Rotting wood is rich stuff.
In a forest, trees fall down and rot all the time. Along the way, they get buried under layers of leaves, needles and dirt. The result? Mounds of rich, broken-down biomass sustaining a huge diversity of life: mushrooms, moss, ferns, all kinds of bugs and grubs, and so on.
Hugelkultur is a permaculture technique that mimics this process. It’s a pile of wood covered in dirt and mulch which, over time, yields some of the best gardening soil to be had. If you want detailed instructions, read the hugelkultur page on RichSoil.com (here). But for now…
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS
You decide where you want your raised bed. You pile some wood on the site, and cover it with dirt.
Starting out, the wood is full of carbon, which draws nitrogen out of the soil. That’s bad news for your vegetables at first, because plants need nitrogen. It’s their food and fertilizer.
The good news is, the heat produced by the composting process raises the temperature of the bed, which means your growing season just got longer.
Then things get even better. Your hugelkultur bed hits its stride when the wood breaks down into sponge-like clumps, which do some pretty amazing things:
- Retain water. A 6-foot-tall hugelkultur vegetable bed can go the whole summer without any watering at all. Not that you have to build yours that high, but it’s a case in point. The bigger the hugelkultur, the more self-sufficient the vegetables.
- Create habitat for plants and bugs. Just as in the forest, the rotting logs in your hugelkultur bed create a vast apartment complex, so to speak, of good, healthy soil life.
- Prevent nutrients from draining out. The sponge-like consistency of the wood acts as a filter, catching nutrients and keeping them around.
- Till and aerate the soil. As the wood rots, it shrinks, leaving behind air pockets. It’s as if your hugelkultur were plowing itself.
- Fertilize. Remember how the carbon-rich wood started out leaching nitrogen? Well, over time, the reverse comes true. As the wood composts, it pays back its debt (and more), nourishing the soil it’s building with rich, densely packed nutrients.
Here’s a 2 minute video of hugelkultur in process.
Oh, and don’t think this is just for rural-dwellers. While hugelkultur is definitely a great idea out in the country – we’re currently doing it at Healing Ponds Farm – it’s equally useful in the city. Maybe you have a tree in your yard you need to bring down, or maybe you saw an ad for free wood on Craigslist. Maybe you stumbled on a pile of abandoned logs, no longer fit for lumber, on a walk in the woods.
If you’ve got room for a raised veggie bed, you’ve got room for hugelkultur.