Composting is a great fall activity. Instead of shipping your leaves, grass clippings, and old annual plants to the landfill, they can be used to make a rich soil amendment for your garden. Most gardeners know these materials can easily be made into compost, but what about woodier materials, such as tree prunings, corn stalks, and hedge trimmings?
There is a simple technique to create compost from these slow-to-decompose materials. It's called hugelkultur (in German), or mound composting (in English). This permaculture technique involves combining partially decomposed trees, green hedge trimmings, old corn or broccoli stalks, and small branches and piling them together in a windrow. (It's best to avoid wood from rot resistant trees, such as hemlock and cedar, since they take a very long time to decompose.)
There are two ways to mound compost: Either dig a 6-inch-deep pit and bury the materials, or lay them on the ground and build them up into a 1- to 2-foot-tall mound about 6 to 8 feet long. Cover the material with rotten leaves and old weeds and plants from the garden, add a layer of soil or partially decomposed compost, and leave it. Common composting knowledge would tell you to wait to plant in the bed until the material breaks down. However, although it does take years to break down completely, in the meantime the bed will heat up in spring from the decomposition process. This makes it a perfect spot to grow potatoes, squashes, melons, and pumpkins. The wood holds moister longer than soil, the bed is aerated from the woody materials, and the soil adds enough fertility to grow crops. You may have to add a little nitrogen fertilizer the first year to jump-start the plants. The bed can stay naturally raised and fertile for up to seven years depending on the materials. So, this fall create a mound raised bed and try planting it in spring. You may be amazed at the results.
For more information on mound composting or hugelkultur, go to: Oregon Live.