Before throwing old wood or pruned tree branches into the green-recycle waste bin, consider recycling them into a living sponge that will save you from higher water bills and your garden from wilting.
Modeled after the nutrient-rich and sponge-like effects that fallen trees create on forest floors, hugelkultur is a self-sustaining, self-sufficient permaculture gardening technique that, supporters say, accelerates and improves nature’s natural processes by improving water storage in soil.
“The hugel bed is part bio-intensive compost pile and raised garden bed,” said Derek Downey, founder of the Bee Love School of Permaculture. “It saves water and makes use of resources that otherwise people would throw away.”
Hugelkultur gardening bed’s primary ingredient is wood — either placed in a 3-foot-deep hole or directly on the soil, covered with other compostable food scraps, leaves, straw or yard waste, and topped off with soil and a cover crop of legumes for the first year to add nitrogen.
The wood and materials retain water like a sponge, relieving gardeners of the need to maintain and water their gardens.
“Hugelkultur is a lot of work at first,” said Melanie Lataste, founder of the Davis Seed Savers Alliance. “But it is a long-term investment.”
Downey, a 2009 UC Davis biological systems engineering graduate, first built handicap-accessible, 3-foot-tall raised hugel beds at the Domes on the UCD campus, allowing individuals in wheelchairs access to gardening and to reduce bending and stooping.
“That way, in the summer, you don’t have to irrigate,” said Downey, who likes to refer to the increasing hugel popularity as “the re-hilling of Davis.”
“Now all the ‘Domies’ are doing hugel beds,” he said.
Downey has since designed and constructed several hugelkultur gardening beds at the Davis Bee Sanctuary on campus and at the Village Homes Sunwise Co-op where he lives, developing a perennial food forest and teaching garden.
“My style is, do it a little different every time, and see what works the best,” Downey said.
He built his most recent hugelkultur bed base from a giant prickly pear cactus in his back yard whose branches are breaking from the weight of its outstretched arms. Downey dug a swale around the bed’s perimeter to catch and allow rainwater to seep into the knoll.
Lataste said the most exciting part of hugelkultur is creating a sustainable human ecosystem using waste as a resource.
“We want to make sure this garden can thrive without watering,” she said.
Downey and Lataste are hosting a “Hugel-mania” workshop Saturday, March 16, offering hands-on experience building new hugel beds from scratch at both the Davis Bee Sanctuary and the Seed Savers Alliance Seed Garden. The workshop runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Orchard Park Circle and Orchard Park Drive on the UCD campus.
Additional informative talks will include permaculture techniques, bees and seed saving. Downey and Lataste also will offer guided walking tours showcasing dozens of hugelkultur beds of various designs at the Davis Bee Sanctuary, Dome gardens, Experimental College Community Gardens and the Seed Savers Alliance Seed Garden.
Admission is free, but donations will be accepted with gratitude for the Bee Love School of Permaculture. For more information, contact Downey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-694-2405.