Update: Hugelkultur on a Micro-Farm


Christmas is one week from today… but I’m still digging in dirt! Ever since the end of our CSA season I’ve been planning to double the size of our garden for 2013. The initial plan was to tackle this in the spring with a day full of volunteer help and free food! But then I learned about a new-to-me gardening method that requires a significant amount of fall preparation to be ready by spring – hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add nutrients to the soil and retain moisture. For more details on the definition, benefits and challenges of hugelkultur, hop over to this previous post.

If I had known earlier that I was going to want to implement hugelkultur principles into our expansion, I would have begun planning and implementing it back in October. Tackling this endeavor in November and December has provided its own set of challenges, but all the same, here’s an update on how things are going.

Hugelkultur Update


First a recap: I wanted to create 10 hugelkultur beds. Because we live in a suburban neighborhood, I felt it was important to partially bury the beds for the sake of appearance. The plan? Make them two or three feet deep, four feet wide and 12 feet long. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Digging. I was already sooo tired of digging after creating our hotbeds that the thought of moving that many hundreds of cubic feet of earth one shovelful at a time made me want to faint! On top of that, I knew that time was of the essence since (at least in theory!) cold weather is on the way. So to avoid frozen earth and aching backs, I hired Luke Schemenauer and his bobcat to do the dirty digging work! [Luka (Luke) Schemenauer, 269-214-0837, luka@i2k.com]

NOTE: For even more updates on our adventures in Hugelkultur, click here.


Bring Wood!

Within a week of creating the pits, we had them all filled with old or rotting logs. The lumber came from our own property, including logs that had been lying around since we bought this house and wood from a dying maple tree we had to cut down a few years ago. We were also fortunate to develop a win-win situation with a number who has a brush pile that needed some clearing. We hauled off many logs and now he has that much less work! (Don’t worry – I asked first!).

This was an interim shot… they ended up more full than this.

How to Deal with Nitrogen Drawn-Down

Most of the wood we used is well-rotted, so it should retain moisture well and have a minimal incident of nitrogen-drawn down because it has already decomposed so much. (Because logs are carbon rich, they need a lot of nitrogen to decompose. Plants also need nitrogen and thus the log decomposition can ‘rob’ the plants of nitrogen they need.) There were three beds however that had somewhat newer wood (from the maple tree). From what I’ve read, nitrogen drawdown during the first year of planting can be an issue, but I’ve found very few people who actually experienced the dilemma. As a precaution, I did my best to add nitrogen-rich materials to these beds. This was one of the points where I wished I had developed my hugelkultur plans sooner – it’s hard to come by green, nitrogen-rich material at Christmas time!

The first bed received a modest helping of freshly cut grass clippings. (Yes, I mowed my Michigan lawn in December!) Despite having mowed about ½ an acre, this is all I got for my labor.

This wheelbarrow load of grass clippings came from mowing less than 1/3 of the lawn in December. I got about this much again after mowing the ‘Back 40’ around the garden.

The second bed received all of the compost I could gather from this summer’s compost pile – around 9 cubic feet in all. I also continued to toss table vegetable scraps onto this bed right up until I covered it.

And the third bed got nothing. Not because the spirit of Scrooge came on me but because in the spring I’ll be planting beans in this bed. Since beans actually add nitrogen to the soil, I’m hoping it will be a sufficient defense against nitrogen-draw down.

All of these beds would have benefited from a layer of composted manure if time and my budget had allowed.

Add the Leaves!

With the beds full of logs and branches, I moved on to adding our fall leaves. I have to say I was a little hesitant about this since dead leaves are also carbon-rich and I feared they may contribute to nitrogen draw-down. But in the interest of adding other trace nutrients to the soil of my hugels, I took the leap. (Big thanks to my hubby for helping me with this!)

These beds are filled with rotting logs and branches, as well as a layer of fall leaves.

Hugelkultur beds that are partially buried. So far they’ve been filled with rotting logs and leaves.

To Water or Not?

My next challenge: Watering. The primary purpose of all this work is to develop raised beds which need little or no watering. And as I read online instructions for making hugelkultur beds, many people recommended ‘thoroughly wetting’ the logs at this point in the process. My challenge? It’s December. For a few hours a day, it’s warm enough to run a hose, but the freezing that happens to that hose after its use is a pain in the butt to deal with. Also it had rained during the week the logs had been in the pits (less than ½ an inch) and I wondered if that would be sufficient. I spent a morning researching and didn’t get any direct answers. One person commented on my question in the forum at www.permies.com that he thought the beds would probably retain more moisture from a good rain after being completed than from being hosed down in the midst of the process. With all of this in mind, I made the judgment call not to hose them down. *fingers crossed*

The logs had already been rained and snowed on several times, but with less than 1/2 an inch of precipitation.

Dirt Dilemma

Last but not least, we (hubby helped again!) worked on filling the holes back in with dirt. I knew it was going to be a major task to put that mountain of dirt back where it came from, but Ryan had an idea: We borrowed his father’s four-wheeler and used the snowplow to push the dirt back! In some cases, it worked really well. But then there was the awkwardness of figuring out how to fill the beds closest to the existing fence without driving over the beds on the outside. And then once all the small piles were gone, we realized that a snowplow is just not going to efficiently move a giant mound of dirt around.

Enter shovels. And a visit to the chiropractor. And then, well… I did something I hardly ever do. I gave up.

If I even see another shovel before spring, I may need therapy.

I owe you some ‘after’ pictures. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share a few shots of a little someone who came out to survey the work.

Marley came out to oversee our work.

Marley the Foreman.

I wonder if he approves?

Just before I gave up, I happened to look down a few lots and noticed that one of our neighbors has some manner of machinery with a big scoop on the front (a front loader?)!  I couldn’t say for sure, but I think there were angels ascending and descending on it… I promptly walked over to see if I could pay him to move some dirt, but no one was home. I’m planning to stop by again today and very much hope that he’ll be able to help us before (if?) the snow comes. If we haven’t been able to move the dirt before then, at spring time we’ll mound some up over the beds (six inches), add a layer of compost (six inches) and advertise the rest on Craigslist as free (come and get it!) fill dirt.

As it stands now, 8 hugels are level with the ground and filled with logs, leaves and dirt. Two more are dirt-less but otherwise level. And then there’s a would-be hugel pit that isn’t quite in the right spot so I plan to fill it in. So other than Mt. Dirtmore towering in the tree line, I think things look acceptable enough for the neighbors to tolerate through the winter. (As I’ve mentioned before, we want to be good neighbors!) Who knows, if the weather stays this mild, maybe I’ll eventually pick up a shovel again and chip away at that mountain bit by bit… maybe.

NOTE: For even more updates on our adventures in Hugelkultur, click here.

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