A great way to increase production in the garden without taking up any more space is digging a “woody bed”. Woody beds are based on the technique of hugelkultur; wood stacked up a several feet high and covered with dirt and mulch. Notable permaculturists, Sepp Holtzer and Paul Wheaton have had a lot of success using hugelkultur. For those of us with a more limited space, the design can be scaled down. By adding the wood under the ground and not piled on top. You get the benefits of hugelkultur without the tall mound of dirt in your yard.
We decide to create two woody beds in our annual garden this year. We started with a plot cleared by chickens in the winter. After laying out the dimensions of the bed, the topsoil was removed and placed on a tarp. Beds were laid out on contour to catch the water as it flows down the gentle slope. A two foot deep trench was dug the length of the bed, taking care to keep the depth level. The wood we placed in the trench was logs from a fallen oak. As the dirt was added back in, we added water to help the dirt settle and fill in all the free space. The topsoil was added back on, creating a nice mound of loose soil. The final step was to add compost and mulch in the form of rabbit manure. A seasonal cover crop of crimson clover was planted to prevent weeds and increase fertility. We planted our warm weather vegetables into the bed this spring. The green beans, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes grew vigorously. Our second bed, which not purposefully planted, was covered with volunteer pumpkin and spaghetti squash vines. I guess the chickens planted those for us as they ate the kitchen scraps.
- Holding moisture – Anyone who has sat on a log in the woods knows that rotting wood is full of moisture. The shade from the trees and contact with the ground turn the log into a sponge. Putting that sponge in the ground creates a reservoir of water under the crops reducing the need for irrigation.
- Creating air pockets –Not walking on your grow beds is the most important way to avoid compacted soil. However, there are other ways to reduce soil compaction. Just the act of digging the trench to put in the wood will loosen the soil. Adding the wood creates soil life, which keeps the soil loose as it feeds on organic material. Finally, as the wood breaks down it creates pockets in the soil for air and water.
- Creating organic material – There is no substitute for adding compost, mulch, manure, and green manure on top of the bed. Only so much can be added on top of the soil. Adding wood underneath the bed is an option that adds more organic material in the bed.
- Adding nutrients to the soil – Forests are built on fallen forests. The nutrients from the wood will be recycled in the soil as the soil organisms break them down.
- Providing food for fungi – Fungal hyphae in the garden bed forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants. The fungal hyphae transport nutrient and water that the plants cannot reach in exchange for sugars that the plants make.
I encourage anyone putting in a raised bed to take the extra steps to make it a woody bed. The benefits are many and your plants will thrive.