I spent this last weekend preparing to make my second hugelkultur bed.
Last year, after the torrential rains drowned all my plants again, I decided that having raised beds was a must. I didn’t want to go that route because of the lack of flexibility in terms of garden layout, but last year was so disappointing. The excess water suffocated my plants’ roots and it also starved all the soil microbes of oxygen. This meant the soil went anaerobic and the soil food web (that delivers nutrients to plant roots) died, so the entire year had reduced yields as the soil food web built itself up from scratch again. Not only that but potassium, which is responsible for fruiting and flowering, is water soluble and was all washed away… with predictable results.
So despite being no-till for about three years now, disrupting everything in the making of raised beds ought to be worth it in the long run.
But when looking at the cost of importing soil, making hugels instead begins to look more and more attractive. Hugelkulture beds distinguish themselves as both cost-effective (especially if you have an acre of forest from which to harvest fallen branches) and multipurpose (forming a compost pile deep in the center of your bed, providing nutrients for years). The logs, branches, leaves, chicken compost, grass clippings, and woodchips that I’ll fill the core of each bed with will also raise the soil level above the water table by at least a foot or so. It ought to be enough to save my plants.
Last weekend was nearly 50*F and sunny – beautiful weather for winter-type projects like this. Though I had grand plans earlier this year to raise all the beds simultaneously, I soon realized that the amount of work involved meant that I would only be able to raise one, maybe two beds each winter.
I selected the worst one and set to work. My goal was to remove the top 8-10″ of soil and set it to the side, on top of freecycled cardboard boxes for easy cleanup. After I fill the hugel trench with various organics, I will return this rich layer to the top of the bed. That’s all the soil I’ve worked so hard at amending through all these years, and I want it up top where the plants can get it!
My favorite chicken, Lady, was there next to me before I even started digging. She wasted no time cuddling up to my ankles, twining in and out between my legs like a cat, and generally getting in the way. I had to move her gently out of the way with the shovel so many times, just to make the next cut. She was gobbling up the worms and grubs as soon as my shovel exposed them.
She’s at least 3 years old, and was never friendly until she got sick a month or so ago. I babied and doctored her a bit. Now that she’s mostly recovered, she’s suddenly very sociable and always comes up to hang out near me whenever I’m working. She doesn’t run from the girls or any visitors, but comes right up to us and stands still and lets anyone pet her and hold her who wants to. It’s the oddest thing, but I love it. Lucky girl – she was on the cull list (hasn’t been laying for quite a while), but now she’s earned a name and become a pet.
Not ten minutes into the work, the other chickens all became curious about the activity. They carefully made their way over and, keeping one eye on me and my scary shovel, dove right into the bug smorgasbord in the trench and began to “help.”
They were soooo excited, pecking at a whole bunch of worms, grubs, little beetles, and who knows what else. I was very pleased to see it – it means the soil is alive with its own ecosystem, which is a very good thing. (And that I’ll be getting very nutrient-rich eggs in the next few days, which is also a good thing). They stayed with me the entire day, jumping in and out of the trench I was digging.
If you’re at all interested in a much more detailed look at the inner workings of the soil food web and why seeing bugs would make me happy, I highly recommend the book Teaming With Microbes. It explores at great depth the microbiology and mycology of the soil and how the nutrients move around in it. You might already know that compost is good for the soil – but do you know why? According to author Jeff Lowenfels, it’s not so much the nutrients of the compost itself that nourish the plants, but the beneficial microbes & fungi that that compost fosters. Your compost application “inoculation” allows these microbes to form symbiotic relationships with your plants, helping them absorb nutrients and minerals and thus outperform any crop grown in sterile soil.
So seeing my chickens so pleased made me really happy too. Frankly, I was surprised to see so much soil activity during the winter.
The bed is about 4 x 32 feet. It took me a few hours, but at last I removed the entire top 8-10 inches and set it to the side on top of those freecycled cardboard boxes. By the time I reached the end, the bottom was underwater and the soil removed had a clearly anaerobic smell. Each shovelful squelched as I lifted it up.
Seeing this, I was so glad that I had chosen to dig it up even after 3 years of a strict no-till policy. Despite this brutal disruption, I am confident that the soil will be much healthier once it is elevated from the water table and filled with organic matter.