On the other hand, one could make a point that it's something most land owners are guilty of. I'm no exception either. After all, what are your options after you've cut down an unwanted or diseased tree? Burning often becomes a convenient solution.
Trees and plants pull nutrients out of the soil. When dead leaves, branches and trees fall, those nutrients go back into the topsoil through a brilliantly-designed decomposing process. Now imagine a place where we only allow the plants to wick out the nutrients from the soil but never replenish it.
This is what happens when we toss our garden waste to the curb or simply burn it – and it is happening all across the developing world that values beautifully landscaped yards where every plant must have a specific height and particular placement or the whole feng shui is so out of balance.
The short of it is, we label garden cuttings as refuse and toss them because we don’t know or appreciate their value.
For the most part, backyard composting can effectively and quickly turn kitchen scraps and grass cuttings into beautiful black hummus. The bigger question is what to do with the more woody materials after a vigorous day of gardening.
With a little bit of extra work, you can turn these branches, limbs and trunks into a self fertilising garden bed known as hugelkultur (mound culture).
The idea was developed by Joseph “Sepp” Holzer, an Austrian agricultural rebel who fathered a number of untraditional farming techniques, including hugelkultur (pronounced like ‘Google Culture’, but with an h).
These mounds are made from organic materials most of us throw away or burn. Using a few simple steps, this unwanted woody material can be used to create a self-fertilising garden bed that needs little watering.
Overall, most hugelkulturs are quite big and can take a lot of effort to finish, but for this article we’re just looking at the basics and how to use them in a small garden or landscape setting.
A hugelkultur has three basic layers. The first is wood.
You can use tree trunks or branches, just as long as it’s untreated wood. Take this wood and use it for the foundation of your hugelkultur. You do not need to dig, just lay them on the ground in whatever shape you want your garden bed to have. Try to pack the wood as closely together as possible. If you have a green branch, you’ll need to cut it up in order for it to behave.
The second layer is turves, grass and leaves. If you dug down for your hugelkultur, you may have a lot of unwanted turf laying around. Take the turves and lay the roots up on top of the wood. Cover them in whatever leaves and grass cuttings you can find. Finally, the third layer is your topsoil, hummus or compost.
Many people like to make their mounds high enough that they can harvest without having to bend over. While this is truly a benefit for some, many of us will be happy with something more landscaped. If that’s you, it is possible to make your hugelkultur somewhat flush with the ground around it.
This requires a lot of digging. On the other hand, you can simply make a small pile of wood around a foot high. The end result is somewhat the same as a metre high bed, it just packs a smaller punch.
As the wood decomposes, nutrients are released into the soil. Heat is also sent up through the mound – but this isn’t too vital here in the tropics. More importantly is the decomposing wood’s ability to absorb and retain water during the dry season.
This means the more wood you start with, the more water that can be stored away between rains. On top of all this, the soil is naturally aerated as the wood breaks down.
All of this makes way for a different way of gardening where all who try it sing its praises to no end. After all, who doesn't want a garden that fertilises and waters itself?