I spent three years of my childhood in Germany when my father was stationed there in the army. I have very distinct memories of the allotment gardens people cultivated at the edge of town in little individual rented plots of land, each with its own immaculate garden hut for sitting and enjoying the summer days while drinking beer and thinking about dinner. One of the things I remember from those astonishingly tidy and productive gardens was that some of them had raised beds made out of old logs with soil on top of them. They tended to be used for growing strawberries, at least in my memory. I was interested in strawberries as a child, so maybe they used them for other plants as well but I didn’t notice.
Recently I stumbled across a web page on Hügelkultur, which is a technique of making a raised bed, or Hügel (pronounced more or less like heu-gle, with the “eu” as in the word “feudal,” but slightly more exaggerated), on top of a pile of brush or a rotting log. The idea is that the wood slowly releases nutrients to the bed, while also holding on to moisture so that you don’t have to irrigate as often. I rushed to tell my husband Michael about it, and it turned out he was already thinking about making a Hügel, having run across the concept independently.
We never throw out organic matter so we have a little pile of brush, chopped leaves and woody clippings in the corner of our backyard already. If you wait long enough, wood breaks down, so in theory this was just our very slow compost pile. We actually lived long enough in our last house to see wooden logs in the back our property decompose to almost nothing, so I know it works in the space of a human lifetime.
Our yard is pretty shady, which is why we have a community sharecropping scheme in which other people let us garden on their lawns for a share of the produce. Our neighbors to the south have two horrible giant Norway spruce trees that blot out our sun. Recently they told us they were calling out a tree doctor because the largest tree seemed like it was dropping too many needles and I almost danced with joy, thinking they would cut the damn thing down. Don’t get me wrong, I am a tree hugger from way back but this stupid tree keeps most of my yard in perpetual shade and it is an exotic to boot; someone’s landscaping project of fifty years ago that got way out of hand. Gardening tip: if you live in town on a 75- by 100-foot plot of land, do not plant non-native trees that will grow to be 115 feet tall.
There is however, one spot of our yard that gets sun for about six hours a day. We can grow scraggly greens and herbs there if they don’t require too much direct sunlight, so we decided to place our Hügel in that sunny spot, next to our other little herb bed. Michael likes to dig holes, so he started by digging a hole about a foot deep to form the base of the bed. It is not necessary to do that, you can just place the sticks on the ground. The idea is you either dump a bunch of compost and soil on a log, or you pile up some sticks and place compost and soil on top of them. The biologically active compost should help speed up the break down of the wood, as long as the bed has enough aeration. Since you don’t walk on raised beds, the aeration, percolation and moisture retention should be optimal.
Michael, being organized and somewhat compulsive compared to me, made layers inside the hole he dug; a layer of horse manure, a layer of compost, a layer of sticks, a layer of the soil he displaced by digging the hole. He repeated this several times, although he did not add extra manure after the first layer, and topped off the bed with a layer of compost and soil about a foot above the surface of our lawn. It looks kind of like a grave, I must admit.
It is still too early to plant our Hügel, since I do not push the season after having experienced the heart ache of a hundred frozen tomato seedlings some years ago. We will plant into our Hügel on Memorial Day weekend, when we put in our summer gardens. We plan to grown oregano, parsley, thyme, cilantro and other cooking herbs on it and, of course, I will add a few strawberry plants in the sunniest corner. I think of it as a long term perennial bed, so I will keep my basil in pots on the sunny deck and try to foster a permanent herb garden on the Hügel.
If it works, I will report back.