Practiced for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, hugelkultur is the process of making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. The result is a low-maintenance garden that doesn’t require irrigation or fertilization. Hugelkulture beds have naturally good drainage and produce incredibly rich, fertile soil that retains moisture. It’s also a great way to upcycle woody debris. Hugelkultur is often utilized in permaculture systems and even works in the desert!
A hugelkultur bed is a bit more work to set up than a standard garden but takes less work over the years to maintain due to its unique advantages. According to permaculturist Paul Weaton’s website, the wood rotting under your garden will act like compost, creating extremely rich soil. For the first few years, the composting process will warm the soil a bit, giving you a slightly longer growing season. As the wood shrinks during decomposition, it creates air pockets, making the garden somewhat self-tilling. The rotting wood also acts as a sponge, retaining water and eventually eliminating the need for irrigation. This ability to absorb and retain water even makes the process successful in desert environments. Hugelkultur beds are also said to improve the flavor of the fruits and vegetables grown on them.
To plant a hugelkultur raised garden bed, follow these steps from The Permaculture Research Institute:
1. Select an area that measures approximately 6 feet by 3 feet.
2. Gather materials for the project:
* Fallen logs, branches, twigs, fallen leaves (the “under-utilized” biomass from the site). Avoid using cedar, walnut or other tree species deemed allelopathic (toxic to other plants).
* Nitrogen-rich material (manure or kitchen waste work well and will help to maintain a proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in the decomposing mass within the hugelkulter bed).
* Top soil (enough to cover the other layers of the bed with a depth of 1–2 inches) and some mulching material (straw works well).
3. Lay the logs (the largest of the biomass debris) down as the first layer of the hugelkulter bed. Next, add a layer of branches, then a layer of small sticks and twigs. Hugelkultur beds work best when they are roughly 3 feet high (though this method is forgiving, and there is no fixed rule as to the size of the bed. That is where the “art” comes in!)
4. Water these layers well.
5. Begin filling in spaces between the logs, twigs and branches with leaf litter and manure of kitchen scraps.
6. Finally, top off the bed with 1–2 inches of top soil and a layer of mulch.
7. The hugelkultur bed will benefit from “curing” a bit, so it is best to prepare the bed several months prior to planting time (prepare the bed in the fall for a spring planting, for example, in temperate northern climates), but hugelkultur beds can be planted immediately. Plant seeds or transplants into the hugelkulter bed as you would any other garden bed.
Admittedly, not every neighborhood is going to love the look of huge garden mounds in your yard, but there are ways to make hugelkultur more palatable in the suburbs, such as digging a trench and/or ringing each mound with decorative stones. These considerations can make a hugelkultur bed look similar to a standard raised garden bed.
Sustainable America has set a goal to increase U.S. food availability by 50% by 2035. One way we believe we can accomplish this goal is by increasing local food production through alternative farming methods like hugelkultur.