Farm Life: Hugelkultur

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On the right, this year’s hills. On the left, next year’s hills

Growing one’s own food is a continual process. Certainly, the season regulate what types of gardening activity one participates in.  But, so does learning and experimentation.  We started our gardens with pick-axes and shovels nearly 20 years ago.  We have been adding organic matter to the Appalachian shale-clay soil every year since.  We have tried double-digging, layering (“lasagna gardening”), hay-bale beds, and now have come across hugelkultur (German word for “hill horticulture”).  Gardening is a slippery-slop to more eccentric behavior.

Our experiment with hay-bale gardening began three winters ago.  I read an article about this technique, and thought that piling up the hay from the goat barn (already filled with manure) would work just as well.  We put this over a section of the garden that we planned to leave fallow for the year.  If the experiment did not go well, at least we would already have the organic matter on that section.  We decided that we started too late to get the hay partially decomposed before planting some peas and bean in it.  They sprouted, but were not able to keep enough moisture near their roots.

Fabulous soil from last year's hills, once I raked it out.

Fabulous soil from last year’s hills, once I raked it out.

This year’s experiment included starting last Fall by making piled-up row of hay in October, November and December.  To kick-start the process we covered each layer with compost.  We had great success with our peas and beans this year.  All of the hay was turned into fabulous compost/soil by the end of the season.  The piles had also shrunk from being about three feet tall in Spring to lower than one foot by Fall.

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Mushroooms (probably, Coprinus Comatus aka Shagy Mane or Lawyer’s Wig) in our compost pile

This Fall, I read about hugelkultur in one of our ultra-hippy gardening magazines.

But, first in the Spring, we attended a half-day workshop on growing mushroom.  We learned more than most people want to know about how mushroom grow in the soil.  Basically, mushrooms are the flower of the plant, with the majority of the plant living underground or inside wood as mycelium, the white stuff you see when you turn over a pile of decaying leaves or break apart a well-rotted branch on the forest floor.  In terms of gardening, mycelium is great stuff.  It harvests nutrients and minerals, and collects water, which it transfers to the roots of the plants.

Mycelium (as well as mold) grow in old hay.  We get old bales of hay from our farmer neighbors to put on

Old hay with fungus growing in it

Old hay with fungus growing in it

the garden as mulch and organic matter.  This is no longer of useful for feeding to livestock because the fungus has taken over the bale (the fungus can lead to bloat in a cow’s or goat’s  rumen and do other nasty neurological damage).  However, the mycelium will kick-start your garden.

A note of caution, “dusty” hay can be dangerous to human respiratory systems.  Stay up-wind of the stuff and avoid breathing the white, powdery dust that comes off of the bale when you spread the hay.  There is a condition called “farmer’s lung” from this.

Here’s where hugelkultur looks pretty weird.  To facilitate the production of mycelium over a longer time period than hay rots, you build wood into the base of your garden.  For true hill horticulture, you

Mycelium on hay

Mycelium on hay

would place a series of tree limbs or blocks of wood on the ground, or under-ground, then build hillls of hay and manure on these.  Well, we were half way there with our piles of hay and manure.  We just needed to add some wood.  The idea is that the wood become a host to mycelium as the wood breaks down over several years.  Eventually, the wood will be decomposed itself.

Thus, before we cleaned the goat barn, I dug three trenches about eight inches deep.  I then placed old wood from the wood pile the length of these trenches and raked the dirt back on top of the wood.  Two of the trenches are under the new piles of hay-manure from the barn.  The other will be under the walk way between the piles.  I shoveled the fresh compost from last year’s fallow garden section on top of the first round of hay-manure.  Fortunately, none of our neighbors came by while I was burying wood in the garden.  They think we are a bit odd to begin with… then again, they either do not tend gardens or pulled their tomatoes out in September….

Check back next year to see how our hills are doing (and whether we have mushroom growing all over the place.  If this seems rather silly, here are some mushroom that blooming around our region…

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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11 Responses to Farm Life: Hugelkultur

  1. My Suisse In-Laws were super, avid gardeners. Since we lived on a dairy farm….hay and manure were in abundant supply. I can more than appreciate the work you and The Mrs. put into tending the soil….to watch your garden grow in season…and out of season. Mushrooms….who knew?? Great post!

    • hermitsdoor says:

      My first memories of being on a farm were during 1972 when we did the camp-through-Europe in a VW camper family trip. Other than being a dreadful idea for a 10 and 12 year old boys, we camped in several farmer’s fields. I was fascinated by the cows, sheep, and barns. Castles and knights were pretty cool too. Obviously, I went the farmer way, not the King Aurthor route.

  2. cindy knoke says:

    You are incredible. This is remarkable.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Next time you are in Germany you will have to visit some farms and look for hill gardens. I’m sure the process is going on in your hallow too, though a bit drier than ours. Enjoy Thanksgiving.

  3. Mother Suzana says:

    “…mycelium, the white stuff you see when you turn over a pile of decaying leaves…”: YOU mean that mold on the chips from the Smart Station I so laboriously got rid up thinking it’d KILL my bushes, was GOOD FOR THEM? You guys are amazing!

  4. rommel says:

    Mad respect to people like you who grow their own food. I can only feel grateful with the ready food that I eat. This is exactly why I hate wasting food. There is so much effort and dedication in achieving sustenance. As for people like you, I know I’m sure there’s pleasure to what you do even amidst those tricky experimentation. Great share.

  5. Pingback: Farm Life: Hugelkultur, Part 2 | hermitsdoor

  6. tnkburdett says:

    Your neighbors would not understand the adventure

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