A Hugelkultur Update

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Quinn
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A year ago last November I wrote about my first effort at hugelkultur — building raised beds with rotting wood and other materials. I had sown them with a fall green manure mix, then planted carrots and potatoes the following spring. This was a bit of a gamble, since the recommendation I read was to grow only grains the first year, then leafy vegetables, then maybe root crops and so on. So I was rushing it a bit and, not surprisingly, the potatoes turned out to be rather watery and tasteless. The carrots weren’t much good either, but then, my carrots never are.

This year my plan for the larger bed was to plant spinach and carrots (again!), following the spinach with beans. I decided to devote one of the tire planters to beets, and the other one mostly to parsley. Surprise! Almost as soon as the main crops began sprouting, so did a lot of volunteer potatoes. I don’t know if I fail to dig up all the potatoes or what, but I always have more potatoes coming up the following year.

Well, I love volunteers, and I had only a small plot dedicated to potatoes this year, so I let them grow. The great thing about volunteer potatoes is that you can start harvesting them in June. So I’ve harvested a few pounds already, and I must say the quality is quite good. The only problem I’ve had is lots of worm holes and some tunneling on the outside. I can’t find the worms, so I don’t know what the specific pest is. I suspect that all the holes and gaps created by the wood allow for more movement of insects, and possibly other pests, such as voles. I trust this will subside as the wood continues to break down. Meanwhile, the top several inches of the bed is an awesome, humusy soil that I’ve never imagined having in my garden.

The spinach, unfortunately, was a bust. Out of 20 seeds that I planted, only five produced seedlings, and only three of these yielded a halfway decent harvest. Perhaps there’s not enough nitrogen yet to support spinach. Also, something must have eaten the roots of a couple of the plants, since they just shriveled up. I didn’t want to go digging for the culprit, for fear of tearing things up too much, so I guess I’ll never know. The carrots, on the other hand, were doing all right until a deer got in and ate the tops. Now I have a nice crop of beans coming along, plus a few volunteer parsnip seedlings (not sure how those got in there)!

As for the beets in the tire planter, most of them got buried when I started hilling up the potatoes, but the parsley is doing nicely around the edge of the other planter.

Last fall I started another hugelkultur bed that I plan to use for strawberries next year. I know, I’m pushing things again, but I just seeded it with Mammoth Red clover, and will follow that with a huge application of compost and hope for the best. And this fall I’ll be building another large one where I currently have rather poor, compacted soil. Eventually more than half my garden will be raised beds!

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