Hugelkultur might not be a familiar term. But if you spend any time looking into organic gardening methods or permaculture design, you are sure to come across this concept. In this guide, we’ll take a look at this idea and where it came from. We’ll talk about the benefits of this method, and how to determine whether it is the right choice for you. We’ll delve into what you need to get started. And finally, talk about how to make hugelkultur beds.
What is Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur is a German term that translates as ‘mound culture’. This is a growing method that involves the creation of raised mounds of organic matter. They are a variation on the concept of lasagna gardens. Lasagna gardens are a common feature in no dig gardens. They are raised beds made up (like the Italian dish) with layers of organic material – in much the same way as they are in a composting system.
Hugelkultur is like lasagna gardening, in that the layers are built up in a similar way. But rather than creating flat growing areas, you create mounds instead. In order to make their traditional mounded shape, Hugelkultur involves creating a core of rotting wood, around which the other layers of organic matter are mounded. The larger woody pieces act like a skeleton or infrastructure to keep the shape of the beds, and, as you will discover, having larger woody pieces at the heart of the beds can bring a range of benefits too.
The Origins of Hugelkultur
The term Hugelkultur first appeared in a German gardening booklet in 1962. But the concepts and practices involved are much older. European growers have been using this or similar techniques for hundreds of years. And the concept is also believed to have been inspired by Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural ideas.
Today, hugelkultur is well known to many proponents of permaculture ethics and permaculture design. It is considered to be a beneficial feature in annual cultivation, and through the permaculture movement, the idea has been perpetuated and implemented all over the world.
The Benefits of Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur beds, when properly constructed, used in appropriate ways and in the right places are said to:
Improve soil fertility.
Protect existing soil ecosystems.
Improve water retention and therefore reduce water use.
Speed up the rate of soil warming (and therefore potentially extend the growing season in cool climate regions).
Create a wide range of habitats/ environmental conditions in a relatively small space, and allow a wider range of plants to be grown in the same bed. The mounds are drier on top, sunnier on their southern side, and more shaded and damp to the north. This can make it easier to create abundant polycultures of annual plants.
Hugelkultur beds can also be cheap or free to build. Since they are made using natural, abundant and local available materials – often materials that can be sourced from the garden itself, or the immediate surroundings.
This is quite a flexible idea, that can be amended to create beds with materials that are locally available. And it can be used to make beds in a range of shapes and sizes, with reference to the site and local conditions.
Is Hugelkultur Right For You?
It is important to understand that though hugelkultur can be a beneficial option to consider for many gardens, it will not be right for all.
For one thing, hugelkultur is suited to annual production. The mounds will sink over time as the organic matter within them decomposes. So this is not usually a good method to use for perennial planting schemes. Rather, it is something to consider for annual beds, where organic mulches and the right planting will replenish nutrients as the mounds alter over time.
Another thing to consider is that hugelkultur is not a suitable technique for sloping sites, (where terraces or swales and earth berms will often be better permaculture solutions). Hugelkultur techniques are not for use where excess water management/ retention is a primary aim.
Of course, in a no dig annual garden, hugelkultur beds can be very useful. But even in this scenario they may not always be the best choice. Typical lasagna beds and straw bale gardens are other options to consider, especially in non-wooded areas, or places with fewer trees, where rotting lumber will not be readily available.
If you have decided that hugelkultur might be right for you, the first thing to do is to take a good look at your garden to see where you might place a new bed of this type. Typically, hugelkultur mounds will be created on largely flat, open and sunny areas. A place where other types of typical annual vegetable beds would be created would be suitable. Be sure to look at sunlight, wind, and water, pathways and practicalities before making your choice.
Once you have decided where to make a new hugelkultur bed, you need to think about its size and shape, and what you will grow there. It is a good idea to make a plan in place before you make your bed, as it is generally best to plant it up right away.
Hugelkultur mounds are typically around 1m wide, and may be as long as required. They can be straight from one end to the other, or form circular or curved shapes… Just remember the environmental conditions that the new mounded area will make and be sure to take those things into account. Think about what plants you will place where on each part of the mound, and when. And be sure to consider how those plant choices can work together to create the best yields possible from your garden.
How To Make Your Beds
Once you have decided where to place your new hugelkultur bed, it is a good idea to gather your materials. You will need the wood (ideally partially rotted) for the core, and plenty of brown and green compostable materials. You will also need topsoil/ compost/ leaf mould for the top layer into which you will plant. Once you have your materials:
First, mark out the area of your new growing area.
Cover the soil or grass with cardboard to restrict weed growth.
Create the ‘skeleton’ of your mound by laying down plenty of wood through the centre of your marked out area. (Partially rotted logs and branches are best.)
Layer green (nitrogen rich) organic material, such as green leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste, over your pile of wood.
Add another layer, this time of brown (carbon rich) organic material like brown leaves, wood chip, or straw.
Add another green layer, another brown layer, and continue to add organic material until your mounds are at least 2-3 ft high.
Stand on your mound to compress the materials and fill in air pockets.
Cover the mound of organic material with a layer of compost and soil, which will allow you to plant up your new growing area.
Add your plants, water well, and allow the new growing area to become established.
Have you made a hugelkultur bed in your garden? How did you find the process? And how has the growing area performed? Which plants have done well there, and which have not thrived? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.