Looking for a landscaping strategy that reduces your water needs, provides long-term soil fertility, and is a self-sustaining system once you set it up? If so, it’s time to learn more about hügelkultur, a traditional German gardening solution that relies on woodpiles to grow healthier plants.
Whether you already have a green thumb or can barely keep a potted plant alive, hügelkultur has a lot to offer your back garden, if you’re willing to take the time to prepare it. Fortunately, the process is easier than you think.
What is Hugel Beds Gardening or Hügelkultur?
Hugel Beds Gardening is nothing more than making the raised bed garden filled with rotten wood. This makes the raised bed garden full of organic matter, nutrients, spongy soil for roots to proliferate, etc. As the years go by, the depth of the soil in your raised bed garden becomes incredibly rich and full of life underground. As the wood contracts, air pockets are created – so it becomes a self-cultivation process. The first few years, composting begins the process of slight heating of the soil that lengthens the growing season. Woody matter helps excess nutrients pass into the groundwater and feed your plants later. It also retains moisture better and requires less water.
Generally speaking, hügelkultur is a centuries-old gardening technique where it is literally translated to “mound culture” in German. The logs are used as a base material for the construction of seed beds. Austrian permaculture expert Sepp Holzer first popularized the process as a way to build self-fertilizing garden systems that increase your available growing space and minimize your fertilizer and irrigation needs.
This method is used predominantly in permaculture systems, as it mimics the natural process of cycling of nutrients within a forest. Just as the soil of a forest increases its fertility over time through layers of decaying logs and detritus, hügelkultur beds are designed to be self-sustaining and regenerative for years, even decades after installation.
How Hugelkultur works
They may sound complicated, but hügelkultur beds are little more than huge compost piles built from decaying wood scraps and other biomass. As fungi and bacteria break down this material over time, the logs and branches transform into a sponge-like growing medium that is filled with pockets of air that support constant humidity levels and encourage robust growth of the roots.
While hügelkultur is ideal in locations with poor soil quality, soil compaction, or limited water resources, the beds can be used in any growing condition. While the mounds themselves may vary slightly depending on what is available, the general idea is that garden beds are built with large pieces of wood at the base, including logs, branches, and shrubs. Compost and topsoil are then assembled, creating a productive growing space for annuals and perennials.
To make the mounds you can use branches, leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, toxic-free newspaper, manure, compost or any other type of biomass that we have. It is then covered with soil and we plant our vegetables. The advantages of a Hugelkultur are many: the gradual decomposition of the wood is a constant source of long-term nutrients for the plants. A large bed can provide a constant supply of nutrients for 20 years (or even longer if only hardwoods are used). Compost wood also generates heat that increases the growing season. It increases the aeration of the soil since the branches and trunks are breaking, which means that it is a process that works little by little. The trunks and branches act like a sponge. Rainwater is stored and then released in dry weather. In reality, you may never need to water your Hugelkultur after the first year (except during long droughts). Carbon sequestration in the soil.
In a grass field Sepp Holzer recommends cutting and storing it, digging 1 meter deep and filling the trench with logs and branches. Then cover it with the grass clippings turned inside out. On top of the lawn add more grass clippings, algae, compost, old manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc.
There are some considerations to take into account regarding the woods to use according to Paul Wheaton. He does not recommend using cedar. Cedar takes a long time to decompose, black carob, black cherry, and black walnut are also not recommended. Walnut does not rot as it is very dense, it is also very toxic to most plants. Instead they are excellent woods: alder, apple, poplar, willow (dry) and birch. Very rotten wood is better than slightly aged wood.
Another thing to keep in mind is that wood is high in carbon and will consume nitrogen to compost. This could lock in the nitrogen and wash it out of your raised bed. But well rotted wood does not do so much. If the wood is old enough, it may have built up a lot of nitrogen. Pine and fir have very high tannin levels, but when the wood has died years ago many of the tannins will have dissolved.
It seems that the best thing to do is to build the hugelkultur in places where the soil is shallow. So we can look for land in another part of the property. It is usually the fastest way if you have construction material (tractor, wheelbarrows, etc.)
If the soil is deep and it is possible to move the soil by hand, you can remove the grass and dig 30 to 60 cm. Next, the wood builds up. Then put the grass on top of the wood, upside down. Stack the top layer of soil on top of this. Even better is figuring out where the roads are going to be, and digging there too. Add two layers of grass on the logs and then the top double layer of soil.
Many people may be uncomfortable with the idea of raised bed gardens. They have seen flat gardens all their lives and are sure this is the right way to do it. Other people agree with raised beds 10 to 15 cm and consider that something higher is ugly. But there are more than enough arguments to convince them.
If you build your hugelkultur raised bed garden high enough, you won’t have to water (after the second year). There are no hoses. There is no drip system. So you can go on vacation in the summer without hiring someone to water your garden! Also, the taste of everything that grows will be much better!
To get through the summer without a drop of rain, what you need to build your Hugelkultur raised bed garden is a height of 1.8 m. Although they shrink, especially in the first month. That is why it is suggested that you actually build six feet high. Hugelkultur raised garden beds can be built only two meters high and will keep moisture for about three weeks.
Hugelkultur raised bed gardens can be built only 60 cm although they will only hold moisture for approximately three weeks. It is not the best, but it will be more to the taste of many people.
Typically 1.5 m wide hugelkulture raised bed gardens are built. This means that for some beds they have large slopes. To settle this slope, press the soil tightly and plant a mixture of plants with strong roots to maintain the structure and do it before it rains and the water does not wash away the cover. If you are going to build beds less than 1 m high, I suggest that the beds be made no more than one meter wide.
Why should you go through the hassle of setting up hügelkultur beds? In short, the services your garden offers are hard to ignore. Some of the benefits of hügelkultur beds include:
- Retain moisture (even without irrigation) for weeks or months at a time
- Sloping slopes maximize planting space
- Creates natural air pockets for plant roots
- Constant supply of organic material for plants
- soil changes as logs decompose
- Heats the soil through the natural composting process
- Prevents excess nutrients from seeping into groundwater
- Can produce fertile growing conditions without additional fertilizers for over twenty years
- Sequesters carbon in the soil to reduce greenhouse gases
- Ideal for desert conditions
- Puts plant material to use that is otherwise wasted
- Easy to expand over time
- Usually little weeding is necessary
- Mounted beds facilitate harvesting
- How to get started with Hügelkultur
Step-by-step instructions to get started hügelkultur.
Still convinced of the benefits of hügelkultur? Building a bed is easier than you think. Just follow these step-by-step instructions to get started.
1. Select your bed site
When it comes to hügelkultur, one size doesn’t fit all. Some people prefer to make huge hügelkultur beds that maximize planting space, although it is best to start small (6 feet by 3 feet is popular) for your first bed to ensure you have enough plant material to make it work.
Where you place your bed is just as important as its overall size. Some hugel beds are built east to west to take full advantage of microclimates throughout the day, although a north-south orientation tends to allow more light exposure for vegetable production.
When selecting a site, pay attention to the flow of water in the garden to see where the water collects and drains. The fluffy nature of a hugel bed can make them perfect for absorbing access water in naturally humid regions, but too much water will compromise the overall structure of the bed.
Another factor is if you want to “bury” your bed. Some gardeners prefer to dig a trench to give their logs a better start to decay and reduce overall bed height. However, this adds more effort to the construction process with relatively little benefit.
Ultimately, hugel beds will affect the airflow in your garden, so be aware of the direction the prevailing winds are coming from and whether any part of your garden will benefit from a wind block. Likewise, any crop planted on top will need to survive significant wind exposure, so it will need to orient itself accordingly.
2. Gather the necessary supplies
Quality hugel beds require a stable foundation, so plan to collect as much woody material as possible before you begin. The “foundation” layer of the bed can be built from uncut logs, thick limbs, untreated scrap wood, and even whole trees.
Hardwoods are better suited because they break down slowly and help the litter last longer and retain higher levels of nutrients. Softwoods can work too, but they break down faster and will give you fewer seasons to plant. To maximize the benefits of your garden, start with a wooden base and layers of softwoods on top so that the bed includes a source of quick fertility that will not run out.
A large hugel bed can carry a considerable amount of wood. If you know you want to add hugelkultur to your yard, start storing logs, cutting branches, tree trimmings, and other yard woods even if you’re still not sure where they’ll end up. Some woods contain natural chemicals that make them extremely slow to break down and tend to suppress plant growth.
No treated wood should be used, including pressure-treated wood, rail ties, pallets, or painted / stained wood. Clean, untreated construction or demolition scrap wood is fine. Just make sure the wood you use isn’t stained or painted, and be sure to remove any metal hardware.
Wood chips can also be used, but will result in a more homogeneous hugel. This will burn the nitrogen faster and will not offer the same fertility longevity as a classic hugel filled with larger logs and woods. If you lack wooden fountains, don’t rush to the local big box store and buy plenty of dimensioned lumber to bury in your yard. Hugulkultur is too good of a recycling technique for that!
The best types of hügelkultur wood : apple, poplar, maple, oak, poplar, birch, poplar.
Medium hügelkultur wood: cedar, juniper, black cherry (rotten), eucalyptus, pine, red mulberry. The worst wood of
hügelkultur: the black lobster, the old redwood, the black walnut, Cedar, Black carob,Black cherrynote
Beyond wood, it is also essential to acquire different sources of nitrogen-rich material to layer on the litter (manure or kitchen scraps work well), a straw mulch, and enough topsoil to cover it to a depth of 1 to 2 inches. Wood chips can be used in the middle layers, although they break down quickly and offer no long-term fertility.
3. Place the lower registers
You are ready to start building your bed once the log type and location has been determined. First lay the larger logs down as a first layer on the bed. The logs should be tucked tightly together to ensure the base holds its shape while layering on top.
4. Add additional layers
Next, add layers of thick branches to the logs, adding material according to size so that the largest branches are at the bottom. You can then start filling in the gaps with smaller branches to make it stable. Between layers of wood, incorporate several inches of “green” material such as compost, kitchen scraps, manure, or grass clippings. This balances the nitrogen levels in the litter to better optimize it for vegetable production.
The wood-to-soil ratio depends on how fresh your wood is. Freshly cut wood requires more dressing, while logs that are already decaying need less.
5. Layers of water in the well
Water the layers as you build your bed to begin the decay process. To keep things simple, it is also possible to let the logs settle through several rain storms before building the last layers of finer material.
6. Create steep sides
While hugel layers can be seen in many ways, the steeper sides (about 45 degrees) provide additional benefits such as microclimates, warmer soil, better oxygenation, and less compaction over time. However, you can shape your bed in any way you like, from soft arches to flat rectangles. In general, beds that are several feet high tend to work better in the long run.
7. Termine con Off Top Soil
Once your hugel bed bones are in place, cover with 1-2 inches of topsoil and a thick layer of mulch. The bed is complete!
8. Prepare to plant
Although it is possible to plant in hugel beds right away, most will benefit from “curing” for several months before adding seedlings. Consider building a bed in the fall and leaving it for the entire winter before planting it for the first time in the spring. When the time comes, you can plant seeds or transplants in the bed as you would any other garden bed, keeping in mind that the plants on top have the most significant exposure to the elements.
9. Maintain the bed over time
The beauty of hügelkultur is that well-prepared beds require little maintenance work beyond basic cosmetics. As the logs inside the bed begin to break down, the structure could begin to collapse or sink. Refrain from tilling or turning the litter, but rather cover it with additional compost to retain its size and ensure that microorganism habitats remain robust.
Some people start out with small beds and build them slowly each year. You can aim for two and a half feet the first year and add about a foot each subsequent year to keep the size growing slowly as it compensates for its natural sag.
Is Hügelkultur Right For You?
While hügelkultur is a stellar agricultural solution around the world, it is not suitable for all situations. You may want to reconsider spending your time setting up a hugel bed if any of the following circumstances sound like you.
- You are part of a homeowners association with strict landscaping rules that prevent you from building burial mounds. Note: a submerged hugel bed can be a smart solution.
- You don’t have access to the large amounts of wood needed to build a bed.
- You don’t want a permanent bed in your garden or you prefer to start the garden fresh each spring.
- You can’t commit to the manual labor required to build it. While hugel beds are less effective in the long run, they require a great deal of effort to establish.
- You have an exceptionally humid climate. Too much rain can make hugelite beds perpetually wet and attract slugs, mold, and fungal diseases to your plants.
- You are not comfortable with wildlife. Little critters like squirrels and snakes often like to make hugel beds their home. While this is beneficial to your garden pest populations, some people find it a deterrent.
Regardless of whether you decide to establish a hügelkultur system in your garden, taking the time to grow your plants more sustainably is a benefit for both your health and the environment. For more tips on how to make your garden look amazing, check out these articles on how to set up a square foot garden system and how to save money on your garden this year.