4 minute read

FIELD NOTES: Hugelkultur

I know a few gardeners who like to experiment. Their trial and error attempts at growing different things, composting, starting seeds under different conditions, impresses me. Like anyone curious, they want to see the results of their efforts. With evaluation of production, more and different gardening methods are employed.

The true experiment I recall from my science classes involves undertaking a procedure to make a discovery or test a hypothesis. You suspect something and set out to see if it happens. An investigation into an unknown can produce results that can be both predictable and surprising. And that, to a gardener—I am told since I do not consider myself even a poor one—is the fun part!

My sister-in-law’s experimentation with a gardening attempt intrigued me. She and my brother-in-law sent pictures of their garden a few weeks ago, at the end of a successful growing season. They read of an Austrian technique called hugelkultur, or mound gardening. Raised beds have been used for years by successful gardeners; dirt from side trenches is added and the additional dirt that allows root vegetables like carrots and beets to grow into aerated soil. The side trenches also give you a place to walk while tending to the plants.

The mounds with the hugel approach are built using all kinds and sizes of wood: cut stumps, long logs, limbs and branches, twigs, leaves—everything from the tree. And the idea is to have it rot and enrich the soil. A trench is dug about a foot deep, maybe four to five feet wide, and the wood debris is placed end to end in the trench. Here any compost is added, also newspaper, clean cardboard, and yard waste (no treated lumber or mulch) before dirt covers the trench. Over time, as the wood material decomposes, nutrients not originally present are now slowly added to enrich and supplement the soil. This was why her garden was so successful, the rotting wood slowly added nutrients the plants needed, now and for future seasons.

I went online to look up the hugel method of mound gardening and found it is used all through Europe and is fast catching on with American gardeners. It is spelled H U G E L and pronounced HOO-gle. The height of the mound can vary, all the way up to six and seven feet, depending on the amount of sunlight, water required, plants to be grown, and wind direction.

We intend to use the method to change the front yard, now a shaded area with big trees. It lacks sunlight except for maybe a few hours in midsummer.

Years ago when our boys were young, I tried desperately to grow grass in what I hoped would be a large, green space with lush turf and not a blade of crabgrass. I took great pains to fertilize, water, and tend regularly to this shaded area. I even fenced it off with wire and stakes and yellow strips of sheeting tied every few inches.

When the boys accidently went beyond the fencing to chase a ball or frisbee, I yelled to get out, and stay out!

We thought when the grass finally did grow, we’d have a nice yard where they could play. When a friend visited and saw the drama, he calmly stated, “Hmmm, it appears to me you’re growin’ boys, not grass!” That made a lot of sense, and I felt guilty.

Now years later, yards and expansive lawns in shaded woods seem foolish and against nature.

We hope the hugel mounds will create better soil, not for garden plants, but for our native plant area. Over time, I transplanted several native shrubs there like arrowwood, spicebush, highbush cranberry, and wild hydrangea.

This year, we purchased native plants as seeds or root clusters from a native plant nursery. We hope native flowering plants we enjoy like shooting star, blue cohosh, wild ginger, and wild bergamot will grow. It’s a start.

I’ve brought in ferns from our woods: Christmas, New York, Broad Beech,and Maidenhair Fern that survived transplanting and thrive. They are spaced in and around the native plants, creating what we hope will eventually become a lush woodland with herbal layer and ground cover.

Soil is the most basic ingredient to this plan. The hugel mounds should help restore nutrients.

I haven’t read where hugelkultur is used for this purpose, but I figure if you improve the soil for garden plants, why couldn’t it help the native ones? This is what I first meant by experimenting.

We soil workers—us dirt diggers, who love getting hands and knees dirty, sweat running down the face, smelling dirt—like to see what changes we can do to improve things.

It resorts back to my natural resources classes where different management strategies were discussed depending on a desired outcome.

Hugelkultur employs what is stressed in managing nature areas: decomposition is vital to healthy plants. You see this everytime you walk through the woods—decay and rotting wood, a natural process, makes it possible for plants to grow.

You can do different things to and on the land, as long as it is compatible with what nature itself can do. I can still hear a professor’s philosophic mantra: “Treat the land as though your life depends on it, because it does!”