Hugelkultur: Self-Sustaining Garden Practice of the Ancients

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For me, winter is a struggle. I can’t grow much more than lettuce, and I crave the dirt and the smell of tomato vines. It’s during the cold season that I do all of my planning. My husband gets anxious when he sees the graph paper strewn about our dining table—he knows that I’m designing my latest garden expansion idea, and he’s going to be out there digging in just a few months.

In an effort to minimize the hard work of garden tilling, he began building me raised beds several seasons ago.

I thought I would hate them, but I love them. Fewer weeds, no tilling—there are tons of benefits. So now, I’m always on the hunt for the next thing in raised bed gardening and permaculture—which brought me to hugelkultur.

First off, the word is ridiculous. Of German origin, it’s pronounced, “hoogle-culture,” and it means “hill culture.” It’s actually a practice that has been around for thousands of years—by various, probably less silly-sounding, names.

Essentially, hugelkultur is one of many methods of building raised, self-composting garden beds from layered, organic material. This one results in mound-shaped beds built from piling wood, mulch, and compost, and then covering the pile with soil, where plants will grow.

The great thing about hugelkultur is that it is self-watering, self-tilling, and self-fertilizing. Though building a hugel bed takes some effort, you’ll love how easy it is to maintain. The ingredients for a perfect hugel bed are probably already in your yard, and winter is the perfect time to take on a hugelkultur project, because the beds benefit from having a bit of time to get established before your spring veggie plantings.

Steps to building your own
Step One: Dig a trench. It doesn’t have to be very deep, but it should be about the size of the bed you want to create. Then, you will fill the trench with dead logs. Ideally, the logs will be in various states of decomposition. As these logs decompose, they will provide long-term, vital nutrients to the soil. Use hardwoods, because they break down more slowly, and you’ll want to stay away from wood varieties that contain toxins or will adversely affect the pH levels in the soil, such as black walnut and locust. Some ideal options are apple, maple, oak, and poplar, all of which can be found in abundance in our region.

Step Two: On top of the logs, you’ll pile smaller woody materials, such as branches and brush. This is likely where you will get the hill or mound shape of the bed itself. I wanted to build a fairly tall mound (three feet in height) but didn’t want large gaps or air pockets in the structure, inviting future collapse, so I layered with mulch between branch pilings. Pro-tip: The mulch I used is just chippings from a local tree business, and usually, they deliver at no cost. Again, just make sure that the wood type is appropriate for gardening purposes. Dead leaves and grass clippings are also terrific options and break down quickly, giving your garden a boost.

The size of the bed is entirely up to you. The important thing is that the organic materials below your growing medium are layered in such a way as to encourage long-term nutrient enrichment and sustained growth. Keep in mind also that if your bed is particularly tall, you’ll have one side receiving less sunlight, and you’ll want to consider that aspect when planting.

Step Three: After you’ve piled on your branches and the bed is still a manageable size (you’ll need to be able to reach the top), it’s time for the top mulch layer. Again, leaves and grass clippings are terrific, and I decided to reuse some of the turf I pulled up to dig the trench (grass-side down). This adds a little support and stability.

Step Four: After the top layer of mulch, you’ll need a compost layer. You won’t need a whole lot of compost, just enough to give your bed a jump start, so that the first year plantings will have nutrients while the woody materials slowly decompose.

Step Five: The final layer of your hugelkultur bed will be top soil. Start by reusing all the dirt you dug out of the trench, then add more if needed. Obviously, you want a good depth for planting, so take that into consideration as you cover the mound. In order to retain the structure of the bed, you’ll want to have something growing and setting down roots quickly. If building in winter, it’s a good idea to plant a cover crop such as rye or winter wheat, which will prevent erosion and help to keep the soil aerated.

The Benefits
There are many other techniques to try for raised bed gardening, but I like hugelkultur for a few reasons—one is that these beds can be massive, and my eyes are always bigger than my appetite when it comes to gardening. One of the most interesting qualities of hugelkultur, in my opinion, is that the structure of the bed actually results in a unique microclimate that keeps plants warm, because the process of decomposition generates heat. It also stays hydrated, as the decaying material retains moisture. These factors really encourage plant growth and can even extend the growing season. The mound shape offers more planting surface without requiring more precious garden real estate.

In the spring, you’ll have a healthy and unique garden bed ready for your veggies!

You can really plant anything in a hugelkultur bed.

Squash, melons and leafy veggies do especially well.

I’m a big fan of polyculture, or planting a variety of species in the same bed. Just be aware of companion plants that help each other grow! Your new hugelkultur bed, when properly constructed and planted, should last for years, and is sure to intrigue your garden-loving friends.


By Ashleigh Meyer

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