Try something new
The alternative heading for this post ought to be ‘Planning part 2’. This is the bit where the plan meets reality and new ideas. I think I’ve made my case for beds, raised or otherwise. I like working with defined manageable chunks, that way it is easier to see what I’ve achieved and it means I’m not always walking on soil. I can see the benefits of treating the whole plot as one bed, it’s just not for me.
Anyhow another WordPress blogger, Claire on Smallholding Dreams has posted about making hugelkultur beds and the amazing harvests from these beds. I’d not heard about hugelkultur before, so off I went to Google and discovered a hundred and one ways to build a really steep raised bed or a ‘hilly mound’. Like so many things that make sense, the principles of hugelkultur mimic nature, using rotting wood and other biomass to create a sustainable growing medium. Apologies to readers who are dedicated hugelers but this was a light bulb moment for me.
I’m not certain who ‘invented’ hugelkultur, although Sepp Holzer’s name is often mentioned but this extract from Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway describes the the way it works:
The decomposing organic matter in hugelkultur beds raises the temperature just enough to boost plant growth. Another advantage: As the woody brush rots, it releases nutrients slowly, and also holds quite a bit of water.
Slow release of nutrients, raised soil temperature and water retention as well as no-dig sold it to me as the way to manage the beds in the polytunnel. But I wanted something tidier and certainly not taller than me!
I modified the approach based on the material available and what I’m capable of lifting and shifting. I dug out the bed a spade’s depth, saving that material in a bulk bag, then added a thick layer of wood chip – a poplar had recently been taken down. Logs would be better as they take longer to break down than wood chip but the trunks were far to big for me to lift into the car. I then added a layer of straw and fresh manure, the idea being that the nitrogen released by the manure as it decomposes will be taken up by the wood chip as it breaks down. To be on the safe side, I added a generous sprinkle of chicken manure. This filled up the trench I had dug out. I’m using scaffold planks to make the bed sides – not essential but keeps everything in its place. Painting them purple is also optional! Once the bed frame was in place, I topped up with the soil removed from the trench and I’m hoping that will settle as there is half a bulk bag left over.
A lot of this approach is contrary to traditional gardening methods and I’ve certainly caused a few eyebrows to twitch as I’ve collected fresh wood chip and fresh manure to add directly to beds but I’ve also created quite a bit of curiosity and got people talking about a new to us permaculture approach.
The ingredients for a hugelkultur are varied and can be adapted to local conditions and what’s available, although I am now much more interested in saving rather than shredding the apple tree prunings. Apparently some wood is better than others; hardwood as it takes longer to decompose and avoid eucalyptus as it has anti-microbial properties, although I’m pretty certain I’ve had eucalyptus wood chip paths and they rotted down just as well as the rest, so fungi and microbes weren’t that inhibited.
Here’s a couple of websites to explain the detail:
Do you already use hugelkultur or any other method that might be regarded as ‘non-traditional’?