The Mid Atlantic and Northeast had wild March weather this year including some major wind storms. Homeowners and businesses alike were inundated with downed trees, broken branches and millions of twigs. In addition to bundling up the twigs and setting out for trash pickup, many found themselves hiring companies to help with clean up. If you have the space and lots of debris from the storms, you might want to try Hügelkultur, a composting program using raised beds that simulates the natural decomposition found in forests.
Hügelkultur, , the German word for mound or hill culture, has been practiced in Germany and Eastern Europe for many centuries. This form of Permaculture, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture) replicates the natural nutrient cycling found on forest floors by allowing for the decomposition of biomass by soil organisms such as myccorrhizae, bacteria, insects and fungi. Hügelkultur is an excellent way for farmers and gardeners to use up woody debris after winter and spring storms, including logs, branches, leaves, and even whole trees. Much like the “nurse” logs found in our forests, this on site composting technique is an great alternative to dumping in landfills or burning wood waste.
The benefits of using Hügelkultur are many. This composting system uses raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other biomass such as straw, leaves, cardboard, grass clippings, garden waste, non-seeding weeds, petroleum-free newspaper, herbicide-free manure, and compost. It improves soil fertility, provides water retention and storage, and benefits plants grown near the mound by slowly releasing water. As the wood and other materials decay, the woody detritus becomes sponge-like, storing and releasing rainfall slowly back to the environment, and helping to prevent excess nutrient runoff into groundwater.
Hügelkultur beds are ideal in areas with poor and compacted soil, and are easy to maintain. The system mimics nutrient cycling in woodlands by returning carbon and nitrogen to the soil, slowly providing these nutrients to nutrient-poor soils. This gradual decay is a consistent long-term source of nutrients for up to 20 years. Additionally, the process of decomposition releases heat benefiting spring crops planted on or nearby, and extends the growing season.
Building Hügelkultur mounds is very easy! Many people choose a no-till system, but starting with a trench is also common.
- Select a site
- Remove the sod, if applicable
- Dig a trench approximately 3′ by 6′, and 1′-2′ deep. Save the soil and sod
- Lay largest logs and wood chunks into the trench, first
- Layer smaller branches on top of logs
- Continue layering woody material with organic material, placing the smallest pieces on top.
- Push vegetative material such as grass clippings or compost into the crevices, leaving air spaces.
- Keep layering to form a 3′ tall pyramid shape. This will settle over time.
- Top with a layer of manure, if on hand. (this will act as the “green” or nitrogen source
- Place sod, grass side down. (also an initial source of nitrogen)
- Return soil removed from the trench or other good quality soil, and place on top of sod.
- Mulch and plant a cover crop, such as crimson clover the first year.
- Allow to cure for a season before planting vegetables and/or flowers.
- No tilling is needed, and water is only needed during drought periods.
Alder, aspen, birch, beech, oak, maple, poplar, willow (with no living sprouts/suckers) work best.
Softwoods such as spruce, fir and pine will also work.
Avoid the following: Black locust, black walnut, redwood, cedar and Osage orange
Additional Tips: Add a good amount of high nitrogen/green material in the top layers to compensate for the initial nitrogen draw down as decomposition begins. This includes grass clippings and non-herbicide manure from herbivores. The following plants are recommended for the first year due to the initial nitrogen draw down: Alfalfa, beans, clover, cilantro, lentils, peas,peppers.
Come visit our Hügelkultur beds at the Teaching Garden this year!