A Beginner’s Hugelkultur

I’m a novice gardener.

Most of what I’ve cultivated has been in small containers, and let’s say I’ve learned as much from my failure rate as my success rate. At the end of summer 2018, I moved onto a rental property that had a sizeable backyard, so I was excited to finally have a chance to try some non-container gardening. Early in my stay at this new home, some friends commented on the volume of old logs/branches all over the property and suggested I use them to build a hugelkultur. “A hugel-what?” Not to be daunted, I did my research and learned about this German permaculture method, and I decided to give it a go for my first winter garden.

Here is what I had to work with: several decent-sized logs (some of them so nicely aged that we cut through them in a matter of seconds with a handsaw), large-ish branches, and smaller branches. The more aged the wood is, the better, or else it will hog your soil’s nitrogen to itself. The idea behind laying wood materials as the groundwork for a hugelkultur is that they will eventually turn into their own planting medium as they break down into humus. Also, the wood retains water and gradually reduces the amount of watering you’ll have to do over the years. If what you want is a really good moisture reservoir, lay your logs in a trench and make the wood layer that much deeper. I decided to use the trench method because it would help the foundation be stable and allow me to use up more of my raw materials (the property was really a mess). The first thing I put in the trench, though, was a layer of 1/4” hardware cloth to prevent gophers from getting too interested. Then, I assembled my wood so that it came to a peak along the top.

Side note: I built this mound three times. After the first time, I realized I’d forgotten to include the hardware cloth at the bottom, and I decided I wanted the hugelkultur in a different place anyway. After I dug a new trench and built up the wood pile a second time, I realized I’d forgotten the hardware cloth again. So don’t feel stupid if you get things wrong the first couple of tries; the rest of the world does, too.

With my wood base firmly in place, I started filling in the cracks with potting soil, but then I decided to do that bulky work with fireplace ash left over from the last tenant. Go-go-Gadget Shovel Arms—just an fyi, ashes are way heavier than I anticipated, and robotic arms would have made those eight or so wheelbarrow loads a lot easier. My hugelkultur gradually filled in and took shape, though. I added a bunch of tough cowpies around the perimeter, thinking that might help generate some heat for the winter (but I might be wrong; I’m still a novice when it comes to s**t in the garden, too). In hindsight, this was probably a bad idea; by not composting the manure, I might have invited parasites into my garden. Only time will tell!

I finished off the top of the pile with several wheelbarrows of soil that I mixed myself—in spite of the fact that I work for a soil manufacturer. I can’t resist doing things from scratch, apparently not even in the garden. Plus, I wound up with some nice amendment samples from our vendors, and I wanted to use those up. I did most of the mix with coconut coir, compost, chicken manure, and pumice, but I also included some of our Holy Cow and Zen Blend. The whole thing wound up roughly 23” high, 56” wide, and 80” long. Last, I placed big stones around the edge to help keep everything in place and to use up more of the mess from around the property. Ready for planting!

In between building and planting, I learned that ash tends to raise pH, which might work out well for me, because just about everything I planted likes slightly acidic to neutral pH, and I know both Holy Cow and Zen Blend are acidic. That doesn’t account for the rest of my home blend, though, so it’s a risk I’m stuck with taking.

For every plant I put in, I included a little rock dust, worm castings, insect frass, alfalfa meal, and Bigfoot Mycorrhizae in the hole and surrounding soil. The lettuce and cabbage I planted from starts; I sprouted kale seeds myself, which may explain why the tiny plants are struggling; and I popped radish seeds directly into the soil. The sorrel was a plant I’d had for a couple years in a small container, and so far I consider it the best indicator that the ash hasn’t raised my hugelkultur’s pH too much. Of everything I planted, the sorrel is the only thing that likes its soil to be more acidic, and this plant is thriving. I purposely planted the lettuce on the north side, knowing that this crop doesn’t like direct sun, and I hung shade cloth over that side of the hugelkultur for extra protection. For the first couple weeks, I was worried about the lettuce starts; a deer had nearly destroyed them while they were still in pots, and they didn’t seem to be growing for quite a while after I planted them. I eventually top-dressed them with alfalfa meal, raking it in gently with a hand cultivator, and I think that did the trick. The leaves are now noticeably bigger every day. The cabbages had a similar story: not only did a deer get to them, but after I planted, caterpillars moved in. I squished every one I could find and fretted over the plants for weeks after. I sprinkled insect frass around all my plants, hoping to avoid any further infestations, and so far, it has worked. All the cabbages have new leaves that haven’t been eaten by anything! These are growing on top of the hugelkultur so that the cabbage heads (which I hope will grow quite large and heavy) can balance on top of the mound instead of struggle against rolling down the sloped sides. As for the kale . . . I just hope one or two of them survive. But if not, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I don’t think novices should hold themselves to any standards as long as they keep trying, which I have.

I’ve been weeding and feeding with liquid fish and kelp from Pacific Northwest Organics, and I finally got the chance to brew and apply my own compost tea. The narrow confines of my fence are a bit inconvenient, but I haven’t let those get me down, either. You can see in the photo that my border rocks have come to serve yet another purpose: I use them as stepping stones to squeeze past the fence.

If you think hugelkultur gardening might be for you, I encourage you to research and learn about it. It’s an interesting subject, a versatile method, and great for using up materials that might otherwise wind up as waste. Do you garden in another unusual way? We always welcome gardening stories at our stores—come in and share yours!

Written by Kale (Kayla) Rau