Hugulkultur: Gardening with the Germans

Ok, so now we know: there's some (possibly mildly) bad stuff in the soil.  What's an urban farmer to do?

In my last post, I explained how we built up some raised planting areas with additional soil, and alluded to another permaculture solution we've been trying.  This is a really clever way of building up a healthy bed for planting, and I had never heard of it before - but after doing some research, it is really quite fascinating.  The method is called Hugulkultur, and if I remember correctly from my one semester of German in college, it is pronounced like "Hoogle culture," rhymes with "Google."  But I've also heard it more like "Hyoo-gle culture."  And actually, I'm not sure how much I remember from my one semester of German.

However you want to pronounce it, it's a rather ingenious system in theory.  Here's how it works:

1. Start with old, rotting logs laid out along the length of your new growing bed.  

2. Infill as tightly as possible with smaller and smaller logs, sticks, and then organics.

3. The top layer is usually made with sod, laid upside down - but we just used a layer of compost, soil, and straw, because... well, that's what we had.

The gang making a new Hugulkultur bed: lay down logs, infill with smaller branches, and add other greens and yard waste.

The gang making a new Hugulkultur bed: lay down logs, infill with smaller branches, and add other greens and yard waste.

Most of what I've read online suggests that these beds be upwards of five to six feet tall (!!!), but that seemed a bit excessive for us.  Ours are about a foot and a half tall for now.

You're probably wondering: why?  Why go through all this trouble of hauling giant pieces of wood and spending time layering and building up, when we had perfectly good soil that we could have just laid on the ground and planted into?  Excellent question, you smarty-pants.  

As the wood rots over the next few years, it will begin to break down and gradually release nutrients into the soil.  The nutrients mean that we hopefully won't need to supplement these beds with fertilizers or compost on a regular basis like we will for the other, non-German beds.  The slow breakdown also means that the beds are self-aerating, so we won't need to till the soil at the beginning of each season.

A fellow farmer layering some new soil and compost as a top layer on the Hugulkultur.

A fellow farmer layering some new soil and compost as a top layer on the Hugulkultur.

Another huge benefit is its water-retaining properties.  These systems are slowly catching on in very arid climates, because the combination of materials in the pile (especially in a five foot high pile) can retain water for weeks, slowly releasing it to the plant roots and sustaining the life above.  In terms of sustainability, this is great news - less water use, which in some areas of the country (see: California), is a Big Deal.  You're probably thinking, "but Jessie, you live in Seattle, where it rains all of the time always."  You have a point.  But the funny thing about the Pacific Northwest is that we have the ridiculously rainy season in the winter, and then a pretty dramatically dry season in the summer.  So the water retention potential of this system is a huge benefit even for us up here in sunny Seattle.

Final benefit: it's a fantastic way to use lawn clippings or trimmed parts of trees from your own lawn, keeping the nutrients ultra-local.  In fact, the wood we used came from a cherry tree from the house next door to the farm - that neighbor had cut down the tree about two years ago and it had already started to rot (cherry + already rotting = PERFECT for Hugulkultur!).  Then, I was walking to the local watering hole one afternoon and saw some gentlemen loading their truck with tree trimmings from some street trees a block away.  You'd better believe I called the troops and we swooped in and asked if we could have them. They were happy to oblige because it meant they didn't have to haul them miles away for chipping - bonus sustainability points: less gasoline used!  And to top it off, the apartment building across the alley from us mowed their big lawn last week and we were able to take their clippings for the pile.  Talk about ultra-local.

The many layers of a Hugul.

The many layers of a Hugul.

The great news is, even if you don't have your very own urban farm, there are ways to use this system on a smaller scale to have a raised bed or to avoid nasty soils.  I've even seen pictures online of people making tiny versions inside wood planter boxes.  If you are interested in learning more (I know you are), there are some great resources online that I would recommend checking out.  So pull on your liederhosen and get gardenin'!