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.

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!