Making Soil Using Hugelkultur Beds

by: EJ on 02/24/2017

Not every property is blessed with an abundance of sweet, loamy soil.  Sometimes it is necessary to create soil.  It may be that where you live has little soil, or is extremely rocky or has other environmental constraints.  Jenni Blackmore, author of Permaculture for the Rest of Us: Abundant Living on Less than an Acre offers several soil building techniques in her book.  Today we are sharing her description of hugelkultur beds.

Another way to create fertile raised beds is the hugelkultur method. This technique is, I believe, of Austro-Germanic origin. It mimics the natural woodland fertility cycle, which also provided the inspiration for Analog Forestry, a system quite similar to permaculture in many ways. As with the lasagna beds, hugelkultur employs a method of layering, but in this case most of the organic material is woody detritus. Wet newsprint and cardboard are layered down first then topped with small logs, layers of branches and twigs, starting with the coarsest and ending with leaf mould, grass clippings and straw, all of which is then topped with soil. The heat produced by the decomposing wood promotes early vigorous growth of plants such as beans, cucumbers and other squash, all of which like their roots in warm soil. These beds are great for early spring plantings but we also like them because they provide a use for all the storm debris we are still clearing away. They also provide a workable solution for uneven, rocky ground with little or no naturally occurring topsoil.


The productivity from such beds is really astounding and seems to increase as the woody materials decompose. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise, considering that forests produce giant trees using just this method, but the bumper crops that come tumbling out of a relatively small hugel bed we started several years ago are indeed amazing. This is definitely my preferred system of alternative garden bed and it surprises me that it doesn’t seem to be as popular as it deserves to be. I have also learned that rotting logs in trenches, either as a base for hugel beds, or simply covered with soil, create equally warm, fertile beds, with the added advantage that the rotting wood helps to conserve moisture as it acts like a sponge, holding large reserves of water to help the plants through dry times.


This is a perfect example of how to maximize on a naturally occurring process: the rotting wood creates a haven for microbes and bacteria to go crazy in and their activity transforms this excess of nutrients, making it readily accessible for the plants to feed on. Permaculture encourages the careful observation and use of natural processes such as this. In nature nothing is wasted. Natural systems tend be cyclical in their own right while at the same time creating symbiotic relationships with other closed but neighbouring systems.


These kinds of inter-relationships are highly complex and it’s easy to understand how the smallest shift or imbalance can have huge consequences. At the same time, respecting these same systems can lead us to a self-regulating and sustainable existence, which produces maximum yields for minimum expenditure. It’s important to think of expenditure in terms of energy consumed, carbon output and global impact rather than simply in terms of dollars.




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