Maybe the economy won’t tank in the near future. Maybe pigs will fly. History tells us that we cannot print our way out of debt and that our standard of living will degrade as we rotate out of this credit expansion cycle. Chances are we are either very close to or actually in the midst of an economic contraction. When this happens, as it did during the great depression, we will be better off if we are producing as much food as possible. It is in our best interest to start on this path before there is emergency. Having lived close to the earth most of my life I’ve learned a few tricks in the area of food production. Every region is going to have different variables–climate, soil, water, temperature extremes, solar exposure are but a few. But no matter where you live you can find a place to grow food to supplement your diet.

Hugelkultur, or hill gardening, has proven an effective means of food production for hundreds of years. Last year we put in these beds over the course of the summer, in our spare time. We dug down two feet and moved the top soil off to the side. Partially rotted deciduous logs were dragged in from the surrounding forest and piled 5 feet deep, bigger material down lower, smaller up on top. These Hugel beds are a bit on the large size at 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, but have enough mass to be effective banks of energy. As the woody debris degrades it provides moisture, warmth and nutrient to the plants above. Once the walls were assembled from local rock the topsoil was put back on top about a foot deep. With a little help from Zeus (our heavy lifter), we built the rock wall around each bed in about a week. Bigger rocks get the wall up quicker but moving 400 pound rocks into position can take some ingenuity.

While big beds are lots of fun to build, smaller Hugel beds can also be used to good effect. Bea and I got tired of picking strawberries on our knees and decided to put in a raised bed with similar principles, just less mass in the walls so we could stand on our feet and reach the sweet juicy berries easier. We used some rot resistant cedar lumber for the walls, lined the boards inside with scraps of left over roofing tin, built up the bottom with odds and ends of local rock, and placed branches and brush above that with about a foot of sandy soil on top. The size of this bed is 5 feet by 65 feet. Because we live in an arid area of the midwest and have low pressure, gravity feed water available, a drip irrigation system works well in our situation. A good 4” layer of mulch tops it off to help reduce weeds and evaporation. For the strawberries we use partially rotted pine needles for their acidity, for vegetables old straw works well.

As the large woody debris returns it’s stored energy back to the soil we expect to get outsized returns on our food production. Looking forward to seeing what next year will bring to our table!


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  1. James Diegel

    Nicely done Smitty! I’ve only had the luxury of a heavy lifter once – the rest of the time I had to do it by hand – buy ya, sure makes a big difference 🙂 Also, never encased one of these with rocks before – done some terraces before, but I’m curious to know if you have noticed any benefits with the rocks especially in regards to the growing effects?

    1. Smitty Post author

      Quite a noticeable improvement with the big hugel beds, especially early season. The squash took off without looking back and produced 5 wheel barrow loads. Need squash? Evidently the ground gets and stays warmer with the thermal mass. Also less frost damage risk being up off the ground like that. Cold settles after all. We’ll use them for more variety of warm season stuff this year, getting an earlier start than we could on the ground. BTW the long side is facing South for more heat gathering ability. Yeah, Zeus, god of thunder, comes in handy for all sorts of jobs. There’s an hydraulic A frame on the aft end for use as a sky hook. Picked up the hoe attachment cheap and found that spot to mount it on. Cheers.

      1. James Diegel

        Nice – the ones I’ve worked with have been in no snow/frost zones primarily. I like working with stone though, so much you can do to control temperatures in both directions. I miss my squash – especially the acorn variety. It’s quite humid where I am – even though we technically have 4 seasons – making the squash/pumpkin a bit tricky to grow 🙂