We embrace permaculture not just because it is a sustainable method, but also because it is a broad concept that permits a plethora of possibilities and practices. Syntropic farming, agroforestry Hawaii, Korean natural farming—all of these innovative, cost-effective, and beneficial methodologies fall under the permaculture umbrella. At Gingerhill, we are always eager to employ different Permacultural practices in our quest to become the best in agroforestry Hawaii can be.
We have recently taken interest in the concept of Hugelkultur. Hugelkultur, German for “hill culture,” is a permaculture practice that drastically preceded the concept of permaculture itself. Practiced in Germany and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, Hugelkultur allows farmers to capitalize upon indigenous resources and organic “waste” to enhance plant growth and both the fertility and biodiversity of the soil. In this week’s post, we will explore how to construct a Hugelkultur bed and how doing so helps us lead the newly emerging forms of agroforestry Hawaii is witnessing.
Building a Hugelkultur Bed
Hugelkultur is a sustainable method of producing large and fertile garden beds that will advance agroforestry Hawaii style. Employing Hugelkultur methodologies, farmers construct raised garden beds using decomposing wood and other organic materials. These organic materials can include twigs, straw, soil, leaves, branches, compost, grass cuttings, and cardboard. You can even use clean wood scraps so long as they haven’t been painted or treated in any way.
Either building atop the ground in or in a shallow hole, farmers first stack decomposing wood, with the largest pieces at the bottom and smaller pieces toward the top. They then layer the wood with nitrogen rich materials, add water, and complete the bed with a layer of topsoil. To prevent soil compaction, it is important to create a pile in the shape of a prism with sides at roughly a 45-degree angle. Most beds are three feet high, but some recommend building them up to six feet tall.
Selecting Your Wood
In creating a Hugelkultur bed, it is important to use wood that decomposes efficiently and doesn’t contain any natural pesticides. Cedar, for example, is not suitable for Hugelkultur practices because it contains natural compounds that kill the beneficial fungi and microbes that enrich the health of the soil.
It is also important to use wood that has already undergone a good deal of decomposition. Wood is naturally high in carbon and will consume large amounts of nitrogen as it decomposes, leeching vital soil nutrition. Wood that has already rotted, however, has already consumed a great deal of nitrogen. In fact, thoroughly decomposed wood will actually release nitrogen, making for incredibly rich soil and effective carbon sequestration. As it continues to decay, the wood will continue to provide a steady stream of organic nutrients to the soil, rendering the beds more and more fertile over time. Thus, though you can plant in Hugelkultur beds immediately, it is best to let them decompose for about a year before planting
The primary incentive for creating Hugelkultur beds is the incredibly fertile soil that it yields. The decomposition of Hugelkultur beds emulates the natural decomposition of fallen forest debris that takes place in natural landscapes. Thus, Hugelkultur beds are similar to compost piles. Hugelkultur beds and compost piles do differ in their construction and use. However, the decomposition of organic matter and the beneficial microbes and fungi that they yield are much the same.
The composting that occurs in Hugelkultur beds yields benefits beyond the microbes it breeds. Composting generates heat, warming the soil and thus lengthening your growing season. Though wood releases nitrogen as it decomposes, it retains several other nutrients and prevents them from transferring into ground water sources, making more nutrition available to plants.
As the wood breaks down, cellulose and lignin eat the fungi and consume the wood, rendering it porous and sponge-like. This spongy texture is what allows Hugelkultur beds to retain water. The wood then releases water during dry times, making for consistently and reliably moist soil. Keep in mind, though, that excess water can disturb the structural and nutritional integrity of your Hugelkultur beds. If you live in a low-lying area that is prone to flooding, Hugelkultur might not be an appropriate method. As we live on a hilly, high-elevation property, Hugelkultur will help us become the best in agroforestry Hawaii has witnessed.
Who Should Plant a Hugelkultur Bed?
Hugelkultur is particularly beneficial for land afflicted with severely compacted soil because hugelkultur beds aerate naturally. We can attribute their natural aeration to two processes: wood decomposition and microbial activity. Both the active microbes in the soil and the decomposing wood create natural air pockets in the soil. Aerated soil is beneficial for plants because it allows the roots to thoroughly penetrate the soil. These long, strong roots can extract the rich nutrition that lies at the soil’s deepest layers. With the increased surface area that Hugelkultur permits, Hugelkultur beds can produce larger, healthier plants, and far more of them, with little to no external inputs.
Hugelkultur beds can effectively protect plant life from harsh weather patterns. The beds can double as a wind-breaking mechanism in areas where heavy winds threaten the lives of young, fragile plants. If planted in strategic locations, they can also effectively channel heavy streams of water, thereby preventing the pooling and flooding that can drown delicate plant life. By self-telling, irrigating, and wind breaking, Hugelkultur can drastically reduce the labor required to maintain your farm.