Thursday, May 2, 2013


When Sean and I first bought the house, there was a giant cottonwood tree that had fallen in our backyard. When I say giant, I mean GIANT, and if you don't believe me, check out these pictures of a few cross sections of the tree, which we now use as benches around our fire pit.
fire pit benches

This behemoth of a tree posed several challenges to us right off the bat.  First of all, it had fallen directly into the drainage ditch that ran across the back of our property, turning both our backyard and the yards of our upstream neighbors into a woodland water-park/mosquito brothel. The other big problem was that the tree had fallen directly on top of the only spot in our yard sunny enough to be a vegetable garden.  

So, we knew we'd have to get the tree out of there, but that wasn't as easy as it sounds. In order to remove it, Sean had to first chainsaw it into pieces, bravely removing poison ivy and other hazards as he went. Then, he chopped it up BY HAND. Let me repeat that. Using only his brute strength and a new axe he ordered on amazon, he chopped up this entire tree by hand, achieving the same approximate level of burliness as Paul Bunyan, and the same level of attractiveness as Ryan Gosling.  Because I was extremely pregnant at the time, and because I wielded an axe with the same approximate dexterity as Babe,  Paul Bunyan's giant blue ox, I stayed in the house, and avoided the ordeal altogether. Here is Sean, pictured with the remnants of his vanquished foe:

hugelkultur wood pile

So, as you can see, we still had one major problem-- our backyard was now a giant woodpile. What to do with all that wood? We thought about burning it, but most of the wood was so old, buggy, and waterlogged that it was useless. We couldn't grow edible mushrooms on it, because it was already full of mycelium from god-knows-what kind of fungi. Desperate for ideas, Sean ran into our friend Glen one day and asked him for advice.

"Hey Glen, you don't know of any uses for about a dump-truck's worth of chopped up cottonwood tree, do you?" said Sean.

"You could always burn it." said Glen.

"Nope." said Sean.

"You could grow mushrooms on it." said Glen.

"Can't." said Sean.

"You could always try Hugekulter." said Glen.

"Bless You." Said Sean.

But, as it turns out, Hugelkultur is a farming technique, not a sneeze.

Here's how it works.  Apparently, Eastern European farmers needed a way to grow potatoes in climates so cold, that even the reindeer were all like "I'm freezing my balls off up here!" What they did is built mounds using rotten old trees, sticks, and other decaying wood, and then piled dirt on top of that.  As the mounds decayed, the heat helped to heat up the dirt in the mounds, allowing them to extend their growing season.  One other advantage to this method is that you hardly ever have to water it, since the old wood absorbs so much water.

To us, it sounded a lot like the method of raised bed lasagna gardening, which is currently so popular.  We had gotten excellent results with Lasagna gardens in the past, so we decided to give it a shot.

Here are some photos of the garden site getting laid out.  This was extremely satisfying, as the whole thing went together in a single day.

Here is the final design.  We came up with this shape so it would be easy for us to run drip irrigation continuously throughout the beds.
garden design using hugelkultur

The next step is for us to pile more manure, dirt, and compost on top of the beds.  Then, we will rock in the garden beds using stone, and cover crop it for this year.  The last step will be to build a VERY tall fence, because unfortunately, the deer here in Ohio are NOT freezing their balls off, and there is a rapidly reproducing herd of them that patrols our yard.

So far, we are really happy with the results of our first foray into Hugelkultur.  The neighbors are happy because the tree is gone and the mosquitos have decided to host Spring Break Panama City on someone else's street.  The passers-by on the bike path are happy because it no longer looks like our backyard is inhabited by a moody, out-of-work beaver. And, most of all, Sean and Katie are happy because we are one step closer to a Paul Bunyan sized harvest of fresh, delicious vegetables, right out of our own backyard.
Update!  The fence went up, and here is what our garden looks like now!


  1. What a wonderful idea! Great use of wood you can't burn. What you need for a fence is 10' chain link. It does work. If you close the gate...

  2. Looks beautiful, what a whole bunch of work! I love the fence and gate. How is the garden producing? Is it a lot of work? We have a ton of deer here in North Carolina and if I were to try and garden, I would need a fence as well.

  3. Hi Carolyn,

    The garden produced beautifully for the first few years, then, this year the transplants weren't thriving as much. We figured out that, as all that brown matter from the wood decomposed, it really sucked the nitrogen out of the soil. A healthy dose of compost saved our crops for this year, and we'll slather it in green matter this Fall and Spring. Other than that, it works beautifully!!
    Say hi to North Carolina for me! (That's where I grew up!)