Harnessing Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur mushroom

If you're deep into permaculture you know about Hugelkultur.

If Hugelkultur makes you say, Who?, then say hello to an easy composting method.

Hugelkultur (HOO-gull-cull-toor) is a German word for building a new garden area with branches or even trees as the base. It's sometimes referred to as wood composting. The area can be any shape, and it can be a low or steep mound. Organic waste is layered on top of the branches, and a cover crop or plants make the top layer. Similar to sheet mulching or a traditional compost pile, the Hugelkultur mound will heat up (but not as much as a compost pile) and for a few years this can make it a season-lengthening spot for growing tender vegetables. As the wood breaks down the temperature will drop, and air pockets will take the place of some of the lost wood. This mixture of soil organisms, oxygen, and moisture will create superb soil.

How to build a Hugelkultur mound

In our video about growing potatoes in a Geobin, Tricia follows the traditional Hugelkultur method by adding layers of branches, followed by other organic materials, to make a bed for the potatoes. Here's the diagram from the video, with potatoes, compost and then straw on top. When using hugelkultur outside of a bin, add leaves, twigs, and grass clippings along with the compost. (More on composting with the Geobin here). 

A Hugelkultur mound will provide excellent soil for up to 20 years.

If a tree falls ... you can practice Hugelkultur

Next time a tree falls in your garden think twice before you call the tree service or get out your chainsaw. A downed tree can keep on giving to your garden's ecosystem in a special way. Instead of a pile of broken branches, you can use a fallen tree as the base of your mound, and heap branches at its sides, then layer on organic materials, and add plants on the top. A newly fallen tree will use up a lot of nitrogen as it decomposes, so be sure to add bone meal and blood meal amendments. A tree trunk that is already rotten will not use as much nitrogen, and those nitrogen-rich amendments would not be necessary. The fallen tree is a reservoir of water and as it slowly decays it will release that moisture. Bushes or small trees planted on the mound will reach their roots down to drink the moisture from the rotting tree -- to such an extent that they can survive in arid climates without extra water.

For more information about permaculture, look at the second edition of the classic, Gaia's Garden. Instead of firing up the chipper-shredder, try Hugelkultur with your extra branches this year.

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