Hugelkultur: What It Is and Why You Should Transition to Mounded Beds
Hugelkultur: it sounds straight out of a fairy tale, the name of a dashing prince on a quest to rescue some lost damsel.
In reality, hugelkultur is more akin to the mystic mage that lives in a secluded cave deep in the woods. A permaculture raised-bed garden design, hugelkultur is underrated, underrepresented, and works like magic.
Many cultures have been practicing some form of raised bed gardening throughout history, but the practice of hugelkultur originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. German farmers sought to improve poor soils by adding nutrients and better drainage, and mounded beds were born.
So what exactly is hugelkultur and why should you care? And how would you even go about getting started with this raised-bed technique? Keep reading to find out.
What is hugelkultur?
A German word, Hugelkultur roughly translates to "mound culture," and is the agricultural practice of cultivating a specific type of raised beds. These tall, sloped beds—called hugelbeds—look similar to a small dike, a steep wall that you might see along a riverbank.
The odd shape serves a very important purpose in the garden, simultaneously conserving water and maximizing nutrient absorption.
Generally, the base of a hugelbed is made of large logs with smaller logs and sticks stacked on top. Cover the pile with plant debris and soil, then top with compost, and you have a hugelbed!
Today, hugelkultur has been adapted and modified to fit modern needs. This ancient practice has been adopted by growers around the world who want low-maintenance garden beds that deliver impressive results. Crops grown in hugelbeds are typically healthier plants and have higher yields than traditional gardens.
The history of hugelkultur
Hugelkultur is a gardening technique that involves creating raised beds filled with decomposing organic materials, such as logs, branches, leaves, and other plant debris. This method originated in Germany during the Middle Ages when farmers sought to improve poor soils by adding nutrients and improving drainage.
The concept behind hugelkultur is that as the organic materials within the raised bed decompose, they release nutrients into the soil. The decaying organic matter acts like a sponge, holding moisture and slowly releasing it to the plants, making hugelbeds highly drought-resistant.
Hugelbeds are a long-term land management practice that improves water retention and creates a favorable microclimate for plant growth.
Advantages of hugelkultur
Hugelkultur offers several advantages, including low maintenance requirements, the ability to slow surface water runoff and prevent erosion, self-watering properties, and carbon sequestration.
Creates a microclimate
Hugelkultur works so well because it creates a microclimate that is slightly more moist than surrounding areas—without creating an overly humid environment that is ripe for mold and fungal growth.
Since hugelkultur beds are composting, they are technically “hot beds,” at least for the first few years of use. Warmer soil temperatures mean that your growing season will be slightly extended, and you can plant into your mounded beds (and harvest from them) long past your typical growing window.
Low maintenance and inexpensive
Hugelbeds don’t need frequent irrigation and fertilization, which drastically reduces the price of maintenance and makes hugelkultur one of the most cost-effective gardening practices.
It’s also an accessible agricultural practice for gardeners of all skill levels, since it requires minimal upkeep and hardly any upfront investment.
The self-watering nature of hugelbeds makes it a perfect practice for growers in drought-prone areas, though growers in all regions can use hugelkultur to their benefit. After their first season, the spongy core of a hugelbed will retain and distribute moisture between rains.
Mounded beds naturally help prevent erosion by halting surface water runoff, slowing erosion. Hugelbeds also serve as a form of carbon sequestration because the decaying wood traps and stores carbon in the soil, rather than in the atmosphere.
What makes hugelkultur awesome is the wood decomposes over time, providing a continuous source of rich organic matter in the soil. As the logs and sticks break down, they shrink in size, resulting in air pockets that naturally aerate the soil, removing any need for tillage.
Hugelkultur is widely adaptable to different climates and hardiness zones, and you can build hugelbeds as big (or small) as you want!
Disadvantages of hugelkultur
Hugelkulur is almost perfect—but not quite. Fortunately, the few disadvantages of hugelkultur can be easily mitigated with patience and a little know-how.
Settling over time
Because hugelbeds do settle over time, they’re not ideal for plants with extensive root systems like fruit trees and large shrubs. Hugelbeds are better suited to annuals, biennials, and shallow-rooted perennials.
Temporary nitrogen tie-up
Like unaged mulch, the logs that are foundational to hugelbeds can tie up nitrogen in the soil, making it temporarily unavailable to your plants. As the wood decomposes, nitrogen tie-up becomes less of an issue.
Not all woods are compatible
Not all wood is ideal for hugelkultur beds. Avoid black walnut logs and branches, as walnut trees are allelopathic, meaning they leach toxic chemicals to neighboring plants. Cedar, as lovely as it smells, isn’t a great candidate for mound culture either, since it takes longer than other woods to break down. Cedar is naturally antifungal and antimicrobial, so it doesn’t help encourage the microorganism-dense soil that produces the healthiest and most productive crops.
Softer hardwoods like alder, maple, apple, cottonwood, poplar, birch, and willow are excellent woods to use in hugelkultur practice.
How to build hugelbeds
So you’re interested in hugelkultur, but not sure how to get started? Keep reading for step-by-step instructions on how to transition your garden rows to hugelbeds.
Because hugelbeds have to be built from the ground up, you can’t transition an already-planted garden bed to a hugelbed. You can build an empty bed into a hugelbed with ease, as long as you use the right materials and layer them appropriately.
1. First, identify a site for your hugelbed.
Although you can build a hugelkultur bed on top of the soil, it’s best to dig the base of the bed down into the soil when possible; the deeper bed retains water better.
2. Next, gather the needed materials.
Ideally, you’ll want to start with already-decaying logs and sticks to help jumpstart the decomposition process, since green wood will take significantly longer to decompose. Not only is decomposing wood rich in organic material and essential nutrients but forming hugelbeds from decaying lawn debris solves the problem of unsightly and otherwise unusable waste.
If you don’t have logs, leaves, soil, or compost readily available in your yard, you can source these materials elsewhere—just make sure that your sources are disease-free. Purchasing bagged materials can get expensive, too.
3. Line the bottom of the bed with large logs.
Be careful lifting large, heavy logs—recruit the help of a friend when possible or use machinery.
4. Backfill any gaps with soil.
Once the logs are laid, fill in the space between them with soil and smaller debris like leaf matter to plug any gaps and prevent the bed from falling in those places. Filling the gaps helps the beds hold water better and helps deter pests, too.
5. Top the log pile with soil and plant debris.
After you’ve filled in your log layer with soil, add some nitrogen-rich organic matter like vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and disease-free plant debris. Pile this layer as high as you like!
6. Finally, top the mound with topsoil.
Throw in a little compost for fertilizer and your hugelbed is ready for planting!
How tall should hugelkultur beds be?
Growers have had the most success with beds that are five or six feet tall (but these beds will shrink by several feet over a few years). Most growers settle for two or three-foot-tall beds to start, though these beds don’t hold as much water as taller beds.
While not as well-known as other gardening practices, hugelkultur is worth investigating, especially today when water conservation has never been more important. For a little prep work and patience, you can have many years of healthy and productive plants, with your highest yields yet!
Cultivate the perfect raised bed for your Seeds ‘N Such seeds with these hugelkultur practices, and let us know how your garden grows this year!