I’m a total believer in hard work up front to enable longer term laziness, so when Breanna shared a post from Northwest Edible Life about hugelkultur with me, my ears perked up. We had been percolating ideas about what to do with the overrun garden down in our lower field for a while and hugelkultur beds seemed to fit the bill.
Since our lower field is out of sight and very often out of mind, we wanted to do something low maintenance down there. There’s already a grape vine growing along the fence in the garden and we thought that it would be a good place to add some berry bushes.
If you’re not already familiar with hugelkultur, it’s a gardening method used in permaculture that essentially uses buried large woody debris to create a bed that holds moisture, raises soil temperature (through decomposition), and slowly releases nutrients to plant roots over time as the whole pile turns to glorious compost. It is supposed to not require any irrigation or fertilizer and otherwise be generally miraculous. It sounded like it would be perfect for our situation. Even better, there were old abandoned piles of firewood sitting all around already starting to rot.
The first thing I had to do was tackle the existing raised garden bed itself, which was matted with tall grass and weeds and was contained by old rotting boards. I ripped out the old boards, hacked back the grass and weeds, and then went to work with my trusty mattock.
The bed actually had some really nice soil in it, so I decided to salvage it by excavating it all out. I dug it down to the native mineral soil and set all the gorgeous dark soil to the side in a big pile.
Once I had the old bed completely excavated, I threw the weeds and grass clumps in and then started tossing in the wood.
Then I headed out to our local garden and landscaping supply place and got a truckload of hot and steamy manure. After years of buying bags of compost and soil at about $7 a pop, I was dumbfounded that filling the entire bed of the truck was the same price as a single bag of compost. This is the way to do it!
The idea with the manure is that compost requires the right balance of carbon and nitrogen to decompose well. Since the wood is high in carbon, by itself it could rob the soil of its nitrogen as it decomposes, which would keep the plants from getting what they need. The manure is high in nitrogen and should help to balance out the C:N ratio to make compost and plants and everyone happy.
I thought that I would have more than enough manure to do one bed, but I ended up using it all. Hugelkultur beds shrink as they age and break down, so I figured “Go big, or go home”. Besides, after all the work thus far I didn’t have the energy to do anything else with any leftover manure.
After that, I moved all the nice soil from the original bed back over to cover the manure.
We had already picked up some bare root blueberry bushes from Burnt Ridge Nursery, one of my favorite sources for edibles and Northwest natives.
Building this one bed did turn out to be a hell of a lot of work that took me four weekends to finish. I’m hoping that it lives up to the hype and won’t require a whole lot of attention after this. I’d kind of like to do this with all of the beds in this garden and grow a bunch of different kinds of berries down here. I think I’m going to wait a bit to see how this one does first though. I’ll post a progress report once I can gauge how it’s doing.