About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A hugelkultur terrace

Well it seemed like a good idea at the time, that's all I can say.

I need to backtrack a little. It all started with the beech hedge.

Beech hedge dividing garden from driveway in an orderly manner

I have very mixed feelings about beech hedges. I love beech trees, I really do. A full grown beech tree is a most magnificent being. This is why I hate to see them cut back, forced to grow in neat lines as the gardener directs. On the other hand, if a hedge is what you need, I can't deny that mutilated beech trees do make a very good hedge. And...

... well there it is, in the photo just up there. There is a beech hedge in our garden. Since it's already there, what am I to do with it? I can't very well liberate the trees and allow them to grow to their full glory (I did consider it) and if I just let the hedge grow I'd end up with neither garden nor driveway. Cutting them down would be simply killing the trees and then I'd have the problem of how to separate the garden from the driveway. I'd probably have to plant another hedge...

So it seems that I must live with my beech hedge, and that I am responsible for maintaining it. The first thing we did to it was to make a doorway* in the hedge at the house end, as this makes life a lot more convenient. This gave us a cross-sectional view of the hedge which, as well as being rather beautiful, showed us quite how far the hedge has grown out over the (shared) driveway.

Cross-section of beech hedge

That could do with quite a lot of cutting back. I checked online to see whether the hedge would be likely to survive this treatment - the Royal Horticultural Society advised, To renovate an overgrown beech hedge, cut it back hard in February while still dormant. That would be Renovate as in Once more subjugate to the gardener's will... no, stop it Rachel! Well, we were a bit late, but the hedge didn't look terribly lively, so we thought we'd probably get away with it.

Some people would use power tools for a job like this, and Ian did try the chain saw, but it just threw its chain, so once again the old fashioned tools proved the better choice. I cut it with secateurs. Every single stick**. That wasn't the hardest part, though. That top photo doesn't show it very well, but there were three bumps on the top of this hedge, the final one having been half of an arch, joining a laburnum on the other side. The laburnum was uprooted over a year ago, and the arch has looked rather silly ever since. As for the other two bumps, we've never quite known what the point was. My radical pruning included cutting off the bumps.

Tackling a bump

This was very hard work as the trees were tightly entwined, and in some cases fused, so cutting one piece off didn't necessarily get it out of the way to make access to the next bit. The last one - the half arch - was the worst, with four fairly thick trunks all fused together. Also, I got harassed by blue tits while I was doing it. I saw why when I had the piece on the ground.

Felled nest box. Sorry, blue tits.

Ian extracted the next box and put it back in the hedge when I'd finished cutting bits off it. I think it's too early in the year for the box to have much in the way of a nest in it, and there'd certainly be no eggs yet.

I worked until my hands were aching and/or blistered, then stopped for the day. At this rate, it took me three days to finish the hedge. It looked quite tidy, if a little bare on top, from the garden side.

Trimmed hedge, as seen from the garden

From the other side, the hedge looks considerably more naked.

The aftermath of hedge trimming.

Pebble surveyed the wreckage.

Pebble was not impressed, though she did quite like being
able to lie under the hedge and be in the sun at the same time.
She's well camouflaged in beech leaves.

Once I'd gathered all the trimmings up off the driveway, I had a very big heap of bits of tree.

Many twigs. There are more in the garden.

What to do with all that? The obvious answer would be to have a bonfire, but my neighbour lives in a new, wooden house and has been a bit twitchy about bonfires since the builder set fire to their hillside, and that was before the house was built. It might be a bit inconsiderate to light a big fire on the land next door.

At this point, a couple of ideas came together. I've been reading about hugelkultur raised beds, which seem to be all the rage at the moment (look! They have one at Chants Cottage). This is big heap of old wood, covered in mud and left to rot down, making fabulous new soil as it does so. Idea number two has been in the back of my mind for some time. On the side of our house that has the view, the land is mostly very steep. So steep, that walking across it brings the very real danger of falling off. There are steps and when it's fine, we often go and sit out there with a cup of tea, but sitting on steps is not very satisfactory. I'd really like to terrace that land.

It would be really nice to have a level bit of ground here
where we could sit out and admire the view

So... how about a hugelkulture bed that's raised on one side and level on the other - a hugelkultur terrace? This struck me as an excellent plan for using up all the bits I'd just cut off this hedge, as well as the hedge we cut down a few weeks ago. So it was that I decided to create a hugelkultur terrace. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I chose the largest hedge offcut to start with. In my mind's eye, this piece would settle securely into the hillside and other pieces could be heaped up behind it. The largest piece was far too big for me to handle on my own, so I recruited Ian to help. Here he is with the offcut, and you can just about see the wheelbarrow it's sitting in.

Piece of hedge, just about supported by wheelbarrow

The barrow was helpful in getting this round to the bottom of the hill, but getting it up was another matter. Between the two of us, we somehow managed to roll it up the hill, then attempted to settle it in position. At this point the flaws of naive physics were revealed. As Ian pointed out, if we were able to roll it up the hill, how much more easily would it roll down? We tried heaving it into several different positions, but there was no way it was going to stay put on its own.

The trunks of the trees were resting on the ground and I thought that if we could weigh down the branches on the uphill side that would make it more stable. To achieve this, I got underneath the piece of tree and sent Ian off to fetch some bags of rubble we had sitting around while I held the thing up on my head and shoulders. From my position on the ground I could reach in and place stones on suitable branches. Once that was done, I trimmed off branches on the downhill side, to reduce the weight there and so further reduce the thing's tendency to head downhill. At this stage it was possible to move away from it without the thing tumbling down the hill, but Ian still wasn't happy. He spotted a small post, of the kind used to stake large flowers, and stuck that through the middle and hammered into the ground. With this combination of measures, the piece of tree was more or less secure, but not an ideal base to support the remaining terrace.

Further building of the terrace would obviously need to take structural considerations into account. I turned to the leylandii offcuts and threaded these through the beech, with the ends resting on the uphill side. I then added more stones to weight this down, hopefully further pinning the structure to the hillside.

This is the uphill side, with stones

At the end of Tuesday, this is what my new terrace looked like from the downhill side:

Stage one of the hugelkultur terrace

I have done more since then, threading in more leylandii branches and adding more stones. I would show you a picture, but I worked until I ran out of daylight today, so it wouldn't be a very good photo.

Funnily enough, carrying loads of stones and branches up a steep hillside and building them into a terrace turns out to be really hard work.

To read more about the terrace, click here.


* There is no actual door in the doorway, though come to think of it, the neighbours did give us an old one that we've yet to find a use for...

** What's the word for something that's too big to be a twig but not big enough to call a branch? Well this hedge had an awful lot of them.


  1. Rachel - You've given me a wonderful idea for the renosterbos on our property - thanks :) Now, I want to see how yours works ...LOL

    1. Glad I've given you a good idea, even if I don't know what a renosterbos is!

  2. Blimey. I'm exhausted after reading all that. That terrace is a great idea... We haven't done much more with ours as yet as we've been merrily ripping up the ground thereabouts trying to create the rest of the more conventional veg garden. Have you any ideas what you might plant in it yet? Thanks for the mention by the way!

    1. I'm always happy to credit my inspiration ;-)
      As for planting, I'm not sure I'm going to put anything interesting or productive in it, which might be considered a bit of a waste, but the point of this terrace is to make a sitting-out place. My thoughts on plants have got as far as ivy to help hold it together, as my neighbour wasn't too keen on the idea of ground elder that close to the boundary. Maybe buttercups and clover, and there's a ground covering weed that looks like short grass and has tiny white flowers. I don't know what it's called, but it grows all over the garden and it looks like a good plant for a lawn - nice green coverage and no need to mow!

  3. This looks very interesting and it will be rather fun to see what happens as it rots down. I admire the hard work chopping that lot down with secateurs! You must have some fine blisters!

    1. Rather fun... or terrifying, as the whole lot disintegrates and disappears down the hillside!


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