The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds June 24, 2018

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

 

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!