We live in an exciting time. Information is everywhere! Learning new methods and techniques to grow one’s food and regenerate soils can be found in a quick Google search. There you may learn about Keyhole beds, Chicken Tractors, Swales, Hugelkultur and more.
Hugelkultur is an increasingly popular gardening technique that has found success on many homesteads in moist climates. In dry climates, it’s a different story.
In dry climates, Hugelkultur has been proven to be an inadequate solution for use in the garden. The increased surface area of the raised Hugelkultur beds increases evaporation in an area that needs to conserve as much moisture as possible.
However, there might be a solution for you Hugelkultur lovers out there! But first, let’s dive a little deeper into Hugelkultur. Usually, when we reach the origins of a method, we can find the original genius that made it work for its practitioner and how it can work for us.
What Is Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur is a method of garden bed construction designed by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer from Austria. It involves taking woody material such as logs and branches and burying it, eventually building up a bed that reaches 5 feet high and arms width apart from top to top walking down the middle.
Hugelkultur beds were designed in a high rainfall environment and that is where they work best. Built on contour to the landscape where water can be harvested, but also so soil can have a chance to dry out in the raised berms.
Besides allowing for better drainage in a high rainfall environment, the addition of woody material as the core of the bed allows for that wood to absorb the moisture, breakdown and act even more like a sponge, hydrating during dry times.
Hugelkulture is a method that works well for the environment for which it was made. Other areas such as the wet tropics can greatly benefit by utilizing this method on their properties.
But what about dry climates? Because even in the tropics we have dry climates. Will Hugelkultur beds work as well in dry climates as well as in wet climates?
Why Hugelkultur Beds Do NOT Work In Dry Climates
Hugelkutur beds were not designed with dry climates in mind. The raised beds evaporate too much water for a dry environment and the woody core has a hard time getting moist enough to hydrate that raised bed.
Have you ever seen a raised bed after a rainstorm in a dry climate? Within a few short hours, that raised be looks dry, while the lower areas all stay moist for sometimes days after the last rainfall.
With Hugelkultur beds initially designed to be 5 feet tall, we’re looking at some major water loss for a dry climate. Even Hugelkultur beds that are smaller in height do not work well in dry climates. In fact, in almost every instance, raised beds of any kind in dry climates do not work.
What about the water absorption qualities of the wood at the core of a Hugelkultur bed? After studying the functionality of numerous Hugelkultur beds across CA, I have found the wood at the core of a Hugelkultur bed rarely contains any moisture unless it was constantly given supplemental water.
Perhaps there is a way that we could use the concepts of Hugelkultur and apply them to dry climates. If you have been paying attention while reading, I bet you already know the answer to this.
An Alternative To The Traditional Hugelkultur Bed
Ok. Ok. You must have a Hugelkultur bed on your property, even though you live in a dry climate. But how can we design one that works with the dry conditions as opposed to enhance them?
First, spend some time observing. Watch what happens to the soil a few hours after the rains stop and the sun has begun to dry things out? What areas hold the moisture the longest? Where does debris and woody material accumulate in a natural environment?
As you begin to watch how the miracles of nature unfold, you may notice that it’s the low spots that retain the most moisture and also catch the most debris. You may also begin to notice that areas with loose, healthy soil also holds water longer than areas with poor, compacted soils.
Healthy soil is a sponge. It holds exponentially more water than any water tank can hold. Harvesting every bit of it is essential to creating regenerative systems, especially in dry climates.
A strategy for harvesting rainwater in dry climates is to dig sunken basins that rainwater gets caught in and allowed to slowly sink into the ground. Maybe we can combine some Hugelkultur principles with sunken basins to get even better results?
It has been done! Instead of a raised Hugelkultur bed, we have a sunken Hugelkultur basin.
To construct one, all you have to do is dig a basin in an area that can catch rainwater runoff. The difference with this basin is that it is dug a foot or two deeper than its final base height. Fill that extra one to two feet with branches, small trunks, etc. Cover with excavated soil. When done, the basin should be roughly a foot below the original ground level.
Now you have a water harvesting basin that can thoroughly hydrate the buried woody material. In turn, you are building organic matter and increasing the water absorbing qualities of that basin even more!
Materials To Use With Hugelkultur
The best materials to use are the ones that you have locally available to you, with the exception of alleopathic materials.
Hugelkutur beds are best known for utilizing larger logs and branches at the core of their construction, but by adding some other materials to it, you can increase its break down time.
If all you add is wood, what you are doing is creating a “cold compost”. As the name implies, a cold compost does not run hot and takes a long time to break down. And that’s fine! But why not speed it up a little?
So mix it up! Add some nitrogen to that carbon. A balanced compost is 2 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. So check out the chart to help you decide what to add to your Hugelkultur basin to give it a little boost!
|Carbon (Brown)||Nitrogen (Green)|
|Dead Leaves||Grass Clippings|
|Logs, Branches||Kitchen Compost|
Strategies To Increase Water Absorption With Hugelkultur
Creating a basin filled with woody material is already a great way to absorb water, but there are a few other strategies to increase water retention even more.
First, I like to focus on covering the soil. A simple mulch can do, but my favorite thing to do is seed the Hugelkultur basin after it is constructed with cover crop seeds such as rye, vetch and oats, even fava beans!
This “living mulch” is able to shade the soil, as well as increase organic matter. Organic matter in the soil is the greatest tool we have for harvesting rainwater.
Hugelkultur basins can also become more efficient at their jobs if a tree was planted nearby that can shade the basin. Just a little bit of shade greatly decreases evaporation after a rain event.
Adding these strategies to the Hugelkultur basin concept will create a powerful tool for you to use to rehydrate landscapes.
But don’t stop there. The limits of design are only constrained by the designer. Get outside your box. Observe things in a new way. Create your own additional strategies that you can utilize in your own local environment.
Alternatives To Hugelkultur in Dry Climates
In addition to the strategy of using Hugelkultur basins instead of raised beds for dry climates, what other strategies might be out there?
First off, woody material in a dry climate can be hard to come by. It’s not exactly an area where forests are in abundance. I like to save that wood for surface use. A simple log on the ground can be habitat for so many beneficial creatures in your garden. It can provide young plants quick shade or protection from predators.
In dry climates, I like to dig simple water harvesting basins (without logs) popularized in Brad Lancaster’s book, Harvesting Rainwater For The Drylands and Beyond. In dry parts of Africa, they utilize Zai holes to catch water and utilize compost.
Sometimes swales are the answer for larger landscapes, ditches dug on contour to the elevation of the land. Other times, it is the keyline plow.
The most important thing is to observe and think before you act. Just because a gardening method has worked for someone somewhere else does not mean that you will find success with it. Your conditions may be completely different.
It is also important to look at things objectively. Hugelkultur beds are quickly becoming a hip new trend in the gardening/Permaculture world. It is being adopted in gardens with little thought of its original design. Before you jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad, analyze it first to see if it is really the right fit for you.
With that, Happy Gardening! Aloha!