What is hugelkultur, anyway? When I first heard the word, I thought it must be a new kind of yogurt, but no—it is a raised garden bed.
What Are Hugelkultur Beds?
A centuries-old, traditional way of building a garden bed from rotten wood and plant debris, hugelkultur (pronounced “hoo-gull culture”) means “hill culture” in German. If you have downed trees that are too punky to make good firewood and fallen branches headed for the brush pile consider using them to make a new garden bed.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
- Like building a lasagna garden on top of wood, you just mow and cover the area with cardboard, lay out the logs, and cover them with branches and twigs. A mix of hard and softwoods is recommended. Avoid using woods that are slow to rot such as locust, cedar, or redwood or any that release toxins that inhibit plant growth such as black walnut.
- The pile can be as long and high as you like but 2 to 3 feet tall is easiest to work with. Some folks build them really tall, up to 5 or 6 feet high but I would need heavy equipment to achieve that.
- Cover the wood with leaves, straw, spoiled hay, grass clippings, sod, compost, aged manure, wood chips, whatever you would put in your compost pile.
- Add a 2 to 6 inch layer of soil and top it with mulch. If you build it this fall, let the whole thing settle over the winter and it will be ready for planting next spring.
In the first year the pile will need watering as the wood breaks down. The rotting wood will also be using up nitrogen that would otherwise be going to your plants so it is recommended that you plant legumes the first year since they produce their own nitrogen.
Eventually the rotting wood will hold water like a sponge, making the bed drought resistant. The top of the bed will be naturally drier than the base so you can plant things that need more water nearer the bottom and those that like it drier near the top. You can plant in the sides as well as top and bottom increasing yields in a small garden.
The Benefits of Hugelkultur
The rotting wood hosts beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and microbial growth that create nutrients your plants can use. Over time the mound will shrink as the wood rots but you can always add more soil or compost to the top. You will have created an ecosystem in which the beneficial organisms will thrive.
Hugelkultur is popular with gardeners who have struggled with heavy clay and poor or compacted soil. It is a good way to build up a planting bed and turn woody debris into a garden.
See the article on hugelkultur raised beds in The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2017 Garden Guide.