Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Hugelkultur bed - part 1

If you're not familiar with Hugelkultur, here's a quick link to get you started. I wasn't sure if a Hugelkultur bed would work here, because we don't get the reliable precipitation to keep them hydrated. I knew from attempting to grow in our garden soil, the water we receive (or add artificially) never penetrates more than 10cm. So why go to all that trouble to build something which might not work?

September 2015
trellis, left - avocado, right

(a) we were desperate to try anything in our hydrophobic vegetable garden, and (b) I had some garden infrastructure, getting in the way of an avodaco tree. It was a trellis we built, out of bent concrete rebar. We wanted to keep our volunteer avocado tree in the vegetable area, and had to give it more space.

 October 2015, Purple King beans ~
climbing the trellis

As the volunteer seeding grew, it avoided putting out branches where the trellis was. I always thought we would remove the avocado tree, some time in the future, but I'm glad we didn't - choosing to remove the trellis instead. Because when it came out, I wanted to do something else with the wire mesh.

Why not build a raised bed? A hugelkultur one. As we already had an abundance of woody material, we wanted to put to good use around the property. Not to mention other things we discovered would be useful too. More on what we filled it with, soon.

Where it all began however, was back in June this year....

June (winter) 2016

After pulling out the star-pickets holding up the trellis, then wresting the trellis from the weeds, I bent the mesh into a rectangular shape, and put it in the bed. About a metre space was given between the avocado tree and bed. It should be plenty of room for new branches to form.

At this stage however, I thought my avocado needed some drastic pruning, to encourage new branch development. I didn't know if it would hurt the tree, but I saw it struggle to produce fruit last year. It spent a lot of energy putting more height on (as seedling trees will do naturally) and dropped the fruit. Did I really need a tree that tall, in the vegetable patch anyway? Was it's natural form, suitable for the limited space it sprung up from - next to a retaining wall?

There's more to this avocado story, which I will tell another time. This particular post is about how we built our Hugelkultur raised beds. I came back to my new raised bed, in early July.

July 2016

I wanted to cover the mesh in something, to keep the materials from falling out. We happened to have a large amount of black shade cloth gifted to us. It had been used for various reasons in the past, but was now sitting around, unloved and for us to trip over. So it was perfect for what we wanted it for.

It comes folded (all shade cloth does when you buy it) so it slipped neatly over the mesh on both sides. I did my best to bury it under ground where I could, used bricks and caps to weigh it down in other places - and wedged it down the corrugated iron side of the retaining wall (out of view). It wasn't glamorous, and neither was I after pushing, prodding, bending and digging it into place.

That first day of construction was pretty intense. Lots of grunt work, in other words. I still had enough time left in the afternoon however, to start filling it.

Base layer

I dug below the natural soil level, only a little, then filled it with some tree trunks. They had been felled several years ago, and made perfect hugelkultur material to feed the soil. David helped to carry it up from the lower gully, where it was taken.

Then came another idea for materials. As we don't normally get a lot of precipitation, I wondered if we could use the succulent weed (mother of millions) which was growing nearby. We're always trying to get rid of it, and here was the perfect opportunity. Bury it! Having such a moisture filled plant on the thickest log, might help it retain moisture longer.  Which is where I wanted all the plant roots to go - down. Not up on the surface, where all the moisture gets evaporated during summer.

Mother of millions

I'm a firm advocate of using what your land produces. And in our mostly arid climate, succulent weeds grow really well! Coupled with the wood, microbes and insects which populate this bed (all leaving their bodily excretions and rotting corpses) it might stand a chance of staying moist under ground, despite our low precipitation rate.

So that was that, for my second attempt at constructing our hugelkultur bed. On the third attempt (next day) I had to chase up more materials. It was quite a large bed, after all.

Former, Middle Ridge chicken run

Which had me revisiting the old, Middle Ridge chicken coop. Yes, it's been completely invaded by weeds, but the local quail population seem to love it! I would often startle them, as they evacuated by the open air ceiling. This day I visited, was no different.

I still have plans to do something with Middle Ridge, but it will have to wait it's turn. In the meantime, I needed the soil I had built up, in previous years vegetable gardening attempts. So I employed my trusty mattock (golly, that tool gets a workout) and my barrow, to start escavating.

Soil from the coop, now in the raised bed

Barrow by barrow, I started to cover the mother of millions, succulents, I'd placed in last. When I stopped for morning tea, I also threw in my muffin wrapper too. It will just become more food, for later.

Then came several treks up to the top swale, near Hilltop chicken coop. Where I had a stash of short lived trees, which had fallen down in the wind - as they tend to do nearly every year.

Tree branches

I cut them up, and placed them in the bed next. So I needed my little handsaw for that exercise. I love using hand tools, especially during winter, when it can warm you up.

Anyway, The theory with Hugelkultur is, you start with the largest logs that take the longest to break down, at the very base of your bed. Then work up to the branches, with the last layer of all, being lots of twiggy material.

Coffee grounds

I know earthworms seem to go crazy over coffee grounds, so David brought several buckets of coffee grounds from his workplace to go into the bed. It came complete with orange fungi, which smelled just like Jaffa - you know, orange chocolate. Not that I put my nose too close, mind you. The fungi should get the decaying process, under way, quickly.

I don't drink coffee any more, but I still love the smell of it as I'm working. So it's a real treat when I get to work with such large amounts in the garden. Please do ask at your local coffee shop, if you can relieve them of their waste coffee grounds. They only have to pay to have it thrown out.

Twigs and cat

I think my cat likes the smell of coffee grounds too. She watched me diligently cart twigs down the hill, by the barrow load, and place them in the bed. Calm as you please - taking turns to sniff between the hugelkultur bed, and my legs. I'm not sure how such a lazy co-worker seems to encourage me in the garden so much. Maybe it's the way she squints, as if to say, good work - and - I'm glad you're doing it?

Thanks coach! Back to work then...which included several more barrows of dirt from Middle Ridge. You can begin to appreciate why it took several days to put it all together.

Old pallet wood

Hugelkultur also provides the perfect opportunity to clean up those scrap bits of wood, you always intended to use, but the elements get to it first. I found some old pallet wood, and put them in the bed, complete with nails. As its down a ways in the bed, I don't have to worry about coming across any rusty nails in future, when planting out.

Pumpkin vine

I also grabbed some pumpkin vines which the mower went over.  Pumpkin vines also contain a considerable amount of moisture in their stalks, so if any pumpkin vines have to come out at your place, consider how best you can use them. They work as hugelkultur material, but I've also mulched with them before too. Breaks down quickly and feeds the soil.

We didn't quite have enough soil to fill the bed, but we did have some leftover compost David bought, which was perfect for the surface. As any new seedlings will get a good start.


Now this is what I call a good co-worker...unlike a certain cat I know, and love. Spreading sugar cane mulch, is one of his favourite jobs to do in the garden. Which we did after the bed was filled with compost. David helped with that part, and at that point, I was happy for the extra grunt - as mine had just about run out.

The best part about building raised beds, is getting to plant them out. Which has been done successfully. But I first want to tell you about the avocado tree, and the second bed we made. So another post or two, to come.


  1. Hydrophobic soil really slows down my gardening efforts. At the moment I am slowly developing new growing beds using old tree guards which we have had stacked in a pile for several years. I am putting the tree guards into place according to a plan I put on paper. Once in place I am filling them with a mix of compost ingredients which will hopefully break down over summer ready for planting out late autumn. There are other methods I would like to try but I need to re-use these guards/rings up first. Good luck with your hugelkultur bed Chris.

    1. Sounds like there's plenty of experimental play, to be had in your garden. Using up a resource, such as tree guards, is a good idea too. Whatever you have available, or can source with minimal cost, is good.

      Are they small tree guards, or large ones?

    2. Chris from memory they are a bit of a metre across. So not exactly the magic square that Lolo Houbein wrote about in her book but I probably will try to adapt a few of her planting plans just because her gardening style is such a creative one.

    3. A metre is plenty to grow a bed of squash, pumpkins or zuchhini. Even potatoes in the cooler months. So very productive in other words.

  2. Looking good, Chris. What is your rainfall there? I assume that because you're in Qld it always rains! Shows how much I actually know about other States' weather :-(

    1. If you live on the coast or in the mountain, it always rains. We live below a mountain, and what I think is termed a rain shadow. It can rain several kilometres either side of us, and we'll miss it.

      The good thing about that however, is we tend to only feel the effects of the "edges" of a storm. So not the centre where it can potentially damage your property.

      I've been watching our weather maps for a few yeas and we get between 600mm and 800mm rainfall, on average per year. Of course, that means we can alternate to just under 600 and just over 800mm, depending on the season too. The problem is the rain tends to fall in large, fast storms, less frequently. So we don't get that consistent moisture in the ground.

    2. Thanks. You're slightly higher than us on average...we get about 600 mm a year. I'm not at my computer at the moment so I can't see my records, but I can remember a year that was only 400 mm and a couple over 700. The weather bureau gives Melbourne's figures as roughly 50 mm per month, plus or minus 10 mm......more in winter, less in summer, so it's reasonably evenly spread.

    3. Having that consistency is better than having the higher numbers, I reckon. My plants can die in an extended long period between showers, and then we get the whole blessed lot in one or two days. Very volatile for plants, especially establishing ones. Which is why we have to come up with all these little strategies to give them a fighting chance. The rain is so unpredictable. But hugelkultur seems to be working out, extending the moisture.

  3. Great post I look forward to progress reports. Do you use a bucket in the bottom of your shower to catch water while you shower or can you catch grey water from your washing machine for a little while to use on this bed to build up the soil moisture?

    1. Hi Fiona. We do catch our shower water before it warms up, but we use it to water my cuttings and occasionally fill the bird bath.

      I guess I could use my son's bath water though. That's a thought. Thanks for the idea. :)


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