Thanks to the emerald ash borer, I now have several acres of woods in need of restoration. The woods are bottomlands along a creek, and overgrown with invasive bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and other invasive species. Last year, I planted paw paws, a native tree that thrives in bottomland woods like mine. I buy paw paw seedlings from Edible Landscaping. The Edible Landscaping catalog made me wonder what else I might grow in the woods, and so I bought a book on agroforestry: the science of raising food in the woods. The authors, Dan Mudge and Steve Gabriel, are from Cornell.
Among Ivy League schools, Cornell University holds several distinctions. It is the largest school in the Ivy League, and the only Ivy League school with a college of agricultural sciences. Among other things, Cornell’s ag school runs the MacDaniels Nut Grove, a “forest farming and agroforestry research and education center located in the Cornell Plantations Upper Cascadilla Natural Area.” The nut grove is named after Laurence MacDaniels, a Cornell professor who planted hundreds of nut trees on the land surrounding Cornell in the first half of the 20th century. After Dr. Daniels retired, the nut grove was forgotten, and gradually filled with invasive bush honeysuckle.
Mudge and Gabriel have restored the MacDaniels Nut Grove, transforming it into an agroforestry demonstration site where they grow mushrooms, ramps, berries, paw paws, and medicinal plants. Their work has given me lots of ideas, and I’ve already ordered a few medicinal plants to test out in my woods. (Ahem. Growing them, not using them.) One word, though, has truly captured my attention: hugelkultur.
A hugelkultur is a raised bed for growing annuals and fussy perennials. You dig a hole or make a frame, fill the frame with logs, sticks, and compost, and cover the whole thing with soil, creating a raised gardening bed. The compost, sticks, and logs decompose at different rates; the compost decomposes in a year or two while the logs will take one to two decades. As a result, the bed never needs fertilizer. The hugelkultur needs less watering, because the buried logs absorb water during rainy spells and slowly release it during dry ones.
I have everything I need to build a hugelkultur. (Or 20 hugelkulturs, for that matter.) The emerald ash borer has left me lots of logs. The invasive species are an endless supply of sticks and compost. I even have lots of topsoil, left over from our recent driveway project. The only thing I could use is a Bobcat to help move the dirt around. This year, I’m building two hugelkulturs: one in the front yard, behind the garden, and the other in Arborgeddon Ground Zero, where downed logs have formed a natural frame. As the spring and summer progress, I’ll fill the frames with sticks and compost, and then next fall, I’ll cover them both with top soil. Next May, I’ll plant vegetables in the hugelkulturs.