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Why not try a Hugelbeet in your garden?

A unique raised bed mimics natural processes

By MARK HALL

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Raised beds for growing vegetables are nothing new. Various versions have been around for decades. Building raised beds with wooden sides takes a lot of work and materials, and leaves a permanent structure in place. On our farm, we prefer impermanence, whether it be animal penning, pastures, feed rations or garden plots.
When our local electrical utility insisted on mowing down some clumps of ash trees and native shrubs on our front lawn last year, I went looking for ways to use the long stretch of land they left behind. It was dotted with stumps large and small, cut off at ground level and surrounded by grass. The previous year I had made some adjacent lawn into a vegetable garden by clearing the sod and turning in lots of compost. Here, the answer seemed to be to build on top of the stump area.
Enter the hugelbeet
Research brought up the concept of a “hugelbeet.” Pronounced “hoogel-bate” by an Austrian friend of mine, these raised beds incorporate much more than just a mound of dirt. The concept, especially popular in ecological permaculture circles, is to construct a layered pile to mimic the decomposition process that takes place on a forest floor. In the bush, old trees fall down and debris from small branches, leaves and brush accumulates in a loose arrangement. As it piles up and breaks down over time, this creates a rich environment for microbial, plant and animal life.
A hugelbeet speeds up the process and takes advantage of the decomposition in a number of ways. Here’s how it works: the project begins with half-rotten logs laid lengthwise in a shallow trench (see sidebar). Then smaller branches are added, followed by leaves and similar material set on top. Finally, it’s topped by a layer of compost and soil.
Advantages
A raised bed naturally heats up earlier in the spring, giving a head start on working the soil and planting compared to ground level beds. In areas with heavier soils, a raised bed also dries out earlier in the year. The soil won’t become compacted from being walked or driven on. Many gardeners also prefer to work at waist level. It’s also easier to get at plants from both sides of the bed.
The hugelbeet, in principle, brings other advantages. The various layers begin composting as they sit in the bed, bringing added warmth in spring and providing a hospitable site for earthworms and other beneficial organisms. The airier spaces in the bottom half encourage improved drainage and, over the years, should turn into additional compost right on the spot.
In our case the bed was cheap to build, using materials already on hand. We didn’t need to purchase lumber for the sides or ends, nor did we need to ponder the pros and cons of treated lumber. We will be able to top up the pile each spring with compost as the entire bed continues to settle and ferment.
Planting
Most sources praise hugelbeets for their suitability for vining, heat-loving crops such as squash, tomatoes and peppers. As this project was experimental, we tried a variety of crops to see what would work best. We also limited supplementary watering to gauge how well the beds did.
June 1?: The initial planting was in early June, as we are in Zone 5A with a last frost date of around May 24. This gave the hugelbeet about two weeks to settle. The bed lies in full sun, running in an east-west direction. These were all started plants:
? Peppers – green and Scotch Bonnet
? Cantaloupe
? English cucumber
? Pickling cucumber
? Big Beef tomato
June 24?: After about three weeks both varieties of peppers and the tomato plants were struggling in the heat. Despite several waterings with manure tea, the tomatoes and most of the peppers succumbed to hot, dry conditions and some insect pressure. We usually have good results with tomatoes, planting them deeply in the soil in other parts of our gardens. Pepper plants usually do well too. The cucumbers and cantaloupes had settled in nicely and really appreciated the manure tea.
July 15?: By midseason one of each pepper variety had survived. We were able to harvest the first of the English cucumbers, at a moderate 6” length. Cucumbers were growing out well too. Cantaloupes were flowering.
July 23?: With the tomatoes gone as well as most of the peppers, we decided to make the most of the second half of the season by replanting bare areas with other experimental plantings. In went a package of radish seed on a flattened area on the top of the pile. Then we tucked in a couple of packages of white onion sets left over from spring planting. These were placed in various nooks and crannies along the side of the hugelbeet. A few went on top where the tomatoes and peppers had been. At this point, the weather had cooled off, giving hope for the onions.
September 15?: A magnificent crop of cucumbers continued since mid-July. Cantaloupes, which don’t always grow very reliably in our farm garden, really took off on the hugelbeet. I believe they liked the heat generated from the pile, the sun exposure and unfettered access to compost. Radishes did well in their rows along the top. In the past month we’d harvested about half the onions as green onions. We left the remainder to finish up for winter storage. We even salvaged a few small green peppers from one of the two remaining peppers. The Scotch Bonnet plant was finally in full bloom. Too bad it was so late in the season.
What we learned
The hugelbeet, while not perfect, makes practical use of a small, otherwise surplus piece of ground. Weeds are easy to take care of, both because of the lack of weed seeds in the compost and the fact that the bed is at waist height and easy to reach. Plants, vining crops especially, love the heat, sun exposure and generous space to spread out. With little competition from weeds, they can grow quickly, and pollinators can easily find the blooms.
On the minus side, we probably did not provide a deep enough cover of soil/compost mix on the final layer. Crops such as tomatoes prefer a thicker covering, and more mass would help retain moisture. Drainage is definitely not a problem; if anything, the bed dries out more quickly in southern Ontario heat waves than do traditional ground-level gardens.
Settling of the pile happens more quickly than you would imagine. Starting out at about four and a half feet in late May, the mound, by summer’s end, had dropped to about three feet. This could be easily solved with annual top-ups of compost. Ideally, the bed should be constructed in autumn and allowed to mellow.
If we decided not to continue, we could easily clear out the whole thing with the tractor – but we have big plans for next year’s crops. I think it will be ideal for trying some more exotic melons, such as the old-fashioned Montreal melon
and Moon and Stars.

Building our hugelbeet

The area was 8 feet wide by 24 feet long. Work began in mid-May.
? Layer One: Pieces of rotting body wood lying nearby—beech, maple, ash and Manitoba maple—were placed end to end in a loose pile directly on the ground, around the remaining stumps.
? Layer Two: Branches of varying diameters, with larger ones on the bottom topped with smaller ones, followed by tree tops and brush. We used the tractor loader to crush them down. The smaller pieces were shoved down by walking over them. This layer was about two feet deep.
? Layer Three: Vegetable garden waste, together with rotted chicken manure that had been composting in the meat bird pen over the winter. This too was lightly crushed with the tractor bucket. This layer was about a foot high.
? Layer Four: The final layer was well-composted cattle and pig manure poured on top and allowed to dribble down the sides of the pile. The whole hugelbeet took about 10 bucket loads of compost and required some hand shoveling to firm up the sides. Depth of the top layer is about a foot. We ended up with a tall, long and narrow pile, so I took the loader and flatted the top a little, leaving about a three-foot wide surface. When completed, the pile was about four and a half feet tall.
It’s a good idea to water down the layers as they’re being put in place; luckily for us this year frequent heavy rains fell as we were building the bed.