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Creating drought-resistant raised beds

Matt Milan

Matt Milan is outside almost every day. He farms full-time in Brewster, and he’s noticing some changes in our local climate.

“I think with what’s happening like my observations, the science, we’re gonna have probably a lot of droughts, like heavy rains and then droughts,” Matt said.

This is what’s been predicted for Massachusetts with climate change — rain that’s more sporadic and comes in big storms — and it’s a pattern Matt is already noticing. In response, he’s changing the way he builds his garden beds to make them more drought-tolerant.

“So now every single new bed I’m building is going to be a hugel.”

A hugel is when you take organic matter — a combination of stuff that’s mostly rotted and stuff that’s not rotted — and you layer it.

“You start from biggest to smallest so the biggest stuff is on the bottom and you want to use like you can see over there some really rotted logs from the woods so you go from biggest to smallest so basically like logs and then some brush and some leaves and some people don’t do a green compost layer so I chop like when I mow the lawn get finer and finer ‘til you get to that top compost layer,” Matt said.

In practice, this looks a lot like building a garden bed on top of a brush pile, except it’s a brush pile that’s been carefully constructed and tamped down. Most hugel beds are maybe 2-4 feet tall and a little bigger than your average raised bed, with smooth dark soil on top. The term hügelkultur was coined by two German horticulturalists in the 1960s and it means mound or hill culture.

“Basically the reason you’re doing it is because like if you throw a heavy log in a lake and then you pull it out it’s not going to dry for like a month. And so the reason you’re doing it is so that you want to build them hopefully before the summer starts so you get all those spring rains to soak them in and then throughout the growing season it sort of releases that moisture.”

A Kentucky study measuring moisture in hügelkultur beds during a mild drought found the hugels consistently held more water than flat earth beds — and in some cases, they held almost twice as much. Matt says an added benefit in a hugel’s first season is that it releases some heat as the organic matter begins to compost and break down.

Matt describes his very first hugel, “I started with six inches of compost on top of these logs, and now it’s almost two or three feet of just black soil. Because the breakdown is so good, I had eggplants still producing and we’re in a warm microclimate in Brewster, but I had eggplants still producing til the end of November in there last year.”

Matt says he built this most recent hugel mound with a friend, taking their time to fill in holes and make sure there weren’t too many air pockets and it kind of turned into a game.

“It was almost like, I don’t know like the opposite of Jenga kind of you know and we’re just trying to fill it in really good hanging out in the afternoon, putting logs here, putting logs there, and then stuffing leaves into the crevices to fill it in.”

Like most Cape Cod farmers, Matt Milan is growing veggies in a small plot on the edge of the forest. Hugelkultur is a way of leaning on the forest without cutting it. It brings the fallen logs, branches, and leaves out of woods and onto Matt’s farm for what is likely to be another dry summer.

You can learn more about Matt Milan's farmstand and follow him online through his Instagram account, @phoenixorganicfarm.

This piece first aired in May 2021.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.