Sounds crazy right? It’s actually pretty simple idea with some serious results. Hugelkultur is a gardening and farming technique that attempts to mimic and to some degree speed up natural processes that create ideal growing conditions. Hugelkultur is essentially a mounded garden bed created on top of rotting woody debris, compost, manure, and other organic matter. It may come in many different shapes, sizes, and use all kinds of different organic materials. The process acts similar to leaves and woody debris in a forest falling over time. It builds up a thick organic layer that helps retain moisture in the soil while also increasing soil fertility.
Hugelkultur, pronounced hoo-gul-culture, is a gardening method with a long history in Europe. It tends to be adapted based on available resources as well as the needs of the land and soil. When built and managed correctly, a hugelkultur bed needs no fertilizers and little to no irrigation. It can provide a constant supply of nutrients for decades. They have been used very successfully in many types of climates and environments.
In a basic sense, a hugelkultur bed is created by layering soil over the top of woody debris. Over time, the debris decomposes adding organic material and nutrients back into the soil
In a sense, a hugelkultur bed is kind of like gardening on top of a compost pile. During the first few years, the beds will even heat up slightly which has the potential to extend the growing season a few weeks. The woody debris acts much like a sponge by storing water and releasing it slowly back into the soil. After the first year, you don’t need to water or irrigate. The beds quickly become loaded with organic material, nutrients, beneficial organisms, and air pockets. All of this immensely benefits plant life.
So how exactly do you build a hugelkultur bed?
Hugelkultur beds are versatile and can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. Some gardeners create something as simple as a small stack of wood covered with compost and soil. This can work great but it can have limitations. This is how I construct my typical hugelkultur beds:
1. Select your site. Pick an area much like you would select a location for your vegetable garden. It should be based on the plants that you intend to grow there.
2. Gather Materials. You need a large amount of woody debris. As the wood decomposes, it can lock up the available nitrogen in the soil. It is a good idea to add nitrogen rich material to balance this.
• logs, branches, twigs, and leaves
• Grass clippings, manure, and kitchen waste (nitrogen rich materials)
• Wood chips, straw, cardboard, newspaper, compost
3. Prepare the area. Mow grass as low as possible. Remove the grass/sod layer (about 3-4 inches deep) and pile to one side. Dig a 12” deep trench (or lower if you want a flatter hugelkultur). Create a separate pile for this soil.
4. Pile up woody debris. Place the largest logs in the bottom first. Work from largest to smallest filling in as many gaps between logs with smaller debris. You can begin to add some compost and leaves to fill in a bit more. Be careful about what types of wood you use. We provide a short list of what to use and what not to use at the bottom of this post.
5. Add borders (optional). Stones, logs, boards can be used to border the hugelkultur bed much like a traditional raised garden bed. I don’t bother with borders. I prefer the hugelkultur bed flow into (and hopefully share some of its benefits with) surrounding garden beds.
6. Cover the logs with a layer of nitrogen rich material. Add 2-3” of grass clippings, manure, and kitchen scraps. Be sure to continue to fill any gaps between woody debris. This will limit the amount of settling that occurs later.
7. Add grass/sod layer. When you begin to add this layer back into the bed, be sure to lay the sod upside down (grass pointing downward). This is very important if you want to avoid a summer of weeds.
8. Add stockpiled soil. Cover the woody debris and organic materials with the soil that was removed from the ditch.
9. Mulch it. Top the bed with a 2-3” layer of mulch material. This can be a combination of straw, wood chips, or compost. This helps retain water during the first year while the hugelkultur bed is “curing.”
10. Water it. This helps the bed begin to settle. If you develop any holes within the bed, fill in with additional soil or compost.
11. Plant it. If you create a raised hugelkultur bed, it is important to plant soon after to prevent erosion and ultimately soil loss. There is no reason to lose the incredible soil you are creating, so plant it up!
Wood to use in hugelkultur:
- Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, poplar, birch, maples, oak
- Black cherry, camphor, cedar, eucalyptus, pine, fir, spruce – (use well aged and bury deep)
Avoid these types of wood:
- Walnut (allelopathic), black locust (doesn’t rot), redwood (doesn’t rot)
We built a number of hugelkultur beds in Knoxville. The beds are still very young but are already showing great signs of success. We never fertilized and rarely had to water. Our first bed even heated up enough to carry collards and kale all the way through the winter. We were harvesting again in February!
The pictures shown in this post were planted up as an orchard that will soon become a full fledged food forest. It is part of a wonderful urban homestead project that we can’t wait to share. Stay tuned for updates coming soon.
What are your experiences with hugelkultur?