So you’ve splurged and now have a fabulous 2 foot deep raised bed. Good for you – your back will certainly thank you, but maybe not your wallet, because you are now faced with the prospect of filling it. The mind boggles at how many bags of soil mix it will take. There’s actually a formula for calculating this (I mention it in chapter 3 of my book), but in terms of expense, it’s the equivalent of a bottomless pit.
However, help is at hand. There is a way to ‘raise’ the bottom of your raised bed, so that you are only filling the upper half of your raised bed. So, what do you do with the lower half? That’s where Hugelkulture comes in. Hugelkulture, pronounced ‘Hoo-gul-culture’ has been around since at least the 60’s (some maintain longer) and originated in Germany; hence the name. It translates roughly as ‘mound’ or ‘hill’ culture and as the diagram indicates, it consists of a layered mound.
There are variations, but in essence you build your hugel from the bottom up, with logs, tree boles, sticks, and branches. Cover with grass clippings, wood chips, leaves and compost, and top with a layer of topsoil, and you are ready to plant. In a sense it’s a raised bed, but alfresco – since there’s no wooden frame around it.
Now instead of creating a free-standing hugelkulture, you create the hugel in the base of your extra-deep raised bed. You would start with logs, branches etc., and layer until you reach the half-way mark. In this way, you avoid having to fill your raised bed to a depth of two feet; rather you only have to fill the top 10 inches with soil mix. Remember you want to leave at least 2” for mulching the top of the bed. You’ll hear this method referred to as lasagna gardening, because of the layers.
Apart from the obvious major benefit of cutting back on costs, hugelkulture brings a great deal to the party: The benefits include acting as a sponge by holding water, releasing food as the material breaks down, releasing heat in the process and providing warmth to the root systems, and encouraging microbes and worms. In essence, you’re working with nature.
If you have the luxury of being able to choose which wood you’re using for your hugel, then hardwood such as oak, willow and maple are preferable. Avoid black locust and black walnut which are toxic, and old growth redwood which takes too long to decompose.
We would love to see your hugelkultur raised bed. Take pics of each stage of its development and we’ll feature the best on our blog. Give us as much detail as you can and attach the pics and send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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