Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hugel bed update

It's time to see how my new hugelkultur beds are doing, in the middle of winter. My theory was, I could possibly grow better veg during winter, than in the killer temps of summer. Let's see how that little experiment is going...

Flowering plants

First, is the retaining wall, our hugel beds, are located on. It's the first thing we see, leaving the house, as we walk up to the hugel beds. I'm growing nasturtiums, during winter, in what is deemed a temperate climate. It's only because the block retaining wall, retains heat during winter nights.

To a lessor degree, the wall helps maintain heat in the hugel beds too. But they are raised off the ground, so the heating effect in the beds, is more due to all day sun, directly radiating the soil.

 New edition

Just behind those flowing plants, is a new wicking bed/barrel. I actually planted the federation daisy and nasturtium against the wall, in hopes they would help shade this tub, from summer heat. I've planted a blueberry in the middle, and strawberries around the edges. The mesh is to stop the brush turkeys, getting curious.

This experiment will really be tested next summer. It may not be a permanent feature, as my other wicking boxes, haven't performed all that well. More about that later though.

Hugelkultur bed 1 (HB1)

Next to the new wicking barrel, is our first hugel bed. It seems to be the lowest production bed, for some reason. It may be due to the casuarina tree leaves, I used to mulch it - as noted by Bev at FoodnStuff, having an allelopathic effect. This bed was mulched the heaviest with that particular mulch.

I have yet to harvest the sweet potatoes, but there are other things doing well, for this time of year growing in HB1.

 Wombok - or Chinese cabbage

This wombok was planted a few weeks ago, as a small seedling. Now, it's jumped out of the ground. There is beetroot, garlic, and a lone cauliflower planted nearby too. But the wombok seems to have the magic stuff, growing very quickly.

I'm also trying brussel sprouts for the first time this year too, but I've run into some problems...

The VERY hungry caterpillars

It's still winter, and I have pests eating my sprouts! I suspect it's white cabbage moth, as I've seen them flittering about. The one brussel sprout plant, which hasn't been touched, was actually planted in an ornamental shrub border, some place else.

So I must be rolling out the welcome mat, in my hugel beds. I do space the brassicas out with other veg in between, to disguise them. But it is a sunny area during winter, and any insect worth their survival salt, would scope it out. So it may always be an issue.

Thai cooking chilli

Almost ready to harvest in HB1, are chillies. I only occasionally cook with chillies, but am learning to love the subtle heat they impart. I want to try making sweet-chilli jam also, to bake in a sourdough loaf.

In the meantime, they are ripening slowly, due to not being optimal growing conditions. Chillies are much quicker producing, in the heat. But the fact it still looks healthy, is testimony to the micro-climate, the block retaining wall, helps to create.

Hugelkultur bed 2 (HB2)

Raised bed number two, is a lot more productive. I broadcast mizuna seed, saved from a plant which volunteered, in the most inhospitable place. Making it hardy seed! It was an experiment, which succeeded, perhaps a little too well?

I'm actually beginning to understand what northern hemisphere gardeners speak about, when they say "spacing" is important for production. I've only dealt with heat before, mainly planting in the warmer months. Spacing close together, prevents evaporation and enables plants to survive. They have plenty of heat and sunlight to make them grow.

But during winter, with cooler soil and less sunlight - spacing wider apart, allows plants to reach their full potential.

Tatsoi (dark green) Mizuna (light green)

As an example, I rescued these tatsoi plants, from the mizuna, strangling them. They grew lanky in the middle, to reach the light. But the lower leaves didn't stand a chance, reaching sun - subsequently, becoming dwarfed.

Still very edible in our stir-fry though, but we lost production on these slower growing plants. Mizuna is a faster grower.

It took me a while to like the mizuna. When first eaten raw, I didn't like it. The peppery flavour was unpalatable in large doses. But then I discovered it's best eaten as part of a salad (like rocket) or to jazz up scrambled eggs. It's even great in making stock, or stirred through casseroles. It's extremely versatile as a flavour enhancer. With something this productive, I was GOING to learn to use it!

Perennial vegetables, mixed with annual

Still in HB2, is some curly leaf kale, oregano and more wombok. I'm treating the kale, as a perennial, to see how long I can harvest leaves for. There is one kale plant in this bed, and another in HB1.

The poor wombok will be starved for sunlight though, from all that mizuna. I will thin it out, to create more sunlight for it. Having so much greenery around though (yes Mizua - I'm talking to you) can be a real blessing. Because I have plenty to pull up for the chickens. While mizuna isn't their favourite leafy green to eat - they still eat it. So I'm getting eggs from my windfall of mizuna too.

Sun-kissed coriander

I did say, this particular bed was productive. I have some coriander, making a welcome appearance, also from seed. I love coriander in my cooking. It's probably the best time of year to grow in this particular area too - because as soon as the heat arrives, it will bolt to seed. At least, that has been my experience, in this location.

I'm learning quite a few things from this area, like what does well, and what doesn't; more importantly though - in which season. All valuable stuff, if you want to eat what you grow, year round - in the space you have available. Each niche for a plant, has a different growing environment.

Tiny teeth

The brussel sprouts in HB2, didn't escape the white cabbage moth either. Although, it's been attacked less aggressively, than in HB1. It must be all that mizuna, throwing them off!

I can see why people net their brassicas, because there may not be anything left of my brussel sprouts, soon.

Nice to chia

I went a little crazy with seed in autumn. I cleared out a lot of packets, which were either too old, or would be, if I let them go another season. So I broadcast them around the hugel beds. One of the things to surprise me recently, was chia!

It popped up beside HB2, and looked a little like Lanta at first. Lucky it wasn't pulled, but I was expecting some surprise seedlings, which is why I waited to see what would emerge. Well, it's beautiful blue flowers, have brightened up the garden, for the first time. Which also tells me, I should be able to collect fresh seed, to plant them again.

 Wicking box 1

Now, to some not so great experiments. Just opposite our hugel beds, is another block retaining wall. I've used this to set-up wicking boxes. Which I'm sad to say - in comparison to the hugel beds, has not done very well. All the plants seemed to dwarf, never reaching their full potential - despite the fact they had access to water.

 Green tomatoes

I did manage a few small harvests though. Like these volunteer tomatoes, which came up from the compost added. I'll save the seed, because they won't taste very nice without the warm temperatures to ripen them. We also managed a small harvest of peas, which Peter really enjoyed! Plus some spring onions too.

Nothing else was really edible though. Not even the rubarb. I'm mean, rubarb! Those suckers should have enormous leafs to help sustain them. But no. Only small, lanky leafs, which looked half-starved. It wasn't fair to rob any of the plants, their leaf matter, which was barely keeping them alive. I've had a dig around though, and I suspect the problem is beetle larvae.

I've had this before, in my ornamental container plants. Beetles are attracted to the heat in the containers, and don't get any competition from other soil dwellers. When the larvae emerge, they prune the roots, and stunt the plants.

Not to worry though...I have a plan!

New hugel bed (HB3)

I'm replacing the wicking boxes, with more hugelkultur beds. This is a new hugel creation (#3) finished a few weeks ago. It's lower in height than the other two, but still completely adequate.

The plan is to transplant what I can, from the wicking boxes (next to it) and carefully pull the boxes apart. The chickens should enjoy the feast of beetle larve, I harvest, and then move the boxes to build another hugel bed. Four beds! Now I'm excited.

The terracotta pot (above) will be between the two new beds. I'll see how it goes, attracting beetle larve. I may be able to plant ginger, as I've not had problems with beetle larva invading those particular pots before.

 Morning dew

Overall, my winter garden is more productive than the opposite spectrum, of my summer one. There are less pests and less heat stress, but it has to be mitigated by using different plant spacing, to optimise production. That was a truly new lesson for me to experience. I've read about it before, but not experienced it first hand.

So in summary:

  • Block-walls and hugel beds, create micro-climates for winter growing
  • Casuarina tree leaves, may not be good for mulching annuals
  • I still get pests in winter
  • Wider spacing is important when growing in cooler weather
  • Success with seed broadcasting, saved from hardy volunteer plants
  • Learn to cook with productive plants, I may not initially like
  • Beetle larvae, may prevent my ability to use enclosed wicking boxes
  • Some crops may deter beetle access, thus, better suited to containers
  • I am capable of more production, during autumn/winter, using different techniques

So what is your most successful winter crop, or most challenge in the winter garden?


  1. I have a lot more success growing things in the cooler months of the year than the Summer, Chris. This Winter, silverbeet and Perpetual Spinach have been standouts in my veggie patch. Snow peas did quite well too. Last year, I harvested a good crop of broccoli but, this year, the possum has found it. I only have three plants left that have survived the possum's nightly feasts! Meg:)

    1. Wow, didn't realise possums ate broccoli. Thought they were more fruit connoisseurs. Could it be mice, or did you catch the possums in the act? Looks like both our brassicas, were consigned to feeding the wildlife instead. ;)

  2. Chris, Jerry Coleby-Williams recommends planting Upland Cress beside brassicas. There is a fact sheet on Gardening Australia about it. I doubt I will plant much over summer if it is anything like last hear. Winter is becoming a better growing season.

    1. Thanks, I'll look for that info. I've never tried growing cress before, but it sounds like it's a winter crop, like brassicas. I'm trying to organise some shade-cloth for summer growing this year. I may have more luck with that. :)

  3. Mizuna is one of my favourite winter crops too....quick to germinate, quick to grow and sets plenty of seed when allowed to flower. I chop it into sandwiches and soups, add it to stirfrys (where it's not the dominant ingredient) and wherever I can add a few more bits of green to a meal. Oh, and the chooks love it too. I just broadcast it now, mainly in wicking boxes.

    I've just ordered another Asian green from Edens to try....mibuna. Have you tried to grow it?

  4. It is extremely prolific, isn't it? Funny you should mention mibuna. I was looking at a seed catalogue recently, and saw it for the first time. I didn't buy it though, because it sounded similar to mizuna, only with a different leaf shape. Once you try it, I'd love to hear how it compares to mizuna.

  5. "In which season." That is key! Your experiments are always interesting (and encouraging) to me because we share a similar problem in terms of summer. One thing I've learned is that I probably need to plant earlier for my fall/winter garden and just make sure the beds stay watered. It's been hard to be motivated to plant winter crops when the temps are still in the mid-90s F / mid-30s C.

    I do like the idea of heat retention via a retaining wall. Not sure when I can manage that, but I am collecting rocks around the place and they might make nice additions to winter beds when it starts to get colder out.

    1. It's interesting how each location, has it's prime time for growing. For very cold climates, it's the summer. For very warm climates however, it's the winter. And sometimes there's a magic spot between the seasons (autumn/spring).

      One way to make a more successful autumn garden in your area, based on what you're described, is using a shade house. It's like a green house, only with shade cloth. So you can grow seedlings in the heat of summer, in punnets. So you've got quite a sizeable plant, to put in the ground, in autumn.

      I find it's better to micro manage plants during the extremes, to condense them in smaller spaces. That way, you can be more water efficient. It's running out of water, that ends up killing plants in summer. I've got a limited amount I can dole out, to a lot of plants. But managing a small group of punnets, during the extremes, so I can put them out in milder weather, is more efficient.

      I look forward to seeing what you manage to do, as I enjoy reading your experiments as well. :)


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