NEAR DENTON -- Ross Brockley dug his hands into a side of the hill and pulled out one potato after another.
“This is a pretty good hill,” he said, as his pile of spuds grew.
But this wasn’t an ordinary hill. Beneath this one lay rotting wood, retaining water to keep the soil moist and slowly breaking down to provide nutrients to the plants above.
It's a farming/composting technique that Brockley's become extremely passionate about: hugelkultur.
“Potatoes just love (a hugelkultur),” he said as he continued to harvest more potatoes, big and small. “Everything just loves it, actually.”
Brockley operates his 60-acre, community-supported agriculture farm, Brockley Pharmaceuticals, near Denton. While some of his land features traditional beds of vegetables, most of his property is covered in hugelkultur hills, with some running as long as 20 to 30 yards.
“I’m going for a mile of them,” he said, standing near his Bobcat he uses to create new swales and move dead timber. “I’m halfway there. I know I have several blocks of them now.”
Brockley bought the farm in 1990 and really started to work it about 10 years later, he said. He may be familiar to some because he’s performed stand-up comedy locally and has acted -- he once starred as a slacker in series of popular Holiday Inn television advertisements.
About six or so years ago, Brockley became frustrated because he had trouble growing squash. So, like most of us do nowadays, he went to his computer in search of answers. There he landed in a chat room with other farmers and gardeners, and one of them suggested trying hugelkultur.
“I had never seen the word,” Brockley said. “I Googled it and came up with one result. Now there are a million results.”
What Brockley read intrigued him.
Popularized by Austrian farmer and author Josef “Sepp” Holzer, hugelkultur -- a German word meaning mound or hill culture -- is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood.
American permaculture expert Paul Wheaton, a Holzer disciple, explains at richsoil.com how the process works. These beds, he writes, become loaded with organic material, nutrients and air pockets for the roots of what is planted. The wood retains moisture, so watering never becomes an issue.
To emphasize Wheaton’s point, Brockley dug into the sides of one of the hills at his farm, revealing moist soil, and, in some cases, mud. Though he has soaker hoses at the ready, he has never used them this year, even during the recent heatwave.
“When I’m digging the potatoes, I’ll see the roots of plants sitting on the wet wood,” he said. “The wood just doesn’t dry out.”
While Brockley employs hugelkultur at his farm, it can work for home gardens, too. Brockley put in a hill on the east side of Clinton Elementary School, which can be seen from Holdrege Street. And CSA husband-and-wife farmers (Common Good), Evrett Lunquist and Ruth Chantry, created a 20-foot-long hill last year near their house, using a cottonwood tree for the fill, after doing some research on the technique.
So far, it’s going great, Chantry said, noting that she and Lunquist finished off their hill with compost when they ran out of backfill.
“Our lamb’s ear is pretty huge this year,” she said. “As far as the soil, I think it’s a combination of the two (compost and hugelkultur).”
Cottonwood, according to Wheaton, is a recommended wood as are apple, alders, poplar, willow (dry) and birch. Cedar, black locust, black cherry and black walnut, however, are not because each have issues. Black locust, for instance, won’t rot, Wheaton said.
Brockley has become so enamored with hugelkultur that he lectures about it. He planted his first hill with potatoes. Today, his hugelkulturs include fruit trees (cherry, apple, plum, elderberry, etc.), squash, watermelons, sweet potatoes, asparagus and more.
“My dream is to create hugelkultur park, where people can come and pick their own fruits and vegetables or start a hugelkultur institute,” he said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSjeffkorbelik.