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Hugelkultur is a method of raised bed gardening that involves creating a mound out of logs, branches, and other organic materials, which then decompose over time and provide nutrients for the plants. The technique is designed to improve soil fertility, water retention, and plant growth.
The word “hügelkultur” is German and roughly translates to “mound culture”. It is a permaculture system that has been used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany.
Hügelkultur is an innovative approach to gardening that combines sustainability with productivity. It has numerous sustainability benefits despite how low maintenance it actually is, and really should form the basis for any gardening projects you attempt on the homestead.
So how can hügelkultur benefit your garden for years to come? This post is diving into everything hügelkultur related so you can arm yourself with the best low maintenance options for your garden that are also incredibly beneficial.
What is hügelkultur?
Hügelkultur is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood, with the addition of branches, leaves, straw, cardboard, grass clippings, manure and compost piled on top to create a super-fertile, moisture retaining garden bed loaded with good stuff.
The logs and branches used in hügelkultur serve a dual purpose: they act as a sponge to retain moisture in the soil, and they gradually break down over time, releasing nutrients into the soil. As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden beds become incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hügelkultur becomes sort of self-tilling.
The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water – and then refeeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding as much water as it does, hügelkultur could be part of a system for growing garden crops in the desert with no irrigation.
Hügelkultur beds can be created in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the available space and materials and is particularly well-suited to areas with poor soil quality, as it helps to build up the soil and improve its structure.
How to build hügelkultur beds
Hügelkultur beds can be planted with a wide variety of crops, from vegetables and herbs to fruit trees and perennials.
To build a hügelkultur bed in the ground:
- First, select a sunny spot that’s roughly 4x2m. (A bed built parallel to a slope is a good idea, as it will catch water.)
- If there is grass or the site is weedy, you’ll need to clear it down to bare soil. Just mow and cover the area with cardboard or wood chips to suppress weed growth.
- Now dig out shallow pits, retaining the turf or topsoil for the top of your mounds. Make the pit or trench half a metre deep, keeping the same depth the full length of the bed. Beds need to be narrow enough that you can reach to the center; we’d suggest no more than 2m across.
- Next, lay the woody material into the dug-out area, starting with large logs or downed trees. Add a layer of branches and twigs. A mix of hard and softwoods is recommended. Avoid using woods that are slow to rot or any that release toxins that inhibit plant growth.
- Like building a lasagna garden on top of wood, top it with grass and grass clippings—nearly any kind of organic material—and pack firmly. If you have excavated turf, place it root side up on the wood.
- Continue to arrange the wood longitudinally and as tightly as possible. The pile can be as long and high as you like but I suggest a 2- to 3m high bed as it’s easier to work with (and can last without water for two or three weeks). Some folks build them really tall, but I would need heavy equipment to achieve that.
- Then, water the layers well. If you get mushrooms, you’ll know it’s wet enough!
- Finally, top off the bed with a layer of topsoil and a layer of mulch.
If you want to use raised garden bed systems, then there is no need to dig into the ground. By getting higher sides on your garden beds, you can effectively just fill the base of the bed with organic material to plant over the top of. Just make sure you still do effective matting underneath, so weeds don’t grow up through the bed base.
I have seen some videos of this on YouTube, so it’s just a matter of googling what you need.
How does hügelkultur improve soil quality
Hügelkultur has several benefits that make it a popular choice for gardeners who are looking for an effective way to improve soil quality.
As the wood decomposes, it releases nutrients into the soil and helps to improve soil structure, water retention, and overall soil health. This can lead to higher yields, healthier plants, and reduced need for fertilizers and other inputs.
Hügelkultur beds are known for their ability to retain moisture. This is because the decomposing wood acts like a sponge, soaking up water and holding it in the soil for longer periods of time. This can be especially beneficial in areas that experience drought or have poor soil quality.
In addition to retaining moisture, hugelkultur beds also help to prevent erosion. The raised beds create a barrier that can help to keep soil in place, even during heavy rain or wind.
Finally, hügelkultur beds can be a great way to attract beneficial insects and microorganisms to your garden. As the wood decomposes, it provides a habitat for a variety of beneficial insects, including earthworms, beetles, and ants. These insects can help to aerate the soil, break down organic matter, and improve soil fertility.
Maintaining the Hugelbed
Hugelbeds are not really something you can start this weekend and hope to get the best out of a week later.
If you build a Hugelbed in Autumn, expect to not use it until Spring.
In the first year, the pile needs watering as the wood breaks down. As the rotting wood decomposes, it will also be using up nitrogen that would otherwise be going to your plants. It’s a good idea to plant something like legumes, viners, cucumbers, melons, potato and squash in that bed for the first year as they produce their own nitrogen and are more likely to survive in the bed’s early life.
The greater a hugel mass is, the greater the water retention. If your beds are high enough, then you won’t need to spend much time irrigating.
As the rotting wood continues to decompose, it eventually becomes like a sponge and the hugelbed does end up having drought resistant qualities. For gardeners in area where water is scarce or fluctuating weather patterns occur, this is a brilliant trick to have up your sleeve when deciding what to plant in each hugelbed at each different part of its life.
Maintaining the hugelbed is relatively easy. Continue to layer it with compostable mass and water it occasionally to feed it. Soon enough you’ll have a robust ecosystem right outside your door!
Getting the most out of your hügelkultur raised beds
Hügelkultur beds are a great way to improve soil quality and increase the yield of your plants. Here are some additional tips to help you get the most out of your bed:
- Choose the right location: Hugelkultur beds can be quite large, so it’s important to choose a spot that gets plenty of sunlight and has good drainage.
- Select the right materials: While logs are the traditional base material for hugelkultur beds, you can also use branches, twigs, leaves, and other organic matter. Just make sure to avoid using materials that are diseased or infested with pests.
- Water your bed properly: Hugelkultur beds are designed to retain moisture, but they still need to be watered regularly, especially during hot, dry weather. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation system to water deeply and avoid disturbing the soil.
- Add amendments as needed: Over time, the organic matter in your hugelkultur bed will break down and become soil. However, you may need to add additional compost or fertilizer to keep your plants healthy.
- The rotting wood hosts beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, bugs and other microbial growth that creates nutrients your plants and garden ecosystem can use!
By following these tips, you can create a thriving hügelkultur bed that provides years of bountiful harvests.
Hügelkultur benefits in a nutshell
Overall, hügelkultur is a great option for gardeners who are looking for a low-maintenance, sustainable way to grow healthy, thriving plants.
- Hügelkultur beds can be a great option for both urban and rural gardeners, as they can be created in small or large areas.
- The mounds created by hügelkultur can act as a natural barrier to pests and weeds, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.
- Because the organic materials used in hügelkultur beds are usually obtained locally, this method of gardening can be a cost-effective way to grow produce and other plants.
- Hügelkultur beds can also be a great way to recycle fallen branches and other yard waste, reducing the need for disposal and helping to keep yards cleaner and healthier.
- The decomposition process that occurs in hügelkultur beds can take several years, which means that they can continue to provide nutrients and moisture to plants over a long period of time.
- Hügelkultur can also be a great way to introduce children and adults to sustainable gardening practices, as the method is relatively easy to learn and can be adapted to suit a wide range of preferences and needs.
Overall, it is a fantastic way to create healthy, thriving plants while also reducing waste and supporting sustainable gardening practices.
Hügelkultur is not only a sustainable and low-maintenance gardening technique, but it is also a great way to beautify your garden while taking care of the environment. Have you started a hugulkultur bed on your homestead? I’d love to hear about!
Until next time, happy homesteading!