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Extreme compost gardening gains in popularity

Ken Hammarlund points to logs, which are the foundation for the “hugelbed” form of compost gardening. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 5
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A new old gardening style is coming to the area.

The “hugelkultur” is a German system of gardening that translates loosely to “hill culture” and has been around for centuries.

Essentially it is a hill or berm made of compost piled onto logs or wood. However, all wood is not created equal and does not rot the same. Poplar, birch and maple will work well, but cedar and several others will not.

Ken Hammarlund of Esko started searching for a sustainable gardening style several years ago. He began with just the typical garden most of us have in this area, moved on to raised beds, then experimented with hay bales before evolving to the” hugelbed” he has built this year.

Hammarlund wanted to grow his own food so he would know what type of fertilizers were used. He prefers using natural types of fertilizers and not chemical types.

He swapped food last year with friends for what he was not growing and did not need to go to the grocery store for two months, though he finally broke down and went to the store for a little more variety in his diet!

After researching, he discovered a class being taught near Spirit Mountain by Chad Johnson, who had traveled to Austria to learn from guru Sepp Holzer.

Holzer is hailed for his work revitalizing deserts with the “hugelculture” system. He has also used this system to grow lemons in the Alps, which experience temperatures as low as minus 20-30 degrees.

Johnson bought an old Finnish farmstead, built around 1880, and began building the large garden berms as well as teaching classes on the site.

The berms can range in size, depending on how big the land is or how much you want to grow on them.

One of Hammarlund’s favorite features is the excess June rains we have been seeing in recent years flow through the system so plant roots don’t rot.

“There are multi-mini-climates,” said Hammarlund.

Because the berm is curved, it faces different directions, so one side gets more sun, others less.

To build the system, take up any grass/sod on the area and put down logs.  Partially rotted logs work a little faster than freshly cut wood.

The rotting logs provide nutrients to the soil and as they deteriorate. They also provide airspace for the plant roots.

The logs also absorb moisture when it rains, then slowly releases it, thus requiring less watering.

Anything that would go into a compost pile goes on next — leaves, grass or whatever is in your yard. Wood chips, straw or hay can top off the berm.

Hammarlund’s “hugelbed” is about four feet tall at the highest point and tapers down on both ends and would look like a giant croissant from the air.

The most labor-intensive part of the system is building the mound or berm.

Once the plants have been planted, little else needs to be done.

“Design more now, less work later,” said Johnson, who refers to the mound as an edible ecosystem.

The conventional agriculture style comprises 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted into the air.

The “hugelkultur” system lowers carbon footprints and increases harvest resilience. There is less maintenance and labor after the initial building of the system as it can be reused for five to 15 years.

“It creates beautiful space,” said Johnson.

Hammarlund is excited by the amount of food that can be grown on the four-foot-tall mound. Besides having the traditional plants on the top, he has plants growing on all of the sides. This also makes weeding and harvesting easier as there is less bending than in traditional gardens.

The rotting logs create warmer soil, which in turn increases the growing season.

Hammarlund is looking forward to harvesting his first crop in a few weeks.

He has corn planted on the top of the berm and all of the vegetables needed to make a salad or salsa on the rest of the mound.

“It's reinventing the food system,” said Johnson.

Hammarlund invites anyone interested in looking at his berm to stop by Hammarlund Nursery located on North Cloquet Road in Esko.

For more information on classes, visit

Johnson and Hammarlund are also available for hire to build a “hugelbed” for anyone who would prefer taking that route.