Hugelkultur: Using Woody Waste in Composting
Hugelkultur is an ancient form of sheet composting developed in Eastern Europe. It uses woody wastes such as fallen logs and pruned branches in order to build soil fertility and improve drainage and moisture retention.
If you walk through a natural woodland, you will see many fallen logs and branches on the ground. The older these logs are, the more life they sustain. A log that has rested on the forest floor for five or ten years will be covered in moss, mushrooms, wildflowers and even young trees. Poke at it a little and you will notice that the decaying wood is damp in all but the most vicious of droughts.
Hugelkultur is designed to take advantage of the natural fertility and moisture-conserving qualities of rotting wood, while speeding the process of decomposition up. The heat produced by decomposition also helps protect cold-sensitive plants.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
- Gather woody waste materials such as dead logs, extra firewood, pruned or clipped branches, and more. The wood can be either rotting or fresh, although already rotting wood decomposes fastest.
- Lay the wood in a mound about 1-2 feet high and stomp on it a bit to break it up. You can dig a trench to lay the wood in, if you wish.
- Cover the wood with other compost materials such as autumn leaves, grass clippings, garden wastes, and manure. (This stage is optional if you aren't planning to plant the bed immediately.)
- Cover the wood and compost with a few inches of dirt and/or prepared compost.
You can either let the bed sit for awhile to rot, or plant it immediately. Among the plants known to do well in hugelkultur beds are potatoes, squash, melons, and a number of different species of berries. Other gardeners plant the bed with cover crops for the first year to improve the fertility even more before adding vegetables or other plants.
You can achieve similar results, though much more slowly, by simply burying logs and other wood waste in trenches around your yard in areas where you want to improve fertility and moisture control.
In swampy areas, buried logs will suck up significant quantities of water quickly and release them slowly, reducing the chance of standing water or flooding.
In drier areas, the logs will act in the same way, releasing stored water slowly into the surrounding soil and reducing the need to water.
This is the book that introduced me to the concept of hugelkultur, and I recommend it highly for anyone interested in organic and sustainable gardening techniques. One of the most informative and useful gardening books ever written.