A Hugelkultur-Inspired New Addition to Our Garden

A Hugel-what you might think, and wonder what sort of mad business where up to this time around. Well, fear not – we’ve just glanced towards our beloved neighbors to the south (a.k.a. the Germans) for some cultivation inspiration, learned a whole lot of new stuff and turned an empty corner of our property into a whole new garden area – Hugel-style. Hugelkultur (pronounced Hoo-gul-culture) has indeed been around in German and Eastern European societies for centuries, and is a horticulture technique based on a mound-principle, where different types of layers placed on top of each other create a raised bed-type of growing space that is said to hold moisture much more efficiently and create long-term nutritious soil, as well as act as a form of carbon sequestration. We stumbled upon the term sometime in the spring this year, and as we sold our boat and freed up a large-ish and sunny-ish space on our property, we ruled it the right time and place to expand our growing area and apply some of these genius Hugel-moves. Because really, how could any farmer turn down a growing method promising an almost self-watering, self-fertilizing set up that also locks carbon into the ground?

At this point, it’s perfectly normal if you feel very confused. In about a few sentences, however, you won’t be anymore. Alright. So the principle of Hugelkultur is that you create a mound – or a raised bed if you will – by layering different types of plant material on top of each other. Think big to small – you start with legit logs (yes, as in tree trunks and large branches) and end with fine soil at the very top. You can either dig down and start stuffing things below the actual surface of the earth and then have a smaller mound be visible, or you can start layering your logs right on top of the ground. Since we have notoriously bad soil here – we’re on a rocky island – we decided it was worth digging down. Our specific space also wouldn’t work too well with mounds measuring 1-1.5 meters off of the ground, which is how tall some say you should go (then you can maximize the growing space because you can use the sides), so we concluded we would use some Hugel-concepts and ideas, but do them our way.

We started out by digging down approximately 30 cm/1 ft. It turned out a truckload of gravel must have been put down where our new garden is located (probably to create a proper storage space for the boat), which meant the digging was no joke. We were working on one trench each, side by side, and it took us about 6 hrs of active digging (per person) before they were both done (and the very last 50 cm in one end offered up a giant rock that took us about 2 hrs total to get out – so I guess 8 hrs is a fairer representation). The trenches both measure 0.8 m wide (so we can easily reach across when seeding, weeding, mulching, harvesting etc.) and 6 m long. Together, these new beds will yield ~10 m2 of additional growing space. After the digging part was done, we went ahead and started with the layers. This part proved to be so much fun! First off, we had tons and tons of wood – full length logs and blocks alike – laying around since the storm Alfrida hit here in January this year. This gave us an excellent opportunity to clean up our own piles as well as scout the surrounding woods for pieces left laying around (let’s just say that forest machines typically don’t leave a pretty scene behind them). We filled the trenches with logs/stems/branches almost up to the edge, and made sure to place them in a nice order (think jigsaw puzzle). And as we already had some fallen leaves on the property, we took it upon ourselves to rake those into the trenches as well, for good measure.

A base layer of logs and branches (left) and a layer of leaves on top (right).

Next, after the thicker logs, we went for a layer of thinner branches. We had a ton of oak branches with leaves still attached from when an arborist was here to prune our beautiful oak in June, so these were of course put in there. On top of the branches, we started piling various non-degraded plant material. Now we’re talking tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes and cabbage stems (as in, the “skeletons” of these plants), bean bushels and corn plants – in other words, more or less all the leftovers from this growing season. After this layer, it was time to put our two giant compost piles to use. These have been sort of neglected and not really cared for much (we use Bokashi for kitchen waste composting), so judge by our surprise (and joy) when we stuck our shovels in there and it turned out to be prime soil in the center. We dumped everything on top of the garden material layer, and made sure to really clean up the areas where the composts had been sitting. We’ll organize a better system going forward, where location is smarter and there’s some sort of fence around so it won’t just spread out. These compost piles had coarser material towards the surface and finer towards the center, so we added the coarser stuff first, put down a layer of Bokashi compost on top and then finished off with the finer stuff (which looked kind of like the bagged dirt you get, in all honesty). At this point, only one step remained before the beds would be done. The fine top soil. At first, we had decided we were going to need to buy dirt, but our frugal attitude had us examine the dirt we dug up in the first place in more detail. Could this be used? We deemed it worth a try, and got to work. This actually proved the hardest and most time-consuming part of the whole process. Using a giant “sifter” my dad built a very long time ago, we scooped up the dirt, worked it through the sifter and dumped the finer soil on top of the beds, discarding the rocks from inside the sifter after each round. As our dirt is kind of clay-y and we’ve had quite a lot of rain recently (which we need, so that’s all good), the sifter got clogged rather easily and the whole thing just took a long time. But – we ended up only relying on materials we already had and didn’t spend a penny on the whole project (except the fence we’ve also put up – more about that later). The top soil layer ended up being about 15 cm thick (pictures make it look less), so the first season or two, we’ll do mostly plants that grow upwards instead of downwards (as in, beans, peas, cabbages etc. instead of root vegetables). Over time, the idea is that all the material underneath the top soil will decompose and create a thicker layer of “regular” soil. We’ll also continue to add Bokashi compost/other compost going forward, further adding volume.

As you can see, our beds aren’t super tall, and nor did we build them so that we’ll be able to grow things on the sides. This was entirely intentional, and we think these beds will suit our needs perfectly. But let’s go back to all the benefits of Hugelkultur – why even bother doing all of this? Well, the very slow decay of the wood forming the bottom-most layer will ensure a slow release of nutrients for the next 20 or so years (however adding nitrogen the first few years will be necessary, as the down-breaking process of the logs will steal some) . It is also believed that the heat generated from the composting process will prolong your growing season slightly. Furthermore, the logs and branches will act like sponges, storing water when in abundance and releasing it during drier times. This will ensure very limited watering and fertilizing demands, making your Hugelkultur beds almost self-sustaining. Incorporating woody materials in your beds is also said to encourage the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, which will further improve the health of your soil – and thereby your plants, obviously. Mycorrhizal fungi possess the ability to exchange nutrients between the surroundings and the host plant. To put it simply, they form a symbiotic relationship with the host plant (in our case, our future vegetables) where they provide increased water and nutrient absorption for the host and receive carbohydrates (formed as a result of photosynthesis) to thrive off of in return. Quite neat, wouldn’t you say? The more fungi, the better.

The garden beds topped with the compost layer.

Because our house is located at the end of our little street, and our property is surrounded by legit forest all all sides, we have a lot of wildlife passing through. We see moose parade by (or march right in) many times a year, and a day without spotting roe deer in or around the property would go down in the history books. In addition, we have frequent visits from foxes, badgers and hares. This is all amazing, and we love every single spotting – but of course it can be frustrating when you come out in the morning and realize that a vegetable you’ve cared for for months has gone bye-bye or an apple tree that was dangling with juicy fruit yesterday has been demolished. Since I (Sophia) spent a lot of time at this place as a child, I knew we were up against some animals with fine taste buds when we moved to Yxlan. Therefore, we went all in and built a quite massive fence around what is now known as the “original garden”, i.e. the first one we set up, with 8 homemade garden boxes in it (you can read all about how to make these in this Guide to Building Your Own Garden Boxes, and more about the whole set up in A Garden Year in Review). That fence is very sturdy, measures 2 m high and is more or less foolproof (no affiliation). We also have two boxes not surrounded by a fence of any sort (these we added this spring, in April 2019). Here, the plan is to rotate between plants roe deer typically reject (it also seems we have less “foot” traffic where these are placed – unclear why but we won’t object!). We did summer and winter squash this past summer, and had no unwelcome snackers stop by. Next year, for the sake of crop rotation and happy soil, we’ll move the squashes elsewhere and do alliums (i.e. members of the onion family) here instead. If we can’t come up with enough vegetables to rotate between here, there’s always the option of doing somewhat low-growing plants (such as spinach, lettuce, chard and carrots) and just keep them underneath a floating row cover/garden fabric (svenska: fiberduk eller liknande) with the help of support hoops.

But back to this new garden, and the fence type we decided to settle for here. First, as the people of order and aesthetics as we are, we were thinking we should do an identical fence to the first one and match them down to the very last screw. However, the original garden is separated from our lawn by a sort of “wild” area, full of blueberries and flowers and whatnot, and the fence is almost a little “hidden” to the side of the property. This new area is more an actual part of the lawn, without any natural border marking its beginning and end. Would it really look good if we smacked up another 2 m tall Fort Knox there? After some pondering and some input from family, we decided it wouldn’t. It would make the garden feel too separated and locked up, so we had to brainstorm other ideas. A neighbor mentioned this very sturdy yet much more delicate-looking fencing material that is practically invisible to the human eye (at least from some meters away) but that roe deer and other intruders are supposed to avoid like the plague. We got wooden poles measuring 1.8 m tall, which when knocked into the ground ended up measuring about 1.4 m. For the net, we settled for one of 1.5 m height, and will just fold/cut at the base to the perfect height matching the poles. The net we used is called “Allox skyddsnät 1B” (no affiliation). We decided to build an L-shaped fence, including most of our fruit trees and currant bushes as well as our two dug patches where we’ve so far done potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes on the inside, plus some extra space for future patches/berry bushes. We’re no strangers to hard work and many hours put into projects, but we also like to be smart about our efforts. Now we’ll have plenty fun work for years to come, but no more fence building in a while 🙂

All in all, setting this new garden up took us about 30 hrs active work time per person, from the first day of removing the sod (svenska: grässvålen) to the very last cleaning up after the fence was put in place. The work was spread out over many weeks, however, due to injuries and whatnot (hence the first pictures looking like late summer and the last like early winter). Now, we’re so insanely pleased with our work we can’t stop staring at the garden through the window, and none of the previous years have we started drafting next season’s garden/sowing plan before Christmas – but we are now. The excitement towards this new growing space and the number of vegetables we’ll be able to add to our repertoire is endless! But first, a very welcome winter – one we hope will be cold, snowy and full of skiing, winter running, ice skating, hot cocoa outside, crackling fires and plenty of time for rest and recreation. Spring will come soon enough, so we see no point in rushing there. Wishing you all the same winter glories, of course, and please feel free to ask any questions you might have below 🙂

PS. But because you asked (?)… we’re hoping add shelling peas, sweet potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, leeks and perhaps Brussels sprouts next year, as the new additions to our very own list of veggies we grow. Garlic too, but that’s already a given – bulbs have been sitting in the ground, waiting for spring, since a few weeks back!

2 thoughts on “A Hugelkultur-Inspired New Addition to Our Garden

  1. It looks impressive! Didn’t the Austrian Sepp Holzer (?) promote the “Hugel kultur”? It is widely used in Permaculture, I think. Our neighbour started one like you a few years ago, using mostly poplar. Squashes did very well, but last year he had a lot of sow bug problems and cabbages did poorly, I told him that they like a more mineral soil and they don’t have the mycorrhizae symbiosis.

    1. He did indeed promote it! A German horticulturist (Hermann Andrä) seems to have been the first to mention the term, but it seems many Eastern Europeans have been involved in the developing of the technique. Fun to hear your neighbor had success with squash – we’re planning on reserving half of one bed for summer squash next season. So curios to see how it’ll do!

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