Hugelkultur Bed I – Part II

My first hugelkultur bed has been filled with soil and planted. My wife loved it, the kids were excited about it, and now we are seeing the beginnings of what will be a summer full of work to keep up with all of the veggies that are sprouting out now. Below is the play-by-play update.

Hugelkultur: “Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource. Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.”
From The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource from permaculture.org.au

After I built the raised bed with my dad 2 weeks ago, I stained it with a solid exterior stain to make it last longer than I could possibly need it to last. I planned to post some pictures of it stained before I loaded in the soil, but I’m impatient and couldn’t wait to play in the dirt.  Last week my mom came by with a truck bed/trailer full of Mrs Hutto’s bedding mix from Hutto’s in Jackson, MS. If you’re in the area, Hutto’s has a great selection of seed, plants, and all of the other gear you could want for your lawn/garden. I gravitate to the firearms section of sporting goods stores and get a knowing glance and a smirk from my wife. Well, Hutto’s is the place where I can return the glance. Not that she’s alone, I could blow a couple thousand dollars in there without even blinking if money was no object. Since it is an object, Hutto’s is definitely the best value bet for garden supplies in the area though it is less convenient than some of the higher-end stores near my house. The comparable products from the stores in Ridgeland/Flowood are 30-40% more expensive and not “on the way” between my Mom’s house and mine. Mom & I shoveled in the 2 cubic yards of soil and I gave the bed a good solid drink of water. When I say solid, I mean a whole heckuva lot of water. The older rotted wood beneath the bed is already like a sponge and the bedding mix has rice hulls mixed in so it was pretty thirsty. The soil also includes composted wood, leaves, manure, waste plant material, and egg shells. So it brings a ton of nutrients to the table and is as good as any compost I could make myself in the backyard. I could have used another yard of soil once it all settled into the nooks and crannies created by the wood, loose soil, and turned-under rye grass buried below. But as I mentioned above, I am impatient and mother nature isn’t exactly waiting around for my logistics challenges. No worries, though. The settled soil left a 4″ rim around the bed and it looks like I meant to do that. Woo!

My wife & I spent a few days between the bed construction and filling it with soil planning our planting layout. We basically set up the bed with the lowest tier reserved for herbs, echinacea (purple coneflower), and chamomile. We put in a couple of thyme plants and a small-leafed basil variety in addition to the sage that I relocated to this bed. We also started some oregano, sweet basil, and purple basil from seed. The layout of the middle and upper tiers was constrained by the number of pepper plants we wanted to fit into such a small space. All the peppers we grow (bell peppers, cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, habanero, ad infinitum) are individual species/cultivars of the capsicum genus and can potentially cross-pollinate. I want my bell peppers to not develop any pungency and I want my habaneros and cayennes to be kick-you-in-the-teeth hot.  Bottom line, I wanted to place the cayenne on one corner, the habanero in the middle, and the bell peppers in the end opposite corner of the bed to minimize any cross-pollination that may occur. That may or may not be a real concern in an annual planting, but I’ll treat it as a constraint anyway. Given this constraint, the middle tier has our tomatoes, crowder peas, snow peas, cayenne pepper, and greens  (mesclun mix, romaine, bib lettuce, & chard – spinach later this year). We planted 2 types of tomato plants and also started 2 types from seed. If I knew that I would have the bed in place in time for spring planting, I would have used my new soil cube to start the seeds earlier this year. Now that the bed is in, I will start some of my fall plants in the soil cube and write a review later this summer. The top tier has zucchini, bell peppers, habanero, carrots, & beets. We also planted a few marigolds and nasturtiums throughout these tiers to provide a little color and repel some pests. The kids absolutely loved planting the carrots, beets, and lettuce. I gave the bed another solid drink of water once I got all of the plants and seeds in. The rest of the week, mother nature came through in a big way with drenching rain. The strategy of placing the bed in the corner of my property where the entire yard runoff ends up seems so far to be working like a charm. The water pooled up around the bed and filled the inner hole where the wood is buried. A few days after the thunderstorms came through, the surrounding soil had dried but the soil in the bed is still moist.

After only a week, the plants we put in are happy and expanding. There are also solid signs of life from almost all of the seeds we planted. I haven’t seen any of the pepper plants or the echinacea crack the soil surface yet, but everything else has sprouted and looks to be off to the races. After another soaker yesterday, maybe the rest of the plants have poked through, but I wasn’t willing to walk down there to get muddy in the middle of a storm dropping hail and giving us quite the light show just for the sake of finding a few new sprouts.

My wife was really pleased with the way the bed turned out. So much so that she wants a ground-level bed in front of the raised bed to transition from yard to bed and provide more space to plant some oxygen production equipment. I tilled up the space “inside” the L and we’re planning to sow some wildflowers once I put in some more bedding soil and a gravel walkway around the beds. The wildflowers will provide a really pretty focal point and let the raised (primarily garden) bed become a transitional backdrop in the corner of the yard. Hopefully we will bring in some more butterflies and other “pretty pollinators” with the wildflowers and herbals.

I am really excited about all of the stuff we will be eating later this year. I’ll keep updating the progress of these beds, especially with regard to the amount of water I have to add (or not add as the case may be). I will also update this post once I get a chance during daylight to get some photos of the sprouting plants.

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