Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens

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This was originally a fire pit, it was filled with rusty nails. When I started working on this bed there was a mass of sumac trees growing out of it. As I dug out the trees I realized the soil was junk, I moved most of it to an out of the way location. I then filled the hole in with wood, garden waste and soil. This was before I knew what hugelkultur was, I called it creative disposal back then…

Hugelkultur is a german term that basically translates to “mound culture”, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is a sheet composting method that involves burying wood debris and organic matter under a mound of earth, the wood adds nutrients as it decomposes and helps retain moisture.

Ok… Allow me to speak openly about something… This is nothing new… People have been doing this for a very long time… It is a great way to get rid of a pile of wood… But… And I know this is going to break hearts… Hugelkultur is not a maintenance free garden that will never need food or weeding… Many of the people who get into permaculture get into it because they falsely believe that permaculture is an excuse for not maintaining their yard… Or they believe that they will just fill their entire yard with trees and food and never have to pull a weed or touch a shovel again… This is simply not the case…

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This is a perfect example of hugelkultur integrated into a slope, this would be perfect in an urban landscape. The framework was made with the larger logs, then backfilled with smaller materials and soil…

So… As I’m writing this I am picturing the neighborhood I grew up in… Nice houses… Green… Perfectly maintained lawns and shrubs… Now I am picturing one of those homeowners erecting a massive hugelkultur mound in their front yard… When the neighbors complain… The excuse will be “It’s hugelkultur – Food not lawns”. Guess what people… There are more people who don’t want to maintain a front yard food forest than there are people who do… I’m just saying… Perspective…

With that said… Hugelkultur does not have to be intrusive… And it does not have to be unsightly. Mulch volcanoes are a common sight in suburbia, essentially too much mulch piled up around the base of a tree. If we take that already accepted landscape look and tweak it a little bit, we could easily create a beautiful and functional permaculture guild smack dab in the middle os suburbia.

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This is the same bed as pictured above after completion, 3 service berries on a perfectly mulched mound… Beneficial plants will be added this spring and summer.

Pick a suitable location in your yard to plant a fruit tree, proper sunlight and space to grow are essential. Once you have chosen your location, cover the ground with cardboard in whatever shape you want your final bed to be. Begin stacking wood and organic matter in a circle, leaving the center open to accept your tree when you are ready to plant . As you place your wood, add soil or compost intermittently throughout the pile. If your neighborhood has some existing mulch volcanoes, base your size and shape off of them. When you have a nice pile, plant the tree in the hole you left in the pile… Do not plant the tree at ground level, the tree should be planted in the top of the pile.

Info on planting fruit trees – https://chriscondello.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/practical-permaculture-planting-and-early-care-of-fruit-trees/

The idea of this method is to slowly integrate permaculture into your neighborhood without waging a “shock and awe” campaign on your neighbors, this is almost always met with resistance and ultimately makes us look bad. Once your tree has been growing for a few weeks, then add a few beneficial perennials or a blueberry bush, just do it in moderation.

I recently got my hands on a really nice sized pile of dimensional, untreated black locust lumber. This wood had been stored on an organic farm for a long time and was well into the decomposition process. I will be using some for hugelkultur beds in a guerilla orchard I am building this summer, but I have been breaking it up and adding it to the soil all throughout my gardens as a beneficial mulch.

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Apple and blueberry guild, this garden eats wood. I recently put these old semi-rotted boards down, the Sedum will grow over it in a month. I have been doing this for three years, I toss a lot of garden waste in this bed and it just disappears.

So this got me thinking, living in a very urban environment all of the soil around me is lifeless clay fill. To simply dig a hole in the earth and fill it with scrap wood and dead fall timber, Organic yard waste and compostable material… Add some dirt… And plant in the top… Well that my friends is essentially hugelkultur.

A common sight in the abandoned yards around my neighborhood are large piles of dead fall branches, simply pile leaves and dirt on top of one of these piles and plant something in them… The pile will usually disappear within a year or two… They also make great opportunities to guerilla garden pumpkin and squash, which seem to thrive in the nutrient rich piles. This is a technique I commonly use in abandoned yards where clean up time is not important, even fresh-cut piles of limbs can be stacked and planted in relatively short time.

Many of the suburban houses that are built today are built on some type of fill, to think that digging in your soil will disrupt the layers that took thousands of years to create is simply a joke. Instead of doing mound culture, dig a big hole and fill it with organic material. Think of it as reverse hugelkultur adapted for the city, this way no one knows you are practicing hippy gardening techniques…

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This log will feed the surrounding plants for years, the hard part is fitting it in your urban garden.

I cringe when I go on facespace or twinterest and see these magnificent photos of meticulously maintained front yard farms, typically with a headline of “urban farmer grows 6 tons of food in his 1/16 acre front yard with absolutely no work or prior experience”. I’m calling voodoo… I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, this stuff is a lot of work. When you see a photo or video of one of these urban farms, you are only seeing it at one point… And that one point is always early in the season before the garden itch has worn off… That is when reality sets in…

Permaculture is really about resource management, collecting and storing energy for future use. Urban permaculture interests me because it adds a level of difficulty that typical gardening does not have, but it does not make it impossible. Permaculture requires creativity, this article is only intended to spark that creativity…

I would love to hear examples people have of creatively disposing of waste on your small urban lot… If you have any please share them in the comments section below…

peace – chriscondello

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5 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens

  1. lifewithlelah says:

    Reblogged this on Life With Lelah and commented:
    More on hugelkulturs. These methods just make sense to me.

    Like

  2. lifewithlelah says:

    I love that you just inspired me to apply all raised hugelkultur beds in the D, guerrilla gardening style. Rely enjoy reading about your urban gardening adventures. I am a woman of the woods, born and raised, but there is a great deal of excitement in rebuilding cities, one garden at a time. In Detroit, it’s very mad max gone organic. It is raw and gritty with both urban decay, and the fresh buds of life that remain there and are considerate of natural needs. Very excited to read more of your experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. marco t says:

    Thanks for another great post, and very timely for us, we have inherited a large pile of decomposting teak posts, will post pictures when I am done….

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  4. Hi Chris, we sweep the streets and get all the leaves and good top soil that gets washed into gutters and we spread it on the street corner gardens and along our railway garden. Cleans the neighbourhood, and feeds the plants. We really love the branches as use them to stablise and build water wells around the trees planted on the slope of the railway garden.

    So eco friendly as saves council coming along sweeping it up putting it into plastic bags and carting somewhere else, where it is sorted and recyceed and then sold back to residents. Weird way of working.

    We also have a facebook page for our “Friends of Harfield Parks” people donate stuff they dont want – like paving stones – and we collect them for park improvements – this is new but already getting some great projects going.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rosie says:

    Well written.

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