Many of us living off the grid maximize the resources we have: the sun and wind for power, surface waters or aquifers for water, and wood for fuel. By using what’s available and not depending on the government or big business to survive, we cherish our independence and live the life we want to live.
When it comes to gardening, living off the grid means growing a self-sustainable garden, without relying on others for seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides.
One way to do this is by hugelkultur, which is a German word meaning “hill culture.” Hugelkultur harnesses the inherent energy and nutrients stored by trees during their long life. Have you ever noticed how rich and prolific plant growth is in the woods or forest? That’s due to the breakdown of wood over many years. You can accelerate and mimic this with a hugelkultur. The benefits of hugelkultur include:
- Reducing or eliminating irrigation
- Minimizing organic inputs
- Using wood debris that otherwise might be burned as unwanted brush, contributing unwanted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
How to Build a Hugelkultur
Although there are almost infinite ways to construct hugelkulturs, the two basic types are in-ground and raised beds. Which you choose depends on availability of organic inputs and personal taste.
To build an in-ground hugelkultur, dig a trench four feet wide, one foot deep, and as long as you want. Save the soil (removing any large rocks or other unwanted materials). Then start foraging around your property. Find enough wood to fill the trench. Any size of wood will do—fallen tree trunks, branches, twigs on the ground—anything. Any age of wood will do, from rotting logs to newly cut branches. Place the largest pieces in the bottom of the trench and then fill in the rest with the smaller pieces. Then place the soil on top of the wood. Alternatively, instead of using some or all of the soil, cover the wood with compostable material such as straw, grass clippings, manure, or garden compost. Water so that some of the soil or compost fills the bigger spaces between the larger pieces of wood.
In my opinion, raised bed hugelkulturs are a better option, because there’s no digging and compost is required instead of soil. To construct a raised bed hugelkultur, collect wood and pile it up two or three feet. Use larger wood (small trunks or large branches) as a rough border around the pile. Then pile compostable materials on top and then water to let some of it get into the larger spaces between the wood.
Why does Hugelkultur Work?
Hugelkultur works because wood contains organic material and nutrients that are slowly released over time as the wood breaks down, resulting in a richly organic soil. Also, the air pockets between pieces of wood provide oxygen for roots and retain water for prolonged moisture. As the wood decays, the larger pockets disappear but are replaced by smaller pockets, which have the same benefits.
Special Considerations with Hugelkultur
There are a few of things to remember when constructing and using your hugelkultur: type of wood, nitrogen loss, acidity of soil, and curing.
First, not all types of wood are suitable. Some tree species, like cedar, contain natural pesticides that can kill microbes beneficial to plants. Black walnut is toxic to most plants. Other species, like black locust, simply takes too long to break down. Wood species that excel include apple, cottonwood, and poplar. But do what the Germans do—except for cedar or other wood that will harm the resulting composted soil, use what you have. Where I live, blue oak, cottonwood, and Manzanita are native species on my land, so that’s what I use.
The second consideration is that when wood decays it depletes the surrounding soil of nitrogen. This concern is minimized if you use well-aged wood and backfill it with nitrogen-rich compost like manure or blood meal. An annual topping of nitrogen rich compost also helps.
A third consideration is that the composted soil resulting from decayed wood will be slightly acidic. This normally isn’t a problem because most common vegetables like slightly acidic soil. Asparagus is the only commonly grown vegetable that prefers alkaline soil.
Finally, I recommend letting your hugelkultur cure. In other words, give it some time for the wood to break down a little and let it settle. In warm areas, you can do this by building it in the fall and planting in spring. In colder areas, you may want to build the hugelkultur in the spring and let it cure over summer.
Living off the grid means relying on yourself and what nature gives you. It also means being independent and minimizing reliance on the government and big business. A hugelkultur on your homestead meets all these goals, as well as providing you with no-cost, healthy food to eat.