A funny word is building buzz in some gardening circles. It’s “hugelkultur,” a growing method that employs dead wood as a “soil,” nutrient and water source, all in one.
If you don’t speak German, the word means “hill” or “mound culture,” and that’s basically what hugelkultur looks like: a garden planted on mounds rather than flat ground. Underneath is wood: freshly downed trees, rotting logs or wood scraps, topped with dirt.
The method, developed by Austrian permaculture guru Sepp Holzer, has been finding converts in Europe for more than a decade but is relatively new to the United States, and especially Minnesota, where growers are just starting to discover it, said Maggie McKenna, education director for the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) – Cold Climate in Minneapolis.
“Farmers in our certification program were experimenting with it last year,” McKenna said. “People are really excited about it, and seeing how it translates here.”
The excitement stems from hugelkultur’s potential for “drought-proofing” a garden or landscape, she said. The wood absorbs moisture like a sponge, then releases it as it decomposes, reducing the need for watering.
Water scarcity hasn’t traditionally been a big worry in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but that’s starting to change, particularly after last year’s drought conditions, McKenna said. “It sparked people looking into new ways of irrigation, more creative, natural ways.”
Hugelkultur is an attempt to replicate and accelerate what happens in nature, said Kirk Marschel, permaculture manager for YEA Corps, a Minneapolis nonprofit group that trains youths in sustainable agriculture practices. “A tree falls in the forest and is the nurse site for new plantings.”
YEA Corps recently dug up the turf grass in front of its Chicago Avenue office and replaced it with a hugelkultur installation built with downed trees from recent storms. “We’re re-using some of that waste,” said Marschel.
Tim and Amy Reisdorf are experimenting with hugelkultur in a big way at R Farm, their 5.8-acre homestead near Lindstrom, Minn. Their large kitchen garden is grown on logs from their property, topped with manure, dirt and leaf mulch.
The Reisdorfs also planted their “Three Sisters” garden (a Native American tradition in which beans, squash and corn form a symbiotic growing relationship) in an “inverted hugel” — logs with dirt and mulch packed between them. “It’s ‘raised bed a la hugel,’ ” Amy said.
The Reisdorfs have embraced hugelkultur as part of the new self-sufficient lifestyle they’re trying to create for themselves and their two children. They moved from south Minneapolis to the farm just last year because they wanted to produce more of their own food and needed more land to do it.
Amy and their 11-year-old daughter, Anjali, both have allergies and sensitivities to processed foods and ingredients, Tim said. “Fresh organic food is really expensive. It’s hard to make ends meet when you shop at the Wedge for all your food.”
And though he’s not a “prepper,” a reference to those who stockpile rations in preparation for a doomsday that they believe is coming, he does believe “things are going to get harder. We want to have control over our food supply. We have a goal: to produce 75 percent of our own food.”
Hugelkultur accommodates their desire to grow many different crops because the mounded beds extend the growing season, maximize sun exposure and create different microclimates that support a wider range of plants. On the north side of their hugels, they’ve planted lettuce and other cool-weather crops. On the south side, they put peppers, tomatoes and other sun-loving plants.
And hugelkultur works well on their land, which has good soil but is far from level, Tim said. “One of the challenges of this property is the hills. A lot of the land is unusable by normal farming methods.”
Amy appreciates the fact that hugelkultur, once installed, is easier on the gardener. On her blog, “R Farm Adventures” (www.reisdorffarmadventures.blogspot.com) she recently wrote: “The fact I am gardening at all is a testament to hugels.”
Hugel beds are easier to weed and harvest than traditional beds because the crops grow at an elevated, more comfortable height, she said. “I’m 42. I’m not going to grovel in the dirt on my hands and knees. It’s a good garden style for someone who’s not 25 and athletic.”
The optimal hugel is about 5 feet tall, 2 feet wide at the top and 6 feet wide at the bottom, which creates a 45-degree angle to provide good aeration, according to Andrea Holker of Monticello, Minn., an early adopter of hugelkultur who has studied with pioneer Holzer, both in Austria and Montana.
“I first became aware of it three or four years ago,” she said, and has been practicing hugelkultur at home for several growing seasons. As a garden design and maintenance professional (Andrea’s Garden Services), she plans to incorporate it into the services she offers to clients. “What’s exciting to me is to include permaculture with the aesthetics that my clients require,” she said.
From Holzer, Holker learned what to plant where: taller plants that thrive in drier soil at the top, and plants that prefer moist soil, such as melons and garlic, at the bottom, for example. “The goal is to always have a crop cover,” she said. “You need good plant identification skills” to be successful at hugelkultur.
“It offers a lot of potential,” said Paula Westmoreland, a program director for the PRI and owner of Ecological Gardens, a permaculture design and installation service. She went to Duluth last fall to observe a large hugelkultur installation, and returned in the spring to attend a workshop with Holzer and his crew.
The idea behind hugelkultur is simple and basic, but the practice is a bit more complicated, according to Westmoreland. “Careful design is needed to make sure they work effectively, that the slope is stabilized and to prevent erosion.”
Setting up their hugel beds was a lot of hard work, Amy Reisdorf said. “The up-front time investment is high, but after that it gets easier. Build the hugels, and they last a decade. It’s perpetuating.”