Hügelkultur beds, suddenly it’s all happening …

First of all, thank you to all those who have been asking what has happened to the Blog! I’m trying out a policy of writing when there’s something happening, instead of following a strict monthly regime. But it’s reassuring to know that somebody out there is reading what I write!

And something really has been happening here in the last month! I had been waiting for the diggerman for the last few months to create the trenches for the planned Hügelkultur beds (see the last three Blogs for the background to this), and he finally turned up on February 9th; it was quite a wait, and I felt as though he was never going to come, but it was worth it! In just over an hour he created the three trenches for the new beds with great skill, and with the minimum of instruction (see photos below), and the bill was a lot lower than I was expecting!

The trenches are level in both directions, both along their contour lines (hence the curved shape) and across their width, and will therefore retain moisture that either falls directly on them, or that runs down the slope into them. This is part of the fundamental logic behind the creation of these trenches – if, as seems pretty certain now, we are moving towards a hotter, drier climate, moisture retention will be vital for the survival of the Forest Garden. By placing plants and trees on and around the Hügelkultur beds, they will have a much greater chance of staying alive, particularly on my land, which, due to its stony composition, is very free-draining.

I had previously marked the contour lines with my A-frame (see the Blog, August 1st, 2021 for an explanation of this technique) and then sprayed a white line for the digger to follow; this is just visible behind the digger in the first photo above.

Installing the various layers within the Hügelkultur beds: From left to right and top to bottom, (1) large logs are placed down the centre of the trench, and then smaller branches are placed on and around them (2), creating the mound shape. Even smaller brushwood is placed on top of this (3), and then the turf that the digger skimmed off and placed on one side of the trench is inverted and placed on top of that (4). This provides a solid layer for the succeeding stages, and also adds some valuable nitrogenous matter. Inverting the turf ensures that it will not grow back again. More green material is then added (5), followed by the addition of compost (6), and the final soil layer (7), which the digger had taken out and placed on the other side of the trench. You can see the two piles trench-side in photo 4. Finally a thick layer of straw is placed on the top (8), to act as a mulch and a weed barrier. One down, two to go!

The second fundamental principle of the beds is soil improvement. All the woody and herbaceous material is slowly decomposed through the action of fungi, soil bacteria and invertebrates over a span of several years, enriching the soil and building up humus. The higher humidity level mentioned above is an integral part of this as well. The beds inevitably sink gradually, and this is the reason why trees are planted alongside, where they can still benefit from the moisture in the bed, but shrubs and herbaceous plants, with their smaller root systems, can be put in the beds themselves.

I am very grateful to friends and neighbours who provided the extra material that I didn’t have on site (three places in the village) and to friends who lent a hand (and trailer) in transporting it. It gives you a feeling of involvement and community, which is also the social aspect of the forest garden principle.

It is really incredible how this project has come together all at once after such a long wait, and I seem to have found the material for each stage at just the right time! There is still a lot of work to be done, because the photos above are of the first bed, to illustrate the stages involved, and there are still two (longer) beds to finish by hand! I reckon this should take about 4 – 5 weeks, so by Easter is a realistic goal I think. If this can be done, it will have the benefit of being finished before it gets too hot and dry, and before the inevitable weeds and grass get a chance to establish themselves.

As you can see from all the photos above, there has now been a great change in the layout of the Upper Garden. I have mostly retained the existing pathways, but the whole emphasis has shifted to the Hügelkultur beds and what will be planted in and around them. Fortunately, several trees are already well-positioned to take advantage of this. Digging the trenches will have destroyed some of the underground mycelial and bacterial networks that were undoubtedly building up, but this was done in the knowledge that what has been created will promote even greater amounts of beneficial networks in the long run, and improve and increase ecosystems in the process. And by using a mini-digger and keeping to established pathways where possible, there was the minimum of soil compaction.

Obviously, this has been a huge step forward, but other work has been going on as well. I have done a fair amount of strimming and cutting back of wild plants such as dog rose and bramble. The bramble and hawthorn hedges in the Upper Garden have also been pruned back.

Early spring flowers have begun to show up, including woodland crocus, dandelion, speedwell, daisy and lesser celandine, and it won’t be long now until the real spring blooms get going.

Bread making has continued pretty successfully, and I have begun to get more adventurous, as the photos below show. The buns were highly calorific but very nice, and I invested in a rectangular dutch oven (Fr. cocotte) to give more variety of shape. There is still a long way to go to the perfect loaf, but it is all very satisfying to do.

As I’ve often mentioned before, food and nutrition is a key element in the whole Forest Garden system, and included in this is the use of wild leaves, nuts and seeds, and dried fruit, all of which will eventually be produced on site. My usual lunch-time salad includes leaves such as dandelion, and seeds such as sesame, flax and hemp, plus a dried fig, date or apricot or two. I find the diuretic value of dandelion exceeds that of other plants, and I also make my own version of the Japanese seasoning gomasio. I use a 14:1 ratio of sesame seed to salt (70g : 5g works well, and fits in a small honey jar) and dry roast this in the frying pan until it starts to go brown and to pop, leave this to cool and mill it in the coffee grinder with three short bursts. It is then quickly put into the jar and the lid put on to prevent too much oxidation. It’s delicious, and salads never seem the same without it now!

The demise of my weather station (Blog, January 1st, 2023) has meant that weather records have taken a hit, and I haven’t yet decided on the best way forward. I do have manual rainfall readings however, and we had a lot of rain in January (153mm), only a small amount in February (35mm), and nothing to speak of so far in March. Whilst the media and the farmers are saying that we are already in drought conditions at a very early stage of the season, I am not too worried yet, and the dry spell over the last month has allowed the Hügelkultur work to progress very nicely, thank you!

2 thoughts on “Hügelkultur beds, suddenly it’s all happening …

  1. Gillian Munn March 8, 2023 / 17:08

    Well done Johnathon I throughly enjoyed reading what you have achieved. Your knowledge is second to none. It’s amazing what you garden has transformed into.
    The trenches are going to be a great success.
    Bread making well your making one’s mouth water.


  2. Tim Hailstone March 10, 2023 / 07:18

    Well done, Jon. The raised bed project is utterly fascinating. Could we come and look sometime?

    I hope you are well. You certainly seem full of enthusiasm.

    Warm regards


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s