Speaking from experience, when a tree or large limb falls on your property, it makes a noise and leaves a mess.
While keeping fallen dead trees and limbs where they fall is the ideal solution when it comes to providing habitat for beneficial wildlife, it’s not always possible or practical, especially in a neighborhood setting. Rather than cutting, chipping, or otherwise hauling the wood off of your property, I suggest you try another option. In fact, what if I told you there is a gardening technique focused around quickly turning your newly inherited woodpile into rich, valuable soil?
The ancient German method of rendering woody debris into humus, known as hugelkultur, is at its core simply burying a bunch of wood. By heaping organic matter on top of the wood, and then covering it all with a final layer of soil, early farmers discovered that the resulting compost heap would help break down the wood, which could then be used to grow crops or repeat the process with more wood.
Hugelkultur beds end up attracting a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes, insects and other animals that break down the woody interior while taking up residence inside. These garden constructions are a great way to get surplus woody material out of sight and out of mind, while also improving your soil quality.
The floor of a mature forest is a soft and spongy look into the past. As plants expire and are eventually pulled to the ground by gravity, they are slowly broken apart by the elements and hungry organisms. Most of this takes place at the microscopic level, where networks of fungi and other microbes turn once-solid wood into Swiss cheese.
Due to their enhanced porosity, these decomposing remains are able to absorb a lot of water, and scientists have found that the surrounding forest relies on their stores in times of drought. They are also home base for a wide variety of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that help the plants around them readily absorb nutrients. Some of these tiny helpers are also believed to help nearby plants fight off disease.
Eventually, the dead wood is fully broken down into soft humus, which is incorporated into the surrounding area to be used by future generations. The hugelkultur process mimics this natural process in a way. By burying dead and decaying wood underneath organic matter and soil, what would take perhaps hundreds of years on a forest floor is accomplished in a fraction of the time.
If you have the wood, it’s pretty easy to bring some kultur into your garden. To start, dig an impression of about a foot deep. Fill said impression with large pieces of wood. Almost any wood will do, however I would avoid using black walnut due to its ability to chemically harm close plants, and also black locust because it’s very rot resistant. Layer sticks and other smaller woody materials on top of the big chunks, and then top it all with a few inches of organic matter like manure, grass and scraps. Cover that with another few inches of topsoil. Top it off with leaves, straw or another light mulch of choice.
Most hugelkultur beds are built to crazy pyramidal dimensions, sometimes towering up to 7 feet tall, however I like to keep mine with a shorter, plateau-shaped look of about 2 to 3 feet high. As the wooden core breaks down, the mound will eventually shrink down to soil level, leaving you with a rich bed with a thriving microclimate waiting to help your plantings be the best they can be.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.