DIY Hugelkultur Garden Bed

*This blog post was actually written in back in June.  Due to a supremely busy summer, I am months behind in sending out updates.  🙂

This year I am super excited to be trying out a hugelkultur (pronounced hoo-gul-culture) bed in one of our raised beds.
Hugelkultur simply means “hill mound.”  They are traditionally a raised bed in which soil is mounded up over a pile of rotting wood, leaves, grass clippings, straw, compost or whatever biomass you have available.

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They boast the advantage of holding moisture & building fertility and are great places to grow your vegetables, herbs and fruit.
The wood will gradually decay which will aerate the soil meaning it will be a no-dig bed. The rotting wood will also act as a consistent source of nutrients for the plants and the composting material also creates some heat which can help to extend your growing season. The wood will act like a sponge in which water is stored and then released during dryer times. Some even claim that after the first year, if you have the right climate, you may not even need to water your hugel-bed.
There are many, many variations of a hugel-bed from creating large hills or mounds to filling a traditional raised bed with the same materials you would use in the mound style bed. While I would love to build a true hugelkultur mound, with the insane rabbit population on our property right now, it just isn’t a feasible option until we can afford the fencing material to protect our garden area. So for us this year, we just filled the bottom of our raised bed with rotting logs and covered with a soil mixture of rotting moss, aged manure and wood shavings. (Having no leaves or grass in this sub-arctic terrain to utilize.)

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I’m anxious to see how well it works as I’m not sure if I used enough wood or not or how well this local black spruce will work. I know that if the wood is too hard, there is a bit of a debate regarding the use of hardwoods for a hugel-bed. Some say that the wood will take too long to breakdown, taking years and years before you see the advantage of the decomposition process; others say that you want to use harder woods so that you can reap the benefits of the process over time.
I actually used wood that was already rotting, hoping to get immediate results, we will have to wait and see whether or not that was a mistake. Because I’m in the experimental stage of my soil mixtures and permaculture practices, I don’t mind having to redo a bed next year or the year after.
I also didn’t use many of the recommended layers of a hugelkultur bed because here in this climate we don’t have things like grass clippings or leaves. We are in the middle of a black spruce forest blanketed with moss so that is really all I had available. We are also so new to the area that I didn’t yet have any half rotted compost yet.
We filled the bottom of our *hugel-bed 30% of the bed with rotting wood and topped it with a soil mixture of wood shavings, rotting moss, top soil and a small amount of aged manure I had a really limited supply this year and wanted to see if the rotting wood provided enough fertilization. Remember, one of the most important aspects of a “Homestead” state of mind is to, as much as possible, work with what you have on hand without running to the store for every little thing you need.
I wanted to compare the results of my bedding options to see which soil mixture works the best. I also wanted to safeguard my vegetable harvest by not putting my “eggs” all in one basket. So I planted 3 main raised beds (which was all that we had materials to build) filled with 3 different soil combinations.
• Bed #1 was filled with what I have always used previously in my raised beds: peat moss (purchased from Lowe’s), finished manure and pearlite (or vermiculite.)
• Bed #2 was filled with top soil, local “peat moss” equivalent, finished manure and pearlite. (By “peat moss” equivalent, I mean the soft, under-layer of soil that develops right under the moss layer that blankets our forest here.)
• Bed #3 was the *hugel-bed described above.
I expected to have an issue with acidic soil because the mixture in my two experimental beds contain so much rotted moss and pine material but according to my soil tester, the pH is sitting right about 7.5 actually borderline being too alkaline which just shocks the pants off of me. I will continue to monitor the pH occasionally and have some wood ash on hand to neutralize the soil if we see it drop below 6. We added a small amount of steer manure from Lowes to get started but was really hoping to use some goat manure from someone local. A new friend here said I could use her left overs if she had any more but had one more person coming to load up before me. If I am lucky enough to get some, I will use it on my potato beds. (She also said that she had seed potatoes that I could use, which I have no more bed space for, so I need to go outside and start digging a trench or mound set up for those ASAP. I expect the rabbits to be a problem for anything that is not protected but since you burry potato stalks just as soon as they appear, I am willing to risk the attempt.

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So these are the beginnings of my adventures in learning to use permaculture style practices in a sub-arctic climate.  I will report back at the end of the summer how the different soil mixtures compared to each other as well as how the Hugelkulture bed did in general.

7 Step Cold-frame Raised Garden Beds

Well it’s our first week in Alaska and it’s already a flurry of unpacking, organizing and getting our actual homestead set up.  Of course the first thing that I want to do is get my hands dirty! This spring has been most unusual with the lack of farm animals and gardening to refresh my soul.  Moving from our small hay farm in Colorado to our forest homestead in Alaska meant no animals and no planting or gardening this spring.  It was a springtime of packing, packing and wait for it… more packing.  This has left me a very confused farm girl as I am accustomed to have my hands in the dirt and farm babies to enjoy long before May.  Babies will have to wait this year, as we have too many other things that need our focus but getting a garden started was first priority.

And while I am missing my greenhouse in Colorado,

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I am equally excited to try out my new cold frame boxes.

We built 2 cold frame style raised garden beds and one regular raised bed so that I can get a jumpstart on getting some produce on the table and some root crops stored up for winter.

The beauty of a cold frame system is that not only can you recreate a greenhouse effect for starting plants early and protecting them from a late spring frost (which in Alaska can happen at anytime,) you also can also harness that same greenhouse effect late into the fall, extending your growing season by, once again, closing those boxes up to protect from early frosts.  It also provides some protection from deer (or perhaps in my case caribou or moose.)

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As you know, one of the most important keys to living with a homestead state of mind is learning to use what you have on hand rather than running off to the store for the perfect materials or ingredients.  Sometimes this results in not having the prettiest Pinterest perfect project, but you will save a ton of money and are using up valuable materials rather than creating waste.

If you google or do a Pinterest search for “cold frames” you will see that the options are endless.  The concept is so simple that you really can tailor the boxes to your specific needs & plants and use materials that you already have on hand.

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In our case, we bought tin siding from the home improvement store for the boxes, and were able to just use materials we already had on hand for the rest.  We had two glass doors, although we don’t really remember where we acquired them, and some scrap pieces of polycarbonate siding from our greenhouse in Colorado that we brought with us just for this type of project.  My mountain man, bless him, dug through the scrap wood pile left here by the previous owners and that provided us with the lumber we needed to make it all work.  (Had we not had scrap wood lying around, we could have harvested a few small trees for the corner posts instead… we have quite a few.)

DIY Cold-frame Raised Garden Beds

  1. If you are using glass doors or windows, measure your tin and cut it according to the size of the glass you will be using.  The glass doors that we wanted to use for the lids, were 7 foot long, so 7 foot beds is what he built.
  2. Cut four posts or boards for the corners of your boxes and cut the top of the board at an angle that will accommodate the height and slope of your cold frame lid.  If you want to have taller boxes so that mature plants can be closed inside in the fall, you will also need to extend the height of your box above the raised bed depth.  We used the polycarbonate siding for the sides to allow more light into the box.IMG_0069
  3. Nail or Screw your tin to your boards creating the base for your raised bed. Add polycarbonate sides around the top of the tin if desired.IMG_0074.jpg
  4. Place your lid on top.  This was part of the beauty of using old glass doors for the lid of our boxes.  With hinges already built into the door, we were able to screw them right into place with no further modifications.  If you aren’t using a glass door, you can build a hinge on the back side or even build your cold frame lid to be lifted off of the raised bed rather than using the hinged lid design.
  5. If you are using tin or another flexible material for the sides of your box, reinforce the sides of your boxes so that the weight and pressure of the soil does not bulge out the sides.  We used a rebar spike (concrete stakes from our last shop building project) on either side of the bed for reinforcement.Cold Frame
  6. Fill with your favorite soil mixture (6-12” depth is all you need for most plants, 12-18” for root vegetables.)
  7. Start planting!

There is no reason to wait to get started with a project like this because you don’t have a lot of time or money for fancy materials.  Just look around at what you have and see what you can do with it!  More often than not, you will have something that you can work with and that will keep supplies purchased to a minimum.  Believe me, if you are going into the whole “homestead” or farm life expecting everything to be perfectly Pinterest perfect, you will go broke in no time.  🙂

Happy Planting!