Wood Rot for Your Raised Garden Plot
What’s a hugelkultur bed, when would you use it, and how do you say it anyway?
Pronounced something like: Hoogle-culture, this centuries old method of raised garden beds, has migrated to the west and been eagerly adopted by permaculture fans and those with problem soil and terrain.
Who tends nature’s garden? Who is out in the forests and fields adding soil amendments and fertilizer? Just Mother Nature of course.
Modeled after Mother Nature’s example, Hügelkultur (also spelled huegelkultur), translates from German as “hill culture”). Using wood and wood rot along with other natural debris, these elevated garden beds are especially beneficial for those living in or near wooded areas.1)https://www.appropedia.org/Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur raised garden beds are the cheapest and most natural form of gardening.
Plant it and Leave it. Well Almost.
Practiced in German and Eastern European societies for hundreds of years, hugelkultur utilizes just three ingredients—like nature—to create an incredibly fertile environment for gardening: wood, soil and mulch.
Brought to North America by Sepp Holzer, an Austrian permaculture expert, this natural form of gardening is becoming increasingly popular because of its nature-friendly, low maintenance, commons sense approach to permaculture gardening. 2)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%BCgelkultur
We started a couple hugelkultur beds last year, and were impressed enough that we’re planning for more. It’s perfect for us because we live in the woods with ample access to hugel bed makings, and some of our garden areas are rocky with poor soil. We also lead very busy lives running multiple businesses, so this low maintenance gardening method is a perfect fit for us. We’re eager to see if we’ll have less trouble with moles in the hugelkultur because they sure tore up some of our row beds this past season. 3)https://www.gardensall.com/the-ultimate-raised-garden-bed-permaculture-with-hugelkultur/
Our hugelkultur beds are our best producers so far.
Here’s a small illustration to help get your head into the concept if it’s new to you (sharper visuals of these appear below).
Hill Culture – Modeled After Mother Nature
These nature-modeled gardening methods can be incorporated into virtually any kind of land area. However, hugelkultur is especially conducive to areas near natural woods with ready access to wood and vegetative debris which is the foundation of a hugel bed.
Benefits of Hugelkultur Beds
- Hugels are beneficial for land that may be hard to garden or farm.
- Beneficial for hilly or dry land.
- Constructive use of decomposing natural materials.
- Hugelkultur often eliminates the need for watering.
- Hugelkultur conserves water.
- Increases the surface area for growing.
- Improves the growing medium.
- Increases crop yield with each passing year.
Hügelkultur replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on forest floors.
Cover image from A Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur garden.4)https://www.inspirationgreen.com/hugelkultur.html#sthash.4GQT3VaV.dpuf5)https://www.inspirationgreen.com/hugelkultur.html
How to Make Hugelkultur Permaculture
Permaculture is about designing in accordance with nature, using plants and processes that keep on producing, growing and improving over time, rather than the garden beds that have to be re-tilled and replanted year after year.
Think of the woods and the richness of forest soil. Hugelkultur raised garden beds are designed to mimic the process of how topsoil is formed in the forest. Beginning with digging a pit and loading it with logs, branches, rocks, and layered over with soil and organic materials, the super mounded raised bed improves over time as the materials below break down and all the lovely microbes, and other lively critters join the party in creating a very lush growing environment. It considerably speeds up how forests make rich soil.
Here are a couple videos about our project. In the following gardening videos, Coleman Alderson mentions planting perennials like asparagus and dandelions (yes, planting “weeds”!) along with Jerusalem Artichokes. Further research warned us about setting out the Jerusalem Artichokes due to their tendency to take over. So we planted rhubarb, chicory, sorrel, onion sets, scallions, and the wonderful multi-purpose plant, calendula, with its medicinal benefits and defense against garden pests.
At the end, you’ll see our Mid-Summer update at the end of this series.
Hugelkultur Part 1: Building Our Bed, What to grow, and Log Layering
Hugelkultur Part 2: End Result, Layers Diagram, and Tips for Growing
Hugelkultur Part 3: Update Tips, & Overview
So how did it all turn out? It’s thriving without any effort.
Ours hugel is now about 5 years old and we’ve never had to add anything else to it. That’s worth repeating. We built it one year and have perennial plants coming up year after year without needing to do anything except a little weeding (if you want to). This permaculture method of no-till, no-water, low maintenance gardening holds many benefits.
Hugelkultur – the King of all Raised Bed Gardens
The focal point of this video is a project in Dayton, Montana where author and hugelkultur expert, Sepp Holzer, installed over a mile of hugelkultur beds in early May of 2012. The second part of the video shows the results in mid September.
Hugelkultur Farm in Montana
Michael Billington is the land manager at the Dayton, Montana farm at the time of this video. He explains how the hugel beds have not been irrigated and goes into some detail of the qualities of the food from the different aspects of the hugelkultur: the north side tends to be sweeter and the south side tends to have more bite (lettuces tend to be more bitter and mustards tend to be hotter).
Special appearances by Christy Nieto from Bellingham, Washington (see her smaller berm / raised garden bed in the background – she reduced, but did not eliminate irrigation); Melanie and Brad Knight from Sage Mountain Homestead in Corvallis, Montana (building hugelkultur with a bobcat); Sepp Holzer adding branch mulch plus throwing seed; Jessica “Jessi” Peterson showing the mulching technique.
The Hugelkultur Recipe – 3 Ingredients
In steep hugelkultur raised garden beds, mulch is pinned to the sides with branches shaped like pegs (referred to as nails in the video) to help retain the mulch.
Add Seeds and Plants
Plant your seeds, seedlings and plants, preferably perennials, because each year the hugelkultur plants produce more growth. By about three years old, the plant growth will be about five times greater.
Hugelkultur extends the growing season. Areas that have 90 frost free days can now have 150 frost free days!
Building a Hugelkultur Bed on Level Land
This 3:22 minute video shows the layering of a hugelkultur garden bed in a level lot.
Very cool, right?
Hugelkultur in Pictures
Now… more for the visual folks: These excellent illustrations perfectly depict a pictorial explanation of hugelkultur.
Toward the end of the growing season, the hugelkultur bed can look more “natural”.
Okay, so hugelkultur beds aren’t the most beautiful of garden styles, (though they can be as you’ll see further below). In fact hugel beds can look downright messy, because they mimic nature, but they work. Plants grow with the least amount of effort from gardeners, because hugelkultur follows the principles of nature!
In winter mode the hugel mimics what’s happening in the fields and forests. It’s time to harvest the last of the gardens goodies and do a little cleanup. Winterizing your hugel includes removing the desiccated and fading annual plantings and getting the perennials set for winter and next season.
In this interesting video Dan shows how he harvests his fall crops and puts his hugelkultur garden in order for the oncoming winter in zone 9b in California.
The Best Time to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
Anytime is good for starting a hugelkultur bed, but autumn is an especially good time of year. In fall you have an abundance of leaf debris and greater accessibility for gathering limbs and logs from the woods. But whenever it is that you’re reading this, start gathering materials and planning because your hugel can begin aging from the moment you start it.
Images from RichSoil.com, online home of Paul Wheaton, “The Duke of Permaculture”.6)https://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
Cover image from A Sepp Holzer Hugelkultur garden.7)https://www.inspirationgreen.com/hugelkultur.html#sthash.4GQT3VaV.dpuf8)https://www.inspirationgreen.com/hugelkultur.html
Ready to Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur Contributions from the Community
Building a Hugel Bed in Late August in Zone 7a
“I am in central NC and over the last 3 weeks I have started creating a hugelkultur bed. I have the large branches and twigs laid down and am now covering with wood chips. Really humid this week, so work by me has slowed. It has worked great because I had storm debris and I didn’t have to have it hauled away. It is creating a berm next to the street for a little more privacy as well.“
~Marylu Flowers-Schoen, NC
Less Watering but Problem With Ground Squirrels Living in the Hugelkultur
“I’m in southern Oregon and have a couple [hugelkultur beds]. My berries and grapes seem to like them the most. Best advice I have is to get the angle (of repose) right and the whole thing planted right away to make sure nothing washes away/exposure of inner layers. They have greatly reduced the watering, however I have issues with squirrels living in them. “
~Jess Matthews, farmer at Oodelally Farms, OR
Starting One This Fall
“I plan on starting one within a couple weeks [late September/early October]. I have plenty of hardwood and materials to use and can’t wait to see them in action next summer.“
~Shannon DeAnna Schofield, Shannon’s Sweet Tooth Farm, AL
Be Sure to Overstuff Your Beds
“We built a hugelkultur bed for our tea camellias. Lesson learned was to overstuff your beds because as everything decomposes, it settles. When we first planted, the top soil was almost to the top of the planter. As you can see now, it is very settled.“
~Kathie Chambers Underwood, GA
Planted Potatoes in Hugelkultur
“I did my potatoes in them this year. I am close to harvesting them.“
~Mary Jane O’Brien
Build a New Hugelkultur Every Year
“I have been growing in hugelkultur for 4 years now. I try to build a new one every year. 🙂“
A Small Hugelkultur for Growing Cranberries – but watch out for the ducks!
“I started a tiny hugelkultur this spring for my cranberries and it is doing great! I plan to build another soon... just have to throw some fencing around everything because my geese are jerks and eat anything I grow.“
~Amelia Kellner, herbalist, owner – Black Sun Farm, CT
A Beautifully Constructed Raised Bed Hugelkultur
“I started one this summer for fall planting.“
~Jax Cougle, MD zone 7b
Jax is a retired vocational teacher and entrepreneur and gardener of many years, and boy did Jax build a BEAUTIFUL hugelkultur bed!! We’re delighted to share his great step-by-step hugelkultur construction photos here.
Raised Bed Hugelkultur Layer 1 – Soil With Microbes Mixed With Sand
“I dug out to be below the bottom of the raised bed and added it back for the natural microorganisms in the existing soil. I mixed sand on the one end where carrots and root plants are planted.”
Here is my latest addition- a netting over the hoops so birds and squirrels stay out, When it gets really cool then just put plastic over it and leave net on then in Spring remove plastic and net will be there. Of course hoops are on hinges so I can harvest throughout the winter.
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