Gardening with Hügelkultur in the Quiet Corner

Spring Tutorial

By Brian Karlsson-Barnes

Garden planning is well done in winter, time to reflect, re-evaluate…

Perhaps revaluate an embedded attitude. Winter dormancy and rejuvenation drew me to a landscape career forty years ago, mostly working with clients’ well-manicured desires. Five years in Chaplin has evolved my appreciation of weeds. They feed the Web of Life, and I like ornamental aspects of Pokeberry Phytolacca and many clump grasses. 

Weeding is an expression of human ego which can be morally justified, excused because many do it, but no excuse. Coexistence is an expression of landscape ethics, the right thing, and less work. Part of the Web of Life, not apart.

Winter in the Northeast is horticulturally dormant. Some go south for the winter, but the coldest season makes spring so sweet. I love our wee woods, thickets and gardens all year long. Winter is time to observe the quiet landscape of buds and birds on bare branches. To recognize the ornamental grace of dead herbaceous growth above ground like Chinese Silver Grass / Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ and many weeds. Seeking signs of health and rebirth, dormant buds swelling in late winter that is finally early spring,. 

SPRING!  Leaves and flowers appear, and we want to plant! If ad hoc, plant a native Serviceberry / Amelanchier tree here, birds love ‘em, a fragrant Roseshell Azalea / Rhododendron there, and herbaceous flowers wherever easily seen. Plant Daffodils (blooming now in stores) where you have full sun; a tree canopy may shade later, but daffs go dormant. They’ll likely come back next year. In fall, bury bulbs nearby, and you have a large drift of Narcissus next spring.

Style is yours and yours alone. My naturalistic style has ornamental edges blending to wild, whimsical and whatever Betsey wants. Coexistence requires an appreciation or at least a tolerance of some weeds. Whatever the style, all agree on the importance of plant health. Observe plants All Year Long. Writing mid-March, red buds are swelling on my towering Red Maple / Acer, common in climax woodlands of New England, and part of the diverse Eastern Deciduous Forest extending west to the Mississippi River.

Not so common is Bull Bay. Buds are healthy and some leaves are still a lustrous green on my Southern Magnolia / Magnoliagrandiflora from a Connecticut College plant sale two years ago, Planted as a small whip, it’s still only 24” high, but surviving winter. Native north to USDA cold-hardiness zone 6, Virginia and Maryland. The internet says Chaplin’s zone is 6b (minus 5°F to 0°F) in 2023, but it hasn’t been that cold recently in this crease between coastal lowland and highland Connecticut. Flowers are heavenly.

TUTORIAL  After five years, clients and friends were invited to my first spring tutorial at Chapel of the Birchnear the Natchaug River in Chaplin, Connecticut. I am the Chaplain, coo coo ka choo. I am he as you are he as you are me. And we are all together.” – John Lennon, I Am the Walrus

All is Good, gardening in Coexistence. 

On Sunday, March 17th, we pruned dead wood and crossing branches to improve air circulation because climate change has increased humidity, thus pests and disease. We staked multi-stems of clump trees. Restored compost saucers plus a kelp tonic. Used wood debris in Hügelkultur and leaves in garden beds with a topdressing of compost. I showed some container gardening with Lily / Lilium bulbs and bareroot Strawberry / Fragaria. We had fun! 

The chilly weather was biblical, early rain and the clouds parted. Amy and Carl Love came from Wayland, Mass. Sulo Salmela from Northbridge MA, Corleen Law of Putnam, and Liz Zimmer of Woodstock (great sister RE team who sold the house) pruned the Redtwig Dogwood (Benthamidia formerly Cornus) shrubs; removing 3 to 5 oldest canes promotes new red branching. 

We celebrated with a Saint Patrick’s Day Bonfire, marshmallows and a food run to Willimantic for gourmet pizza from Trigo which was closed on the holiday! C’mon. Tony’s Pizza (117 Main Street) was great off the bench as were the Celtics beating the Wizards 130-104 without starters. Maybe a Summer Solstice Bonfire with a tutorial on herbaceous perennials?

CLEAN UP  Some manicure their landscapes, some don’t. Your choice. I enjoy mowing my flowing pattern of lawn, leaving some unmown as a mini-meadow. I leave ground-hugging old growth of herbaceous perennials past the danger of a hard freeze. Old shelters new. If exposed, fresh growth emerges too early, vulnerable to frost. New England springs are unpredictable with climate change. Last year, a hard freeze in the middle of May killed buds on my native Redbud / Cercis and Japanese Maple / AcerJapanese Painted Fern / Athyrium died to the ground. 

All recovered.

I fertilize with compost saucers and granular BioTone. My first tonic offered customers as a landscape designer for Weston Nurseries (Hopkinton MA) was a topdressing of compost; forming a “saucer” to hold water is better. But first is the example of our woods: the value of leaves. Compost leaves for nutrient-rich leaf mulch. Next is the value of wood debris.

HÜGELKULTUR (pronounced hyoo-gul-kulture)   German word for mound or hill culture in which a planting bed is filled with wood and organic materials, topped with soil, better with compost. German gardeners and other Europeans have practiced it for centuries.

This horticultural technique mounds decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass materials as a raised bed. Small logs can be stacked below grade; above grade, cutting debris into small pieces increases wood surface and hastens decomposition. Decomposing wood ties up nitrogen that fuels plant growth; compensate with high-nitrogen materials like grass clippings or manure. As with composting, alternate layers of green and brown material.

Embraced by Permaculture for growing harvest plants, hügelkulturing is not for most trees because the mound sinks with decomposition. (My whitebark birch are planted in an 18” mound of compost, no wood debris.) Use for some woody shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals.

MANTRA  When nursery plants are available, Suit the Site’s cold hardiness and sun exposure. Soil nutrient and moisture is often amended; Water Makes Things Grow! Then Fit the Space using mature size to guide location. (Mind you, the nursery industry wants you to update and replace more than necessary.) Third, Seek Beauty.

Photos by the author.

Brian Karlsson-Barnes, Master gardener / designer, Boston, Massachusetts & Chaplin, Connecticut

Email:     Text: 617.957.6611 (preferred)

KB garden design, 12 Cross Road, Chaplin CT 06235

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