Hugelkultur at the Malachite House | Vittles

Posted by vivavittles on December 28, 2012

Hugel-what?

This autumn, the midwives in Kelowna decided to replace their two front lawns with annual and perennial food plants, as well as medicinal herbs.  I said “hugelkultur!” And they said “what?”

Hugelkultur is a German word meaning “hill culture”.  It is a raised garden bed that can be created by placing large pieces of wood into a shallow trench and then layering upside-down turf and soil on top.

Why would you want to do this?

The wood behaves like a sponge, sucking up water in the winter months and then slowly releasing it into the bed during the drier summer months, thus reducing (or sometimes eliminating) watering.

It is a method of in-situ composting: as the wood breaks down it releases nutrients back into the surrounding soil to feed the plants growing there.

It is a great way to use a tree that you have cut down or any untreated scrap wood that you don’t want to haul to the dump.

Ideally, it is oriented to create microclimates that provide more ideal growing conditions for your plants as well as increasing the overall square footage of your planting area

Materials for this project:

  • Scavenged cottonwood and poplar wood from a nearby creek
  • Turf removed from around the bed and placed grass-side down on top of the wood
  • Re-used soil that was in the previous bed
  • Malachite-made compost
  • Leaves scavenged from neighbouring streets after a wind storm

We built the hugelkulture using the original U-shaped bed layout in order to minimize the transfer of materials.

Logs in the trench waiting to be covered by turf
Logs in the trench waiting to be covered by upside down turf

Once the wood was placed in the trench we had dug, we flipped the turf onto it and started layering soil and compost on top.

Kaley working hard beside the almost complete hugel!
Kaley working hard beside the almost complete hugel!

The hugelkultur was finished with a 2 inch layer of leaves to help keep moisture and nutrients from leaching out of the soil with winter precipitation.

The finished hugelkultur covered in leaves
The finished hugelkultur covered in leaves

What happens now?

The bed will collect moisture and settle over the winter, then be planted as a vegetable garden in spring.  Plants that grow in cooler conditions (lettuce and other greens) will be planted on the north and east facing slopes of the hill culture, while heat-loving plants (tomatoes, peppers) will be planted on the south and west facing slopes.

The first growing season of a huglekultur tends to be slightly compromised due to the wood using nutrients in the soil to get its breakdown process going.  Planting nitrogen-fixers into the bed such as peas and beans can offset this.

In summary, we used readily available, free materials to double the midwives’ planting area while raising the bed for more ergonomic gardening, reducing their water usage and eliminating their need to maintain lawn.

Stay tuned for a post on sheet mulching, the technique we used around the hugelkultur to accommodate foot traffic while building fertile soil.  And if you have any questions, please comment!

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Alysha Punnett is writing her new blog Vittles – Local Food, Resilient Tables from Kelowna, BC. Alysha has a degree in environmental management from Royal Roads University and is focused on urban food security and sustainability.  She has been travelling around to different ecological farms and organizations involved in the food security scene, in an effort to tell their stories and connect the folks that make up this community.

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