Audrey Hepburn said, “to plant a garden is to have hope for tomorrow.” Others argue that gardening is an act of defiance towards the forces that control our current food chain. I have been told that I have lots of hope, and enjoy being defiant. I guess gardening is for me.
Now that I have a place that we are planning to stay in for a while, I’ve decided to start a garden. The hardest part was trying to figure out the best type of garden for my yard.
Growing up my father had a 2 acre yard, of which most of it was a garden and orchard. I live in a large city and space is at a premium. How can I use my small amount of land to maximize my yield? Especially when most of my yard is shaded, and the climate is dry and severe.
This is the only place that I have lived where you could have a high of 70 and snow in the same days forecast.
After lots of research, and observing the light patterns of my yard, I’ve finally decided on the area and type of garden that I’m going to build.
But guess what? I’m not following one set of plans, or a single idea. If you know me at all, you know that I like to do things my own way. Even more, I love to blend ideas to make them both a little bit better, IMHO The ideas that caught my attention were the lasagna garden and the hugelkultur.
I think both ideas are brilliant, but combining them works in my chosen space even more. Because of the large temperature swings and the very high possibility of snow through may, and even into June, I needed a space that would stay warm. I chose the swatch of land that runs on the west side of my house.
This has the most sun, has heat radiating off the west side of my house well into the evening, and the heat is trapped between my house, the fence, and my neighbors house. The air stays warmer there than in my shaded back yard. Only problem is is that that part of my yard is long and narrow.
Not the shape that you typically want for a garden. Thus the hugelkultur concept.
Large companies would have you believe that plants only need 3 nutrients in order to grow and produce fruit, nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. However, healthy soil is a very complex and almost living organism in and of itself. It consists of many many more macro and micro nutrients as well as bacteria, fungus, molds, and yeasts. Science is now showing the importance of carbon in the ground. We as a society have decided that it is easier for us to put the carbon in the air instead of back in the ground leading to something called global warming, but I digress.
How on earth am I supposed to come across healthy fertile soil when the only place in my yard that has enough sun for a garden has sat under landscaping rock for the last 20 years?
You guessed it…lasagna gardening.
Yes its a weird word. Yes its German. Yes, I will give them credit for some good ideas, this being one. Hugelkultur literally means mound culture. The idea is to mimic soil production in nature, i’m guessing mostly in a forest.
Two thoughts lead to that last assumption. The fact that there are a lot of forested areas in Germany, and that the mound is created by stacking wood. You do need to be cautious of the wood you choose to use. Cedar has natural anti fungal and anti microbial components in it. Walnut can be poisonous to plants, black locust won’t rot, and cherry can be toxic to animals.
That being said, most deciduous trees work just fine.
To get it started, dig a trench and fill it with logs. Cover the logs with branches. Top the branches with twigs. Finally cover the mound with leaves, clippings, and or cut sod placed grass side down. Cover all this with fresh compost.
Why would you go to the effort of building this hugelkultur bed?
First it starts to compost and fertilize your garden. The composting heats the earth and keeps it up to 5 degrees warmer than surrounding soil. Five degrees in a climate like Colorado can mean the difference of having living plants or dead plants on a random late spring morning.
Secondly it uses up all your waste from trimming trees, bushes, and smaller plants, lowers your water bill, and helps save the planet by putting all that carbon back in the soil You want to properly soak the wood before you start covering it. Once the wood is totally saturated and covered it begins to act like a sponge. During dry spells, the wood releases moisture. During the wet season, it absorbs water. This concept has even been proven to work in the desert.
Next might come as a surprise, but mounds are sloped and have two sides. Being on a slope helps to prevent pooling water which can kill off parts of your garden. Having two sides effectively doubles my gardening area as compared to having a flat plot on the ground. I’m shooting to having mine be around 3 feet tall. If you are in a desert and don’t want to have to water it at all, you should aim to have the mound at least 6 feet tall.
That leads to another benefit, not having to bend over as much.
Overall, hugelkultur is a very efficient form of gardening/farming that gets rid of waste and eases some of the work for you.
No, a lasagna garden doesn’t consist of growing Italian herbs and tomatoes.
Instead, think about how lasagna is made, layers and layers of sauce, noodles, cheese, meat, sauce, noodles, cheese, meat, etc. Same thing goes for the lasagna garden. Layers of different organic material intended to put different nutrients into the ground, keep the soil loose and constantly being made through composting, and retain moisture as much as possible. This alleviates a lot of the work a gardener has to do.
I remember watching my father til his garden every spring to get the soil ready. Lasagna gardening alleviates this. It is no til. Properly maintained, the soil in a lasagna garden should stay fairly light and workable from year to year.
What type of organic material can you layer in there?
Not meat. Seriously, you can put about anything in there except meat.
Fruit and vegetables and their peels or skin
Just to name a few.
Layer whatever you have decided to use, and then cover with dirt or compost. Its recommended to do this in the fall so that it can start to decompose over several months before you use it.
Blending Two Approaches
Can you see now why I thought these two approaches to gardening might work well together? I can start with a hugelkultur mound and cover it with a lasagna garden. Now I can choose the nutrients I put into the garden as a whole, or section by section based on the types of plants I want to grow. I can reduce my work load, lower my water bill, save my back (potentially), double my gardening space, increase the temperature of the soil and thus lengthen the growing season, get rid of waste, and meet new people, extending my community.
I have met brewery owners and home brewers to get their spent grains, coffee roasters and brewers to get their coffee grounds, and BBQ pit masters to collect their ash, and our new neighbors to collect the leaves they were raking.
I have had neighbor’s stop by when I’m working constantly asking, “What are you doing?” “What is this going to be?” and many other questions. I’ve even had people knock on the door asking if they could take some of the wood out of my yard. We’ve caught some just taking the wood like it was free. I had one neighbor ask what it was, when I told him Hugelkultur he responded with, “Oh yeah! I know what that is. I’ve had gardens like that before.” We will see if he takes me up on my offer to use the half that faces his house.
I have a community garden, and haven’t even gotten it ready to plant yet.
The coffee grounds, carbon material, spent grains, and other things I am mixing and composting as I get enough to cover everything. Boy was I foolish. All the compost that I was able to begin making didn’t even cover a couple of feet of my garden.
Thankfully my parents were able to come out and spend a long weekend with us recently. They drive an F150 which can actually carry loads of dirt, unlike my Subaru, and they were able to bring out two bales of hay. It also means that I get to spend some time with my dad, which doesn’t happen much anymore. More importantly, my 18 month old son, Soren, gets to spend some time with his papa, and learn about working.
My dad is workhorse. Sometimes a hobbling or crippled workhorse, but nonetheless, refuses to quit working. He is a great example for Soren. This was the first time that he has had meaningful interactions with his papa, which was wonderful to see.
Soren tried helping with everything, shoveling, sweeping, moving dirt out of the truck bed, moving the wheel barrel, emptying the wheel barrel, moving dirt in the garden, and anything else that he thought might be helpful.
Covering the Carbon Layer
The hay broke into small slabs which worked out nicely for covering the garden. I could easily place the slabs on the top and sides. This adds more nutrients to the garden, helps retain water, and forms a barrier above the logs reducing the amount of dirt you initially need to form a mound.
I decided to buy compost which will give me a good start. I can continue using my compost to cover the garden through the year, constantly adding a variety of nutrients. I was surprised that it took 4 cubic yards of dirt which is approximately 4 tons.
Now that the garden is covered with dirt, I’m getting different responses from my neighbors. “Your garden looks great.” “Keep up the good work.” “Hey, that finally looks nice!”
Once the compost was covering everything I needed a barrier. I have ample amounts of landscaping rock that needed moved so I decided to use that. This serves 3 purposes.
- It forms a barrier between the garden and the lawn, and keeps the dirt from eroding away.
- It develops a channel for water to flow along the side of the garden.
- It retains heat better than the soil.
Now the watering begins. Initially it takes a lot of water to soak the wood and carbon material. Once it is soaked, the soil maintains a good amount of moisture. It should become essentially self watering, using only the rain that it receives.
The hardest part though is the waiting. I can’t plant in Denver until after Mother’s Day. We get too many late freezes that would destroy my plants. Until then, all I can do is wait.
Now that the fear of frost has all but subsided, my wife, kids, and I were able to spend a day planting our huglekultur garden. The kids were fantastic at digging the holes, and packing compost in around the new plants. We are excited to start teaching them about growing, and eating vegetables.
I wanted to keep the plants rather spread out to initially see how well they would grow in the soil. Once it has composted more, and I understand the soil, light patterns, and plants better, I will be able to start getting more plants into the same area. This year we planted 4 types of tomatoes, tomatillo, peppers, onions, carrots, kale, mustard, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, and various herbs.
Now all we have to do is reach the inner Elmer Fudd in my son Soren so that he can catch all the baby wabbits wunning awound the garden.