Nature news: Building a magical mound in my garden

published May 12 2020 on and in the York Weekly, York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily

I moved just a little more than a year ago and have been thinking about and building vegetable gardens ever since-many didn’t work out so well. The garden I started out back turned out to be in the coldest, shadiest part of the property. (I should have realized this based upon the amount of moss growing there.) So, this spring I moved the garden to the front — a sunnier spot that wasn’t originally my first choice given its proximity to the road. But I have grown accustomed to this. In this time of coronavirus, I now have almost as many neighbors walking by and waving hello as I do cars. It’s a friendly place for a garden.

Hugelkultur bed. The bricks are decorative, but the logs on either side are an extension of the buried logs underneath–they’ll slowly rot, retain water and add nutrients and organic material to the soil….they are building soil.

I am trying to garden as close to nature as possible — to work with nature, use nature as my guide and inspiration. My newest gardening adventure concerns something called hugelkultur, a word that means hill, or mound, culture. What I love most about it is that it is so obvious — its premise underlies natural soil formation. A tree falls in the forest, whether or not anyone hears it fall, it will eventually turn into soil. Hugelkultur beds use rotting logs as their base; the logs slowly release nutrients into the bed as they decay. So I recruited my son, quarantined back home, to help build a hugelkultur bed. He collected old logs from the forest, laid them on the ground and built a mound over them full of sticks (also from the forest), sod and straw, some compost, leaves and manure.

I was discussing my hugelkultur bed with my naturalist friend Steve Morello. He pointed out that there are more living cells in a dead tree than a living tree. In an article titled “Forest of the Living Dead,” Jenny Dauer of the Forestry Communications Group at Oregon State University asks, “Which is more alive: a live tree or a dead tree? If ‘alive’ means growing, breathing cells, a dead tree wins hands down. While only a thin layer of wood and bark are growing and actively transporting water and nutrients from roots to leaves in a live tree, all of a dead tree’s cells are teeming with insects, fungi, and bacteria. Some dead trees even have new plants and moss growing on them.”

Rotting wood is the basis of a healthy
forested ecosystem.

Walking in my woods this afternoon I thought about this — the sheer quantity of life found in one of those old standing snags or a downed log, slowly returning to dirt on the forest floor. It’s somewhat mind-blowing to realize that those snags and logs contain more life than the towering, living maples and hemlocks. Amazing to think that before that already partially-rotted standing dead tree hit the ground it was readying itself to release its nutrients back into the land, building soil.

The forest floor in my backyard is spongy with rot. Leaf litter and dead wood hide a vast network of lives dedicated to turning those dead leaves and wood into soil. Compare this to a typical garden bed. Most of my beds are wood frames filled with a mix of compost, manure and loam — very straightforward.

When I think of my hugelkultur bed, it seems magical in comparison — the logs buried in the bottom will start to decay over the next few years. The wood provides homes to the insects, bacteria and fungi that help with decomposition. It becomes spongy and holds onto moisture (a well-constructed hugelkultur bed needs to be watered only once every three weeks or so, at most). The decaying log provides warmth so that these beds can extend your planting season by a few weeks. What’s more, you are building soil with each mound you construct!

You can build hugelkultur beds in urban areas, a suburban backyard, even the desert. Try it! Bring a little nature into your backyard.