I am interested in starting my own food garden this summer but my soil is terrible. Do you have any suggestions for building garden beds that create their own soil? — Cathy, Summit Cove
I’ve recently discovered a cheap but creative way to grow food in your backyard — hugelkultur.
I was introduced to the concept in a Backyard Homesteading course I took through the Sustainable Food and Farming program at UMASS Amherst. Last summer, I was able to practice hugelkultur at my friend’s farm on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest. I fell in love with the simplicity of the practice but was in awe with the complexity of the natural process taking place below the surface.
Hugelkultur is a permaculture technique that mimics nature by composting or breaking down organic material into nutrient-rich soil. You start the process by creating mounds directly on top of the ground or by digging trenches. As the foundation of your mounds or trenches, align sticks, logs and branches tightly together so you eliminate as many gaps as possible. Next, add grass clippings or other nitrogen-rich matter to fill in remaining gaps and to create an organic mulch for the top layer of your bed.
Even though there isn’t an exact recipe or science to building hugelkulturs, some people recommend adding some compost or top soil while others plant directly into the live mulch. Over time, the slow breakdown and decay of the wood in your mound or trench provides a long-term source of nutrients for your plants. Similar to hot composting beds, hugelkulturs can also provide your plants heat as a season extender in spring and fall.
Since I’ve become more active in garden and farming projects across the country, I’ve realized that good, healthy soil is really hard to come by (especially for us gardeners who live in the Rocky Mountains). Soil is the lifeblood to any farm or garden and without it, it can be painstakingly hard and time consuming to generate. Take my friend in Washington, his farm sits on 5 acres of sand. Rich soil is like gold to him and his neighbors. He composts manures from his livestock (goats and chickens) but he never has enough for his continuously expanding food production.
Last summer, we built several large hugelkultur beds approximately 12 feet long by 3 feet wide. The two things the Olympic Peninsula has plenty of is wood and rain. The hugelkultur works great in a soilless medium because it creates its own soil, microbes and nutrients. It decreases the need for watering because the wood soaks in rainwater and slow releases it during drier times.
In Summit County, we may not have access to as much rainwater but we do have a plethora of dead tree limbs and logs. The great thing about hugelkultur is once we get summer rains in July, the bed is virtually set up for the rest of the year. You can also take the snowpack into consideration for spring moisture. I’ve even seen the use of desert hugelkulturs that thrive in dry conditions with extremely limited rainfall.
Last week, while visiting the Olympic Peninsula, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much green had grown across the tops of the hugelkultur beds even in winter. The beds were essentially alive with newly-formed compost, mushrooms and beneficial bugs. This spring, various seeds, seedlings and perennials can be planted directly into the mulch for an active and productive bed throughout the summer.
I believe hugelkultur could be the answer for many farmers and gardeners who struggle establishing nutrient-rich soil. I personally love the idea but I’m curious about its functionality in high-altitude environments like Summit County. You can find a lot of online resources on building hugelkulturs in just about any environment so don’t be afraid to give it a try.
In the meantime, if you’re itching to plant as soon as the snow melts or aren’t too keen on experimenting with building your own soil, there are a couple of alternatives. You can always purchase locally-made compost at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park. Raised beds are a relatively easy and inexpensive way to grow vegetables in Summit County. You can even purchase a mix of top soil and compost directly from SCRAP - 970-468-9263 x 0.
Another option is to rent a community garden plot at one of our five community gardens. Plot applications for new gardeners will be available online starting March 1 at www.SummitGardenNetwork.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
Hugelkultur is a permaculture technique that mimics nature by composting or breaking down organic material into nutrient-rich soil.