virtually rule-less, so there’s no way you can screw it up. It uses a ton of unconventional materials—trash, basically—not ordinarily associated with gardening. And so if, like me, you hate following recipes and instructions and you love madcap adventures, hugelkultur is for you.
Honed down to its essentials, it’s bare-bones easy. You dig a hole about six inches to a foot deep (or not; just start building up from ground level), pile in all the old wood you’ve got lying around the yard or the carport from other discarded projects, plus leaves, compost and more, building up the pile to an aboveground hill, and then cover it with soil. That’s it. (“Hugel” in German means “mound.”)
A hugelkultur bed works best when you start it in the fall and then let it overwinter. That way, all you have to do when spring thaw comes along is figure out what you want to plant. It’s a beginner gardener’s dream. Lots of us tend to have fear of gardening—which, at its heart, is really just fear of killing the plants—so we keep procrastinating the actual digging of a bed and putting the seeds in the ground. With hugelkultur, you can have a beautiful bed all prepped and then forget about it for the next six months!
That’s because, over the winter, your backyard mound is “cooking.” This technique, successfully employed by permaculturists in the deserts of Australia, was “discovered” hundreds of years ago in Germany and Eastern Europe, land of all those deep, dark woods. Observing the cycle of a forest floor, people noticed that as dead branches and leaves fell to the ground, they formed layers, which were broken down gradually by insects and by the process of their own decay. Over time, they observed these natural materials releasing their nutrients down into the forest floor, creating a rich, dark, loamy soil. Wood has an amazing capacity to store water, releasing it only when the wood’s saturation exceeds that of the soil. This slow decomposition helps regulate the soil and allows you to water much less frequently than a conventional garden—ideal when trying to grow food in the desert.
OK, so what kinds of things do you bury in your hugelkultur mound? Basically, the sky’s the limit as long as it’s organic. Wood of every description: fallen trees, rotten logs, branches, sticks and twigs, stumps, Christmas trees, wood chips, bark. (Don’t include anything painted or treated; you don’t want the chemicals polluting your soil. Also, avoid cedar, black walnut, black cherry and black locust.) Brown cardboard, newspaper. Old phone books! Kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells. Straw, old hay, chicken litter, organic manure, urine (if it’s diluted first into nine parts water to one part pee). Organic clothes, rags and rugs. Just remember, no petroleum products, like waxed boxes, synthetic fabrics or glossy paper.
What you do, once you’ve amassed all this cool stuff, is choose a spot for your hugelkultur bed, figure out how big you want it to be and its shape (basic mound, spiral herb garden, long serpentine row) and decide whether you want to dig a hole or build up from the ground’s surface. The digging-a-hole method, although it requires more work initially, slows the wood’s decomposition process, which ensures more water retention. But starting at the ground’s surface and building up also works fine, as well (after all, the forest floor doesn’t dig a hole first.)
Essentially, what you do in the layering process of all this organic stuff is just another variation on the permaculture “lasagna method,” with all your bigger pieces of wood at the very bottom. Stack the logs and stumps and whatever-else-have-you; then proceed with smaller wood items, topped by green garden waste and the rest, finishing it off by covering the entire pile with soil or compost or both. For maximum density and fewest air pockets, pack everything down; as your hugelkultur bed decomposes, it will naturally compress and shrink. Because they break down sooner, the smaller materials will supply nutrients to your plants before the bigger logs at the bottom will, so it’s a good idea to vary your materials as you layer upwards toward the top so as to provide for your plants’ long-term food source. In fact, the more diverse your materials, the more diverse a beneficial microorganisms community your hugelkultur bed will foster. As you finish each layer, wet it down with a hose—this encourages and hastens the initial decomposition process.
Adding as much soil and compost as you have for your final layer—anywhere from six to 12 inches deep—helps your bed do better in the short term. If you don’t have that much, though, make sure you’ve added at least an inch. And don’t worry, it will work out fine in the final analysis, since all that wood inside will itself become soil in good time.
Also, if you begin your hugelkultur bed in the fall and want to experiment with planting a few winter-hearty plants, you’ll find that as your wood breaks down, your bed retains more moisture than a conventional garden bed, helping it to stay warmer during the bitter winter months because of the “cooking” going on inside it.
In fact, that’s what I’m planning to do. I have an old wood and glass door I want to set between straw bales, with compost and soil inside and the door set down on top of the bales, creating a homemade cold frame. Then I want to plant the same seeds in both the hugelkultur bed and the cold frame and see what happens, which plants do best where.
Maybe it is all in the name, but this hugelkultur concept somehow gives me total permission to just get out there and play. Because my basic resistance to backyard gardening, it turns out, has been that I don’t want to follow a lugubrious set of rules, I want to make it up as I go along. So many of the posts and blogs about hugelkultur gardening mention how much fun it is to invite a big bunch of friends over to help throw the whole thing together. And they illustrate their stories with pictures of themselves doing just that. Everybody’s laughing as they hold up something crazy for the camera, just before dumping it into the hole, or doing a little victory dance on top of the hugel to tamp all those layers down. This, I tell myself, is the way gardening should be. Silly. Humorous. A mystery project!
So I’ll get my own hugel going, throw that door and straw bales together, plant the seeds. And then, as the air begins to get crisp, I’ll start stacking wood for the stove in anticipation of a long winter’s relationship with my fires, me camped beside them, reading and writing, dreaming of the return of the sun, the green and the outdoor life once again. Plus my own hugelkultur baby eggplants.