BY JANET SCHOFIELD
Want a great way to recycle your yard waste and create a sustainable raised bed for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers?? The answer for you may be a Hugel Culture. In the RGV, we have been experimenting with this method of building raised beds at both the Hidalgo and Cameron Master Gardener Educational Gardens.
Hügelkultur is a German word meaning mound or hill culture. It has been used by German growers for hundreds of years. A hugel bed can be built in a hole in the ground but can also involve no digging. In the RGV it is best to start with a layer of cardboard and/or newspapers to cover the area where you want to build your bed to discourage the growth of invasive grasses. Normally the beds are about 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 5 feet high. However we also have been making beds much longer and higher.
The basic idea is to start with a base of the largest logs you can find. It is convenient to have them cut into two to three foot lengths. On top of this base you add as many smaller branches as possible—they may be cut or not depending what you have time for. The next layer is made up of leaves, coffee grounds, shredded newspaper and any other biodegradable materials that need to be recycled.
The final layer is supposed to be inverted pieces of sod, but after experimenting with this method at the Hidalgo garden we found that it was better to cover the pile with compost—one to two inches is usually enough. This top layer is where you plant your crops.
There are several good reasons to try out this method.
First of all, it is an excellent way to recycle yard waste like stumps, tree limbs, and branches, instead of having them piled in your alley or in front of your house for the city to collect. You will find that your neighbors are very generous at supplying you with all the materials you need. There are often many bags full of leaves available at curbsides. Also there are many piles of logs and branches throughout the RGV. You can save a trip to a landfill by picking up these materials. Starbucks has a special program called “Grounds for the Garden” and if requested they can save bags full of coffee and tea grounds for your Hugel Kulture. Some lawncare companies and friendly neighbors will even deliver materials to you.
Secondly, the Hugel bed helps to conserve water. The logs and branches in the Hugel Bed act like a sponge to hold moisture. While initially the Hugel needs to be watered, as it becomes established it should need less water than conventional beds. Hugels built in some areas do not require watering after the first year. However in the RGV, because of our special conditions, Hugels do need to be monitored and watered if they become dry. If you have an exceptionally low area on your property it is a great place to put a Hugel bed so that the water gets conserved and also to prevent flooding.
Thirdly, Hugel beds help to promote fertility. As the materials in the Hugel gradually decay they form a constant source of nutrients for the plants growing on the bed.
Depending on the rate of decay, some Hugels may supply nutrients for twenty years or more. Here in the RGV our rate of decay is much faster and we are finding that we may need to add additional materials to it even after a few years. One of the first Hugel Beds we built at the Hidalgo Educational Garden started as a six foot high pile in July 2016 and is now less than a foot tall. For valley conditions it is good to start with a Hugel that is taller than normal.
Fourth, as the logs and branches in a Hugel break down, soil aeration increases so it is not necessary to till a Hugel bed or even to turn it as would be necessary to do with other composting methods. No-till methods promote biodiversity.
Organisms like mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms are allowed to flourish. No-till farming also reduces carbon emissions through greater sequestration of carbon dioxide by the soil. In addition, nitrous oxide, another dangerous greenhouse gas, is also reduced through no-till.
The Hugel bed is an excellent place to grow vegetables. We are now experimenting in the Master Gardener Educational Gardens with several crops. We have successfully grown lettuces, chilis, squashes, eggplants, tomatoes and even potatoes. We are now working on a special herb bed and some flower beds.
For anyone who wants to be a good steward of our planet’s resources, the Hugel Culture is an excellent choice. It requires very little monetary expense, just thinking ahead and some loving labor.