Hugelkultur, pronounced Hoo-gul-culture, is a German word that means hill culture or hill mound. It replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on forest floors. In its basic form, mounds are constructed by piling logs, branches, plant waste, compost and additional soil directly on the ground or in a shallow swale. Some designs recommend that mounds have a grade of between 65 and 80 degrees. A high bed at this angle allow you to almost plant vertically and pick fruit without compacting the mound by walking on it.
The Wikipedia definition: “Hügelkultur is a composting process employing raised planting beds constructed on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds.”
Hugelkultur has recently been made popular by Sepp Holzer with his terraces and raised beds. Sepp is from Austria and farms his family farm. He has many hugelkultur beds and now writes about his farm and his farming practices. Sepp Holzer, Paul Wheaton, and Geoff Lawton have been the leading force of hugelkultur in Permaculture.
Benefits – Hugelkultur Permaculture Garden
The basic premise of an Hugelkultur Permaculture Garden is making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. This provides several benefits to include:
- The rotting wood adds nutrients to the soil that are bioavailable for the plants. The rotting wood will store nitrogen and release it for the plants to use.
- The rotting wood will “wick” water up from the surrounding soil and hold it for the plants to use.
- The wood rots slowly and provided nutrients for the plants over a long period of time. With a large Hugelkultur bed, nutrients may be supplied for 20 years.
- Soil aeration increases as those branches and logs break down… meaning the bed will be no till, long term.
- The composting of the carbon material will slightly raise the temperature of the soil, thereby slightly extending you growing season.
The Materials – Hugelkultur Permaculture Garden
There are materials you would want to use in an hugelkultur bed and there are materials you want to stay away from. Some examples are listed below:
Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout).
Black cherry (use only rotted), camphor wood (well aged), cedar/juniper/yew (anti-microbial/anti-fungal, so use only at very bottom or unless already well aged. Cedar should be broken down before new plant roots reach it), eucalyptus (slightly anti-microbial), osage orange (exceptionally resistant to decay), Pacific yew (exceptionally resistant to decay), pine/fir/spruce (tannins and sap), red mulberry (exceptionally resistant to decay).
Black locust (will not decompose), black walnut (juglone toxin), old growth redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination).
Many will note that filling a large space with so much carbon will actually act as a draw on nitrogen and pull it from the soil. This is true to a degree. This is why it is recommended that you add a little nitrogen when you build an hukelkultur bed. If you add a little bone meal and blood meal to your bed, then it will quickly absorb that nitrogen and then slowly release it to your plants as the wood breaks down over a long period of time. Just add the nitrogen directly on top of the wood before you cover it up with dirt.
My Hugelkultur Permaculture Garden
My hugelkultur bed in Maryland is buried in the ground about 18 inches deep and sticks out of the ground about 3 feet. I was digging a trench for an irrigation line back to the garden area and I had an old rotting wood pile laying around. The water line is about 24” deep, so I filled the trench in a little, made it a little wider where I was going to put the bed and put wood in. This is depicted in the three pictures above. I neglected to add a nitrogen to my bed, but the plants in the hugelkultur bed are still growing better than anywhere else on the property.
I have the following plants in this bed: Brown Turkey Fig, Goji, 4 types of Honeyberry, 2 types of high bush Blueberry, 1 low bush Blueberry, 2 Nanking Cherry, Lavender, Lambs Ear, Black Currant, Pomegranate, Rhubarb, and some volunteer cherry tomato plants. The picture titled “Hugelkultur Bed after 18 Months” shows my hugelkultur bed this past summer after it had been in the ground for 18 months. You’ll also notice my two photogenic Rat Terrier dogs, Molly and Murphy, had to be in the photo as well.
The Spring of 2015 was wet in the mid-Atlantic area but from mid-June through September it was extremely dry. The plants in the Hugelkultur bed did very well. I can only surmise that this was because of the wood under the soil and the deep mulch around the plants above the soil.
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