Dear Readers,

This post is about hugelkultur and how you can incorporate it into your garden.

Hugelkultur is an Eastern European growing method that is popular in permaculture circles and techniques.  It creates a raised bed and improves its fertility or nutrient content and soil structure over time by mimicking the natural decomposition of woodlands.

It is often seen as a raised mound or hill-like structure in gardens across the globe.

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In basic terms, hugelkultur is burying wood and other carbon rich material that takes a long time to compost and planting on top.

To find out more about composting visit this page.

The wood absorbs a lot of water like a giant sponge which creates a bed that becomes very low water or irrigation. The technique can be used anywhere around the world in most climates.

Benefits of Hugelkultur

There are many benefits to this growing method:

  • Requires less water over time
  • Fertility increases over time
  • Soil structure improves over time
  • Can be raised or flush with the ground
  • Soil is more aerated
  • Ideal for compacted soils, poor drainage areas and limited moisture or rainfall
  • Mounded beds create a larger area to grow into
  • Reduced weeds
  • Tall beds are easier to harvest from with little bending

The bed improves with the ongoing decay of the wood contained within the mound.

In our suburban setting, we found it a bit impractical to dig out a trench (the ground here is terrible) to create the bed in the traditional methods so, we opted for creating a bed within a raised bed.

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How To Build A Hugelkultur Bed In A Boxed Raised Bed

We started with a couple of leftover old planks which are definitely more rustic than new and built a simple bed frame which was two planks high.  You could dismantle wooden pallets to make the raised bed for a cheap or even free source of wood.

BuildnA Raised Hugelkultur Bed

Once the box frame was put together and placed on the grass, we began filling it with branch cut offs first and hardwood logs followed by gradually smaller brush, shrub prunings, twigs from windstorms, woodchip, leaves, sawdust, wood shavings, cardboard, shredded paper and straw.

Build A Raised Hugelkultur BedBuilding A Raised Hugelkultur Bed

Once these dry, carbon rich materials are in the bed, layer with grass clippings, turf or sod placed upside down  in layers.  We used grass clippings because we did not have any turf pieces available. When the grass and/or turf is in the bed, cover with compost, we placed nearly a foot deep of compost so we had enough room for larger potted plants to get established.

Building A Raised Hugelkultur Bed

As the bed has grown over the season I found that more small pieces, grass clippings and the like are needed with plenty of compost.  

The raised bed suffered subsidence/collapse as the smaller pieces settled into the cavities of the structure and I needed some larger logs at the bottom rather than just relying on a few smaller branches.  As a result of the collapse, some plants were lost.  

I also found that during these first few months that the bed dries out rapidly and plants were lost due to lack of water.  The position of this bed is in between the biodynamic beds and in the shade of the neighbor’s maple tree and does not get watered by the sprinklers.  I try to water the hugelkultur raised bed by hand more often and I started mulching with grass clippings to help retain the water in the bed.

How To Create A Typical Hugelkultur Bed

To build a bed out of a raised bed box, you have two options:

  1. To start the bed buried in the ground
  2. To build the bed on top of the ground

If you are concerned about local ordinances or HOA regulations, a buried bed would probably be better to keep it low and to avoid ruffling the feathers of your neighbors.

1. Buried Hugelkultur Bed
  • First dig a trench a couple of feet deep and place the soil to one side.  
  • Fill the trench with the logs and build up the bed with branches, twigs, leaves, cardboard, straw etc.
  • Lay the grass clippings, manure and other nitrogen rich sources on top of this carbon rich layer.
  • Place any sod or turf pieces upside down on top.  By placing upside down it will stop the grass from growing up through the compost and will help it decompose.
  • Put the soil which you dug out from the bed down as the next layer and finish with compost.
  • Mulch the bed to retain moisture.

Remember the bed will shrink as it settles down and things start decomposing.

Hugelkultur beds offer greater planting area, no till, low water and highly productive growing systems that get better over time and can be incorporated into your garden

2. Hugelkultur on top of the ground
  • First, lay cardboard or thick layers of newspaper down on the ground especially if there are lots of weeds or grass.
  • Place the logs on top of the cardboard and build up the bed with branches, twigs, leaves, cardboard, straw etc.
  • Build the bed as high as you want or can depending on where you live and the restrictions in the area.  Some people recommend 6 feet high, others say 3 feet will suffice.
  • Lay the grass clippings, manure and other nitrogen rich sources on top of the wood and smaller pieces.
  • Place any sod or turf pieces upside down on top if you have them.  It’s ok if you don’t have any turf to put on.
  • Finish the bed with lots of compost.
  • Mulch to retain moisture.

You can edge the bed to make it look more appealing if you have sensitive neighbors with brick, wood or even old beer bottles!

These beds benefit from repeat mulching throughout the season, check out my previous post about mulching types and benefits to find out more.

Fill in any holes that appear throughout the season and add a generous mulching of leaves before winter if you don’t intend on using the bed in the cold months.  You can also set up a  Poly Tunnel Cloche over low hugelkultur beds to use in cold weather to extend the season.

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Which Wood?

There are some materials which will perform better than others in this type of garden.  Some trees naturally produce chemicals to prevent other plants growing (allelopathic) ; walnuts are a great example of this and would not be recommended.  Other trees last because the resins inside have antimicrobial properties such as the pines and cedars or are just too dense, for example black locust wood is renowned for not rotting.  Other trees high in tannins like oak may take a lot longer to break down and will impede growth of the bed and is best used if partially rotten. 

Willow makes a good wood for hugelkultur but must be thoroughly dried or it will start to grow!  In fact, you can make living fences by sticking lengths of willow twigs into moist ground.  Living fences are very popular in the United Kingdom and feature in stately homes and gardens throughout the British Isles.  

Take a look at the environmental artists in the UK below who use willow to make living structures:

Julie Starks

David Gosling

See also The Nifty Homestead for some inspiration on Living Willow Hedges.

Woods which work well in hugelkultur beds include maple, beech, sycamore, alder, apple, pear, birch and cottonwood.  You can use rotten, punky or fresh wood in the bed.

Fresher wood will take more nitrogen out of the surrounding area and is best to add in organic matter which is high in nitrogen to help move the decomposition along without upsetting the plants growing above.

Some Watch-Outs

These beds have been known to attract slugs, snails, earwigs and woodlice (pillbugs) which can damage your seedlings.  Plant out plants which have grown and become more established in 4 inch pots to make sure you have the best chances against the bugs and use organic pest control such as beer traps if the slugs become a problem.

There are some reports of mice and other rodents setting up home in hugelkultur beds and even snakes.  Be vigilant and careful when tending and planting crops to avoid bites.

Your bed will reduce in size and you may lose some plants as this happens.

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If you want to learn more about hugelkultur there are some great reading resources available below.

From the web:

Northwest Edible Life

Permaculture Magazine

Yellow Birch Hobby Farms

Books:

 

If you have any hugelkultur tips please share them in the comments or at the Misfit Gardening Community Forum, we would love you hear your ideas and suggestions.

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