So yesterday I went into the basic concepts of hugulkulture, and its main benefits to you as a home grower or gardener.  Now its time to get into exactly how you can construct a relatively painless hugel bed, and you can learn from where I went wrong with some of my design.

Building your beds:

Building a hugel bed is very easy, and as I mentioned yesterday, now is the perfect time to be building them, especially in the wetter climates.  I couldn’t find any graphics to illustrate my beds correctly, so I actually made one for us to use.  Disclaimer: Not an artist.

HugelbedOk, once again, not an artist.  This seemed the easiest way to describe what I was doing for you.  So first, the frame around the outside, I actually made of of pallets.  I will post a picture below.  I basically built either a square or rectangle out of pallets, and then left it open to the ground underneath.  On the very bottom layer I put in cardboard.  This will break down into soil eventually, but in the mean time it does a great job of holding the moisture up in your growing medium, rather than letting it wick out into the soil.

The next section is the bigger branches.  I was fortunate enough to have had a dead orange tree in our backyard when we moved in.  We had our neighbour cut it down into fireplace sized pieces, but we don’t really use our fireplace that much.  So instead I had an easy and readily available source of wood to use.  Now these are the pieces that will start to get consumed by the fungi.  As they decay, they will go from hard wood, to a soft and spongy material.  Think log found in the woods.  I put a decent amount in the bottom, basically enough to loosely cover the bottom of the bed.

Next I piled up leaves, hay, alfalfa and twigs to cover over the branches, and give it a flatter feel for the soil mix.  There isn’t really any wrong items to put in here.  I used whatever we happened to have laying around.  I did use quite a bit of the chicken’s alfalfa litter, as it would both introduce bacteria into the soil to aid decomposition, as well as provide lots of nitrogen.

Lastly, on top I put on the soil mixture.  I used basically a 50/50 mix of organic top soil and denatured manure.  I would say from a nutrient perspective I actually did OK, but I made one tremendous error.  I didn’t mix in any peat moss or other substance to keep it from clumping up.  My soil got very dense and hard, very quickly.  You will want to mix in large quantities of SOMETHING to help keep it loose, or put in lots of worms if you don’t have my kind of climate.  Anything to keep it loose.  If it gets too tight your plant’s roots won’t be able to grow downward, and your water will basically just pool at the top rather than soaking down into the soil.

In terms of ratio, I was looking for about 18 inches total of growing space for the roots.  I used about 6 inches of the material at the bottom, and then about a foot of soil at the top.  This may or may not have been the perfect height, but its what I used.

Raisedbed2

The reason that’s important is because for all of my struggles with gardening this summer, the hugel system was working.  This picture was taken some time in either late August or early September.  It was the driest time of the year, and my squash plants were still growing.  We actually would have had a good harvest, if squash bugs hadn’t killed them all.

Despite the fact that at this point we hadn’t gotten rain in more than a month, I could still poke my finger down about an inch into the soil and feel moisture.  I did have to water every day, but I watered by hand, rather than irrigation.  It was able to take that moisture in and release it slowly to the plants when they needed it.  So I have to say the system does work.

Why build now?

There are two main reasons to be building your hugel beds right now.  First, its cooler outside.  Doing manual labor when its hot is a terrible plan.  Believe me.  I screened in my porch when it was 110 degrees outside.  That sucked.  Second, everything is wet right now in most areas.  Its a great time to get a jump on your hugel beds.

Under normal circumstances, hugel beds don’t do a whole lot for you in the first year.  The wood hasn’t really started to break down yet, and the beds really need to go through a rainy season in order to charge up the moisture.  Which is why now is a good time to build.  Now the wood is already wet.  So you can go out into the woods and bring back some wet wood that’s already starting to break down.  If you bury it now, it will continue to charge up.  This will let you see more benefit this summer.

If it isn’t wet in your area right now, grab a bunch of wood, throw it in a bin, and soak it in water for a week.  It will smell terrible by the end, but it will be a great way to start a bed.  That’ what I ended up doing on the last bed I built, and it was the most effective.  I am convinced soaking that wood ahead of time gave me the jump on it.

So that is a basic recipe for a raised bed hugel system.  This is a great way to both extend your growing season through the summer, and cut down on irrigation costs.  There is really nothing that using this type of strategy won’t help, and now is the perfect time to start.

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