What if I told you that with a little upfront effort, you’d never have to do backbreaking work in your garden again? There would be no more digging, weeding, composting or even watering. Would you believe me? Allow me to introduce you to an organic gardening method called Hugelkultur. While this style of gardening requires upfront effort, once your Hugelkultur bed has been established, you can leave it for years with minimal effort and experience a bounty of fruits and vegetables.
Hugelkultur (pronounced HOO-gul-culture) is actually a very old method of gardening. Think of it as a cross between composting and raised bed gardening (Check out this site to get a good mental picture of what they look like.). It’s been practiced by German and Eastern European societies for centuries before becoming popularized elsewhere. Hugelkultur is unique because it mimics the natural decomposition process of the forest floor. In a forest, when an old tree dies and falls to the ground, it begins the slow process of decomposition. These trees are called nurse logs. As they become more porous, they suck up water from precipitation, which is then slowly released to nourish their surroundings. As time goes by, plants begin to grow on and in the log and receive the bonus nutrients directly from the source.
Site Selection and Style of Bed
The only real consideration to make when selecting a site for a Hugelkultur bed is the amount of space they will take up. A good bed is at least six feet (1.8 meters) by three feet (.9 meters), though you can make them longer if you’d like.
There are three styles of bed to consider. The first (like this one), is a classical pyramid shaped mound. The second (like this one), is a supported mound. In this case, the gardener creates a wooden structure around the mound to help with erosion, neatness, and ease of planting and harvesting. The third (like this), has been combined with a raised bed. Here, the gardener encloses the mound, which makes it a bit more attractive and works well for people who want to keep adding compost to their pile. All three of these mound styles will work great, so the only major difference is how they look.
To build your Hugelkultur bed, you’re going to need lots of logs, branches and twigs, as well as compost material, topsoil, and mulching material. These last two ingredients are for the top of the mount to help with soil fertility and weed suppression. When choosing wood, try and mix hardwood (which will take longer to decay, but increase the nutrients in your soil over time) and softwoods (which will decay quickly and give the soils a quick burst of fertilizer). The best woods to use are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, and willow. Avoid black locust, cedar, and black walnut.
To begin construction, dig a one to two foot (.3 to .6 meters) trench where you want your Hugelkultur bed to be. This step is optional, but filling the trench with wood will increase the life of your bed. Place the largest pieces of wood at the bottom of the pile, followed by the medium pieces, and finally the smallest pieces on the top. Fill in all the gaps with composite material, and be sure to wet the pile down with water as you go. Finally, top the new bed off with topsoil and a layer of mulch. You can plant immediately, but allowing the pile to settle for a month or two will provide more nutrients to your seedlings. For the first year of planting, choose plants like that don’t need much nitrogen or cultivate nitrogen fixers like beans and peas, because a higher percentage of nitrogen is tied up young Hugelkultur beds for decomposition. Occasionally, you may need to add a bit more topsoil if you have erosion problems. That’s all! Once your bed is established, you should be able to neglect it and reap the benefits of a carefully cultivated garden.
Hugelkultur has many advantages over traditional gardening practices. First, it’s excellent for areas that have heavy soil compaction or depleted nutrients, because it does not rely on the base soil and provides is own nutrients through decomposition. As a hill based bed, it increases the max surface area of the garden bed allowing you to fit more plants onto the structure. It is much easier to maintain, particularly for elderly or adaptive gardeners, because it’s height eliminates the need to stoop over or kneel. Hugelkultur beds are their own compost and irrigation system. They are so nourishing that they can easily provide self made fertilizer for over twenty years without additions. Additionally, many gardeners report that they do not need to water their Hugelkultur beds after they become established, even in hot, dry weather. Finally, they also hold warmth, which can lead to longer growing seasons for your plants.
As a whole, the advantages of Hugelkultur outweighs the disadvantages, but it’s important to take everything into consideration to decide if this gardening method is for you. While they are inexpensive to maintain, it will involve a substantial effort of time or money to find supplies and set up the beds up correctly. A good Hugelkultur needs lots of organic woody material, so you’ll either need to spend time collecting trees, branches, and sticks, or be able to purchase some. The construction phase also requires a good bit of digging, if you’d like to construct a traditional mound. You’ll either need to get access to digging equipment or be willing to spend the time out in the garden with a shovel. Finally, Hugelkultur beds are not the most attractive sight to traditional gardeners. Their size and shape can be odd and bulky looking. It is possible to make them more attractive with a little more work, but if aesthetics are a major garden concern for you, you may want to steer away from this technique.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Hugelkultur! If you have any experiences with this gardening method, let me know in the comments.