When someone says “hugelkultur,” don’t respond with a “bless you.” That funky sounding word was no sneeze - it’s a water-saving gardening technique that’s coming to the Valley in a big way this spring, in the form of a two year, $19,924 investigatory grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
With oversight from the town council, the Saratoga Community Garden Board will use these funds to construct five experimental hugelkultur gardens around town. Two will be located in Kathy Glode Park, one will be by the hot pool, one will be in the community garden and a fifth will be installed at the community center.
According to the grant, what makes these gardens different — and less water-intensive — than other types of plots, is their unusual, elevated form. The four foot tall, seven foot wide and 24 foot long garden beds, or “berms,” will be filled with wood chips, compost and humus along with soil and don’t need to be tilled.
This unique composition helps them retain water, an important consideration in a region that averages only 10 inches of rain per year. The text of the grant notes that Hugelkultur beds also require less fertilizer, and can be useful in acting as “natural sandbags” in flood-prone areas such as those surrounding the North Platte.
At least, that’s the theory. The USDA grant calls for the harvests from these experimental gardens to be compared to those gathered in a traditional, flatbed garden that will act as a control.
Another object of the study is to double the number of local pollinators, such as bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and beetles. To do so, the hugelkultur beds will feature a variety of plants that blossom throughout the growing season. Photographs and human counters will be used to determine how successful this aspect of the project is.
Bees are the most important pollinators, since they are more efficient than the other creatures that perform this function. Unfortunately, they have a bit of an image problem.
“We’re very careful about calling them pollinators and not just bees,” said Glee Johnson, a member of the community garden board and a big pusher of the project. “In reality, bees aren’t that aggressive,” Johnson said, but many people just “don’t want to have bees around town.”
Cynthia Bloomquist, another member of the community garden board, will act as the chief scientist for the project. She wrote the grant application and will effectively head the experiment.
The grant also provides funds for three high school student helpers to assist with the project.
The first will be a garden worker, who will work at planting, garden construction and crop selection for 400 hours split between this summer and the next.
The second student will be in charge of filing regular project reports to the USDA. This “data officer” will help with collecting the metrics measuring the success of the study, and work for 192 hours over the course of the next two summers.
A third student will concentrate on community outreach efforts. They will spend 50 hours over the next two summers managing a facebook account for the group and otherwise getting the word out about the new gardening technique.
That word is hugelkultur, and it could be a big boon to local gardeners. Despite aid from the USDA, the community garden board is sure to need plenty of volunteer muscle to help with the launching of this initiative. Those who want to lend a hand are encouraged to attend the next community garden board meeting, at 5:30 April 11 in the Saratoga Town Hall.