Its not yet spring time for most of the country, technically its not spring time here yet either, but with days reaching up into the 80s, its very hard to keep that in mind.  Its feels like spring, it looks like spring, and everyone in the gardening and homesteading community is anxious to get out and get growing.  If I wasn’t moving in the next few months, I would be out amending my beds, and starting my seeds right now.

After all, that is how most of us start our gardening seasons.  Well, there is another, much more beneficial way to get a jump on the gardening season, and you can start right now.  That is to start integrating hugelkulture into your gardening system.  Now is the absolutely perfect time in the wetter climates to get started on building a hugel system.  You can have it built and in place to capture late season snow melt, and the spring rains, so that by the time summer heat rolls around, you have a nice water battery in place to reduce or eliminate your need for watering or irrigation, which should be good news for everyone.

What is Hugelkulture?

Hugelkulture (Hill Culture in german) is a system of permaculture popularized by Sepp Holzer in Germany, and Paul Wheaton here in the United States.  You can get really complicated with the application (Sepp Holzer does) and try to go crazy getting ratios, angles and a whole bunch of other stuff just perfect to optimize your garden.  The other more sensible option is just to worry less about it, and bury some wood in the ground, because that’s really all it comes down to (don’t worry, I will layout a template tomorrow).

A traditional hugulkulture bed.  NOT what you will be doing.

A traditional hugelkulture bed. NOT what you will be doing.

What you want?

There is an old saying, “A forest grows on a fallen forest”.  If you have ever taken a walk through a forest, you have seen fallen logs covered with moss and mushrooms gently being consumed back into the earth.  The leaves underfoot are also being slowly turned back into soil.  That process is all being driven by fungus, and that is both what you want in your soil, and what you encourage to grow by burying wood.  If you were to dig up a little of that forest soil, you would see some white string like things running through the ground.  Those are fungal hyphae, and you need those for healthy soil.  Hugelkulture provides a good environment for these to grow.

Fungal hyphae growing through forest soil

Fungal hyphae growing through forest soil

Why it helps?

Soil works a lot like a sponge, it has a wicking effect that automatically moves moisture from the wet parts to the dry, so that the entire area achieves moisture equilibrium.  Think about taking two sponges, one of them saturated wet just under the point of dripping, and the other one dry.  Set them next to each other so that they are touching.  Come back in a few hours, and they both will be equally moist.  Soil works that way too.

Normally when you water, the moisture is actually pulled away from your plants through the wicking effect, so that you end up needing to use way move water than necessary just for plant survival.  That is actually why rain water is more beneficial to plants.  Its not that rain has magic powers, but when it rains, there is no wicking, since the ground is universally moist, it stays where it needs to be.

Having buried wood in the ground provides wicking element that you control.  When the ground is very moist during the rainy season, the wood and the fungus that it spawns will just suck it all in.  As you move into the summer and the ground dries out, the fungus will start to slowly pay that water back out into the ground system, and greatly reduce your need for watering.  This is how a forest survives and grows.

Why its easy?

If you start to plow into the world of hugelkulture, you will meet fanatics who insist on only doing it a certain way, and if you don’t you are a heretic.  They are wrong, and its easy to prove.  Go walk into a forest, anywhere in the world that it hasn’t been messed with by people.  Look around.  You will see fallen trees slowly being consumed, leaves on the ground, and new plants growing up from the decay.  Nature isn’t out there worrying about angles and ratios, you shouldn’t be either.  Discovery is made by trying something, and seeing how it works.  If we didn’t push the boundaries of knowledge, we would never learn anything new.

How it will help?

Hugelkulture provides three main benefits to your growing beds.  First, it will retain and release moisture for your plants, reducing the need for irrigation in most climates.  Second, as the wood breaks down in your soil, it will begin to transform into nitrogen rich soil for your plants to grow in.  Third, as the hyphae reach down into the ground, they start to transport minerals and nutrients up for your growing plants to consume.  Generally increasing the health of your plants, and you, after you eat them.

This is something that I saw start to work for me just in one summer here in the absolute driest conditions in the USA.  If it can help here, it will help anywhere.  Tomorrow, I will lay out exactly what I did, and tell you how it worked, and how I could have done it better.  It will give you a great jumping off point for designing and building your own system.