Hugelkultur: A different approach to backyard gardening |

Hugelkultur: A different approach to backyard gardening

Laura Brown
Special to The Union

This spring, newlyweds Dave and Pamela Barnett put in their first garden. Not just any garden; the Barnetts chose to install a form of permaculture now growing in popularity known as Hugelkultur.

With the help of local landscaper David Ward, the Barnetts dug trenches in their backyard and filled them with logs, yard waste and sticks.

They then mounded soil and mulch over the top and planted the hills with seeds. In mid-August, the mounds, planted with flowers, squash, beans and tomatoes, were buzzing with bees.

"It's very low water and low maintenance once it's set up. The wood turns into sponges as it decomposes. The plants can draw on it all summer long," said Dave Barnett, who recently joined the board of A.P.P.L.E. (Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Economy).

"We want to do everything we can to make our community self-sustaining," Dave Barnett said.

Growing food in his own backyard while conserving water is one step he is taking toward sustainability. Next spring, his front lawn, now smothered with black plastic, is fated to become hugel mound food gardens, too.

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Last week, Dave Barnett and David Ward set up a booth at the Nevada County Fair and received a steady stream of interested folks who wanted to learn more about this form of gardening.

Hugelkultur is a German word that roughly translates to "mound culture" and is nothing more than raised garden beds filled with rotting wood. The idea is that as the wood buried within the mound breaks down, it supplies needed nutrients and moisture to plants.

Eventually, the mounds could possibly supply enough moisture so that little to no irrigation is required, even in drought or desert conditions.

Over time, the soil becomes richer and richer and the vertical nature of the mounds allow for a lot of planting space in the area. A hugel mound can last six to 10 years.

For followers, it's the ideal survivalist kind of growing system — a self-sustaining garden with no petrochemical or water inputs using easily accessible, recycled resources.

Locally, it remains to be seen if it is well-suited for the dry summer conditions of Sierra Nevada foothill communities.

Permaculture teacher Cathe' Fish doesn't recommend above-ground hugelkultur gardening in Nevada County, where the sun may suck out moisture and nitrogen. Instead, she suggests planting directly in permaculture mulch pits or sheet mulch gardens.

Nevertheless, Ward is game for experimentation.

For 40 years, David Ward has worked with plants and natural materials as a landscaper and as a stick sculptor of the business "Sticks and Stones," making wall hangings and lighting décor for interior designers. He sees his intrigue with Hugelkultur as "an extension of his obsession."

Ward first discovered the work of Austrian permaculture pioneer Sepp Holzer a few years ago. He noted the potential of Hugelkultur as a way to prevent erosion, capture winter storm runoff and sequester carbon on wooded properties like his.

"We used to burn a lot of our stuff. Now we don't burn anything anymore. We just make piles and get ready to make more hugels," said Ward. This growing season, Ward is growing potatoes in hugels, with no watering.

Now Ward teaches hugelkultur workshops at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and for the group, Garden Goddesses. He is organizing an all-day, hands-on hugelkultur workshop in September.

This spring, he also helped Grass Valley resident Catherine Green replace her front lawn with a hugel mound. Green cleaned up her neighborhood by removing unwanted piles of rotting wood from her neighbor's yards.

Perennial native plants and herbs now grow from a mound with more plantings on the way when the rains come. Fruit trees such as apple, peach and a dwarf nectarine grow at the base of the mound.

"I really liked the idea of planting a sustainable, eco-friendly type of garden — one that sustains growth over a decade, radically reduces irrigation and favors "poly-culture," said Green.

Green added that hugelkultur has practical applications for small local farms and backyard gardeners alike, who will benefit from great yields and little irrigation requirements once hugels are established.

"With the escalating price of food, why not grow your own organic food?" said Green.

To learn more about upcoming hugelkultur gardening workshops, contact David Ward at or 530-265-4216.

Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at or 530-913-3067.

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