Hugelkutur Update Spring 2014

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sunflowers

We’ve had strange weather this spring. It began with a sticatto pattern of unseasonably cold, rainy days (one or two)  followed abruptly by one or two unseasonably hot, dry days. As spring has morphed into early summer those rainy patches  have both  warmed and elongated.

Now that the rain comes with warm weather, I don’t mind it so much because the plants love it and I don’t have to worry about irrigation. However, there have been several occasions recently when I’ve begun my daily garden survey and noticed large, leafy plants (mainly squashes and beet greens)  wilting in the sun on those dry, warm days. I keep thinking “Ugh. What a shame! I don’t want to water. We just had all that rain yesterday. I know it’s hot, but you’d think the soil would be moist enough.  Oh well, I can’t let them sit there all stressed or the yield will suffer.” Today whilst surveying my beets I had this exact thought when, finally, a light bulb went off. I’ve finally seen some compelling evidence  that hugelkultur is working to sustain my plants.

The light bulb moment? I realized that all of my wilt-prone plants are on the traditional raised bed side of the garden and not once have I seen a plant wilt on the hugelkultur side. Even with lots of large, leafy plants like broccoli, pumpkins and cucumbers, I have not once (this summer) seen a parched, wilty plant in my hugels. (I clarified “this summer” not because there were instances  last year but because I can’t definitively remember whether there were or not.)

acorn squash plant

beet greens plant

Many of the claims I read when I first decided to implement hugelkultur described it as a “no-irrigation” method. Obviously the true test of just how resilient hugelkultur is would be for me to commit to never watering that side of the garden. Of course the  scary side of that idea is the possibility that by choosing not to irrigate during  rain-free spells I’ll either lose my plants or diminish their health/yield. Yuck. Buuutttt…. you know how I love a good (or even not-so-good) experiment, so here’s what I’m gonna do: I’m committing to keeping really detailed records on irrigation in July for each side with the goal of only watering the hugels if I see signs of stress. In other words, no irrigation in July unless they wilt. If ever there was a year to give it a try, this first-year-without-CSA-customers-relying-on-me year is it!

And while I’m making irrigation comparisons, it wouldn’t  hurt to share that the plants on the hugelkultur side are definitely giving the traditional beds a run for  their money! Don’t get me wrong – several plants on the  traditional side are doing really well. Check out my potatoes…

potatoes potatoes

And these beefsteak tomatoes. There are four plants in there. Yikes.

beefsteak tomato  plant

Aaaand my onions are pretty killer too…

onions

However, it’s hard to find a bed on the hugelkultur side that isn’t looking fantastic. Check out my broccoli…

hugelkultur broccoli

hugelkultur broccoli

My ground cherries. It’s difficult to tell, but they’re a little more than two feet tall…

hugelkultur ground cherries

And the sunflowers and sweet potatoes (growing under the flowers) look amazing…

hugelkultur sunflowers

hugelkultur sunflowers sweet potatoes

There are more, but I won’t make you sift through pictures of all of them. The only areas on the hugelkultur side that are struggling are the sections where there is no compost but only native, sandy soil. And even these are keeping pace with some of my traditional beds.

In summary, I still can’t provide definitive proof that hugelkultur eliminates the need to irrigate. However, I have observed that crops grown in hugels do not show signs of stress during the same rain-free periods when plants in my traditional beds do. We’ll see what happens in July.

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