chicken on hugelkultur mound

Photo: hardworkinghippy/Flickr

Hugelkultur is a funny-sounding German word — which roughly translates to "mound culture" — for a gardening and farming technique with some serious devotees. It's all the rage with permaculture enthusiasts who have been busy "planting" the technique in the minds of gardeners through online forums.

Hugelkultur has been around for centuries and in use in Eastern Europe and Germany. While hard to spell, hugelkultur is simple to understand and implement.

Hugelkultur raised garden beds are easy to build, especially if you have access to heavy machinery or a lot of strong backs and a lot of woody biomass. Basically, hugelkultur beds are created by mounding soil, compost and manure over large amounts of tree trunks, branches and other woody debris, and planting your garden on top of that mass.

If a hugelkultur bed is planted inside a trench, it can have a low, inconspicuous profile. Hugelkultur beds created on top of soil can range from a few feet tall to beds that tower over an adult.

How to build hugelkultur raised beds

Among the woods that permaculture maven Paul Wheaton recommends for hugelkultur are alders, apple, cottonwood, poplar, birch and willow (that has been dried). You should avoid woods from allelopathic trees like cedar and walnut and other species that release chemicals into the soil to inhibit the growth of competitors..

Lay the largest of the logs and branches down as your foundation. On top of this foundation, add the smaller logs and branches. Fill in the crevices with the smallest of the branches and sticks, watering as you pile on the layers. Wheaton writes on his site that he builds his beds about five feet wide. Other sources say six feet by three feet is ideal.

Decomposing wood initially "robs" the surrounding soil of nitrogen. So on top of this pile of wood you will need to add nitrogen-rich material and make sure to get it into all of the gaps between the woody biomass.

What you're essentially building is a compost pile on top of a pile of wood to make up for the nitrogen the rotting wood will rob from the plants. A layer of top soil is added and finished off with a layer of mulch to keep the soil in place. Again, you'll want to water in your bed to allow things to settle.

How hugelkultur beds work

The wood base of the bed acts like a sponge for moisture deep within, which according to fans of this method of planting means you will need little to no irrigation once the bed has been established. After the first year, watering and fertilizing is reported to be unnecessary. Your growing season will be extended as the decomposing matter at the base will warm the soil a few degrees higher than the surrounding soil. This means you may be able to get away with planting earlier and growing plants longer into the fall and winter.

Where to build hugelkultur raised beds

The compost pile-like nature of hugelkultur raised beds makes them ideal for locations where you digging isn't allowed or ideal. This can mean yards where the location of utility pipes and wires are unknown, parkways, and empty, urban lots. Taller versions of these raised beds would be a good option for sites that are used by older gardeners and gardeners with mobility issues.

Hugelkultur raised beds look as fun to plant in as they are to pronounce. Unlike with traditional raised beds, you're not buying wood to build the frame, and you're creating healthy soil environments by utilizing wood that would otherwise just rot. The moisture-retention properties of the wood layer means you'll waste less water in maintaining your garden. After the wood decomposes, it will release nitrogen and your raised bed will not require the application of fertilizer.

Have you built a hugelkultur raised bed before?

Ramon is the original urban garden blogging male espousing a DIY philosophy to gardening and garden projects. Better known online as MrBrownThumb, he’s been demystifying gardening secrets for average gardeners online since 2005. Besides writing the popular MrBrownThumb garden blog he’s co-founder of @SeedChat on Twitter, the creative director of One Seed Chicago, and founder of the Chicago Seed Library.

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