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):
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.