Hugel Beds

Well, Mike & Harriet Schofield, our first pilgrims (and wwoofers) have been hard at work creating Hugel beds, a system of plant beds created by Sepp Holzer. Not in the traditional style of high embankments, but converting our existing raised beds.

The system works by creating a well-drained bed that will at the same time supply years of nutrients to the plant roots above through slow decomposition. Drainage is a critical issue for us with shallow soils on heavy clay and a very wet Solway climate. The addition of manure is to aid nitrogen enrichment in the initial stages when the faster-rotting brash might place a higher nitrogen demand on the soil above.

The first stage is to scrape off the existing soil that has spent the winter under black plastic mulch.

Black plastic mulch protecting the bed

Black plastic mulch protecting the bed

The bare soil exposed

The bare soil exposed

Mike shifting the topsoil onto the plastic

Soil removed and laid on the plastic

Soil removed and laid on the plastic

Not far below the top 4-6 inches of soil was the heavy clay subsoil. Good for potters, not good for growers.

Next stage is to start laying the thick woody branches.

Thick woody stuff that will take years to rot down.

Thick woody stuff that will take years to rot down.

This was originally going to be firewood, but at least it will last longer as a nutrient source. Then comes the lighter brash.

Brash on top of the heavy wood.

Brash on top of the heavy wood.

Next comes the hay we found left here when we arrived, and which the animals found rather unappetising as it was so old.

Hay on top of brash on top of wood on top of clay.

Hay on top of brash on top of wood on top of clay.

After trampling the hay onto the brash, a barrow-load of well-rotted manure was spread over the hay.

One barrow-load of manure spread onto the hay.

One barrow-load of manure spread onto the hay.

Next, the soil is layered back on.

Mike layers the soil back onto the bed

Mike layers the soil back onto the bed

Finally a barrow load of compost is raked onto the bed.

Compost raked over the lot.

Compost raked over the lot.

Et voila, as the English say. One finished Hugel bed. Took Mike about 2.5 hours. With help, of course, from his beautiful wife, Harriet.

Harriet having just brought the logs, brash, hay, manure, and compost, and now in need of a well-earned break.

Harriet having just brought the logs, brash, hay, manure, and compost, and now in need of a well-earned break!

Actually, Mike needed a break as well. This was his sixth bed. Huge(l) thanks to them both.

Greenholme - an experiment in permaculture

6 responses to Hugel Beds

  1. Carol Stickland

    I’ll be interested how Hugel works for you.

    I have decided to just go with no dig and adding compost each year as Charles Dowding suggests but I don’t think my drainage will be as good as yours.

    The beds I mulched with straw last year were rife with slugs but the soil is better this year as the straw has rotted.

    Every year a new experiment here!

  2. Carol,

    We’ll try no dig with the potatoes in the borders, using them to break up the soil. We used no-dig a few years ago in the pasture field, scavenging mole-hill soil and it worked really well.

    I’m in two minds about no-dig, especially as we have a relatively thin soil layer here and most of the land is under rushes. We will be scything these shortly, but the only way to plant into pasture without digging is through a hole in an otherwise impenetrable mulch (eg. cardboard). This won’t be practical for at least a year, until the rushes have been removed/died as they’re too rough to mulch under cardboard

    But to increase growing habitat and environment I think the hugel system, with its high embankments, might offer a way forward. They would have to be built using machines, as we don’t have enough labour at present to do very much. But I think using fossil energy wisely and frugally for one-off capital projects that will grow an abundance of food and will hopefully last many, many years is justifiable. Once built they would be no-dig with lots of mulch, although straw, if not grown on site, would have to be imported.

    So what’s this year’s new experiment?


  3. Francis Mitchell

    Great to see the Hugel beds, we still have snow here, just beginning to go.
    Did you get our emails? Heather

  4. Ruth

    We have similar beds on a much smaller scale in North Uist,( where Philip is planning to stay sometime this year,) The plot is feet from the spring tideline.
    Annual despair at ‘crazy buttercup’ rampaging thro’ all led to seeking protection. Found some wonderful, albeit plastic….hope to replace with wood one day….planter things, and they are fantastic. Bottom layer is unrotted seaweed, then sand which is very rich in calcium, then compost, then layer of wondeous scrapings of hen-manure/sand from friend’s henhouse which sits directly on sand, then a few inches of the beautiful dark peat soil treated in roughly this way over years.
    So dont you use much seaweed? you can mulch it as well, and use dry stuff to deter deer, if any, but fresh stuff well down in the layers I am convinced is brilliant.

    All the best…..Ruth

    • Ruth,

      Thank you for the comments. Do you have any pictures of your version of these beds, and a local name?

      I am sure the seaweed is excellent. We don’t have access to any locally, which is why we aren’t using it. Our coasts are mud-flats (Solway Firth). Very good for waders and geese, not so good for seaweed!

      Using so much seaweed and sand, do you have a problem with salinity or water retention? I don’t suppose it’s dry enough to worry too much about drying out, is it? What about sea spray being so close to spring high tide?

      I haven’t heard of seaweed deterring deer before. How does that work? And how do you use it?

      Creeping buttercup is a serious problem with us as well. Much of our ‘pasture’ is exclusively comprised of ranunculus, juncus, and moss. We are just about to get a couple of British Saddleback sows who are being retired from breeding, to work as farmers on the land. We’ll see how well they do at clearing controlled areas in preparation of reseeding/sowing.


      • Ruth T

        I think the abundant rain gets rid of the salinity. Being at the top of a long estuary, spray isnt much of a problem, unless there is a strong north wind and a spring tide.
        The dry seaweed SEEMS to make the deer less likely to interfere amongst stuff growing underneath, but I am not certain. I do know, tho, that deer seem attracted by brassicas, so we have given up on those.

        The beds I made are a poor version of the traditional Hebridean ‘lazy beds’, a misnomer if ever there was one…googled you will see the labour that went into creating them. The neat outline of their existence when the islands were populated can be seen all over the Outer Hebrides, showing how potatoes were grown in the most impossible places.

        Dont know if I can post a picture here, and there isnt a name for the ones we have, it is just a trial and not much error method that is great for onions, salads, broad beans (Sutton which withstand the wind) and carrots. And potatoes. They and carrots can be left in the generous peaty bed for as long as you want, no problem with drainage.

        I am only an amateur experimenter and learner…shall watch your progress and learn from it.

        I am ‘gobsmacked’ by the idea of Bewcastle Minster, wish you all well, this exciting day of the coming of the Spirit, which is surely growing up there with you.(In Wales at the moment, spend half the months here so the growing looks after itself, visitors to the house in Uist do a bit of weeding), thus ‘up in Cumbria’ at present.

        Ruth T

So what do you think?