Horticulture at 9,500 feet

Local property owner trying out German techniques with the assistance of an expert

By Katherine Nettles

While some people might think our extreme climate doesn’t allow for much gardening beyond the basics of a seasonal lawn or a simple flowerbed, it turns out things like horticulture are at home even in our high alpine area.

Local property owner Al Smith has recently taken a dive into the practice of hügelkultur and found plenty of help from local enthusiasts.

Hügelkultur is a form of composting that uses decaying wood debris to create a berm structure that can be used for landscaping and gardening and helps with water retention, soil fertility and soil warming.

Smith says he stumbled into the practice quite naturally, just troubleshooting some fallen trees on his property near Cement Creek Road. From there it was the help of Nel Curtiss, who co-owns Rocky Mountain Trees and Landscaping, that took things to the next level. Smith now has a berm along the edge of his property about 250 feet long, five to six feet tall and six to seven feet wide.

“I was trying to clean up my property, and a lot of trees had some disease. Then a big windstorm came along and it knocked a lot of them over, so I started clearing them out,” he says.

But as Smith was cutting the trees and assessing the large masses of wood, he determined it was more than he could burn.

“So I started stacking it up toward the edge of my property,” he says. “I thought maybe it would create a visual barrier where a fence had fallen down. Nel drove by and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re doing hügelkultur!’” he recalls.

As Smith describes it, he stacked rotting wood, then layers of green material (brush, leaves etc.), and kept doing layers. Then he added dirt on top, a truckload of sod and compost, 1,100 mushroom plugs “and lots of spring water.”

Next came about 140 small plants from the Colorado State nursery. This included choke cherries on the front side, “which will be warmer and drier than the backside,” and silver buffalo berries and red twig dogwood along the back. “We might also put in maybe 30 Engelmann spruce,” he says. He plans to grow some flowers around the edges, and maybe do some veggies on the top in the future.

“It looks like we might be able to do an enormous mushroom farm,” he says of the mushroom plugs. “One other thing that’s interesting about the berms is they create more spaces to plant stuff,” he explains.

Once planted, the setup is somewhat self-sustaining.

“You have this rotting pile of wood, which will then feed the plants. And at the same time the rotting material creates warmth, so it kind of tricks plants into thinking they are in someplace warmer,” Smith says. After all, he lives at 9,500 feet and any extension to the warm season will help.

The system has some insurance against drought as well.

“The wood acts like a giant sponge, holding water when it comes and then releases it later during the dry times. All this will create microhabitats for the critters around there,” says Smith.

He says he is learning as he goes, and his goal is to start with one berm and perhaps end up with two or three. He also credits Curtiss as being instrumental to the process.

Curtiss’ interest in organics and natural ecosystems are extensive, as part of her nursery business and as a certified permaculture designer and advanced master gardener.

“My passion is for soil and particularly composting,” Curtiss says. She has a large compost pile at Rocky Mountain Trees & Landscaping, a smaller three-bin system for her home garden and vermiculture (worm) bins.

“What I love about composting is that it is the ultimate in recycling systems. Almost anything can be composted if the correct balance of moisture, air and nutrients is created and maintained,” she says.

Curtiss and her son, Dylan, have helped with consultation on the overall construction process and the supply and delivery of products such as the overage of green material from RMTL and finished compost.

“The construction is evolving as we go and we plan to experiment and build differently in other sections of the property. Similar to a compost heap, there are design principles to follow but you can be creative with the resource material you use,” says Curtiss.

Smith is also using a lot of material he has in surplus, such as coffee grounds and bulk coffee sacks from his business, Camp 4 Coffee. He says the coffee shops, located in both Crested Butte and Crested Butte South, generate about 20 pounds of coffee grounds per day. The coffee sacks are made out of jute and other natural fibers, which add further biodegradable structure.

“This is all part of a movement of people who are saying, ‘Hey, let’s not throw all this stuff out,’” says Smith.

Curtiss agrees that the hügelkultur berms are part of an overall mindset. “It is a great example of one of the 12 design principles of permaculture: Use and value renewable resources and services. Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources,” she says.

Curtiss applauds Smith’s approach even beyond his latest project.

“I have seen Al repurpose and recycle all kinds of products over the last few decades, from old windows to license plates and now his coffee grounds, bulk coffee bags and fallen trees. He seems to understand the cycle of birth, decomposition and rebirth of these products,” she says.

Taking the concept a step further, Curtiss also thinks this type of berm could be very useful in current forest management, particularly in areas affected by beetle kill.

“This is a possible way to recreate a carbon sink versus it becoming a carbon source,” she says, but admits the challenge of this would be the labor resource needed to make that happen on a large scale.

Meanwhile, Curtiss is eager to talk permaculture, composting or the hügelkultur berms with community members.

“My goal is to eventually hold classes and workshops on these topics and incorporate more of theses techniques into traditional landscapes,” she says.

Smith is hoping to get lasting benefits from the berms, including a privacy border, the gardens he is planting and less dependence on water.

“I’m really hopeful that in the next few years, as you ride across our property you’ll ride through a lot of trees—and this is one way we are trying to conserve water,” he says. “It’s a curious project; it just sort of happened because I was trying to clean up my yard.”

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