Last winter, Alana and I set the goal of be able to produce or independently source (ie not purchasing) 80% of our food within 5 years. Given this objective, we set out to create a large garden space in which we can grow vegetables for both seasonal and year-round use. With Alaska’s cold climate, we think this will best be achieved with things that can stay a long time, whether naturally like in the case of cabbages and/or root vegetables or through preservation methods like blanching and canning. Our property is south facing with over 14 hours of direct sun in the summer time. Although we are not in a black spruce swamp, we are located in a upland transition zone and our property has a lot of mosses and water retentive plants as a result. This prevented us from pursuing any kind of planting directly into the ground as it would take a very long time and many amendments to bring the soil to something workable. It is also too wet for planting and it would be very saturated in the event of any rainy periods. We looked into raised bed options, quickly coming upon the hugelkultr method as our beds of choice for the majority of our plants and raised beds for our potatoes.
Hugelkultr is the practice of mounding brush and placing soil on top of it. The idea is that the brush underneath the soil will decompose with time and feed the soil above with its nutrients. Through the process of decomposition, the brush will also retain more water, keeping water in the soil and reducing the need for watering the beds.
During late spring, Alana cleared a roughly 100’ x 25’ area, mounding the spruce, alders and willows into nine 20’ x 3.5’ beds. Downed spruce poles formed the outline of the beds and serve as a way to prevent any soil from eroding away. I collected moss from around our property, which I placed on tops of the mounds, with the idea of potentially allowing for more moisture retention as well as serving as a solid barrier above the branches, reducing the quantity of soil that we would need.
Soil options are severely lacking in Fairbanks, AK with good options (or any) few and far between. We were able to come across three-year-old aged horse manure from someone in the area and ordered delivery of 2 dump trucks worth. 24 cubic yards of horse shit sat in our driveway waiting to be moved. I worked on this full time for the next week, spending about 6-8 hours a day filling up our sled, slipping the rope around my waist, then dragging it to fill each bed. The practice was exhausting but I finished the last bed just a few days before the end of May. Alana set to work immediately, staying up all night in the rain to plant seeds and transplant seedlings in our new beds. I returned to my Sisyphean task of dragging soil, making 2 more raised beds for our potatoes. My friends Ryan and Sean helped me finish this task in the first week of June. Everything was planted and ready to grow.
June and July were very dry months in the Interior with no rain at all falling for a period of five weeks or so. While our soil retained plenty of water, it reached it’s limits with the constant sun exposure. Living in a dry/damp cabin and having to haul our water made it difficult for us to give the plants the water that they needed. We ended up providing what we thought to be the bare minimum, about 13 gallons in total, which amounted to a brief watering period once a day.
Nothing died over the course of the summer, but nothing really appeared to grow either. It seemed as if everything was stuck and unable to grow much further. Voles decided that the large mounds with ample cover and brushy materials made good homes, making holes and tunnels throughout many of the beds and eating vegetables from almost one entire row. In the end, we ended up harvesting about 1% of what we planted. For example our harvest included a few heads of lettuce, a single cabbage out of over 100 and 30 lbs of teeny tiny potatoes from ~85 seed potatoes.
We think that we have answers to what we think were our problems this past year. It will be difficult to determine the success of the hugelkultr beds for another year or two. We think that with amendments like lime, additional soil, some fertilizer and more water we can have a much more successful harvest next year. We recently bought a 1000 gal water tank which we will be using as part of a rain catchment system that will allow us to provide the plants with more water. Hugelkultr beds are a long-term game, relying on the decomposition process which takes a little while to get started. Once that starts accelerating, we should see much more positive results. Or maybe we won’t, we don’t really know but we will find out soon enough.