What’s a Hugelkultur?

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love!
–Sitting Bull

I’m keen on experimenting in the garden.  My friend Mary says I’m a horticulturist.  I like that thought, but I’m not sure I’d use that word to describe myself.  Maybe just a goofy plant lady who gets bored seeding in straight lines.

Last fall I planted eight garlic cloves for the first time.  In their place, eight tender green shoots reach up through the otherwise neglected soil.  There is something about coaxing nature that satisfies me.  One year I tested straw bale gardening.  If I can find some good bales, I’ll try it again.  I’d like to give keyhole gardening a shot in the front yard.  The one thing I can’t grow is grass, but grass is on the way out anyway.

I’m just ahead of the curve.

My yard could also use a few rain gardens.  I live in the middle of a big hill and there is an underground river that would like to flow right through the middle of my basement.

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Bubba helped me fix the drainage.

Bubba helped me fix the drainage so we no longer see any water in the house.  But here’s the deal.  If I and all my neighbors up the hill would do our best to keep our water in our own yard, fewer homes would have drainage issues.

The old adage is to divert the water away from the house.  This is sound advice, but to most homeowners this means draining it from the yard and eventually to the street where it flows freely through underground systems to our natural waterways, fertilizer and all.  We now know this has harmful effects on both the environment and those of us who live in it.

When I moved into my home, it was April.  After some unusually long hard rains, I realized I was now the proud owner of lakefront property and a couple of ducks.  My first instinct was to dig a little trench on the downhill side of the yard and let it all drain away.  That worked great.  This was the year of the foreclosure, and the houses on either side of me were vacant.  The growing pond below me was a great solution.

Then the house uphill from me sold.  A builder came in to flip the house.  He had no interest in neighborliness, only profit.  He used my water hose without asking and parked his trucks in front of my driveway before I had to leave for work.  He pointed rain spouts right at my house, and all of the pavement drained my way.  A call to the city resolved nothing.  After the first good rain, there was a river through my basement, the garage, and the backyard.  The little trench I dug out to drain the yard was quickly eroding and becoming a waterfall.

What’s more, I now had a neighbor downhill from me too, and I was feeling really guilty about draining into his backyard.  But it wasn’t just his yard.  Mentally, I mapped the route the water on my property had taken.  Twenty houses uphill were all emptying their run-off downhill.  Once it hit my yard, it went on to reach other basements, garages, the sewer and eventually our waterways.

Wishing the uphill properties wouldn’t drain into my yard wasn’t enough.  I was a neighbor to those below me.  A change had to occur somewhere with someone.  And that was when I decided it might as well be me.

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Mandi Bunny with an i

I stopped using chemical fertilizer and pesticides.  What used to embarrass me, is now an emblem of pride.  My dandelions feed the pollinators in early spring when other foods are hard to find.  I also have a rabbit who loves for me to forage the chemical-free greens for her breakfast.  As the gardens take over the lawn, maybe someday I can even get rid of my gas-powered lawn mower.

I filled in the drainage trench.  Even if it means living lakefront once a year, I want to keep the water that comes into my yard from leaving my yard.  If we all thought that way it would be an easier task.  And we would be better stewards of our neighborhoods, cities, and the planet.

I built a hugelkultur.  A hugelwhat?

A hugelkultur.  There are right and wrong ways to say it.  I say it hoogle coolter.  That, I believe, is the wrong way, but I’m sticking with it.

I suppose there are also right and wrong ways to do it, and things to plant in it the first or succeeding years.  As I am a dubbed horticulturist and stubbornly self-sufficient, I will learn as I go.

The word hugelkultur translates to the term hill culture.  Typically, a hugelkultur is a raised bed with an inner filling of rotting wood and other composting materials.  I highly suggest, if you have more than a bizarre interest in the word hugelkultur, you do your own research, and not use my trial as your reference.

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Here, the small impression is retaining some of the spring run-off that would normally run quickly through my yard.

Last fall I scooped out some earth to create an indent that will eventually become a rain garden.  The sod and dirt, along with dead wood, was piled on the down side of the indent as a type of dam for heavy rains or spring thaws.  The dam doubles as a raised bed with fertile, moisture-retaining compost inside.

I’ll plant the rain garden this year, making it larger after seeing how well it performed this spring.  Once I add soil and prepare the hugelkultur for planting, I’ll share more photos and you can all watch from your armchairs without getting dirt under your nails.

The hard part will be keeping the dog off of it.  The hugelkultur is in the direct line of Frisbee flight, and you may remember my past challenges with that.

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Peace . . .

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18 thoughts on “What’s a Hugelkultur?

  1. Ingenious and good for you for being the first in the neighborhood to do the right thing. I pissed off a neighbor who offered me his roundup to get rid of my weeds. Told him I don’t use chemicals on my yard. I’m organically inclined. 🙂 Sounds like a mental problem, right? They don’t like weeds here but the bees need them. So I keep the front clear but the back is fair game for me. My yard is terraced with my back yard going squish, squish, squish as you walk through. This summer, the grass is going to go. Little by little. The mounding idea is brilliant. Looking forward to seeing more.

    1. We’re rebels! I used roundup for a while. I’m sure I killed everything in my soil — bacteria, bugs, any organic matter. Sad. But now I know better, and hopefully it will build itself up again. Nature is resilient if we let it alone.

  2. Pingback: WORLD ORGANIC NEWS | What’s a Hugelkultur? | Beats the Alternative

  3. What a great way to take care of the water, Jean. I’d never heard of this before. We’ve had our fair share of water in the basement, but it was foundation problems. Water in the house in never fun.

  4. When you said you were doing a hugelkultur bed I didn’t realize you were adding a rain garden in the middle of it. I like how you have designed the bed and hope it does contain the water and keep it from your house. I, and many of my neighbors had flooded basements this year. Not at all fun. I have a steep hill that leads right down to my house so I am working out a few different types of beds, reworking the gutter system and so on to prevent such flooding in the future. Have you seen the book Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist by Michael Judd? He does a good job of showing how to catch water through swales, rain gardens and yes even hugelkultur.

    1. I’m pretty sure I have that book. If I don’t have it, I’ve looked at it a number of times with the intention of buying it. Yes, I decided to combine the rain garden and hugelkultur. Mostly this is to keep the rain from making my yard a big muddy mess in the spring, and washing down to the land below mine. Because the land uphill from my house is all pavement, there wasn’t much I could do. I raised the concrete drive and dug out the egress window. I also fixed a broken sump pump, and re-plumbed the bathroom. We are finally dry!

  5. Pingback: A Train of Thought, Off Its Track | Beats the Alternative

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