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Gardening

The world is changing fast. It’s time for Alaska gardeners to try hügelkultur.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: December 26, 2019
  • Published December 26, 2019

This is the last column of the year and, pardon the cliche, what a year it has been. We had a record number of new high temperatures, distinct changes in when it usually rained and an aggressive renewal of spruce bark beetle tree kills. I am pretty sure things are not going to change back to “normal.”

A demonstration hugelkultur garden at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, Dec. 2019. Hugelkultur is a German practice that uses dead trees to create garden beds. (Photo by Jeff Lowenfels)

In fact, what this past year has cemented in this gardener’s mind is that climate change is the new norm and we best adapt our gardening practices. Gone are the days of only planting kohl crops and using clear plastic to warm up our soils.

OK, but what kinds of changes do we make? My new standard is “What would Greta think?” We have to garden like it matters to the next generations even if this calls for drastic alterations in our thinking.

Take all those dead, beetle-killed, giant spruces. Disposing of them presents a huge problem. Early in the year I called on our congressional delegation to help get grants so neighborhoods can efficiently get rid of these trees without the pollution of outdoor open burning by homeowners (or putting them into landfills, which is extremely expensive and wasteful). I repeat the call now, so we can be ready during the upcoming season.

In the meantime, every one of us might want to consider “hügelkultur,” a German practice that uses dead trees to create garden beds. It has become quite trendy in parts of the Lower 48.

Huh? Hügelkultur? Really? In the past, it made no sense to me to suggest using dead trees and limbs to create raised beds. The whole hügelkultur trend seemed like it was dreamed up by some garden writer who had a book to sell. Build a garden around a dead tree? Why not just grind the damn tree up and compost the chips. Then build your garden’s beds.

And, to my way of thinking, the typical Alaska homeowner wouldn’t replace their existing garden beds (too much work) and I suspect not many would automatically build a hügelkultur bed when creating a new garden.

Then we started to lose cottonwoods like crazy and not the little ones, but big, mainstay, landscaping trees. Professional removal can cost thousands of dollars for just a few trees. So, you might be able to afford to remove and chip up a few trees. A few trees you can convert into firewood (despite it being soft wood). And you can even just leave a few trees be. But what to do when you have more than a few dead trees?

Dead trees are big, global warming, carbon releasers. They can take a long time to fully decay. Landfills are very expensive to build and maintain. (We float bonds for such things.) Yet properly prepared, these same trees can provide all the nutrients for a garden for 10 to 20 and even more years. The buried trees release heat as they decay and warm soils. The released carbon is sequestered in the soil by microbes. Decaying branches keep the soil aerated. Water is retained and held by the porous soil created.

I guess, being optimistic, I should say we are in luck. Cottonwood happens to be most excellent for hügelkultur beds. I will write more detailed columns on their creation. In the meantime, you might consider looking at the practice on the internet so you can start to adjust your thinking. For example, I found one hügelkultur mound 6 feet high, enabling gardeners to literally stand while they garden and to add fruit trees to the garden. Ohhh, I like these ideas. Change can be good.

Jeff’s garden calendar:

ALPAR Christmas tree recycling: Dec. 28-Jan. 15. Anchorage, Eagle River and Palmer Carrs stores will have special areas to drop off trees, but only if they are free of all decorations and lights. No plastic bags and no wreaths, please! This is a great service; please do not abuse it.

Recycle Christmas string lights and bulbs: Free drop-off at the Anchorage Recycling Center (6161 Rosewood) or Total Reclaim, (12050 Industry Way #10).

Didn’t get someone a present?: Get them a membership in the Alaska Botanical Garden (alaskabg.org).

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