Roots and Shoots: From Mess to Mounds

By Pamela Doan

After taking down multiple mature trees to open my landscape to more sunlight, I have made a big mess of my yard. It’s going to take years to recover. The deep ruts left by equipment are being colonized by Japanese stiltgrass at an alarming rate and one area is completely bare from the fire that started when a branch brushed what turned out to be a live electrical wire crossing my yard.

Mountains of wood chips hulk beside the garage and piled logs tower nearby and might become firewood — someday. The rainy weather has given the invasive weeds a boost and before long the barberry, mugwort, garlic mustard and multiflora rose will dominate if quick action isn’t taken.

I could make it easier. I could hire people with machines to clean up. I could ask a lawn service to give me lush, weed-free grass. I could have all the wood hauled away. I could pay a landscape designer to decide what plants to install.

However, I won’t be doing that, because I love figuring it all out. I don’t love making mistakes, e.g., wrong plant, wrong place, but part of the joy of gardening is learning about plants. Even after doing the research to understand their needs, characteristics and habits, looking at photos and making choices, it’s never the same as the experience of observing them in a landscape. Something gets too big, too bushy, not big enough, or after a few years doesn’t play well with its neighbors. And yes, sometimes, a plant dies because I don’t take care of it correctly or the wildlife find it too tempting.

Moving the logs into place for the planting bed was quite a chore. (Photo by P. Doan)

My way to atone for taking down mature trees is to make use of each part of them to give back to the landscape. We used six- to 10-foot sections of trunks to create planting beds and privacy barriers along the road front. These will be enhanced with some of the wood chips and other organic materials topped with soil. As it breaks down, the wood will nourish the plants with nitrogen. The rich material will have good drainage and be a vessel to retain water; the log is a basically a mulch container.

The practice is called hugelkultur, a permaculture approach, and while I was familiar with it, I’d never tried it. Bryan Quinn from OneNature in Beacon, the landscape designer we consulted with about where to site our many projects and which trees to remove, suggested it.

Briefly, the practice is about using woody materials and other organic matter to create mounds. Instead of discarding branches, logs, woodchips and leaves, use them as resources. I have maple, a hardwood, as my structure and it will last for years as it breaks down.

The arborists left logs behind that are too big for us to move far, so I’ve decided to make them into a planting bed. The shape isn’t quite a circle and isn’t quite a triangle, but it will do. I’ll fill the bed with the same layering method I use for my vegetable raised beds. The bottom layer will be newspaper to smother the weeds. I’ll add a couple inches of wood chips and some smaller branches. The rest of the layers will be compost and shredded leaves, two materials that I have on hand.

I’ll be able to fill in with plants around the outside of the bed and have a 10- by 8-foot area to fill in. My costs will be plant seed and transplants. It’s getting late enough in the season that I can find a lot of perennials on sale. This feature is at the end of my driveway and will be a focal point for first views of the house but it’s also visible from my front windows. For me, gardening is as much about the process as it is about the result.

2 thoughts on “Roots and Shoots: From Mess to Mounds

  1. Pamela, I’ve been reading your column for some time now. Thank you for a lot of good info and tips! I built my hugelkultur bed three years ago and wanted to share some tips with you.

    Since our yard sits on the rock bed with barely any soil covering it, it was the way to go for me. The hugel not only provided the deep soil but it was also supposed to catch subsurface and precipitation water. That basically is the main premise of the hugelkultur: the buried wood acts as a sponge from which the plants take water and nutrients. In a long term (according to Sepp Holzer, who popularized this ancient technique) the hugelkultur bed shouldn’t need any watering.

    Well, some things worked out for me, some had not. To make it short, I need to warn you that the buried wood won’t release any nitrogen for a long time. To the contrary, it will take all the available nitrogen in the soil while it decomposes. You are using freshly cut wood so the need for nitrogen will be immense and also the water retention won’t occur for at least three years. I compensated for this adding plenty of blood meal to the wood before covering it with soil (also, a big chunk of my wood was already decomposed). The soil on the hugel bed got organic alfalfa and soybean meal, and I keep adding it every time something new is planted there. There’s never too much and I’m in my third year.

    You also won’t be able to grow a lot of things on it unless you go for a terraced structure — all the shallow rooted plants will topple over and won’t get enough water due to the steep walls. Of course, the plants on the bottom will get all the nutrients :0)

    My hugel has the most beautiful soil — there’s no compaction and worms are having a ball there! It is great for tomatoes — they are huge and plentiful. Also, herbs and zucchini did great. However, I grew tired of staking tomatoes on the hugel — that’s an insane work, trust me. I’m growing them now in wood chips, another technique worth looking at!

    Wishing you lots of fun with your new hugelkultur garden!

  2. Maria, I want to know more about your experience because this is such a great subject. I did foresee the nitrogen loss initially and understand that process. Please email me through the contact email on the website!