If you've never heard the term hugelkultur gardening you're in for a treat. This centuries-old method of gardening is making a comeback, and this post is filled with everything you need to know to successfully grow a garden using this German peasant traditional way of gardening.
In this post, we'll discuss:
- The ways that using the hugelkultur method of gardening can help you create low-cost gardening beds that don't require any lumber, nails or special construction materials.
- Using hugelkultur to create permaculture beds.
- Some of the unique soil benefits that hugelkultur provides., especially if you live in the more northern climates.
- How hugelkultur can help you improve poor quality soil.
In this podcast (episode #323), I'm interviewing Autumn Rose, who's been with us on the podcast before sharing about her battle with Lyme Disease and how homesteading has helped her find some levels of healing.
Autumn lives with her husband on a tiny farmstead in the mountains of southern British Columbia in Canada. She's a full-time homemaker, whole food cook, avid gardener, food preserver, and lover of farmyard creatures! In this podcast, she's sharing all of her knowledge on the centuries-old gardening method of Hugelkultur.
The History of Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur is a German word that translates to “hill culture” or “hill mound”. It's been accredited to German peasants and is actually making a comeback as one of the “newer” techniques in the gardening world.
The more “advanced” we get sometimes show us that the old ways were actually better. Humans have been growing their own food for centuries in all different climates, growing regions, and conditions.
It's only more recently that the vast majority of society DOESN'T know how to grow their own food.
What is Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur gardening is a multi-layered garden bed that uses wood as a base. It's a fantastic way to build up quality soil in an area where good soil is non-existent. You can also use this method to help amend clay or silty soil as well.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
A hugelkultur bed is actually a permaculture bed that mimics the forest floor. The beds include five layers, number one is the bottom layer and number 5 would be the top layer:
- Large logs
- Smaller wood bits/branches
- Greens (or “hot” materials)
You start with logs, then smaller wood bits or branches. As this wood breaks down it tends to pull nitrogen, so to counteract this you put down a layer of “hot” matter such as fresh grass clippings, leaves, animal manure (that's a couple months old), etc.
After this layer you'll need to add in about ten inches of good growing soil. It depends on how deep you need your soil to be depending on what you're growing, then on the very top you add a nice layer of mulch. The mulch is the weed suppressant.
As the wood on the bottom of the bed breaks down it will actually act like a sponge, retaining moisture and requiring you to water your garden less frequently.
Types of Wood
Many people do say to avoid using cedar or black walnut in your garden, however with hugelkultur beds, unless your roots are going to reach really far down, you should be just fine using up these wood materials.
In fact, there have been university studies done that have shown no adverse effects of using cedar in the garden! This is the problem with online information, oftentimes incorrect facts tend to spread like wildfire over the internet.
The more desirable options should be used for the top layers of your garden. For instance, oak tends to break down really slowly, so that would make a fantastic wood to use as mulch.
Garden Bed Settling
One drawback to this method of gardening is that as the wood chips and larger pieces of wood begin to break down, you may experience some shifting and settling of your garden beds.
It's a good idea to assume the first few years you'll need to amend your beds with additional soil. By about years three to five, your garden should be established and well settled.
Benefits of Hugelkultur Beds
One of the greatest benefits to a hugelkultur bed is that, as the wood and materials in the layers break down, the beds actually produce heat and warm up.
Autumn notices that her hugelkultur beds are always the first beds to have the snow melt off the fastest in the spring.
She also notices that when she does plant her crops, the hugelkultur beds end up producing crops about two weeks ahead of her other beds. For this reason, Autumn loves to grow tomatoes in these beds!
It's not as extreme as you may have heard by being months ahead in your growing season. But there is a slight advantage as far as warmth and the speed of growing goes.
The great thing about hugelkultur gardening is that it's beneficial for both drier climates as well as wetter climates.
For the dryer climates, the wood will actually act like a sponge and slowly disperse water to the plants as needed.
Likewise, in extremely wet conditions, the soil is very well-draining so your crops won't be drowning in waterlogged soil.
What Can You Grow in Hugelkultur Beds?
You can grow both perennial and annual crops in hugelkultur beds, as well as root crops or above-ground crops with deep or shallow root systems.
It's recommended to grow a variety of companion crops in your hugelkultur beds, as well as growing some creeping or “covering” crops along the edges if your beds are free-form to help keep the sides from eroding.
No matter the type of garden bed you choose, there will be work and maintenance, but if you make the commitment and stick with it, you will have successes and you will learn along the way.
Melissa: Hey, Pioneers and welcome to episode number 323 of the Pioneering Today podcast. Today's podcast episode is going to be talking about getting started with centuries-old hugelkultur gardening. This is a really fun episode because we get to dive back into history and see how different forms of gardening have been used throughout the centuries. And some methods, as in the example of hugelkultur, I don't want to say have been lost because there have been people that have been practicing them, but as we look at modern society as a whole, there isn't a ton of people who are still using hugelkultur gardening, though it is beginning to make a resurgence as homesteading. I hate to say that it's trending because I feel like it almost belittles the movement.
Melissa: However, becoming more self-sufficient, growing your own food, and being a modern homesteader is definitely on the growth. There are more and more people who are seeing the need for it, who are wanting to become more self-sufficient. And that means there's more people who are interested in different ways of doing things, especially traditional ways of doing things. And so that means things that were once “lost” are now becoming found again, or being talked about more and practiced more, which makes me very, very happy.
Melissa: So today's episode, we are talking about hugelkultur gardening, including the history of it. Creating low-cost garden beds, meaning no lumber, no nails, or construction materials, using hugelkultur culture to create permaculture garden beds, and some of the unique soil benefits that hugelkultur gardening provides, especially if you live in a Northern and or more cold climate and how it is an excellent option for people who have poor soil and how you can create 100% natural garden beds with the materials that you can source from your own land and what that's going to look like and how it may look different based upon what you have available in your region. So an incredible episode that we have got laid out for you.
Melissa: But first, let me introduce myself. I'm your host, Melissa K. Norris, fifth-generation homesteader, as well as founder of The Pioneering Today Academy, the website, melissaknorris.com, the Pioneering Today podcast, which you are listening to, and the YouTube channel, Instagram and Facebook, all the social things that go where I get to teach hundreds of thousands of people about living homegrown and handmade using simple, modern home setting for a healthy and self-sufficient life. And I am so excited that you are joining us.
Melissa: Before we dive into this episode, if learning how to grow more of your own food and or herbs and using century-old methods that actually work, especially when it's with natural medicine and using herbs medicinally as we move into the colder months, which is usually more cold and flus become on the rise, then you are going to want to make sure, if you haven't already, that you are on the waitlist for my herbal course, which launches on October 20th and I'm going to be doing a free live herb class. So you need to get on that waitlist in order to get access to either of those. Head on over to melissaknorris.com/herbclass. All one word, melissaknorris.com/herbclass. Click on the orange button that says, “Yes, sign me up. No purchase required.” Pop in your name and email, and you will get on the waitlist with all of the amazing free resources coming your way.
Melissa: Now for today's episode, I am interviewing Autumn. Autumn is from atraditionallife.com and she has been on the podcast before. So in the show notes, the blog post that accompanies today episode, we will be making sure that we link back to those episodes. Autumn has a very incredible story. One of the things that I find very fascinating about a lot of people who come to homesteading is a lot of us come to the homesteading movement of growing our own food, knowing how it's grown, making sure that it's done so as natural as possible without synthetic pesticides, chemicals, et cetera, both in our gardening, the things that we put into our bodies with our healthcare and then our medicine and of course our food, the cleaning products, all of the things that really encompassing a homesteading lifestyle, because we had health issues that were not able to be solved by typical modern medicine. And by turning to homesteading, we were able to find, if not complete healing, a vast improvement in our everyday life and symptoms by homesteading.
Melissa: And so Autumn, in one of our past episode, shared about her journey with Lyme disease and other things like that, and how homesteading has definitely helped her to find a higher level of functioning and some levels of healing. I hate to use healing all the way because some diseases you're not able to find complete healing for, but it's such a vast improvement that it's truly amazing. And so I love hearing your stories that you guys share with me. Even though you might not have the same health journey that I did or that Autumn did with the exact same disease, many of you have found an improvement in your health by moving into homesteading.
Melissa: Now, for any of the different links and resources that we talk about in this interview with Autumn, you can find those in the blog posts that accompanies this episode at melissaknorris.com/323. Just the number 323. Melissaknorris.com, 323 because this is episode 323. Without further ado, let's get into today's episode. Autumn, welcome back my friend to the Pioneering Today podcast.
Autumn Rose: Thank you for having me back again, Melissa.
Melissa: Yeah, we're just like old hats or good friends where we just have to chat periodically on the podcast and bring all of you wonderful people who are listening into the conversation. And right before we started recording, I will do a confession. I asked Autumn, I said, “How do you properly pronounce this word?” And so we are talking about today, the benefits, hugelkultur gardening. Did I say it right?
Autumn Rose: Very good, yes.
Melissa: Okay, good. I love it. She told me, she said, “Think Google, but put an H there instead.” I'm like, “Ah! Okay.” That I can do. And then we actually, I said, okay, we need to just start recording because I'm going to be asking you too many questions that you're going to have to repeat because I'm fascinated. But where that word came from and its meaning. So Autumn, if you would please repeat that now that we're actually recording?
Autumn Rose: Sure. Hugelkultur, to the best of my knowledge, is a German word. This is sort of where this method of gardening we're going to be talking about today, where they think it originated. It's a very old practice and hugelkultur simply means hill mound or hill culture.
Melissa: Awesome. And actually, my ancestry on my maiden name for my dad's side is German. So one would think I would have a little bit more base knowledge of that, but I don't because we migrated to the United States like back in the 1700s and a lot of that over the years has gotten lost, but I do find fascinating. So I love that ... I feel like we are, with all of our advanced technology and science and stuff that we have now in this modern world, it really seems though that we are rediscovering a lot of ancient or very old things and realizing that there's actually a lot of benefit to doing those ways and we're returning back to, or at least bringing them into more of our modern, I don't know if mainstream is really the right idea because it sounds like you're going to go to a garden center and find information on doing a hugelkultur garden.
Melissa: But I feel like it's becoming more of a practice, especially among homesteaders or natural-minded people where we're really implementing and bringing a lot of these ways back or at least bringing even information about that, an awareness to people who have maybe never heard of these terms or aren't really sure what they mean. So I just think that that's actually really cool. So how long have you been practicing and where did you first learn or see about using a hugelkultur gardening technique?
Autumn Rose: Yeah. So I actually had a friend in our community, that was the first time I actually saw it practice and I thought it was very weird when I first heard of it. Hugelkultur is sort of a multi-layered garden bed that actually uses wood as a base. And so in her garden, that was the first time I had seen it. She had this massive mound and she was growing squash and pumpkins on it. And I thought it was a very peculiar way of gardening. But then actually when my husband and I bought our land, it has very poor soil. And so we knew that alternative gardening was a must. We are basically on a rock bed.
Autumn Rose: And so I was researching and looking for different ways. You know, if we buy this land, how are we going to grow our gardens? Because that was very important to me for health reasons. And then I also, online, I have sort of an online acquaintance who had also done hugelkultur gardens and loved them. She lived in a very similar climate to mine as well. And so between the friend I knew and then sort of this online friend, I was like, “I think I should just give this a try.” So I'm still fairly new to it myself. We just came through our third summer with hugelkultur gardening and I absolutely love the technique for many, many different reasons, but that's how I heard of it and got into it.
Melissa: Okay. So are all of your garden beds hugelkultur or did you do test plots where you just did some of them that way? Or how did you begin to implement them?
Autumn Rose: Initially, we put in ... I have my whole kitchen garden is actually a hugelkultur style garden. So in there, I grow maybe some zucchini and tomatoes, herbs, just kind of a typical kitchen garden stuff. And then we actually, with our berry patch, we're still in test mode with it as far as our climate and what grows well here, but we actually put our entire berry patch, we did in the ground hugelkultur beds for that and they've done really, really well.
Melissa: Fascinating. Okay. So you just went all in. So you're using it for both the annuals and perennial fruit crops.
Autumn Rose: Yes.
Melissa: Fascinating. Okay. First off, we probably should back up because I just get so excited and jump into it. I know you said that the base of it is using wood, but what exactly is a hugelkultur bed as you're constructing it or if you were going to implement one? Like the basis of it, what is it actually composed of?
Autumn Rose: Well, it's a little bit different and that's partly why I've just recently started getting more into permaculture and a hugelkultur bed is actually a permaculture style bed. So what they say is the layers, you put down, it actually mimics a forest floor. So the base is wood, literally like logs. And then on top of that, some people will put down a layer of smaller wood bits, tree branches, smaller logs. And then on top of that, it's got four layers. The next layer is the hot matter. So when you create the bed, as the wood breaks down, it tends to pull nitrogen to help it with the breakdown process. So you put down a layer of hot matter. That can be like fresh grass clippings, leaves. People will even put down hot animal manure. Hot as in a couple months old, but yes.
Autumn Rose: Okay. Hearty layer of that, they pack it down into all the wood, and then on top of that, they put ... This is where resources will vary, but personally, what I found, I need about 10 inches of good growing soil because it's going to settle because it's on top of wood, but about 10 inches of good growing soil. And then the last layer is actually a layer of mulch. So it varies what people use. Some people like to use leaves, some people like to use straw, even you can use wood chips. And basically, those are the four layers, your base of wood, your layer of hot matter to help the wood break down faster, a good hearty layer of good growing soil. And then you have your mulch covering because with the wood underneath, they are definitely no-till garden beds. So the mulch is your weed suppressant. And then that bed just sits there over time, that wood is going to rot and break down underneath, it releases warmth up into the soil. And then eventually when that wood is broken down, it will act as a sponge and it will actually retain moisture.
Melissa: Fascinating. So when you're building these beds, they are a permanent bed I'm assuming because logs are going to take quite a while, even without hot matter in order to break down. But is there a general or recommended size of log to start with? I guess, just the larger log you have then the more hot material you're going to need in order to cover it and have enough layers. But is there any like kind of rule of thumb as far as sizes go on the log that you're using for your base?
Autumn Rose: Well, the size of your log is really dependent on the height you want your bed to be. Unless you're doing them in the ground, and you can do that, dig a trench, and some people will do that with huge two, three-foot in diameter logs. It's really up to your personal preference though. Obviously, yes, smaller logs will break down faster. You'll lose that underneath soil warmth sooner that way, but it really just depends on what you want.
Autumn Rose: When I was first researching hugelkultur and trying to gather the information because I was like, “These are labor-intensive. I only want to do this once. I'm not going to pull them apart and do them again.” So I did do some research and actually what I found was in designing the beds, a lot of people, they'll go for a massive, massive hill mound. We're talking like five feet high and they say it's great for growing your squash and whatnot. But I have actually found that I prefer to use probably no more than a foot in diameter logs, just for like a simple, lower sort of raised bed style. So it really depends on what you have, what you want. Some people prefer to put their hugelkulturs in the ground and will dig massive trench and line it with wood of all sizes. It really just depends on what you're going for and what you want.
Melissa: Okay. I always get asked this, which is the reason I'm asking it to you because I'm sure someone will have this question. And I know with using wood chips in the garden, really the only one from all of my research and studies that you want to stay away from is black walnut because of the juglone compound, which can inhibit growth of certain plants. Have you come across anything in your research or doing them where it's like, oh, you probably should avoid this type of wood, or is it pretty much fair game because it is so far underneath all of those other layers before the plant would ever reach it its roots?
Autumn Rose: Well, they do say you can use ... A lot of people say you shouldn't use cedar on your garden or I think black locust is another one. They do say too, if you're going to use those wood varieties to put them down as your very first layer so that they're well buried. And then your roots of your plants, if you've got one layer of let's say cedar and then two layers of alder or pine or something like that, your roots, unless you're doing something like big perennial plants, your roots really aren't going to reach down there. So if you're doing something like a garden bed for squash or maybe a kitchen garden, you can use anything, but the more desirable options for your top layers, you definitely want to stay away from wood that's slow to break down. So like oak takes quite a while. You want something on that top layer that will break down faster than the bottom layer would be ideal.
Autumn Rose: So yeah, any of those plants that you know you're not supposed to have in the garden or any of those types of wood, put them down on your first layer and then put other wood on top of that, that will decompose a little bit faster.
Melissa: Okay. Great tip. And I do want to say, I actually did a lot of research on this when I was writing my book, The Family Garden Plan. And cedar chips in the garden, especially a vegetable garden and even around blueberries and raspberries and a lot of your berry plants, the Washington State University did a study and actually said that that's basically a myth that in their studies that they did with cedar that there was no inhibit of growth of those plants.
Autumn Rose: Oh, interesting.
Melissa: I know. I find it was one of those things that if you've been in gardening really any amount of time, you hear, “Oh, don't use cedar.” Now, we shouldn't use cedar as a livestock betting for certain animals because it can definitely irritate them. And I come from a family of loggers and there's a lot of cedar that grows here where I live and a lot of it was logged and worked with. If you work in mills with cedar back in the day when they didn't have as much ventilation and mass and stuff that we do now, you could get a condition called cedar lung where it could be harmful. So it's harmful like respiratory wise to breathe it in. Now, I'm talking when you're like cutting and really dealing with sawdust and large volumes, not just cutting a tree down or using cedar around your property. I want to put that in proper perspective. I don't want anybody freaking out.
Melissa: Where we have our garden now, it was a forested area. And when we bought the land, we cleared that off just where our home site is and where our garden is. And so there were of course, a mix of trees. There's hemlock fir and cedar. And I've used different, you know, cedar chips and fir chips and everything, and I've never had any issues. So I just wanted to put that out there because I feel like people hear the word cedar and they just immediately think, “Oh no, like I can't use that anywhere in the garden.” And that's not really true, at least not in my experience and not what I found from research either. But I do love that you said, make sure that you've got the faster and the smaller pieces and the wood that will break down because cedar is not a fast breakdown.
Autumn Rose: No, no.
Melissa: That's why people love to use it for building because it's one of the ones that will actually stay. Especially in a wet climate, like where I live, it's one of the few things that you can actually use that won't rot right away. So really good tips though, there on the wood and how you want to have those layers based upon how they break down.
Melissa: For the garden and doing these beds, you've mentioned, which I kind of want to come back to because I have a feeling this could definitely be a pro, especially if someone lives in a cooler climate. And that is that the soil warmth that you've been talking about releasing the heat to the soil above. So do you want to talk a little bit about that? I feel like that might be a little bit of a unique thing to a hugelkultur type bed. Race beds can have the benefit of warm soil versus in ground, but I think we should like, let's extrapolate that a little bit because I think that it can be a really great pro for folks.
Autumn Rose: Yeah. Like I said before, as the wood decomposes, the action releases warmth into the soil above. So I will notice, here where I live, we can get up to four feet of snow in a year. It just depends. But the snow always comes off of my hugelkulturs first, partly because they are most ... Well, my berry patch is in the ground hugelkulturs, but my kitchen garden, it is a raised bed. Also, because it's sort of in a slight mound or round, the sun, especially the south-facing slopes, the sun comes off of those faster. And then of course, that wood is decomposing underneath, especially in the spring as temperatures start warming up. Some, still usually not warm enough to plant my main vegetable garden. I can usually plant my hugelkulturs for sure two weeks ahead of time and things are always ahead in the hugelkulturs just because of, I think that wood breaking down. And then of course, like I said before, you have different slopes and angles on your beds.
Autumn Rose: And so that is something I have loved growing, like tomatoes in it. A lot of people prefer to grow the warm weather crops in them, like your squash, your pumpkin, zucchini, tomato, eggplant, peppers, all those things because they love those warmer roots. There's actually a lot of myths out there about hugelkulturs that I was kind of ... When I first stepped into this, I was watching, I was like, “Is this really going to be true?” And kind of like testing and seeing. Some people are like, “You'll be like, you know, months ahead on your growing season.” It's not that extreme, folks. It's not that extreme. But you do get a little bit of a head start and I would love to experiment actually with some cold frames on there as well. I haven't done that yet. But I actually think I could probably get another one to two weeks head start if I had cold frames on my hugelkultur as well, just trapping more of that warmth.
Melissa: I bet, especially like you were saying with it being mounted and on the southern exposure side, I bet you definitely could if you had the cold frame on that side. At least, I've experienced, not in a hugelkultur or a mound like that, but just any southern exposure area of our yard if I pop cold frame on there.
Melissa: Fascinating though, because you would be pairing the benefits of the cold frame and a microclimate by using that southern exposure. But when you pair that with the actual soil warmth beneath the surface, because of the way this bed is layered, oh, now, my gardening, I'm like, my inner geek is coming out. I'm like, this is exciting stuff. This is fascinating. I love this.
Melissa: Okay. You've got me really, really intrigued now. I'm super fascinated with this. When it comes to both yearly, I would say and then also within like a growing season, especially say the first year and then versus your maintenance years, are you having to [inaudible 00:23:53] of extra fertilizing. So maybe watering with like a liquid fish emulsion or anything like that at that first year. What does that look like, or you don't really have to do anything because of the way it's all just breaking down and feeding everything really well?
Autumn Rose: Well, I would say there's pros and cons with everything. I would say that is probably one of the cons of a hugelkultur is I think this last year they probably settled. I saw less settlement, but you are going to have to add soil to them. Unless you put on two feet or something, you're going to want to add soil to them. I usually do it either in the fall or in the spring before I plant. And I mean in a normal garden, you're supposed to add some form of composted matter to your beds. But I would say the first two to three years, your beds are really going to settle. That wood is going to shift underneath, new cracks are going to be formed. The soil's going to fall down in.
Autumn Rose: And so I add probably for the past three years, I've added probably three to four inches of soil either in the spring or in the fall after the growing season is done. But just to keep them topped up. Because there's so much going on and so much is shifting, it's amazing actually how much they settle. And so yes, I would recommend, especially until that stuff finishes settling, which I think it's around year five that it's supposed to be more stationary, but you will have to top them up. It's almost like you let them age and ripen. Sort of like a tease or something.
Autumn Rose: So that's kind of one of the downsides to hugelkultur gardening. It's great once it's established. You can make it in the ground or a permanent raised bed, whatever you want in that respect. But they're definitely is a bit of maintenance. Of course, then there are mulch that you need to pull back, your mulch to add on the new soil. So that would be probably the biggest challenge I found with hugelkulturs would be just you do need to top them up until they're settled and fully established.
Melissa: Okay. You know, what's really funny is I feel like with all the different methods and options that we have from gardening, from doing permaculture, or Back to Eden, lasagna gardening, which hugelkultur kind of ... It is a form of permaculture. It's also a form of lasagna gardening, not in the exact same way like the Ruth Stout method or other things like that, but very, very similar, it's just a little bit different execution. And even if you're choosing to till and to work organic matter in that way or cover crops, but really no matter what method of gardening you choose, it's always something that you are working to and continuing to improve the soil.
Autumn Rose: Absolutely.
Melissa: Like there really is, at least not in my discovery and especially in testing methods, like you were saying, like, no matter what method you're like, you're going to find people to be like, “Oh, like you don't have to do anything and it works awesome.” It sounds great, but I have never experienced that in testing all the different methods in over two decades, 22 years of gardening on my own as an adult. There are some methods that do seem to require less work in different aspects for sure, but I've never found any gardening method that is truly hands-off, that you don't have to some type of maintenance to it or adding in of stuff or weeding, even with the mulch.
Melissa: Like you're saying, there are things that get better over time. You have to wait for certain things to get established in bed sometimes before you really start to see it. I feel like that's with weeding like. Don't let those weed seeds go to-
Autumn Rose: Yes.
Melissa: You know, don't let them go to seed because then you're going to get more. And if you stay on top of them year after year after year, you will begin to see a decline, but there's still always going to be that work. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, I sometimes feel like when we hear about new methods or talk to different people about gardening, it can be really easy to romanticize. But any method that you pick, there's going to be work and maintenance. And so I think it's just good to mentally prepare yourself for that.
Autumn Rose: Yes.
Autumn Rose: I know it is funny. People are always looking for the easy way out. And it's like, the good things in life are never easy. They just aren't.
Melissa: Amen. Yes. Completely agree. So with the hugelkultur though, it sounds like it's really good ... As you were mentioning, you have really rocky soil. And so if you have really poor soil, maybe not rocky, but I'm going to assume, especially if it's really clay-based, really poor drainage or very compact, that this is also a really good option to use in those types of situations.
Autumn Rose: Absolutely. And the beautiful thing with them is if you live in a really dry area, you can put your hugelkulturs in the ground to retain more moisture, or if you live in a ... I live in a fairly cool climate, so I love doing them above the ground for raised beds. When we have a really, really wet spring, they drain well still. So yeah, I think they're a wonderful option for a wide variety of different things. But yeah, there is definitely some real perks to them in that respect.
Melissa: Yeah. Just because I'm curious because we did a test with our main in-ground vegetable gardening bed. We're going on, is it year two or three now? I have to think. I think year two now. A full two years where half the garden I covered in wood chips and then half the garden, I did not. I did a soil test before we implemented it. And so I had a baseline of all of the soil, it was the same everything, you know, what the levels. And then we implemented the wood chip method on half of the garden and doing no-till on that half with these wood chips and then the other half doing how we normally did. And so into year two, because a lot of these, as you and I were sharing back and forth, they take some years to implement and to see the benefits and to see the changes, et cetera.
Melissa: And so year to two, I did a soil test. One on the wood chip side and one on the other, and they were the same base soil before we implement it, so I had that. And what I found really fascinating was the wood chip side of the garden, which wood chip and hugelkultur are not the same thing. So I want to make sure I'm prefacing that as well. But the pH level on the wood chip side actually went to alkaline. Seven on the pH scale is neutral, which for most vegetable gardens, you want it to be in the six pH range. So it had actually went up to 7.2 pH, which means I need to add some elemental sulfur to it in order to get it a little bit more acidic.
Autumn Rose: Wow!
Melissa: So when I was planting in the rows, like pulling the wood chips back and planting in it this year, I was adding sulfur just in those rows and not broadcasting over. So I'm curious, have you done any soil tests and have you noticed anything about pH? But the wood chips, the wood, excuse me, not wood chips, but the logs in hugelkultur, they're a lot further under the soil. So I don't know that it actually would, but I'm just curious if you have seen anything like that or heard anything about that in your research about pH levels in the soil, or does it all seem to be pretty good?
Autumn Rose: You know, I haven't done any tests, partly because we do have a little bit of native topsoil that we've view used in our gardens, but a lot of it we've had to bring in from outside sources. Honestly, it's just like a normal garden. You know, you have your primary growing soil that your plants are pulling their nutrients from. And so what I have heard, I've never tested it, but what I've heard is that the wood doesn't affect the pH unless you get right down into the soil that's directly above your wood, then I think you might see a difference. But because you keep it topped up so well, I haven't noticed, I find it's just based on if I bring in good soil, I get a good harvest. If I get poorer soil from over here, things don't grow quite as well. I really don't think the wood makes that much difference.
Autumn Rose: Now, if you used wood chips on the soil, you might find some variance, but I actually usually use straw. So I can't say on that one for sure, but my experience has just been, it just depends on what your soil is and what you do with it. That's what makes the difference.
Melissa: Okay. That's good. And like I said, the hugelkultur is quite different than wood chips, unless you're only using wood chips as the mulch on the beds on that top layer, which you're not. So anyway, very fascinating.
Melissa: With the hugelkultur bed, I think one of the things that you mentioned, which I think is really smart, not just for doing hugelkultur, but really any type of your gardening is to use as much raw material as possible from your land, which is also going to mean that your gardens may look slightly different as well as your hugelkultur beds than other people's because you really are trying to use as much as you can from your own land. So for you, I know you said that you like to use straw and obviously any wood that you have available from your own land, but what have been some other things that you have pulled or seen that other people use? Just as someone's like, “Well, I don't have ... ” Like trying to think of what they have and being, “Oh, can I actually use this in my hugelkultur bed or not?”
Autumn Rose: For mulch, or just to design the bed?
Melissa: Both actually.
Autumn Rose: Both? Okay. Yeah. So in my e-book, I do have a list of all wood types. Interestingly enough, you can use pine. I've even heard of people using fir for their wood base. If you use willow, you want to make sure it's really dead before you put it in because it will tend the sprout. And then like we said before, there's oak is often used, maple. You can use the hardwood. That's fine, but just be aware, they'll take longer to break down and then ... I'm trying to think what else. I think elm was on the list. It's actually very interesting. It's pretty much any type of tree that's out there, you can use for your base.
Autumn Rose: Now again, like I said before, some, you should put down as your first layer. And then when it comes to your hot matter, if you have chickens, horses, cows, all that stuff, bedding. I have a friend here who keeps goats and we used, interestingly enough, we used her goat bedding as our hot layer in some of our beds, which goat manure actually isn't that hot. So I was very curious to be like, is it going to work? Totally fine. It worked very well. So any type of animal manure for the hot layer. You can use grass clippings. You can use leaves. Some people even just use their kitchen compost. If they have a compost pile, they'll just dig out their post, layer it down on that wood. And you want it to be fairly thick. You want a couple inches of compost. Some of the images, if you research this online, it's actually kind of gross, seeing what people put down for that hot layer.
Melissa: I can imagine now that you say that, yes, uh-huh (affirmative).
Autumn Rose: But the idea is you just want uncomposted matters, basically the idea with a hot layer. And then with soil, you can mix together native soil with composted animal manure. Again, anything in that respect will work. For mulch, wood chips. I actually sometimes like to use lawn clippings if you're sure your grass is short enough that you don't have seedheads in it. I will dry out lawn clippings and those actually make a wonderful mulch as well for the top covering. Straw, wood chips, some people use leaves. I've seen that before. They'll shred up leaves and use that as their mulch. So it's really just kind of anything that naturally grows on your land, you can pretty much use it.
Autumn Rose: It's very versatile.
Melissa: Okay. I have one last question for you and that is, does the trees or the wood that you're using for the base layer, is it okay if it's older? Does it need to be green, like just fallen, or does that matter?
Autumn Rose: It doesn't really matter. I mean, if it's like older, rotting wood, of course, you're not going to get the same release of heat as you would with green wood. But no, you can use whatever you want. We've all often thrown just old rotting logs on our property. Like, why not? Throw them into our in the ground hugelkulturs and our berry patch. So you can really use anything you want. And it kind of depends what you're going for. If you want a lot of the heat, obviously, eventually, the wood's going to break down enough, it's not releasing heat in anymore. But if you want that, make sure you put some green logs in the mix. But if you just want the sponge for holding the water, you can make it all with old rotten wood if that's what you want. So it sort of depends what you're going for in that respect.
Melissa: Okay, great. Because one of the things is we were using wood chip on our garden, we had used some larger ... It's not as fine as sawdust, but it's not as large as wood chips, it's kind of in-between. But it wasn't from green trees, or branches that had just bent down, it was from my husband's sawmill. And so a lot of people were making comments, which is great. Like I don't know everything. And so I love learning. And they were saying, you know, that's probably why you had some issues with the soil level test that I ... It wasn't just pH, but it was lower in nitrogen.
Melissa: And so they were saying, if you use the fresher green material as your wood chips, then that will feed the soil more than obviously dead, older carbon, which makes sense. So I just wasn't sure if that translated over to hugelkultur beds as much as it did in that instance. And it doesn't sound like it does. So that actually makes me very happy because we do have some older wood that I might be testing some of this out on.
Autumn Rose: Yeah, absolutely.
Melissa: Yeah. So great to know. Okay, awesome. Well, every time, I learn so much when you come on and share, and I want to thank you so much. And for people who are like, “Okay, I want to see these in actions. I really want to look into doing hugelkultur.” Where is the best place for people to get more info and connect with you on this subject?
Autumn Rose: You can go to my website, atraditionallife.com. And I also have some YouTube videos up on my YouTube channel, which is also A Traditional Life, just running over some of the basics of hugelkultur gardening and all that.
Melissa: Awesome. Well, we will have links for that as well in the blog post that accompanies this episode so that you can go and check that out in further detail. And again, thank you so much for coming on and sharing.
Autumn Rose: Yeah. Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa: Well, I hope that you enjoyed that episode as much as I did and learned a ton. Thank you so much for joining me. And I hope that you signed up and that I'll get to see you in the live training on the free herb class that I'll be doing. I truly value our time together and I can't wait to be back here with you next week. So blessings in mason jars for now, my friend.
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