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.

 

Garden Trellising – Bedframes, Sticks, and other Repurposed Items! August 24, 2013

This year in my garden, I focused on growing “up” rather than “out” and spent a lot of time finding and using trellises.  Last winter, I purchased and read a book called “Vertical Gardening” by Derek Fell; after reading it, realized that I could get a lot more out of my garden with better trellises (and plant a heck of a lot more beans!)   One of the basic things a trellis does is provide support–support for further growth.  Some plants, like beans, grow much better when they can climb; other plants, like squash, take up so much space that if they aren’t trellised, they are harder to grow. In this post, I’ll discuss six kinds of trellising that I attempted this year and the success of each.

 

Before getting into the “how-to” of trellising, however, I want to step back and reflect upon the spiritual dimension of the concept of a trellis. If we think about our own growth, that growth needs to be supported in various ways, usually with a strong underlying structure.  Without the support we can bear fruit, but our full potential cannot be reached.  With a support structure in place (mentors, resources, and spaces) we are able to grow to our fullest potential and to bear much more fruit.  We also need to make sure that our support structures are appropriate–they are not too weak to bear the weight of our burdens.  I have found that planning for trellising in my garden, in helping my plants find their trellises and watching them grow, has taught me much about mentoring others and about the supports that I, myself, need.  I think that we, as people, have much to learn from plants!

 

And now without further delay, six methods for trellising!

 

The Bed Frame Trellis

One of my favorite trellises I put in this year is an old box spring.  A friend gave me an old bed, but it got so wet and muddy on his drive to bring it to me that I wasn’t able to use any of it for the purpose of sleeping.  So I tore the thing apart to see what else I might do with it, and once I had it apart, it looked like a great trellis!  Now it supports some Black Krim tomatoes (one of my favorite varieties) and some cucumbers (that didn’t do very well because of our cold weather).

 

Here’s the process of tearing apart the bed frame!

Box spring deconstsruction

Box spring deconstsruction

In the box spring, I also found this cool pad that looks like it was made from recycled material/fabric (behind the box springs in gray).  I put it down in my art studio as a kind of rug, which will keep my feet warm in the winter.

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

Growing tomatoes!

Growing tomatoes!

 

Second Bed Frame trellis + lattice trellis

Second Bed Frame trellis + lattice trellis

 

 

The “found it along the road” trellis

A lot of stuff I used for trellising are things I found along the road or got otherwise for free.     Here are some wooden lattice pieces that someone threw out–now they are holding up beans.  I found a number of tomato cages (probably about 12 total) that are now holding up tomatoes.  I also was given this wooden rack with a dowel rod–I *think* it was meant to be a clothing rack.  I purchased some acrylic rope trellising and added it to the rack and now some malabar spinach is enjoying the climb.  Its amazing what a little repurposing and some careful attention to your neighbors’ curb will get you!

This is good for lighter plants!

This is good for lighter plants!

The “Built from Sticks” trellis

Another simple method for trellising is to build some out of sticks.  I found that if you are going to do this, natural twines, like hemp, don’t hold up well for a whole season.  Wire seems to work quite well, however, and I found a bunch of that and some acrylic string at a yard sale that I used to build most of these trellises.

Close-up of beans on trellis

Close-up of beans on trellis

Pea trellis with sunflowers behind (see the mega-sunflower? Its 12+ feet tall!)

Pea trellis with sunflowers behind (see the mega-sunflower? Its 12+ feet tall!)

Fall peas with their trellises

Fall peas with their trellises

 

The “Homegrown” trellis

Another trellis is the one you grow–in my case, I’m trellising using corn (with squash, as the Native Americans did) and sunflowers (for beans).  I’m growing a variety of Indian Popcorn (I purchased seed from local farmers, so I can’t tell you much about it beyond that its an heriloom “Indian popcorn” adapted to this region) and that is holding up well with the squash.

Corn holding up squash...kinda gets wild :)

Corn holding up squash…kinda gets wild 🙂

The sunflowers are also doing nicely with the beans. I planted a variety called “Mega sunflower” and I have sunflowers in my garden that are close to 12′ tall!  They are very strong at this point in the year and hold up the beans quite well.  I think I’ll use their dried stalks next year for more trellising if I can (if not, I have one stalk that a friend gave me from last year that makes an excellent chicken herding tool, haha).   They also look beautiful in the garden!

Sunflowers growing with beans!

Sunflowers growing with beans!

I will say, for this approach, you have to be careful of the ratio of climbing plants (or the weight) and the plants that are supporting. In my friend Debbie’s garden, she planted a LOT of beans and didn’t plant enough sunflowers and the two sunflowers that came up were pulled down by a bunch of bean plants.

 

The Sheep Fencing Trellis

This is probably my favorite trellis, just because of its versatility.  I took a friend’s truck to the Tractor Supply store, and there, I purchased what is known as “sheep fencing” or “Livestock fencing.”  It usually comes in panels that are either 16′ or 20′ long.  I purchased two 16′ panels of livestock fencing at about $22 each.  One I turned into a trellis for tomatoes for my friend’s garden using some metal stakes.  As the tomatoes grew, she just worked them into the trellis.

 

The second sheep fence I put in my butterfly garden and made it into an arch. To do this, I bent the trellis over and staked both sides with metal stakes, holding the trellis in place with wire. I sunk the stakes 16″ into the ground so that they were well below our frost line (14″).  I planted hardy kiwi on this trellis (they are now two years old and growing well, but I haven’t gotten a yield from them yet).  This fencing is really versatile–and compared to how much I’d pay for an “arch” trellis online or at a garden store, the price is really reasonable!

Livestock Fence Trellis

Livestock Fence Trellis

Livestock Fence Arch

Livestock Fence Arch

Costs Involved

I want to point out that the only new thing that I paid for in terms of trellising my garden this  was the sheep fencing–literally everything else was either made, found, or given to me.  The key to enacting permaculture design principles and minimizing one’s impact is to use what resources already exist–don’t think about going to the store and purchasing trellising (for one, its incredibly expensive) but rather see what you have around and available.  Ask around and always look for opportunities!