This chapter is written co-authoring with Rustam and Ekaterina Paspaulov, Altai.


We decided to build tall hilly garden beds following teachings of Josef “Zepp” Ivanovich Holzer. We became so used to this Austrian man, that to us he became just Ivanovich. Unfortunately, the wise man did not visit us, his consultations are expensive, but we did follow his commandments when building garden beds. There are now even instructors for this skill. We are gaining experience, and grow more and more vegetables every year.

So here is the meat of it, if you do not know. Tall hilly garden beds are earthen structures in form of sinuous ridges that are 1.5 meters tall, inside which a variety of organics is placed. Basically, these are normal garden beds – boxes with organics, but they are made not from boards, but from all sorts of waste material (which would have been burned or thrown away otherwise), on top of which an earthen hill is placed. The downside of such garden beds is that their creation requires an excavator or a strong body in combination with enthusiasm and remarkable energy.

First, put on the rough organics: logs, branches, and everything that is available (A). Next goes turf with roots facing up (Б). Then manure and compost of which we have plenty (B). After that comes soil from digging out pathways and terracing the incline (Г). On top of the soil comes mulch (Д), we also use a lot of available hay. To make sure mulch does not slip, it can be pressed down by branches, and in some paces barriers from boards and stakes driven into the ground can be used to stabilize the soil and prevent it from crumbling (E). The top of the garden bed is shown with an arrow in the picture – it is a spot that a person taking care of the plant should be able to easily reach standing up. Making the garden bed bigger would result in tiresome crawling around. Overall, everything is the way Zepp describes it in his books.

I know enough people who tried creating tall hilly garden beds but then stopped working with them, even though it makes sense for them to be used in certain conditions. It happens, I believe, for several reasons. First of all and most importantly: for managing a garden in this way, a whole change in thinking process needs to occur, because multidimensional management requires training, attention, and trust in Nature and her wisdom.

Secondly, tall garden beds were born out of mountain areas and, regardless of its effective use in all landscapes, we think that they are best suited for gardening on an incline. On a flat land, it may seem that expenses are too high for building such structures.

Thirdly, making the garden beds work requires extensive attention to Holzer’s recommendations and it is important to at least once carefully follow all the instructions before starting experiments. There is no inaccurate or unimportant information in the book, each recommendation has its reasoning.

So, why do we use tall hilly garden beds and continue developing in building them?

It is sufficiently cold here. To allow our nurslings to live well, it is important to put as much effort as possible into keeping warmth in the soil. Tall garden beds are one of the best solutions to this problem. Stones also help preserve heat, if they are placed around the garden bed; but even though we live in the mountains we do not have many rocks available. Even though we do take some to our gardens. Plants in the tall garden beds better handle cold weather, soil warms up faster than in lower flat beds. Because of that, it is possible to plant everything earlier.

For building the raised garden beds, a variety of materials is needed and sometimes we either do not have it all or cannot give it for this purpose. More often than not, we raise the garden beds with help of boards, or they are sometimes built from boards, bricks, flat slates… Tall hilly garden beds are an inexpensive enough structure in that sense. We just expend a lot of physical strength (so far  we have built all of the beds with our own hands and shovels). The fillings for garden beds and the stabilizing branches and spikes are free for us: these are leftovers from preparing logs and clearing out the territories. Mostly we use birch (it is the most popular tree here).

Tall garden beds burden our backs only once, during their creation. All of the other times our backs are freed from the famous gardening knee-elbow position.

Tall garden beds are also an unusual and beautiful sight. Slowly they are becoming out tourist attractions, drawing attention of people around.

Tall garden beds are a good way to utilize various organic trash. It is also possible to hide some aluminum cans inside of it. Opinions differ regarding the use of plastic. Some people say it is safe, others think it is unhealthy. I think that it is better not to use plastic too much, just in case.

Experimenting with the systems of garden beds has been an interesting activity for us, as we studying microclimates, which result from it. That is why we continue creating them.

Gradually, during the “work” process of the garden beds and the decomposition of organics in it, the garden becomes more and more of a natural structure. It starts having inhabitants, it is being planted with various useful perennials, and it changes its shape. It becomes more porous and moist. A combination of all of these processes makes the system of garden beds more productive and comfortable for growing food.

Which mistakes have we run into during our experiments so far?

1.1   Not enough soil above the level of turf. Since we build everything with our own hands, it is not very easy to dump at once a 1.5 meter mountain, but it ends up being very important. The grasses, instead of settling down, begin to crawl out through the layer of fertile soil and quickly sucks it in, turning a garden bed into a thick pile of turf, almost completely unusable for growing crops. Solution: thoroughly mulch the garden bed (for example, put in corrugated board) and then put on top of it more soil, which could come from in between garden beds. And next time try to keep the level of turf (even if it is turn around) no less than 20 centimeters deep.

1.2   Narrow passages in between the garden beds. When plants grow to maturity, moving along the pathways in between garden beds becomes difficult. Our current standard of path width is this: it should be easy to move a garden bogey through.

1.3   Dead end pathways. They are good for creating microclimate zones – sun traps… but the garden should not consist of them alone. The best garden bed ensemble we have come up with at this point is that one that can be walked through in one stroll. You start going in a long zig-zag and as a result walk through the whole garden, from the beginning to the end. Exits should be at the other end of the pathway, so you do not have to go through the whole path to enter a different zone.

1.4   Branches and logs sticking out of the garden bed. We found out that the organic, woody filling has to be well covered by a layer of soil. If branches are sticking out, it causes faster drying out of the garden beds… water from the porous filling evaporates through the channels that are created in that way. And the garden bed starts working in the opposite direction. Solution: getting rid of the branches that are sticking out, cutting them if not possible to take them out, and placing more soil on top.

1.5   So far we still have not been able to grow normal root-crops on the incline: the soil slowly creeps down and does not allow the root-crop to form well. Even with use of good mulch and stabilizing branches on top. So we are trying to plant root-crops at the top of the garden beds and even try to build garden beds in form of a trapezoids, with more flat top.

Other observations

Watering. Do not water without mulch! The water leaking down from the garden bed will wash away everything: soil, plants, seeds… So it is necessary to water only over the mulch. Now I lay lanes of drip irrigation under the layers of mulch and try to plant the most water-loving crops next to these lanes. I also have sprinklers, although Holzer does not recommend them. The most moisture-loving plants should be planted close to the source of water. Basically, watering is most important in the very beginning, to allow seeds to grow through and to prevent young sprouts from drying. And then when the plants have more strength we water them less, when needed (if we see that plants do not have enough water).

Sowing. So far we have not been able to sow the combinations of seeds by scattering them around, as is the Holzer’s recommendation. It looks more like this: controlled sowing in separate groups, rows and nests allows for a more predictable outcome. And then it is possible to plant something else in the “gaps,” plus we try to plant different crops in empty spaces throughout the season. In this way, it is possible to receive more harvest from the fast-growing plants, and the garden beds are never empty. As they say, holy space should not be empty. These grow fast: radish, spinach, potatoes (to have harvest for the winter time it is important to plant potatoes in one place all at once, but if the purpose is to have a few potatoes ready for food, someone can experiment with placing and planting; often potato sprouts also spring up from peeled potato skins in the compost pile, and we plant them around the garden), salads (all kinds and varieties), peas, and so forth. In the middle of the summer the following crops are planted to be saved for winter times: daikon, radish, turnip…

Combinations of plants. We are trying out different combinations, but when garden beds are full of different kinds, there does not seem to be much influence. Even those crops that others call “bad neighbors” live well together.

It is important to remember that each plant has its own characteristics and it does well to know them. Because of this, it is important to choose a space with appropriate microclimate for each plant within the systems of garden beds… and to observe, try to plant in different parts of the system.

So far we have this scheme, which we mostly follow.

Peaks: all plants that love warmth and those that are not picky about watering, for example tomatoes (they need pillars), basil…

Transition from the top to the incline (side): root-crops, onion, turnips, garlic, all salads, greens…

Incline: strawberry, perennial onions, fragrant herbs, salads, potatoes, tomatoes (can be without support), beans, peas, garlic…

The very bottom of the incline: corn, sunflowers, artichoke…

White cabbage so far has grown best on the flat garden beds.

To mulch or not?  Mulch. Without mulch garden beds will quickly lose moisture due to winds. Without mulch the incline erodes. In any way, it is necessary to understand that mulching is a process. It is a good idea to open up the garden bed in the spring to allow the soil to warm. Otherwise at that time it is easy to find ice under a huge blanket of manure-hay mulch mass, which stays till mid-summer. And then we can sow into the warm soil. After sowing, seeds should be covered with mulch. Remember that it is difficult for young sprouts to break through a thick layer of mulch, but without mulch these tender sprouts need more water and they can easily die. Mulch should be checked on from time to time, to allow for timely adding more or taking away extra. Sometimes it is a good idea to move it around if it is stuck and does not allow plants to break through. It is best to mulch loosely and right after sowing, and to add organics when the sprouts strengthen. It is difficult to mulch after sprouting, because there is always the risk of damaging the young plants.

It is a good idea to study what sprouts of different plants look like: helps find useless weeds at the very beginning of their appearance, and to help the plants that are needed.

Anyway, tall garden beds are an interesting thing!