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Rot leads to renewal

Eddy Gilmore in his hugelkultur garden. (Photo by Shawna Gilmore)

Rotting debris, intentionally piled as if sculpted, is beautiful. What some cast aside as worthless becomes valuable. What had been reviled is renewed. Redeemed, if you will.

Ripe for obsession, I was introduced to "hugelkultur" through the impressive urban farming efforts undertaken by The Duluth Grill. Pronounced "hoogel culture," it's a style of gardening that has persisted in Germany and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. A simple concept, it pretty much amounts to nothing more than a mound of buried wood.

Obsession met opportunity. A neighbor found himself with several piles of apple tree logs and brush. Another neighbor, the one with a full view of my backyard through their kitchen window, was conveniently away for an entire weekend. They returned from a short vacation to discover a 20-foot-long tangle of logs, branches and brush.

What began as a mess is transforming into functional beauty.

To help things along, I scoured the forest for several loads of large, rotting logs teeming with life. Atop the tangle of woody debris, I added leaves, fruit and vegetable waste, as well as numerous buckets of used coffee grounds from my neighborhood coffeehouse: Amity Coffee.

Premium, locally roasted coffee grounds are dumped onto the mound 5 gallons at a time. In addition to increased fertility, the immediate area smells wonderful.

Rotting wood creates an enormous initial draw from the soil's nitrogen, the fuel for composting carbon, so it's crucial to add manure as well.

I got mine from Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch. My need for horse excrement provided a marvelous pretext for working a pitchfork near graceful horses within a lovely setting and to brush up against their laudable mission of connecting the beautiful animals with at-risk children.

In a display of remarkable salesmanship, I bartered a copy of my book for a load of processed grass. I'll spend the rest of my life waiting for the opportunity to win an argument if anyone says, "Your book isn't worth you-know-what." Now I can say it's worth 48 cubic feet of pure excrement (and probably twice that).

Barns. Horses. Pasture. The experience of idyllic countryside is reason enough for any urban gardener to import manure. I look forward to a visit to West Amity Stables sometime soon for the same purpose.

The sight of my friend backing his trailer up to a steaming pile of goodness filled me with happiness and thanksgiving. Friendship and renewal go together like peas and carrots.

Our family's chickens and an odd duck are pleased to produce a steady supply of waste material as well.

Fall is the perfect time for allowing them to peck and scratch for bugs atop the new mound, while I engage in various chores on our small patch of land. Nothing beats listening to the football game on the radio — as opposed to wasting a beautiful Sunday afternoon in front of the TV — while working in the yard alongside my small flock of genuflecting congregants.

Immense satisfaction has come with this investment into a hugel bed that should pay dividends for 20 years or more. Topsoil will ultimately round out the mound, which will top out at around 4 feet in height. It'll be ready for planting in the spring, but like fine wine aged to perfection, the passing of time will only make the garden richer.

These mounds are renowned for conserving water to the point where irrigation is virtually unnecessary. Rotting logs within this mound will swell with moisture like sponges and give it back to the soil as needed.

The process mimics soil creation on the forest floor. Years of fungal and microbial activity within the deep soil of this raised garden bed will provide rich soil life, nutrients, organic material, air pockets for roots and more.

Irrespective of results, this long-term, no-till garden will be rewarding. My gardening efforts have lacked inspiration for some time. Hugelkultur is so counterintuitively weird and interesting that I just had to give it a try. In addition to soil-building, gardening for the long haul is a soul-building activity.

Following the loss of a job and the ongoing stress of redrawing my vocation, working with the land is essential to healthy living.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is the author of a newly released book, “The Emancipation of a Buried Man.” Discover more at

Eddy Gilmore

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. Connect with Eddy at