Introduction: Never Water Plants Again With Hugelkulture!
Before we get started, I need to point out that I was slightly misleading with the title. The first year, you will need to water, however in the years to follow, you should not.
This article will have just 4 steps. 1) pick a spot 2) lay down wood 3) cover with soil 4) plant your cover crop and garden. Hugelkultur is not difficult, but there are interesting things to know about it which I will try and cover in this.
Like I said, hugelkultur is basically just wood buried in soil. The wood soaks up water like a sponge, and eventually (after about a year and a half) breaks down and starts to decompose. While it's decomposing, it regulates water in your garden. It soaks up water when the soil is saturated, like when you get heavy rainfall in the spring, and then is slowly released when the soil is dry like during the summer.
Hugelkultur can be done on the large scale (many kilometres) or the small scale (a community garden). It can also be done in pretty much any shape.
It is a practice utilized by many permaculturists. I believe the term was coined by Sepp Holzer who is a permaculture farmer to the extreme. Permaculture is a holistic method of taking care of the earth, people and making sure there is fair share for humans, animals and the earth alike. Although this article isn't necessarily about permaculture, I'll try my best to make suggestions based on permaculture principals.
These are not my ideas. As I said before, I didn't come up with hugelkultur. These methods have been tested over years and are proven to work. Using hugelkultur along with mulching and manure will give you a great environment to grow in.
Step 1: Find a Spot
I'm not going to be very specific here, but find a location which will get lots of light. This garden bed will need 6-8 hours of direct light per day.
For me, I put my hugelkultur bed in my community garden plot. I live in a 1 bedroom apartment, so I'm very limited in space.
This is not a garden bed you plant for temporary use. This bed is meant to stay for over 20 years, so pick a space where it will be out of your way, but easy to access. If you're having trouble, sit outside and observe your yard. Notice which part gets the most sunlight. Notice where the water goes.
Step 2: Lay Down the Wood
Generally, you want to use deciduous trees (trees which shed their leaves) and not conifers (evergreen trees) because conifers can raise the acidity of the soil. There are also other reasons I can't remember which I heard Paul Wheaton say in a video once. Hardwoods work the best.
If you can't find wood on your property, perhaps you could speak with an arborist in your area and see if they would like to pass off some of their "garbage" to you. Just don't go and purchase firewood for the project. There are lots of sources of wood out there. I found a bunch of it from a tree that was cut down at my community garden.
Use larger chunks of wood. Don't make the mistake I made using wood chips. The reason is, the more surface area you have, the more nitrogen will be pulled out of the soil into the wood. You will get that nitrogen back eventually and your garden will flourish, but it'll make your first year of gardening harder.
I'm honestly not all that worried even though I used wood chips because I also planted a nitrogen fixing cover crop of clover and spread lots of compost and worm castings which I made with my under the sink worm farm. I have lots of nutrients in this soil.
In my situation, I dug down into the ground and buried my wood down there (no pun intended). I did this because I have good soil in my garden and I also can't make a raised bed hugelkultur. Many people make peaked beds. This allows for different plants to get different sun and drainage. For instance, if you have onions or garlic on the south side of the bed, they'll get hotter. If you have strawberries on the north side, they'll get sweeter.
Step 3: Cover With Soil
This part is pretty obvious, but there's a few techniques to doing it.
Mix your soil
I recommend using manure, compost and glacial rock dust. The rock dust has lots of minerals which the plants will absorb. This makes for healthy plants and healthy you. The compost and manure will provide lots of nutrients for the plants to grow healthy.
Some people shovel the soil on like I did and then give it a good watering. Others will water it heavily and pack it on like a mud pie. Whatever way you choose is fine.
Cover with mulch
Use straw and pin it down with sticks so the wind doesn't blow it away. This will allow water to stay in and will inhibit weeds from growing. It's also wise to plant a green manure like field peas and clover.
Step 4: Plant Your Garden
This is another self explanatory thing, but put some thought into it. Plants grow best with companion plants of "guilds". Some plants have deep roots, some have shallow, some are nitrogen fixers, others are nitrogen dependent. Do some research on which plants go well together so you can have a garden that fertilizes itself.
If you want to make it easier on yourself, go to www.starterpermaculture.com and download the free companion planting chart. It's in .xls format, so you can edit it yourself.