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Friday, 24 February 2012

Ooga Dooga Hugelkultur!

Sometimes in gardening like in any other walk of life you suddenly have that religious AHA! experience.  You know what I mean the Road to Damascus "I can see the Light!" kind of moment.  As I've been telling you I've been doing this online Introduction to Permaculture course and as part of that I'm reading Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway (I keep wanting to call him Ernest). 

I'm already coming around to permaculture being the best way to produce food AND preserve the land, especially in our rather... challenging gardening conditions.  Now Hemenway has introduced me to a completely new concept within permaculture, (well new to me anyway, I'm sure some of you have been doing this for years): the Hugelkultur!  Well actually it should be spelled: Hügelkultur.  Now for those of you not familiar with German, this should be pronounced hoogle-cool-toor, except for the first double o you should pout your lips forward like the Librarian of Unseen University who accidentally got turned into an orang utang, leaving a small round opening between your lips and pushing your tongue forward a tad towards said opening, as if to whistle and then you activate your vocal chords rather than whistle to emit an ü sound like in Bügeleisen.  What you don't know that one either?

Anyway, enough of this sillyness, I was talking about me seeing the light!  Serious stuff!  So you know the way you keep doing a particular thing for no better reason than not knowing any better and all of a sudden someone tells how to do this better and solve a number of other problems at the same time?  Well that's a Hugelkultur for you.  (You still practicing that pronunciation?).  Every year we prune our various trees, most of them in winter.  The larger bits of wood coming off that we cut into logs and use the following winter in our fire to heat our kitchen, given them some months to dry out some too.  Some of the smaller bits are handy to get your fire going, but the majority of the twigs and little branches just end up clattering up the place.  So we wait until we have a pleasant, not too dry, not too windy, not too wet, not too hot day and build a bonfire.  It takes a fair bit of effeort dragging it all to one place on a given terrace not too close to other vegetation, and stand over it all day keeping it under control.  And the result: tidier terraces and a small pile of woodash, which can be incorporated into the soil (and coughing neighbours, but mind you they are chain smokers anyway).

Since today what we do is, gather it all up and pile it up neatly.  A few rotten bits of bigger wood, which wouldn't be much good in the fireplace are also helpful.  You cover that wood with the turf you previously removed from your chosen site and having turned them upside down.  Find a few more turf squares and dump them on top.  If you have some other organic material, old leaves, grass cuttings, on with it.  Then shovel a load of soil on top, some compost if you have some spare and hey presto! You have a Hügelkultur (no hüüügel.  Got it now?). It should look somewhat like this (once mature of course):

or this:

Now that sound like more work then simply burning I hear you say, so what's the point of this.  So let me tell you:
  • As the wood rots it slowly releases nutrients to the soil
  • At the same time it releases heat, increasing the ambient temperature and enabling you to grow things earlier in the season then normal
  • The wood has an incredibble capacity to absorb water, which is then slowly released again, eliminating or at least reducing the need to water.
  • It increases surface.  Compared to a standard flat bed you have at least 3 times as much surface area to plant on
  • It won't need digging over

Now, whilst I had some work building this thing, it will actually from now on reduce my workload.  Various sources seem to have varying opinions on what size this (incidentally Hügel simply means hill) hill should be.  Anything from 2 to 10 feet gets bandied about.  I made my decision based on the amount of wood I happened to have handy, which resulted in dimensions of approximately 8x4x4 feet.  One of the few disadvantages quoted is that the rotting wood, at least in the first year or two, will deplete the soil of nitrogen.  To get around that I started with sowing a couple of nitrogen fixers, i.e. peas and lupins.

Sepp Holzer, Austrian permaculture supremo and hillside farmer recommends that if you build one of those things on a slope angle it with the direction of the waterflow.  As my terraces are not so wide, I've given it a bit of a diagonal angle, roughly south-east facing.  And I placed it on one of the lower terraces, where a) the micro-climate is more humid and b) it's a bit far away from the main action, so you want to have a low maintenance bed there.  Unfortunately I'm still camera-less, so you are just going to have to use your imagination.

In other news, spring has arrived yesterday and we have 3 new additions to the woodland garden: Ribena, the blackcrrant, Ellie, the Elaeagns X Ebingei 

 ...and Paddy, the strawberry tree (also known as Killarney strawberry, hence Paddy)

Obviously it's not carrying that much fruit just yet...  Ellie should also be producing some tasty and delicious berries for us in the future as well as fixing the soil and adding nitrogen for the nearby apple and cherry trees as well as for Ribena.


Mr. H. said...

HugelKultur is an interesting concept, we often bury wood and debris around here, often around our fruit trees to help maintain moisture...but no actual garden beds have been prepped in this manner.I might have to try it out one of these days. Glad you are getting excited about this type of forest gardening.:) Can't wait to hear more about that most fascinating strawberry tree of yours as it grows and produces fruits for you.

Ruth Trowbridge said...

This is fascinating to me, excellent post here. You sure are a diligent and an hard working steward, sending you encouraging wishes - peace

Heiko said...

Mr.H, I've got so excited about Hugelkultur, I've just written a song about it. I'll post it as soon as I find someone to lend me a camera!

Ruth, the idea is that I will have LESS work in the future!

Mike said...


While I am very interested in Hugelkultur, one question in my mind never seems to get properly addressed by Hugelkultur proponents: Where does all that topsoil come from to cover the wood?

Certainly some of it will come form the pathways between beds, but it seems to me it will be far from sufficient.

Do you have any pointers to articles/books/whatever where this issue might be dealt with?

Heiko said...

Hi Mike, I first removed the turf from the site where I then built the Hugel, then added from the paths inbetween. In addition I had some funny lumps lying around anyway due to some landslides from 14 months ago, which I shovelled on top. And finally I added a few bucketfulls off my compost heap. Made plenty for me.

GetSoiled said...

Heikus Pokus, very interesting indeed, do they at all address the issue of top soil life? I once read that it takes over three years to make a decent layer of top soil life (microorganisms and the likes) it seems to me that, although productive, this method may harm that precious life layer...any thoughts on that?

Heiko said...

Get Soiled, put it this way, on my land with the various catastrophes we've been having, there's precious little top soil left. I've thrown piles and piles of organic matter on top, which should encourage critters and micro-organisms in. Without them there won't be any de-composition of course. So certainly in my situation it sounds like an improvement, maybe not if you already have a good layer of topsoil. It's my first attempt at this and only time will tell, but it seems a good way of getting rid of woody surplus, which easily accumulates. I can also import more from the woodland adjoining our land below.

Angela said...

Hügelkultur, how easy (my Bulgarian and my Polish students all break their tongues, too. How about Lügenmäulchen and Krümeltüte?)
Anyway, oh, I have used this method in my former veggie garden when I still had a lot of horse manure (best stuff when rotten for at least a year). First came the wood, then the grass tuffs, then the old horse manure with all the earth worms in - you can`t believe how huge our pumpkins grew, and how abundant our beans and leek and strawberries. My neighbours queued up to get their share, I am not kidding.
Must start it again here, too. Thanks for reminding me!

Möwenhöhle. Tüdelbüdel. Sämereien. Müdigkeit. Blöder Schnösel, no no, not you! Heiko ist süß!

KL said...

I am glad to find your blog as I love to read how people all over the world garden. Those strawberries look like lychee and really look yummy. I have recently read about this raised bed; I wonder if I can do a similar thing with my lots of thin branches and twigs.

Heiko said...

Angela, glad you tried this method succesfully too. Our horse manure is rather fresher donkey manure though... and I can't think of any other words with ü U think you listed them all! :)

KL, the system also works with twigs and thin branches. Good luck with your gardenening adventures.

Anonymous said...

Neat article. I like what you've done. Keep up the good work! I'll be looking for more of your posts.


GetSoiled said...

Point well explained and well received Heiko! :) thanks!