A year ago we were still in the theoretical phase of working land. We already met Bhudeva though we were not yet the owners and we were bewildered by the vastness of permaculture and could not imagine how to begin reviving 9 hectares of land. Then we found Sepp Holzer’s raised beds and something told me we’d found a good beginning.
Raised beds is a common gardening term and usually refers to small and manageable areas of garden that are slightly elevated from ground level and neatly arranged to accommodate plants. This IS NOT what we are talking about. When we say raised beds we are referring to Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur … very large raised beds that:
- Are made up of fallen wood or other residue organic matter that has substantial mass.
- Provide a fertile growing area for many years without the need to bring in extra fertilization.
- Soak up a lot of water and as a result can survive droughty months without any need for irrigation.
- Make harvesting easier by reducing the need to bend down to ground level.
- Drastically increase the surface growing area where available land may be limited.
Paul Wheaton posted an excellent article on such raised beds so I don’t need to. I urge you to read his article to gain a basic understanding of what hugelkultur raised beds are and then, if you’re still interested, continue reading about our efforts to create them.
If you have a small garden this is probably a lesser-issue. However, we have 9 hectares of land and this was quite an issue. We have an evolving vision of the entire property but there are still many things that can and are being shuffeled around in that vision. Here is what we knew:
- We wanted to build a few raised beds … how many would depend on how much wood we would have (which was still an unknown when we decided to get started).
- We wanted the raised beds to be our primary gardening area for annuals.
- Therefore we wanted the raised beds close to our future (and current) house.
- But we didn’t want them taking up space that would be set aside for one of our forest gardens which we also want close to our future house.
So we decided to start building the beds just south of the intended location of our future house. The house is intended to be mostly underground so a forest garden cannot be placed to the south where it would block out the sun. The only inhibiting factor for this location was timing. Eventually the area of the house and its surroundings will become a construction site (though a relatively delicate one) and we do not want the raised beds to be in the way or to get trampled. Fortunately there is enough space for both
The raised beds started with a symbolic gesture. I simply placed a small pile of medium sized pieces of wood that were lying around from an old and ailing tree we pruned heavily (it seems to be reviving wonderfully). Most of the materials then came from a maor thinning we did of a dense and overgrown prune orchard behind the existing house (the one we currently live in).
We currently know of only two kinds of trees that are not suitable for raised beds. Hardwoods such as Acacia (which is a strong native here) contain chemicals which deter the microbiological fungi that are responsible for rotting wood (which make them extremely durable and rot resistant). Then there are walnut trees (also abundantly available here) beneath which nothing ever grows due to another chemical that is present in the tree (though we don’t know if its just in the leaves or in the bark itself) … so we don’t want that in the raised beds either. So our raised beds are mostly of prune trees with a few more mixed in.
Building the raised beds was a lot of work for one person. I am confident that a few people working together could have done it much faster … however it is possible to do on your own. Converting a branched tree into pieces that can be piled together can be quite a meditation. I eventually found a work-process that I could follow fairly regularly (dragging trees from where they were lying around, spreading them near the raised beds, chainsaw cutting and then piling).
How you go about it ultimately depends on what kind of wood you have available to you. I had lots of relatively thin pieces (even the tree trunk) and only occassional massive pieces. In some cases I used the heavy trunk pieces to quickly create a base … very rewarding as it feels like rapid progress However I ultimately found that is it better to use the thinner pieces to create the base and then to lay on top of them the heavier pieces to weigh them down. Some of threes were tall, straight and fairly thin (most branches pointed up and alongside the trunk) and I just placed them as is on the ground … a pile of such trees formed a formidable base with relatively little work.
The good thing is that it isn’t rocket science and eventually it is all buried by dirt. My main objective was to make sure I got fairly large beds (at least 1 meter high just the wood) and as much wood mass as I could into the beds. Because I was using fairly thin branches, whenever I could I tried to insert pieces into spaces that formed inside the bed. There was still much space for dirt to settle inside.
Another good things is that we now have 3 different “densities” of raised beds to observe and experiment with over the years. We have one very dense bed, two mixed bed and two low-density (and smaller) beds.
We built 5 raised beds. They are located on a slight-slope that faces south. The land also slopes slightly from east-west. The raised beds are oriented roughly west-to-east and they are interlaced so that water can flow between them:
Again this isn’t rocket science and only time will tell if our choices will work well for us. We tried to leave enough space between the beds so that after burial, which widens the beds, there would still be enough space to walk comfortably between them with a wheel-barrow for carrying stuff in and out (tools, harvest, etc.).
The blue space you see in the diagram is where we got the dirt. We dug a small lake … however that is a topic on to itself … and it is too early of an experiment so I am nowhere near confident enouh to write about it. .. stay tuned though
To bury the raised beds we hired Florin our wonderful tractor guy for a day (we had him to lots of other things that needed doing that day).We decided to dig a test lake and to use the dug up earth to bury the beds. The lake is placed in the lowest corner of this part of the land … so hopefully it will collect water without us having to penetrate the aquipher for water (as seems to be the norm around here).
The beds were spaced in such a way that a tractor good just get through and dump earth onto the beds. This is important to plan for if you intend to use a tractor. It would have been easier to do this one row at a time (or two rows at first) so that there would have been unhindered access for the tractor but just having the tractor arrive at our property is costly so we decided to maximize using it.
It took a lot of earth to bury the raised beds. It would have been an unimaginably difficult task (a few strong people over a few days) to get this done without heavy machinery.
Because of the limited access to the central bed the tractor had to dump a few loads when its not aligned parallel to the bed itself. This resulted in a “wide-dump” causing dirt to fall to far to the sides of the bed creating a wider bed then we had hoped for.
It is better (for the shape of bed that we were aiming for) that the tractor come up parallel to the bed and dump the earth right on top.
We then had the tractor haul over a pile of hay that we would use for mulch.
We also had the tractor haul over a pile of cow-manure that was sitting next to our barn (last years our neighbors housed their cows there for some time ) and had composted there. We didn’t know if the amount would be sufficient for the 5 beds so we preferred to leave it in a pile we could use as we see fit. In retrospect that was a mistake. Spreading it manually will not create more of it. It was hard work to spread the manure over the beds and I definitely regretted not having the tractor dump it directly onto the beds (with supervision to make the best of what is available).
Then came the mulch … and planting the beds … both of which I will get too in separate future posts
While we were building our raised beds our neighbors were all busy doing the same traditional, expensive, labor intensive, fertility destroying activities they (and most Romanian peasants) have been doing for eternity:
People who passed by were curious about what we were doing with the piles of wood on our land … or to be specific … why we weren’t cutting it up into firewood … or to be even more specific … why were we burying precious firewood with dirt. We give a brief and passionate explanation to those who ask and get on with our work. The beautiful thing about these raised beds is that when you hear the reasoning it makes sense even if you’ve had no gardening or farming experience … it makes TONS of sense if you have had any experience … yet it it still mostly met with doubt.
If all goes well, then this time next year we will be free to relax or do new things while our neighbors will all be doing the same work again. Maybe in a few years when we’ve shown that we can get better results with less work and less expenses some of them will come around to inquiring about what is going on.
Beware: Sitting & Digging Dogs
Our dogs love sitting on on raised piles … usually of hay … though raised beds work great for them too. They demonstrated their affections from the start:
At first it was cute … heck it was an achievement that they just sat there instead of trying to bark the tractor into submission … but now we are constantly demanding they get off. It isn’t pleasant to see them walking over or sitting (or digging into) the raised beds now that they are planted … and to the dogs the plants make no difference. So our recommendations: (a) get them off from the very beginning and (b) get used to it