Depending on your technique, gardening can be labor intensive. Tilling, watering, and fertilizing can turn an enjoyable hobby into back-breaking and cumbersome work. There is one method of gardening, however, that eliminates the chores we dread. It’s called hugelkultur.
What is Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur, pronounced hoo-gul-culture, is a German word for “hill culture.” It is a method of gardening that has been used in Germany and Eastern Europe for centuries. Essentially, it is a pile of decomposing wood covered in soil that creates a mound you can plant in. It is a common permaculture practice that mimics the nutrient cycling that happens in nature.
Hugelkultur, pronounced hoo-gul-culture, is a German word for “hill culture.” It is a method of gardening that has been used in Germany and Eastern Europe for centuries.
In nature, when a tree falls, it becomes a “nurse log” that other plants will attach their root systems to. As the nurse log decomposes, it releases nutrients. It becomes spongy and holds water for the plants to drink whenever they get thirsty. The plants growing on the log have a constant supply of water and nutrients.
Hugelkultur beds use this concept to create a prime environment for growing. Most of the work for the gardener will take place initially to set up the bed, and then it is low- to no-maintenance for the rest of the season.
Most of the work for the gardener will take place initially to set up the bed, and then it is low- to no-maintenance for the rest of the season.
This type of bed is ideal for areas suffering from drought conditions. The buried logs are the bed’s irrigation system by acting as reservoirs that hold water. Rainwater is stored and then released as needed. Unless there is a long-term drought, you may never need to water. Large beds made with large logs will hold the most moisture and will need to be watered less, if at all. Smaller beds made with only sticks and debris will probably still need to be watered regularly. It is also a good idea to cover your bed with mulch, which will conserve even more water.
Because the wood in the pile is decomposing, the bed is warm and extends your growing season. You can successfully plant earlier and later in the year.
You can plant immediately after building your hugel bed. You will get a good crop the first time around, but expect your harvest to multiply by five times within three years. This is the kind of garden that improves with age.
If you have physical issues that make it uncomfortable to bend over, the height of the hugel beds allow you to stand while you harvest your veggies. The height and shape of the bed also increases the square footage of available planting space compared to a flat garden bed.
You won’t have to till the soil in your hugelkultur bed. Not only does the shape of the hill prevent soil compaction, but the decomposing logs and rich soil life break up the soil for you and improve aeration. Because there is decomposition happening in the bed, there will be beneficial fungi. These fungi weave their hyphae throughout the soil and create air pockets. The result is rich, black, loose dirt.
You can also take advantage of this technique when planting trees. Dig the hole deeper than you normally would so that you can put logs in the bottom of the hole beneath the tree and fill in the crevices with dirt. As the logs decompose, the tree will have constant access to nutrients and water.
How to Make Your Own Hugelkultur Bed
To create your own hugelkultur bed, you must first choose your location. A 6 foot by 3 foot area is ideal, however you can make your bed smaller or larger. Smaller beds may need you to add more material to them over the years. Keep in mind that gardeners using this method claim that the fruits and vegetables taste sweeter on the north side of the bed, and “have a bite” when planted on the south side. Plan accordingly with your crops.
If there is grass, dig up the sod. Next, dig down one foot into the earth to create a shallow trench.
You’ll need wood that is already decomposing. Gather logs, branches, twigs and leaves from around your yard. Freshly cut wood will leach nitrogen instead of releasing it. Look for fallen trees and branches that have been lying around for 1-3 years. Keep your eyes open for mushroom growth, which is a sign of decomposition.
You’ll want to use hardwoods because they take longer to decompose and can feed your hugel bed for 20-30 years. For best results, choose alder, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, Douglas fir, hemlock, maple, oak, poplar and willow (but make sure it’s dead).
Avoid cedar, locust and walnut trees because they are slow decomposers and inhibit the growth of other plants.
Place the largest chunks of wood on the bottom of the pile. Push vegetative material in the crevices and corners between the wood. Top with organic materials such as manure, compost, straw or hay. This adds nitrogen to the pile and helps to maintain a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio during composting. Take care not to use invasive plants as the vegetative filler or else they may take over your new bed. Continue adding layers, alternating wood with organic materials. The larger pieces of wood should be on the bottom and the smaller pieces on top until the bed reaches your desired height.
Take the sod you removed and place it on top of the pile, grass side down. Cover the sod with the dirt you set aside when you dug the trench, compost and topsoil until there is a 2-6” layer of soil covering the bed. Finish with a layer of mulch such as leaves, woodchips or straw. You could also plant clover immediately to serve as living mulch. That’s all it takes. Plant your garden immediately so that wild plants don’t take over this prime real estate.
If you love growing your own food and but don’t have a lot of time to work in the garden, hugelkultur beds are the solution. After the initial set up, nature will take over and all you will have to do is harvest your yield.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Maximum Yield Magazine.