What are hugelkultur beds and why we’ve built oneOn May 23, 2019 by Vlad8 min read
We constantly like to experiment with different gardening techniques. This month, we’ve built our first hugelkultur bed inside our future food forest. If you don’t know what hugelkultur beds are, read on to learn about one of the most fascinating gardening styles out there.
If you’ve been following our story, you might know by now that we’re very passionate about gardening. In fact, we had this passion since before we had access to an actual garden.
A few years back, we started growing vegetables indoors and on our balcony. Meanwhile, we were reading about the gardening endeavours of other people and their gardens. All those years of research thought us about very different styles of gardening.
Now we want to give back from our experience. We already went over how we used the ruth stout gardening method in our garden, now we want to tell you more about the hugelkultur technique: What are hugelkultur beds? How are they made? And what are the benefits of the hugelkultur style of gardening?
What are hugelkultur beds?
The word hugelkultur is of German origin and it translates to “mound culture” or “hill culture”. Hugelkultur gardening originated in Europe, but it is not more widespread thanks to permaculture movement who advocates for this technique. You can read more about its origins on the wiki.
The hugelkultur beds are made from a large number of wood logs, branches or rotten wood, pilled up to create a raised mound. The wood is then covered in leaves, hay and partially broken down compost.
This creates a small hill (about 1 meter tall) that provides twice the surface area for growing as its footprint. If you’re planning to use the beds from the first year, you can also add a thick layer of gardening soil on top. Although, hugelkultur beds give the best results after the first year.
What are the benefits of hugelkultur beds?
The theory behind the hugelkultur style of gardening is that the logs buried in the mound will slowly decompose over the course of a few years. Over this 5 to 10 years period, the decaying organic matter will slowly feed more nutrients into the garden bed.
The rotten wood is also great for trapping and holding moisture, thus hugelkultur beds don’t need watering in most cases. All the little nooks and crevices formed by the woody material also harbour crazy amounts of beneficial critters.
Hugelkultur beds also provide more planting surface due to their sloped hills. A correctly constructed hugelkultur bed will double the planting surface.
Choosing the location for our hugelkultur bed
We knew right from the get-go that we wanted to have our hugelkultur bed inside our food forest. I’m hoping this will help the adjacent trees by encouraging mycelium growth in the soil.
When designing a hugelkultur bed on a slope it’s very important to avoid building it on contour. Although the idea of hugel-swale sounds tempting, you must consider that “mounds of earth reinforced with logs” is also the definition for earthworks and primitive dams. These have a tendency to cause massive damage if they fail, so it’s best to avoid nasty situations.
We chose to place our hugelkultur in the sunniest spot we could find in the orchard, which is also at the top of the hill. We oriented it East to West to expose a full side to the sun.
How we’ve built our hugelkultur bed
We started by marking the perimeter of the bed and started digging a shallow trench. We used the clay dug out to raise the sides of the trench so we would end up digging less.
This is not a necessary step. Hugelkultur beds don’t have to be buried. They work perfectly fine if you just build them up. We decided to go down a few inches to keep the profile lower. This is our own adaptation of the hugelkultur technique, something that we felt would work the same, and also fit the food forest design.
Once we’ve dug the trench and levelled the edges we started stacking loads of tree trunks, branches, rotten wood and boards. Any type of untreated wood will work, although I’ve heard that some tree species might not be suited for this method.
I know for a fact that the wood we used decomposes without a problem, I’ve seen it all throughout our local forests floors.
After a short trip to one of these local forests, we filled our trunk with a few bags of leaves and debris from the forest floor. We added all these over the small branches and then we shoved them in the empty spaces.
We walked over them, jumped on them and heavily watered the bed to get the leaves to fill up as much of the empty space between the twigs as possible.
We topped that with a few more load-barrels of compost and topsoil from the garden and we watered everything thoroughly.
The first-year crops
Hugelkultur beds don’t perform particularly well in the first year or two. It takes some time for the plant matter to get soaked, rotten and full of bacteria and mycelium. So we knew that it was not worth planting anything that we valued too much.
We didn’t want to leave the bed empty either. Soil does a lot better when there are plants growing in it. The worms visit the plant roots, the plant roots themselves break down soil particles and they provide shelter and nutrients for all sorts of microscopic life.
After letting the hugelkultur bed set for a few weeks under heavy spring rains, we went ahead and planted a whole bunch of beans. Beans have no problem growing in a first-year hugelkultur bed and they will be perfect for shading the surface and creating a nice habitat for small lifeforms.
After the beans are finished producing, we will just cover everything with another layer of partially decomposed compost. The compost layer will help raise the bed a bit and it will act as a mulch over the winter. By next spring we can start planting more nutrient hungry vegetables.
Leaving the bean plant’s roots in the ground will feed bacteria in the soil that helps fixate nitrogen in the soil. This will further help the fertility of the hugelkultur bed for the upcoming years.
What would we’ve done differently
I underestimated the amount of wood required. The plan was to fill up the trench and work our way up until we reached a 1 m height. However after packing the wood and the leaves we were just 10 cm over the trench line.
The second thing I underestimated was how many leaves and how much compost I’d need to cover the hugelkultur bed. I would’ve liked a more think layer of these materials.
I hope this gives you the courage to try the hugelkultur beds yourselves, you’re welcome to leave a comment if you have any questions. I will keep you updated with our progress throughout the years.