Back when it was still cold, we decided to try our hand at a no till garden — a mixture of hügelkultur and lasagna gardening. What in the world are these things? And why would we choose not to till our garden?
I’ll start with the first question. Hügelkultur is a German word for a permaculture method of gardening that saves water and builds healthy soil by taking and burying logs under the soil to act as a sponge. Think of the rich, black humus-rich dirt of a forest floor. Decay is the basis of life. It’s an intentional way to create the same product.
Lasagna gardening is where you build your layers of soil as if you’re making a big Pyrex container of ricotta cheese and pasta goodness. The cardboard strips are the noodles and the litter and compost the cheese. You can pile layer upon layer and, over time, the layers merge together into a rich, dark soil. Both methods seek to build up poor soil without applying chemicals while decreasing soil erosion and nutrient depletion that comes with years of tilling. Hügelkultur is especially great for gardens in high drought areas where the decaying wood can act soak and hold water.
First let me tell you the success version of this story: all of our hard work paid off. Our hybrid form of these two techniques really does save water. I have a whole section of my garden devoted to flowers I grow to sell at the Dardanelle Farmers Market. And I don’t believe in wasting water (my father sets on the rural water board, and I know what a vital a resource this is). Thanks to hügelkultur, I only water my garden two to three times a week. On weeks when it rains I may not water at all. And I have plenty of flowers to sell every week. The sorghum — a crop my grandfather also planted — is thriving, too. But it doesn’t always work so well, especially for potatoes during flood season. I lost all of my potatoes and most of my onions during the June floods when my already wet soil became a wetland area. As for the lasagna aspects, it does take multiple gardening seasons for this nutrient soil building process to really change the soil. This first year was a mixed bag when it comes to vegetables. But it was expected.
We’re lucky enough to enter our gardening work with the ability to engage in a little trial and error. My own grandfather, who also gardened on this land, wasn’t so lucky. Times were harder and he needed money. I have been given gifts beyond measure, and I figure one small way I can pay them forward is by making sure I leave this place better than I found it. For some people, that might mean a fancy house or a well-maintained, manicured lawn. To me, that means a place that can feed people, a dedication to do right by the land and support winged creatures who pollinate the plants that give us life.
My favorite part about the whole process has been, well, the process. The wood we put on the bottom layer was gathered from the fallen limbs of trees around our house and from the storm-damaged branches fallen from my Uncle Junior’s property under the hill.
Every Friday, when I cut my flowers for market, I think about how the decaying limbs sustaining their growth came from trees my late grandfather and grandmother and great uncle knew. The chicken litter comes from our neighbors and our own flock. The soil at the base of it all was the same soil my grandfather worked. I tell our kids these stories over and over again while our family works to create the layers. When it comes time to fry up some okra — one of the crops that has thrived this year — I know it’s growing from a mystery centuries old, something deep down in the dirt.