Hugelkultur is a term that very few Americans are familiar with. It is a strange, foreign-sounding word, a gardening method that has been utilized for many years in Europe. This gardening method is very innovative, but also very natural at the same time. Hugelkultur is basically burying woody materials in soil, such as logs and twigs, and then growing plants on top of that to create awesome and productive garden beds.
We had an oak tree that was trimmed last fall in our backyard, and so I was excited to put those logs to good use for my garden. Extra logs sitting around… garden waiting for awesomeness… “What an excellent opportunity,” I thought to myself! Since my keyhole bed garden was newly established last year and it didn’t produce as much as I would have liked yet, I decided to just convert it into a hugelkultur keyhole raised bed garden.
How It Works
The woody materials in a hugelkultur bed soak up water like a sponge and then the wood also enriches the garden bed as it breaks down. This dramatically reduces the need for watering and fertilizing your garden. Hugelkultur is yet another way to “compost in place” (straw bale gardening is another method of doing this as well, which I have written about in the past) and to create productive gardens with reduced work. From what I have read, once a hugelkultur bed is established, you should not need to water it very often, and it remains productive for many years!
You can dig a ditch where your garden bed will be and then cover your woody materials with the soil from the digging process, if you desire more of a traditional flat garden bed look. The second method is to place the woody materials directly on top of the ground and cover the wood with soil that you have brought in from elsewhere, and you will end up with a mound-shaped garden bed. You can also place woody materials into the bottom of a traditional raised bed (such as those built out of wood), and cover the rest of the raised bed with soil for the same effect.
The advantage of building the bed above ground using the mound style is that you increase the surface area of growing space: instead of just growing along the ground as in a flat garden bed, you can grow on the sides as well as the top, to utilize garden space more efficiently. The disadvantage of the mound style hugelkultur bed is that it definitely has a more non-traditional garden bed look to it, which some people and neighborhoods do not prefer. Since I am ultimately in favor of sustainable food production over aesthetics, I prefer the mound style and that is what I chose when building my own bed. I also had no desire to dig a big ditch either, so this method seemed at least a little bit easier to me. I have tried to “beautify” the bed a bit by placing fencing around it and a single layer of bricks around the base. My next door neighbor still seems skeptical, however…
There is debate among hugelkultur enthusiasts concerning whether or not burying wood in your garden bed utilizes a great deal of nitrogen and takes it from growing plants since the wood is a large source of carbon. Therefore, you would need to add some nitrogen-rich materials like composted manure back to compensate and bring the soil back into balance. Others claim that it will not draw that much nitrogen out the soil, especially if you use woody materials that have had a chance to rot for awhile.
Being new to the entire hugelkultur growing method and taking the middle ground of the nitrogen debate, I decided to add some compost, potting soil that contained some organic fertilizer (which does contain some nitrogen), and some spent coffee grounds (thanks to my local neighborhood coffee shop!) on top of the purchased topsoil that I covered the logs with.
Please note that not all types of wood are amenable to hugelkultur. Some tree species prevent other plants from growing, such as Black Walnut, and others contain resins that my resist breaking down such as many coniferous trees. I would recommend doing some research to determine whether the wood that you would like to use will work. The tree that was trimmed in my yard is an oak tree, which is useful for hugelkultur, so that is what I used.
To get a better idea of what hugelkultur is all about, here is a great video that was produced by Paul Wheaton, one of the Big Kahunas of permaculture. The video discusses what hugelkultur is and shows a number of real examples of how it works:
For comparison of bed styles, here is a video produced by someone who used the hugelkultur technique in traditional raised beds:
And, here is a video that shows one person’s experience with establishing hugelkultur beds, and the productivity that resulted from them within the first growing season:
Making My Own Bed (With Help)
Admittedly, I couldn’t have built my hugelkultur bed by myself. Most of the logs were just way too heavy for me to lift myself, so I was grateful when my husband and my brother-in-law agreed to help place them in the keyhole bed. Then, my husband and I bought many, many bags of topsoil from one our local garden centers, brought them home, and added them on top of the logs. Believe me, if you ever decide to build a huguelkultur bed, this is not a one-person job! Get help… Bribe friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. with produce from your garden if you must, but I repeat, do not do this one by yourself!
Then, once all of the logs and twigs were covered with soil, compost, and coffee grounds as much as I could, I planted quite a few transplants. Due to all of the growing space available in the mound, I even ran out of transplants, so I also planted some seeds. I have read that it is important to plant plants and seeds as soon as you can once you build your hugelkultur bed so that you can give your plants a head start in establishing themselves before weeds have a chance to establish first. Some people even recommend placing a layer of straw (not hay- hay has seeds!) directly on top of the hugelkultur bed to cover the soil in order to help control weeds and help to hold the soil in place if you have a vertical hugelkultur mound. Unfortunately, I did not have any straw, and money was limited, so I did not do this, but it would probably be a good idea if you can manage it for your own hugelkultur bed.
My Hugelkultur Feedback So Far
Watering: I have watered the bed several times once things were planted last week, and it has also rained for several days since. I am hoping that I will not have to water it much from now on, but I will be monitoring it to see how things go.
Plant Survival: A few of the very small transplants have not survived since planting them, but they may not have survived anyway no matter where I had planted them. Fortunately, I have planted many different plants and generally a few of each plant between my main garden area, my herb spiral, and this new hugelkultur bed, so I’m not terribly worried about a couple of plants that don’t make it. Usually plenty of other things make it in my garden even if a few things don’t! My four zucchini plants are holding strong, however! I will probably have lots of zucchini to give away.
Soil erosion: The bed has experience a little bit of the soil moving downward vertically since there is not much to hold it in place yet until the plants take root. If I had the opportunity to place straw on the bed prior to planting, I would do that next time. Mulch and/or brush prior to planting would also have probably decreased this effect so I will keep that in mind for next year if it is needed.
Ants: My yard does have quite a bit of ant activity going on (including Carpenter Ants), and so I will be closely monitoring the bed for ants. I did find one spot within two days of planting in the bed where there must have been a nest of small ants. Not sure what to do, I looked up natural ant killers, and found this solution that uses borax (note the cautions listed in the article, however). I put this on the area where the ants were, and within a day there was no more evidence of the ants there. I will keep monitoring to see if any more ants appear in the mound. I cannot give advice regarding termites and hugelkultur beds, so I recommend doing your research first, and if you have a problem with termites, you may need to try a different gardening method.
I am hoping that my new hugelkultur bed will be super-productive. Only time will tell, but it should be fun to see how things go. Hugelkultur beds are supposed to become more productive as the wood continues to break down with each passing season.
Building the Bed in Pictures…
|My keyhole bed garden from last year that I used to create my |
new hugelkultur garden bed.
|Covering the wood with soil…|
The new hugelkultur bed, covered with soil and planted. There is
now a fence built with chicken wire around it, as well as
some bricks at the base to serve as a decorative border
and deterrent to rabbits to dig underneath the fence. Now, we wait!