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Small Scale Backyard Hugelculture!

I read an article, ages ago, about a woman who never let a shred of organic matter leave her property. She also collected as much greenery, dead leaves, left over food from a local day care and any organic matter that she could lay her hands on and turned her yard from a barren moonscape into a lush suburban oasis. This long-ago-read story has been my basis for not getting a council green bin and not allowing my husband to take a trailer load of anything organic to the dump - even though its free for us to do that!

So what do we do with all those random branches that fall during a storm? What happens to the bottom of the chook coop when it needs cleaning out? What do we do with all our prunings and rakings after a garden tidy?

What doesn't go into the formal compost heap gets put it in a pile in a hidden part of the garden and after a couple of years, its all composted down and is a really good place to plant new plants! It turns out that this "no waste / cant leave the property" policy that I have, is also called Hugelkulture in some circles!

Hugelkulture is usually a large scale gardening technique where you take whole tree trunks and put them in a pile and then cover them with progressively smaller and smaller branches and finally leaves and a covering of compost and dirt. The idea is to then plant out the top dirt layer. The plants draw their nutrients from the rotting branches underneath. The tree trunks eventually also rot out releasing their nutrients to the plants above. This system also soaks up water well, stays hydrated longer and is a really, really good way to absorb all those nutrients locked up in the tree and your garden waste!!

Here's what I do...

In our new place I wanted to revegetate the back third of the garden. Its heavily shaded by a giant Moreton Bay fig and a large number of other large native trees. A vege or flower garden wouldn't work in this heavily shaded space and it seems like a good place to grow trees to screen the fence and to enhance both our view, and the neighbours view!

So as I was taking out various weed trees, cutting back unruly bushes and attempting to eradicate the bamboo patch, I ended up with a pile of smallish branches that normally people might take to the dump or put in a green waste bin. Instead I used them to start my "garden beds" and piled them up in the areas I want to revegetate.

As Winter progressed, I met people who were getting rid of Autumn leaves (?) and discovered that people will generously reward you for arriving with a trailer and a rake and taking the leaves away for them! These, I added to my piles of branches! (The leaves, not the rewards - I drank them!)

Another neighbour took out a tree and didn't need it for firewood or garden edging and over the period of a week we removed the whole thing, branch by branch and piled it into my Hugalkulture piles in the back yard and also covered them in a trailer of leaves.

At the moment they just look like a pile of sticks and leaves. I need to have another go at them with a pair of loppers and break the branches down a bit more. My husband sometimes just puts his boots on and stomps all over them - its a crude but effective method of breaking the branches down I have to admit!!

The way I make Hugalkulture beds isn't an instant system. I'm attempting to mimic Mother Nature, but in a slightly faster time frame! She knocks a tree or two over and then slowly they break up and disappear into the mulch and eventually grow new trees where the old one stood. I'm just breaking the branches down quicker and bringing the mulch to the tree. If I had access to dirt or compost, I'd be adding that too!

You cant really see them in this picture but I have started planting native tree seedlings that I've collected off neighbours and friends and have been making a hole for them, filling it with compost and planting my wee tree in amongst the mulch. Hopefully they will start to grow and create a forest of native trees on my side of the fence... soon?

The soil here is pretty good, being volcanic and we also have a fair bit of rain here too which helps! I think the tree branches and mulch will help protect the seedlings as they grow and eventually provide them with all the nutrients they need to get bigger.

Its not a "pretty" gardening method, I have to admit, but works for me in that we are trying to recreate a natural looking forest with paths through it, not a parkland. I have also noticed that the chooks don't like to climb on top of the piles as they aren't solid and so aren't digging too much up at all. If you need a more aesthetic garden bed, put some wood chip or other cover as your top layer and don't let the chooks near it!

I have been putting grain on areas that asparagus fern weed grow and this encourages the chooks to scratch at the roots and if not eradicate it, certainly weaken it. I'm a bit worried that my light version of Hugelkulture wont smother the asparagus weed but nourish and cosset it and it will grow like the weed it is! So I'm putting the girls to work on it before I start on my mulch piles in that spot.

According to the little bits I've read about this gardening method, the idea is to make a huge pile of trees/branches/organic matter, cover it in dirt and start planting. The insides of the pile will rot and collapse over time allowing you to plant deeper into the layer of composted organic matter that gets deeper each year. I don't have huge trunks to put on the bottom of my piles, nor trailer loads of dirt for the top so, again, taking my cue from Mother Nature, I just put whatever comes to hand on top of the pile and let time do its thing with minimal help from me.

I wish I had photos of the places in the old place that we piled fallen branches, garden pruning's and grass clippings. We picked a spot each year and made what were really just informal rough compost heaps and then after a year or so found a new spot to  put all this garden "waste". We popped a plant into the top of the old informal "compost heap" and within a short time the plant grew too big to see where the pile had originally been. The photos would all just be of happily growing plants if I did have them!

If we had a bare paddock in the blazing sun and access to dead trees on a large scale, I could see the sense in using Hugelkulture they way it was designed but as I have a small shaded backyard, this light version of Hugalkulture is working really well for me!

If you are keen to explore this concept a bit more, these websites have been really helpful for me to learn about Hugalkulture from.

Let us know what your experiences with Hugalkulture have been like in the comments below. If you know of a great Hugalculture site, link to it in the comments and we can all go and have a look at it.

Happy Hugal-ing!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for not letting anything organic leave the property!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for getting mulch for free!
Time cost: Whatever time you have. Its a long term commitment this Hugalkulture stuff...!
Skill level: Just raking, dragging, piling skills with a lot of patience!
Fun-ness: I'm really enjoying collecting branches from around the garden and its been a great way to get to know the neighbours - especially the ones with deciduous trees!


Steve said…
We've just recently started doing something simlar. We got some raised garden beds that were on special at Stratco and into one of them I've put a heap of weeds and a few old logs that were previously used as garden edging. These have already started rotting, so it's hopefully giving the bed a head start. There's grass clippings on top of that and I intend putting a bag or too of potting soil on top, then planting lucerne. Lucerne has deep roots and is great for getting nitrogen into the soil. We have another spot in the front yard that is just a pile of wood-chips at the moment. Well do similar with that, but plant a mix of cottage garden type seeds, so it's just colour. Looking forward to seeing how they turn out.
Steve said…
Forgot to mention. The reason we decided to try it was that we have a heap of logs from when we got some trees lopped last year. Some has been used for edging and some has been given away as firewood, but there's still a lot there.
Practical Frog said…
I will be quite keen to see if your beds with the logs in them behave any differently from a "normal" bed. A few posts I've read on the net indicate they probably will. Have you got a "control/normal" bed to compare? I was heavily influenced by the woman who wouldn't let anything organic leave her property and our place in Brisbane had the most terrible clay soil - so the two went together. Up here the soil is so much better but Im in the habit of keeping all my green waste now and also admire Mother Natures way of dealing with her "garden waste" - just chuck it on the ground and it will get dealt with, later rather than sooner though!!
Let me know how your garden beds go! - Kara :)
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