The Finishing Touch: Raised Garden Beds
Understanding the Hügelkultur Gardening Method (Part 3)
Last updated 2/28/2023 at 1:47pm
Gardeners, our local weather forecasters are telling us to expect daytime temperatures to be ten degrees above-average for the next several days. What my brain is telling me, not in so many words, spring has arrived in SETX. Naturally, my thoughts run contrary to the Farmer's Almanac, stating we have a couple weeks longer to wait. Through my past gardening experiences, I know the consequences of planting a garden too soon but also in case you do plant now, of being prepared for a "final cold snap". This gardener is taking advantage of our warmer weather and planting flower beds and vegetable gardens this weekend. Enough about my gardening habits! Let's get started with the final portion of the German gardening method series known as hügelkultur.
In our last discussion I stated it's best to avoid allelopathic types of wood, or limbs, and leaves when layering the hügelkultur bed. Avoid using black walnut, red maple, red oak, sycamore, goldenrod, American elm trees, and others. This step completes the 'hügelkultur' part of the raised bed! The next and final steps begin by adding back the soil initially removed from digging the bed. Make certain to evenly cover the entire surface of the bed, being mindful to completely encapsulate the filled material layers with natural garden soil. Once the garden soil has been returned to the bed, top-dress the bed with abundant amounts of organic material, use materials which retain moisture. This is the process I have used for many years with great success yielding bountiful vegetable harvests and prolific flowers. My recommendation is creating your own organic mix, utilizing components and soil amendments most of us have on hand. This is where you can save time, while reducing the financial burden of purchasing pre-made bagged soil to fill newly installed raised beds.
My preference is utilizing by-products (manure) provided to me by livestock, with the majority coming from sheep and goats. The 'green manure' is composted or cured for approximately a year before use in gardens. Add a 2-inch layer of composted manure to cover the top of the garden soil layer. Any composted manure will work. Composted manure can be purchased from local farmers by the trailer-load (cost effective) or by the bag from a local store.
Warning: This step requires a considerable amount of physical energy, be safe, take breaks often and stay hydrated! Working in batches, mix equal parts composted manure, coconut coir and topsoil. I used a cement mixer to combine the amendments since I was filling ten raised hügelkultur beds, but for smaller beds this can be accomplished using a garden spade and wheelbarrow. Purchasing topsoil from a local "dirt" pit (cost effective) will cost around $15/cu yard (you provide the trailer), more if delivered or purchase bags from a local store of choice.
SETX soil types are numerous but most of us have some type of clay soil . I always recommend having a soil analysis performed when installing new garden beds, especially if using garden soil. A soil analysis report provides the gardener with specific information to address problems with exacting details of amendment types needed with corrective action steps. The cost of a soil analysis is minimal.
The final step to ensuring you have the right organic mix is the water test. The goal is to have the top 6 to 8-inch soil amendment layer retain moisture, but to drain off excessive water. In other words, you don't want water to pool on the soil surface, so before filling the raised bed, fill two or three pots with the mix and thoroughly soak with water. If water remains on the surface for more than two minutes, add in some coarse sand or perlite to provide better drainage.
Once the raised beds are filled with your organic soil mix, let's begin the final step and in my opinion the best part-planting! Weeds are the bane of ever gardeners existence, so to minimize them from the start, use mulch, which I've stated numerous times in the past, a gardeners best friend. Once plants are in place, cover the remaining soil surface area with a 2 or 3-inch layer of mulch. Grass clipping, pine straw, leaves, compost, cardboard are notable few mulch types. Note that hügelkultur raised beds help retain water once the wood decomposes. But like all raised beds, you want to minimize moisture loss in the upper few inches of soil.
With a new bed, in the first two growing seasons the addition of a thick layer of mulch will slow evaporation from the soil surface. Lastly, your new raised hügelkultur bed is so much simpler to maintain, now you don't have to bend down as far, making it easier to weed and water. I love gardening in raised beds for this very reason, and perhaps you will too. Let's go out and grow ourselves a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time! Happy Gardening!
For gardening questions answered or detailed information: email me: [email protected] or contact the Orange County Master Gardeners Helpline: (409) 882-7010 or visit our website: https://txmg.org/orange, Facebook: Orange County Texas Master Gardeners Association or Email: [email protected]