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Grow a better garden with wood mound

Q: Recently, someone told me about burying wood to grow a better garden. Is this a real thing?

• Robin from Ellsworth

A: Yes, it is! It is called Hugelkultur Gardening. It is a lot of work but has some great benefits.

If you are looking for a way to recycle those downed branches and logs rather than making arrangements to have them hauled away as waste, this is something you can try.

And before you ask, no, Hugelkultur is not the name of a German craft beer.

Permaculture or permanent agriculture is a term that originated in the 1970s and suggests we look to the cycling of nutrients through nature as a guide for our gardening techniques. For example, many gardeners compost kitchen scraps and garden waste to reuse as natural fertilizer. Hugelkultur is a form of permaculture and mimics the natural cycling found on a forest floor.

The German term “hugelkultur” translates as mound cultivation. It is basically a big, layered compost pile covered with soil and used as a planting bed.

It can be constructed either on flat ground or in a pre-dug trench. It works well for locations with compacted or poor soil, poor drainage or limited space. It is not meant for gardening on contaminated soil unless a barrier is placed between that soil and the mound.

The steps to constructing a Hugelkultur garden bed are as follows:

1. Choose an area that is roughly 3 feet by 6 feet. If planning to plant vegetables, choose a site that gets adequate sun. The mound can be constructed at the surface or trench out and set aside any amount of soil you feel up to digging.

2. As a first layer, lay down the logs. They can be split or whole. Do not use cedar or walnut as they produce chemicals that may interfere with seed germination.

3. Add a layer of branches then layer twigs and sticks next to a tapered height of approximately 3 feet.

4. Water well then fill spaces between the woody materials with leaf litter, kitchen scraps, aged manure, dead vegetation and the soil and sod from the trench, if you dug one. Beating the sides with a shovel will help shape and settle the materials. Water again.

5. Finish the mound with 1 to 2 inches of top soil and a layer of mulch such as wood chips or straw, which will prevent an overgrowth of weeds as the bed ages and settles.

The materials in the bed will need to decompose and settle before it is ready for planting and this could take up to a year. Using rotted logs will speed the process. The rotting materials are thought to retain moisture and they are a source of nutrients for beneficial soil microbes as well as your plants. The downside is that the lifespan of a bed is five to six years, so planting perennials, trees or shrubs is not recommended. Use your bed for annual vegetable crops.

For details on using this method of growing, go to http://go.osu.edu/moundgrowing.

Steffen is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer. Call 330-533-5538 to submit your questions to the plant clinic. Live clinic hours are 10 a.m. to noon every other Thursday on zoom at go.osu.edu/virtualclinic.

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