German Hugelkultur – A centuries-old gardening technique

Many people are starting to look at their yards and wondering if a vegetable garden is going to happen this year. I say: Go for it!

First think about how much light you get where you plan on setting up your garden; duration and strength of sunlight is the most important part of this whole process. You’ll need a minimum of eight hours a day of direct sunlight.

Then you need to consider, how much time will you have to commit weekly to caring for your new garden? Watering, weeding, mulching does not take long but some types of gardens require more care than others. What kind of raised bed would fit your space best? Mound, tiered, rock lined, cedar boxed? Set on the ground or up on legs?

A Hugelkultur mound is probably the best raised bed style for when you’re just starting out. These are tall, mound style raised beds that are easy to form and easy to maintain. You are also able to grow as much as three times the number of plants with this style of raised bed than you would if growing straight out of the ground or in a boxed style raised bed.

As soon as you begin planning a raised bed, start saving your food scraps in a 5 gallon bucket. Make sure it is lidded tightly after each time you add your scraps so you can roll the bucket. This helps the contents  breakdown evenly and keeps insects and animals from getting in and making a mess. Egg shells, coffee grounds, used non-fatty paper towels ripped into little bits, tea bags minus staples, dryer lint, peels, stems, old greens, etcetera. Make sure not to add citrus, seeds, animal fats or flesh though as they will not break down efficiently, will go rancid and no one wants to deal with that kind of stink, and attract flies and animals.

When you mow your lawn, rake up or dump your bag of clippings in a large, clean cardboard box that has no printing on it or into one of those super tall paper gardening bags. Collect grass clippings, leaves, twigs, tiny stones, chunks of rock (no bigger than your thumb though) and set this aside, out of direct light, on a flat, dry surface. It will get hot as is starts to breakdown so keep it away from your house or garage.

For a 4 x 8 foot mound you’ll need a minimum of 5 bales of hay. You can find them at most garden and/or farm supply stores, like Niagara County Produce. Last fall they were $5 a bale. They are likely more as it’s at the start of the season.

You can get free stall liner, a mix of straw and manure, from the Buffalo Equestrian Center at 950 Amherst Street in Buffalo. Just call their office at 716-877-9295 to set up a pick-up appointment.

You can get free wood mulch at the Seneca Street Wood Chips Dept of Public Works Engineering Garage at 1120 Seneca Street between 8am to 3pm, Monday through Friday. You can also request branches and logs from them for this project. Be sure to avoid using pressure treated lumber as the chemicals used to treat the wood will leach into the soil and will be absorbed by your plants.

Now on to the really fun part!

Once you’ve collected all of your materials, dig north to south to make full use  of the sunlight, approximately 3 feet wide x 7 feet long x 1 foot deep. Set the turf, the thick pad of grass and their root on one tarp and the soil under that on another tarp to the side, you will need both.

Configure your logs, branches, and roots evenly down the center of this ditch. You can include cut up bits of the cardboard box or paper gardening bag you used to save your yard waste in at this stage. Then lay the sections of turf over this woody section. You’ll start to see a dome form as you put this second layer in.

Next goes a combination of your lawn clippings, leaves, pebbles, small stones, 2 bales worth of straw, and food compost. Strew it evenly over the turf, continuing to form a definite domed shape.

Next is a layer of manure and straw mixed together. Stall litter from a farm or equestrian center is best. However, you can mix bagged, cleaned manure with fresh straw if you don’t have access to stall litter.

Lastly, all of that topsoil is mounded over all of this. This mound should now stand approximately 3 feet tall x 4 feet wide x 8 feet long. You can make these as tall and as long as you want, you can even give them a serpentine curve to them.

You’ll want to plant strong sprouts or established plants. Start with sun thirsty plants along the top ridge and plants that require less than direct light along either side of the mound. Be sure to mulch around your plants well with wood chips or straw, or a combination of the two. Water thoroughly and be ready to sit back and enjoy how lovely it is in the fading evening light.

If you are looking for high quality seed check out Remy Rotella Orlowski, of The Sample Seed Shop, who reminds all those interested that, “My plant sale will Sat. May 21st, and I’ll have lots of tomatoes. Plus herbs and perennials, whatever I have extra of to share.”