Posts Tagged ‘Hugel Culture’

The concept of Hugelkultur (Hugel Mound Growing) can basically be described as a self-composting bed or planting area (in the case of this article, in large pots). The gardener digs a shallow trench or pit and places logs, branches, sticks, twigs, brown leaves, nitrogen rich greens and or fresh manure, then tops these materials with the dug out earth and finally a decent layer of compost.

A good Hugel with large thick logs can be self-composting for anything up to 10 years. Read previous articles on traditional Hugels here Article 1 and Article 2.

Just the other day I realised that I can re-create the Hugel system but in large plastic planter pots, this will give you the benefit of Hugelkulturs without having to strain your back doing loads of digging!

Anyone taking on an uncultivated or fallow piece of land such as a disused Allotment Plot can always Sheet / Lasagna mulch a section, cover the result with thick impermeable black plastic sheet to kill off the perennial weeds and simply place Hugel Pots on top to ensure the land is still productive. Once you need to remove the sheet after a year and start using the ground space for planting, you can simply knock over the pots and empty the goodness to build up the humus / top layer!

Hugel Pots.jpg

Hugelkultur Mound in Planter Pots

The general rule in terms of what can be grown on the Hugel Mound in year 1, are shallow rooted crops / plants such as various lettuces. Thereafter you can grow plants that require more nutrients and moisture and then finally on year 3  you can pretty much grow anything from Tomatoes to Pumpkins.

In the terms of the Hugel in a large pot, you can start the bottom layer either with composted or semi-composted wood chips (skip them and use soil if you have Slug / Snail problems), place a decent layer of soil (especially soil you wish to amend) on top of the latter with the Branch, Sticks, Twigs and cardboard / leaves as the carbon layer.

Follow on top with vegetables, fruit scraps, cut grass or fresh manure and then go on to adding the thick layer of soil / compost for growing in

(refer to image for general idea on layers, there are no specific rules but rather guidelines to follow) such as:

  1. Wood and wood chip need Nitrogen to break down, the plants you intend to grow need nitrogen too, the wood will suck this out of the soil and this is why we add manure or nitrogen rich fresh greens like veggie scraps and grass clippings / garden prunings, therefore, try to add as much green / manure / nitrogen rich material the more wood you have – greens decompose much quicker so stuff a lot in there.
  2. Compose the larger wood at the bottom and build up with smaller pieces until you reach brown leaves and cardboard this should ensure nice air spaces between are protected from being filled in by settling materials, these air spaces are important to ensure that the process does not become anaerobic – you could even start the logs on top of a 3-5cm thick layer of fresh grass clippings although this is not imperative.
  3. Intending on using this pot every year for the same purpose and do not intend on emptying it for a few years? then this is the time that you can use much thicker logs and branches in the bottom, if you want to empty the contents regularly (every 1 – 2 seasons) then it would be more beneficial to use thinner branches and sticks instead.
  4. Shallow rooted crops are mostly recommended in the first year however, you could easily use root crops such as carrots and parsnips provided you have a deeper layer of top soil / compost, remember that carrots and parsnips need nicely sieved compost / soil to prevent roots from ”forking”
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Late Summer / Early Autumn is the best time to start gathering the materials you need for your planned Hugel Bed / Mound, many Herbaceous plants which can be used in conjunction with the wood logs, branches and sticks are now ready to be chopped down and composted or used in another way. Autumn / Winter is the preferred time her in the UK to create your Hugelkultur mounds mainly due to the need for the wet season to soak the beds, the buried logs will soak up the winter rains for months until the upcoming growing season.

Two pieces of advice I can definitely lecture on about in this article to ensure a successful Hugel Project are;
1: Ensure Air Spaces inside the mound and
2: Add lots of Nitrogen rich Biomass internally to offset the nitrogen locking that the logs will create during decomposition

Air Spaces:
Although there are guaranteed to be air spaces between the logs and branches / sticks, I have found that rain and the settling down of the materials can cause these spaces to fill in, often causing or risking an anaerobic result – go explore your garden or any other garden you have access to (You may even be able to make a deal with a local gardening company – they could leave a bag of said such materials for you outside one of their customers properties so as long as you collect the bag and not leave unwanted contents at the site!) remember, you can always bargain that most companies have to pay to dump their waste at commercial specialist dumps, remind them that you are helping them reduce the need to do so, in most cases they will still have charged their customers to ”remove” the waste even though you took if off of their hands, the customer will inevitably still be charged for it being dumped.

There are many herbaceous plant species which have a hollow stem and need cutting down in Autumn, cut these stems into pieces which you will spread around and in between your logs at different levels to ensure small air cavities will remain. Cedums, Ornamental Globe Artichokes, Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes), Young Bamboo (and old), some Hydrangea varieties and many more have hollow cavity stems which harden enough when dry to be used in this case.

Then there is dry hard leaf ”garden waste” which takes ages to decompose, these are leaves from shrubs and trees which are more on a glossy and hard / stiff texture than a soft / decidious and most likely in all cases, evergreen. Three options I have from the top of my head as examples are the leaves of ‘Magnolia Grandeflora’, The climber ‘Clematis Armandii’ , the Loquat ‘Eribotrya japonica’ Fruit Tree, Some Rhododendrons (look for the large leaved varieties) and Laurels. We have found that most of these leaves can take up to two years in an unturned / undisturbed compost pile to break down, they maintain their structure even when pressed down so they are perfect for maintaining air spaces / gaps internally within the Hugel Bed / Mound! Practically any glossy leaved plant / shrub / tree will do but the larger and dryer – the better!
In fact, a couple of these Tree / Shrub leaves will actualy curl up to form a cilyndrical tube shape with an internal hollow gap, when pressed these are strong and bounce back right away once released.

Nitrogen Rich Biomass:
Probably one of the best options are fresh grass clippings from your lawn mowing or that of a neighbour / friend. You can even clip your grass at your home twice a week for the last 3 or so weeks of Summer, keep these clippings aside in a breathable bag until ready to add into the Hugel Bed – if you obtain clippings over several weeks, you Will need to add additional fresh greens into the mix to compenate lost nitrogen.
Horse Manure is also a great option but I would suggest it be used more as an addition to fresh green waste rather than 100% of the nitrogen source
The not-so-popular option amongst people new to Permaculture, is human Urine, which has a good nitrogen content and is often used diluted 1 part to 10 in early season liquid feed for plants
If you plan on lets say December being your target month for getting your Hugel project started, I would advise Growing a patch of Broad or Field bean green manure from Late August / Early September – these will be ready for chopping down and adding into your bed around and amongst the logs as the fresh greens instead of grass clippings which won’t be available during that month anyway

Further Reading: Click Here for an article on the step-by-step making of a Hugelkultur Mound / Bed

I have been meaning to post on the Hugelkultur method for around a year now and have finally gotten to doing it! I’ve gone through all of my own personal pictures to show you my own experience installing and now after one year, my experience with the system.

Traditionally, the Hugel system is a year on year progression whereby in the first year, you are meant to only grow shallow rooting crops such as lettuces, then follow on the second year and third with larger crops until you are growing tomatoes, peppers etc.

well, I Cheated! haha, I also got away with cheating so far with some amendments.
Ok, so a Hugelkultur bed is basically large cut tree logs placed in a small dug out trench (supposed to only be a few inches deep) which are topped with smaller logs, which are then topped with branches, then sticks, twigs, leaves and finally the layer of ‘sod’ which will then have a layer of compost or soil added over it to plant in. (sod is upturned chunks of grass and roots)

The purpose of this system is for the logs and the rest of the organic matter sitting on top of the logs to slowly decompose over a long period of time (up to ten years +) which provides a good, nutrient rich soil amendment or compost bed which you can grow edible plants / crops on.

In the above images, you see the main 7 layers, I finally had the last (8th) layer which was the rest of the Top Soil, I made the planting layer much thicker than traditional Hugel Beds so in order to be able to immediately grow the main crops I go for such as Tomatoes, Pumpkins etc. The way that I cheated includes maintaining hole cavities to ensure that air is able to penetrate deep down ensuring it remains Aerobic. My Hugel Bed was dug deeper than usual as I wanted the logs to penetrate deeper to condition the heavy clay subsoil and also counter the builders rubble that I came across after digging about half a space deep!
After 10 years my garden beds will be far far more natural and organic compared with my neighbours.

All of this was done and completed before Winter was over (2015) and a final layer of semi¬† mulched leaves was placed on top of the bed to encourage the worms to remain closer to the surface and condition the soil before spring. NOTE: In the photo’s you see a small three foot wide hole, due to time constraints I could only make the Hugel Bed in sections at a time, the entire bed was about 4 meters long by 80cm wide (13 ft x 2 ft 7 in) once completed.

Success? YES! I grew Pumpkins, Tomatoes, Peppers, Oca Tubers, Nasturtium and Courgettes (Zucchini) on this bed with ease!, I have also discovered a new trick to maintain breathing cavities which I will update Here in the days / weeks coming, to ensure the system stays aerobic.
The Permaculture genius Sepp Holtzer is said to be the pioneer of the Hugel Method, I have read his book: Sepp Holtzer’s Permaculture, I highly recommend this book even if you are not interested in Permaculture but have an interest in growing food on any scale!

Below I have a few images found online that will help in understanding the Hugelkultur method better, I have a very small piece of land and it is not mine, so I cannot simply cut out part of the lawn and follow the general method of Hugel Beds, hence why I stuck to the actual flower beds which restricted the size and working area.


At the end of the upcoming growing season I will definitely come back with a new post updating on what crops were grown and any observations whether positive or negative regarding my Hugel System … Don’t Be Scared To Experiment !