We recently incorporated several large hugelkultur beds into our market garden. For those who have not yet heard about hugelkultur, you can learn more about the how and why of this gardening practice in my original hugelkultur post. In short, hugelkultur is a German term that roughly translates to “mound culture”. The hugelkultur gardening method has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries and is essentially a sheet-composting method that involves burying woody debris (logs, branches, sticks) and other organic matter under a mound of earth to add nutrients to the soil and retain moisture.
Hugelkultur boasts some pretty audacious benefits: Dramatically increased soil aeration, increased soil fertility, creative use of what would otherwise be ‘waste’ (the brush/burn pile) and biggest of all – little/no watering.
No watering? Hard to believe, right? As I did my initial research into hugelkultur, this claim caught my attention most. I read all about the benefits of hugelkultur, the science behind it, the how-to instructions for making it happen and the first hand experience of those who’ve given it a whirl. Everyone had great things to say and claimed that these audacious benefits were legit.
Digging for Disses
I was convinced that hugelkultur raised beds were the way to go for expanding our garden… well, almost convinced. As I concluded my research I decided to search for one final thing: Naysayers. I purposely searched terms like “hugelkultur fail” or “hugelkultur myth” or “hugelkultur doesn’t work”. After quite a bit of digging, the only thing I found was a handful of articles about people who doubted the process would work and were amazed at the results; converts. From all my reading, it appeared that hugelkultur has a whole slew of fans and no foes. In fact, through all my digging I only found one diss, and it has to do with sustainability.
The one negative commentary I could find on hugelkultur was the purported idea that hugelkultur is not sustainable. Why? Because more often than not, the use of heavy machinery (think: fossil fuels) is employed to make the hugels happen. On a large scale (think: commercial farm) this is nearly always the case. Earth movers dig shallow pits, front loaders carry and place rotting logs, and then similar machines move the earth back on top of the mounds. It’s a process not too different than what we experienced on our micro-farm:
Of course, now that I actually want to reference those articles which questions hugelkultur’s sustainability, I can’t find them. (If you run across any, please send me the link!) But ever since I read them, I’ve been asking myself: “Is hugelkultur sustainable”?
Sustainable or Not?
I’m in no way an expert on sustainability. And in fact, our definition of sustainable is a shade different than most other definitions. At Arcadia Farms, our definition of sustainable living is a system of living that maintains its own viability by seeking to optimize the use of naturally and locally available resources, often including reuse. It’s a lifestyle where families become producers rather than consumers only and that can go on unhindered without unnatural and non-local resources.
With that definition in mind, the way we created our hugelkultur beds was not sustainable. Why? Some of the resources we relied on were unnatural and non-local. For example:
- We hired a man who lives 30+ miles away to bring his bobcat over and dig holes
- Half of our leaves came from my brother-in-law’s home and were brought 10+ miles by truck and trailer over to our farm
- We used a four wheeler to move some of the dirt and leaves into the pits
Based on my research, most hugelkultur projects with a scale beyond back-yard-kitchen-garden make use of similar resources.
Does that mean that hugelkultur is not sustainable? Nope. Not anymore than watering or fertilizing is not sustainable.
Process vs. Method
Think of it this way: Irrigation is an important part of gardening. One gardener may have a high-capacity rain catching system which is the exclusive source of irrigation and dispenses water by watering can. Another gardener may hook a hose up to a city-water-supplied faucet beside his home and douse the garden with an oscillating sprinkler. When you consider how each gardener uses/doesn’t use natural and local resources, you could make claims that one is watering sustainably and one is not. But watering itself is neutral –neither sustainable nor unsustainable.
Fertilizing is similar. Chemical fertilizers would be considered unsustainable. Spreading composted manure from on-farm animals onto the garden would be considered sustainable. Fertilization is not unsustainable in-and-of itself, but it can be done in a way that is either sustainable or unsustainable.
The same stands for hugelkultur, which is not bobcats and trailers and four-wheelers. Hugelkultur is raised beds over buried wood. Everyone has earth. Nearly everyone has access to wood – either freshly cut or more preferably fallen, rotting logs and brush. Put a spade in the hand of someone with earth and wood and you’ve got hugelkultur. Better yet, put dozens of spades in the hands of dozens of volunteers and you’ve got large-scale hugelkultur. Sure, you’ve also got long days and sore backs, but hugelkultur is so simple, so resourceful, so natural, that with teamwork and forethought it can be done sustainably.
If you read my previous posts about hugelkultur you’ll learn that I discovered and settled on this method in late November. With cold weather coming here in Southwest Michigan, I knew time was precious and decided to hire a contractor to do our digging for us. If I had discovered hugelkultur in August, you can bet your buttons I would have been doing all the work by hand. And doing it in small chunks would have been very reasonable… very sustainable.
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