Our Hugelkultur beds have garnered a bit of interest here in town and up on the blog. People want to know how they work, why we chose them, and most importantly, how to pronounce that word…what’s that word again? I’m half tempted to start telling people that the correct term is Kegelkultur, just to see the looks on their faces…though I have managed to remain well-mannered thus far.
The basic idea behind Hugelkultur beds (in my opinion) is to create a water-wise garden bed utilizing materials you would normally have on hand in a farm setting. In our case, we had several downed Cottonwood trees lying around the property we lease for our cows to graze on. I wanted to clear them so the cows wouldn’t be stuck grazing through a giant Cottonwood maze. We bucked most of the larger trees to use as the outline for our beds. This is not how the beds are typically made, but we felt it suited our needs well. Then we collected the larger branches and smaller trunks to fill inside the beds. The idea behind placing wood inside the beds is that when the wood decomposes, it gives off fertilizer to the above plants as well as acting like a sponge for retaining water. Cottonwoods are very good for this purpose. Some believe that there are good woods and bad woods for these beds, but the more I read, the more I think that it truly depends on bed location and what you intend to plant in the bed. I have read that several people have had success using pines or juniper for acid-loving plants such as berry bushes. So we have added a small bed with Pinon branches and trunks thrown in as an experiment. I also have beds with different size logs/branches in them to see if that makes a significant difference in water usage. Only time will tell.
Once the beds are filled with logs and branches, we put down a layer of cardboard followed by a layer of manure mixed with straw. I didn’t actually take the time to mix manure with straw, it just comes out of the stalls that way. Sepp Holzer suggests placing cuts of inverted sod on top of the wood, but this is not something we have readily available. This is the stage we are currently in with most of our beds, I love having something to do with all of that poo that is generated in the barn on a daily basis! Last year we tried deep bedding techniques with each of our animals (cows, pigs, chickens) and if we owned a tractor, I might do it again. But, at the end of the season, even with pigaerators tilling through the mess, it was just too much work to move all that wet, heavy, poo-laden straw by hand. Blech. So this year, I clean out stalls for the larger animals once or twice a day and the chickens get about a month on wood shavings before I pull them out completely and replace them with fresh stuff. The lovely part is….the manure can age in the beds and it’s free! (I do age my horse manure which basically keeps me from using it in these beds, but it does get spread over our pastures after a couple years.)
The next piece of the puzzle is the only one that has required any money. We will top off the beds with a generous layer of topsoil. Since we live in the ‘Rocky’ Mountains, we opted to purchase a truck load of topsoil and have it hauled in. Once the beds are completed, we will let them winter over to age and hopefully compress down a bit under the weight of a heavy snow or two. I plan on helping out by walking across the beds every now and then, just in case we have a winter absent of heavy snows. In the spring we will plant the beds with light feeders and then gradually move towards heavier feeders as the beds continue to age. I do plan on watering these beds since we only receive an annual rainfall of about 10″ on average. But I am hoping to drastically cut water usage during the dry month and not water at all during the monsoons.
Another question I get a lot, and have been wondering myself, is how long will these beds last? Through research I can conclude that they should last an average of 15-20 years. In reality, I don’t know the answer to this. I can only imagine, though, that whenever the logs do fully decompose, you can start over with a very beautiful, rich layer of ground as a starting point. I am excited to see the transformation and to log the results of these beds and their functionality here in the High Country. Stay tuned as we plug along!