What is Hugelkultur Gardening (And What Are the Benefits?)
Learn about the many benefits of hugelkultur gardening and start your own highly productive and 100% sustainable hugelkultur raised bed!
This is a guest post by Sunflower Craig of Permies.com
Hugelkultur (pronounced: hoogle-culture) is German for “mound” or “hill culture,” and almost everyone we know really likes saying it out loud: “hügelkultur,” “HOOGLE culture,” hoog-AL kulture”…like some sort of meditation or chant. But beyond being fun to say, it’s also a sustainable approach to gardening that is especially popular among permaculture enthusiasts, but is not widely known or understood by most other gardeners. So what is hügelkultur exactly, and how can it benefit your garden or homestead?
Simply put, hugelkultur is the practice of building a garden bed out of decaying wood and then planting in it. This allows for the creation of elevated planter beds that are rich in organic matter, nutrients, and aeration for the plants’ roots, but the benefits extend far beyond this.
The benefits of hugelkultur
Your raised hugelkultur garden beds’ rich, deep soil will become home to a veritable feast of soil life as the years pass by and the wood decays. With the wood shrinking and creating additional microscopic air pockets, your hugelkultur bed essentially becomes a self tilling garden. The composting process will also gradually warm your soil over the first several years, extending your growing season. Plus, the woody material acts as a barrier, stopping extra nutrients from leaching into the groundwater. They are instead recycled to your garden plants.
Hugelkultur is gaining popularity as a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to garden. Requiring fewer resources and less labor, it can help save water and the need for fertilizer, making your garden more diverse and productive. In our opinion at permies.com, hugelkultur is a prime example of permaculture in action.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, the woody debris helps to retain moisture in the soil, reducing the need for frequent watering. This is especially useful in dryer climates. The soil structure also improves aeration and drainage, allowing the roots of plants to better access nutrients and oxygen. In addition, hugelkultur can be used to improve soil fertility. As the wood breaks down, it releases nutrients into the soil, creating a more fertile environment for plants to grow. This helps reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and encourages the growth of beneficial microbes.
Hugelkultur also provides habitat for beneficial insects and animals. These helpful friends like bees, butterflies, and other pollinators use the woody debris as a place to seek refuge and eat. This can help improve the health of the garden and provide additional pest control.
Hugelkultur is also a more sustainable way to garden. Hugelkultur beds use woody debris, which can be found locally, perhaps even on your own property, and is a renewable resource. This gets rid of the need for artificial fertilizers and can cut down on the amount of water and energy used. Therefore, hugelkultur is a more sustainable and resource-efficient way to garden that also requires less labor and maintenance. If you’re looking for a way to create a self-sustaining and productive garden, then hugelkultur may be the perfect solution!
A hugel bed can also add beauty to your yard. For a flat landscape devoid of slope, a hugel bed can add contrast and aesthetic interest. Not to mention, through their naturally hilly form, hugel beds can more surface area per square foot, which increases your growing space and even provides sound insulation and a wind barrier. In this way, hugelkultur can be beneficial for exposed land, areas close to busy roads or sources of noise pollution, as well as smaller plots or areas in need of privacy, or those seeking to block a view.
Using hugelkultur to sculpt fertile mounds on your land increases your growing capacity, and also creates habitats and microclimates that can dramatically affect what you can grow. On your hugel mounds or hillside, you can grow plants that thrive in quite different environments, similar to an herb spiral. Moisture loving plants might prefer lower positions on the sheltered side of the hugel bed, whereas sun-loving plants will enjoy a more exposed, higher location. Those plants needing more drainage will also like a top slot. In the first couple of years as the materials start to decompose within the bed, it will be slightly warmed through the process of thermal composting, giving colder climates a longer growing season. In hotter climates, a tall hugelkultur bed can hold a lot of water and can even thrive with no irrigation, which is a sustainable solution for arid areas and may be a consideration for many of us as our climate continues to change.
Strategically placed, hugelkultur beds can be a great permaculture solution for soils that need improving. Similar to any raised bed, hugelkultur allows you to build up the soil on top of poorer soil with good quality, local ingredients. Ideally, you’ll want to source wood from your own property or from a trusted supplier in order to avoid any persistent herbicides or other nasties that could actually do more harm than good. This will improve the soil over time and bring a host of insects and beneficial microbes into the mix, which can help with the overall health of your garden ecosystem and the essential soil food web. This also means that if you’re struggling with clay soil or sandy soil and don’t know what to do, installing a hugelkultur bed could be a great way to start building organic matter and creating the garden soil you’ve always wanted.
What type of wood to use for a hugelkultur garden bed
Since wood is essential to the construction of hugelkultur garden beds, it’s important to consider what type of wood to use as different types of wood are better or worse for using as the foundation of your garden beds.
For example, cedar isn’t something I’d use. Cedar breaks down slowly, owing its durability to its natural insecticidal, herbicidal, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial properties. While this makes cedar a fantastic wood for building structures with, it’s not so great for hugelkultur.
Alders, apples, cottonwood, poplar, dry willow, and birch are a few of the known great woods for hugelkultur gardening. Maples could work too. Very decayed wood is preferable to moderately aged wood.
Another consideration is that wood is heavy in carbon and will use up nitrogen in the composting process. What might happen is that the nitrogen gets locked up and is no longer available to your plants. This is less of a problem with wood that has been properly decayed. If the wood is sufficiently mature, it may have taken in so much nitrogen that it is now exuding it. Some tannins will be present in pine and fir, but once the wood has been dead for a while, the tannin content diminishes significantly.
How big to make hugelkultur raised beds
If you want your hugelkultur raised bed gardens to survive a summer with no rain, you’ll need to make them at least six feet high, but they will become smaller as the wood decays and the soil compacts. The majority of the activity occurs within the first month. That’s why it is often recommended to make your hugelkultur beds a full seven feet high!
Two-foot-high hugelkultur garden beds can retain moisture for up to three weeks. Although it’s not nearly as wonderful as a taller bed, it’s more within the comfort zone of many of our neighbors in the city.
Some people will start out with hugelkultur garden beds that are two and a half feet tall and plant only annuals, and they will slowly increase the size of the bed by a foot each year. After a few years, they’ll have the larger beds and the neighbors won’t notice. And if those neighbors have had the chance to taste what comes from these mounds, they might just be converts! (Sometimes it takes a bit of patience and creativity to avoid those annoying HOA letters;)
Raised hugelkultur beds can be made any size and opinions vary, but a good hugel bed is at least five feet in width. This results in some very slanted bedding. To keep the soil in place, pack it down and plant a variety of plants with deep roots – think comfrey, dandelion, horseradish and artichoke, to name but a few. But be sure to do so before it rains!! If you’re going to construct beds that are less than three feet high, we would recommend keeping the width to no more than four feet. However, you can get away with making your beds broader if you’re building raised garden beds in a keyhole pattern.
How to use hugelkultur to become more sustainable
Sustainably speaking, using wood to build your hugelkultur bed is a fantastic way to return the materials back to the land. Instead of burning dead wood or taking it to the dump, it can be utilized in ways that directly benefit your land, improve your growing conditions and provide a myriad of other benefits. If you need to cut down some vegetation or have had trees fall over or break, building a hugel bed can be a good way to put this ‘waste’ to good use, closing the loop by utilizing the resources in your own backyard.
If you think about how debris piles up, decays and feeds new life in the forest, you can see how hugelkultur –like all permaculture methods and approaches– mimics nature. At the end of the day, this is the best way to garden sustainably, and the best way to build your soil, improve your garden and homestead smarter (not harder) over the longterm. What’s not to love about all that?
If you’re intrigued and ready to start your first hugelkultur garden, check out this micro-documentary on hugelkultur gardening from Paul Wheaton of Wheaton Labs and permies.com, or alternatively, learn everything you need to know in this hugelkultur-focused webinar.
Sunflower Craig is a mother, author, and herbalist. She did her studies at Central Washington University in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and continues her education with hands-on experience in the foothills of the Cascades. She now works with Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and Wheaton Labs to spread the permaculture bug and advocate for sustainable energy alternatives, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable solutions for global issues. When she is not writing, working, or creating, she spends her time with her son and husband exploring the lesser-known nooks and crannies of the local national forests.
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