by Learning Leads – Caden Hebb & Lily Barraclough

Imagine a lush and prosperous vegetable garden, with peas crawling up lattice, zucchini plant leaves as big as your head, and bush beans everywhere. How can you get a garden like this, and become a person with a zucchini problem? In Caden’s family, there is an infamous story of the year that his parents had a vegetable garden at their house in Burlington, Ontario and they had so many zucchinis that they gave them away to all their neighbours and contemplated leaving some in people’s mailboxes. Other anecdotes from our home province of  Nova Scotia detail people leaving their vehicles unlocked overnight to find them full of zucchinis the next morning (truth or myth? Who knows!). If you’re skeptical, a quick internet search will inform you that every year August 8th is celebrated as “Sneak Some Zucchini Into Your Neighbor’s Porch Day”. So, how could we go from people without a vegetable garden at all, to people with a zucchini problem?

 Hügelkultur (pronounced Hoogle-culture- we think!) is a method of building a garden bed that Lily’s family has used for the past few years and have had a lot of success with, including some zucchini and kale problems, so we thought that we would give it a try! Our space is a bit more limited than Lily’s family’s, as we live in a two-unit house with a shared backyard, but we decided to give it a shot. Having a garden has been a dream of ours for years now, and teaming up with Waterlution spurred us to put our dreams into motion. 

The word “hügelkultur” refers to a hill or mound.

Caden Hebb & Lily Baraclough

That is exactly what we tried to build!

Photo of the raised garden bed. Photo taken by Caden Hebb & Lily Baraclough.

The mound or hill is made out of whatever organic detritus you can find like branches, dead leaves, plant debris, and a mix of soil and manure. The mound will continue to decompose over time, providing a very fertile and long-lasting soil mixture for growing vegetables.

The first step in our garden journey was to either build or buy a raised bed frame. This was a real challenge. With the lumber shortage and the rise in crisis gardening during the pandemic, many people and companies building them sold out quickly. We were in a bit of a panic because it was the end of May and we were still trying to figure out a raised bed, but every time we went for a dog walk around our neighbourhood, we would see numerous neighbours with their beds already planted, which made us feel more behind. After multiple messages back and forth with local entrepreneurs with raised bed frames, we finally managed to secure one. But there was a catch – we needed to go to Lower Sackville (about a 20 minute drive) to pick it up, and there was no way the 4 x 8 ft bed would fit in the back of our car. We tried asking family members for help using their vehicles, to no avail. Finally we asked if the vendor could deliver the bed, and thankfully they could! First step: done!

Shovelling manure at the barn for the raised bed. Photo taken by Lily Barraclough.
Garden bed with newspaper laid out. Photo taken by Caden Hebb & Lily Barraclough.

The next main piece of this building process was done over a couple months. First, we gathered sticks to build the mound in the raised bed. We were able to re-use our neighbours’ yard waste for this! It was around the time of year when everyone started cleaning out their yards and disposing bundles of sticks and twigs for municipal yard waste. What was once other’s waste, became our ticket to our hügelkultur mound! We secured five bundles of sticks in our car only two minutes before the collection truck took them! The rest of the materials for building the hügelkultur garden were also sourced locally from others’ waste. We got leaves and grass clippings from our landlords’ compost (with permission), and sourced manure from the barn where we keep our horse (see photo below). For the first layer, which you will see later, we saved some flyers that had been carried into our backyard by the wind. This keeps the grass and weeds under the bed from growing up into your garden, and the layer will decompose over time. We, of course, still needed some soil, which we purchased for a long-standing local business here in Halifax/Kjipuktuk: Halifax Seed.

Firstly, we cut some of the tall plants and grass that were in the place where we had our raised bed frame and were prepared to start building our hügelkultur. We then covered the grass with a layer of newspaper to prevent the grass and weeds from continuing to grow into our garden.

Secondly, we laid down the grass clippings and leaves from the yard waste to create a rich organic layer. This layer breaks down slowly, releasing nutrients into the surrounding soil steadily over years. This way the hügelkultur is self-fertilizing.

Layering grass clippings over the newspaper. Photo taken by Lily Barraclough.

Then, we placed the bundles of sticks the long way through the centre of the raised bed to create the high point of the mound. As well as providing organic matter, the sticks create many gaps in the manure and soil, leaving room for eager roots and water to permeate.

Next, was our first layer of manure on top of the mound and the grass/leaves layer. This was followed by a layer of soil, but we realized we hadn’t bought enough soil! Our estimations of what volume of soil and manure we needed seemed to be off! The next day, we tried to purchase more soil, but it was sold out, so we added another layer of manure on top before planting.

Photo of manure and sticks layered onto the grass clippings. Photo taken by Caden Hebb & Lily Barraclough.

We will save the rest of the story (planting!) for future blog posts, and hopefully we will be able to say that we are people with a zucchini problem!

Photo of Caden and Lily from Powershift, photo taken by Louis Sobol

Thanks for reading the beginning of our journey. Our names are Caden and Lily. We live in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq with our dog Anna and horse Alamar. We are both graduates of environmental programs from universities here in Halifax, and Lily is a Master’s student studying how politically-active youth experience climate grief. We are dedicated to acting upon and pushing for transformative change towards a more equitable, just, and sustainable society, and we try to do that out in the world as activists, and in our own lives through things like gardening, zero waste living, being vegetarian, and using more environmental forms of transportation.

We are lucky to be able to tackle all problems as a team, and we can’t wait to find innovative and creative ways to deal with our zucchini problem!