More Hügelkultur

If I say I adopt an intuitive approach to gardening, this does not exclude either experience or acquired knowledge as a means to an end. Part of my intuitive approach is about choosing where to plant vegetables, and then planting a few of those vegetables in another location by way of an experiment. The idea of two different locations happens on a larger scale now too.

My first post on Hügelkultur (mound cultivation) focuses on a small (2.4 x 1.2 m) mound made at home. This is, if you like, the “control” part of the experiment. The larger (2 x 4.5 m) Hügelkultur featured in this post is located on “the other plot” in very different conditions (soil type, immediate environment, available resources), yet essentially follows the same principles. Once again, I should point out that I did a lot of digging to achieve the ultimate aim of a no-dig, raised bed.

Soil returned to the mound, and corners demarcated with rocks.

I began this project about five or six weeks ago. The first sense of satisfaction came from getting the hole down to a depth of about 50 cm, as shown below. A couple of days’ rain helped enormously, for the ground is clay, and normally rock hard.

Getting the soil out of the hole was the easy part.

Intuitive gardening involves observant mindfulness. When I created the pit, I was careful as to where I put the soil I removed, with by far the greater share being placed on the long side to the right in the above image. This was mainly because I knew it would be easier to put it back from this side, unencumbered by trees and other plants which border the left side.

Now that I have explained my rationale, I can talk about worms. When removing the soil, I noticed about five worms at most, and then only when I had got to a depth of about 30 cm. The soil was tossed out on to natural grasses and abundant weeds, and sat there for five to six weeks. Why so long, you ask? Well, for starters, there is more than one thing to do in a garden of any size, and the order of things is determined each time by answering the question, “What needs to be done first?”

The other reason for the time lag had to do with finding the time to scout around for as much ligneous material as possible: I was going to do this only once, so it was worth ensuring I did it well. The image below shows the start.

I ended up with about three times more wood than is pictured here.

So, back to the worms. When it came to returning the soil to the pit, and covering all the wood, there were worms in almost every shovelful of soil. I am not exaggerating.

There is an explanation for this. Earthworms like two things: moisture and darkness. The wet soil placed on top of the growing grasses and weeds provided both those conditions, while the green grass and weeds provided food for the earthworms, so they travelled from what was below ground to ground level, and just above to feed on the vegetation made available for them.

I have noticed this numerous times, and this is one of the reasons in my garden at home that I frequently leave piles of cut grass in small heaps around the garden for a couple of weeks, before transporting them to the compost heap. When these piles do make it to the compost heap, there are always handfuls of worms that accompany these piles. Sometimes these small piles of cut grass form a mulch around trees, while other times, they are simply small piles of cut grass dotted about the place. In any case, there is free movement of worms, and much worm reproduction going on, since when conditions are perfect, they reproduce like crazy. And this is good for the soil, and the garden.

Soil, with value-added worms, returned to the mound.

I am particularly happy about the abundance of worms in this case, for they will help to break down the dead vegetative matter beneath the soil. Once I manage to construct a wall out of naturally occurring rocks, rake the soil surface even, and add more soil mixed with naturally composted leaves on top. the worms will travel upward. Any further mulching will keep them near the surface of the soil.

Worm castings are rich in nutrients, and the closer worms stay to the surface, the better. When I transplanted tomato seedling three days ago into a line prepared with compost and covered with mulch for several weeks, each small hole (only 10 cm deep) I dug for the seedlings revealed two to three worms. Again, I am not exaggerating, and can tell you that the worm population of this vegetable bed has increased rapidly since it was first made in early February. All this life in supposedly infertile, clay soil! My chief job, therefore, will be to ensure adequate mulching. The worms will take care of the rest.

This mound is by no means finished, yet I am pleased that I have reached this stage. I have now covered the mound with black polyweave, as a weed-reduction and moisture-retention measure, and because worms like darkness. Most instructional Hügelkultur videos on Youtube say you should water your mound at this stage. My observation was that this mound was moist enough for now.

As a side note for gardeners in the Algarve who bemoan the ubiquitous clover, I can report that a quadruple layer of black polyweave (and now moved to cover my mound) over a dug and weeded piece of ground elsewhere for longer than three months suppressed every single weed, except the clover, which carried on growing regardless. Admittedly it was white, with pale yellow leaves, but it was certainly vigorous. I turfed the weeded clover beneath a fig tree, in the hopes that is will suffocate the other weeds there.

I hope that you can see that any description of Hügelkultur involves so much more than merely making a mound with soil on top. It requires a more holistic consideration of what the soil needs to grow good vegetables organically and sustainably. Achieving good soil is always a work in progress, and demands that you draw from many sources to achieve the desired balance. I look forward to updating you when more progress has been made on this project.

©2019 Allison Wright

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