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Have you ever heard of Hugelkultur? No? Well, let me enlighten you!
Hugelkultur is a German word, meaning “mound culture”. It is a technique that has been used in Germany and eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is the act of piling up rotting wood, straw, grass, and other compostable materials, covering with soil, and planting directly into the mound as a raised bed.
Hugelkultur is sometimes looked at in our culture as unsightly, as traditional hugelkultur beds are mounds up to 4 feet tall. They are loosely constructed, sometimes not even having a border around them. But they have so many benefits for the home gardener.
Holds in moisture
Hugelkultur mounds hold in moisture very well. The rotting wood acts like a sponge in the bottom of the bed. An established, well-designed bed can often go the whole season with only being watered once or twice. While regular raised beds tend to lose water quickly, hugelkultur does the opposite. This method holds and slow-releases water from the wood into the surrounding soil.
The rotting wood adds lots of extra nutrients into the soil. It’s a little like trench composting, or composting in place. The wood and other organic matter break down under the soil, and release valuable nutrients like nitrogen into the soil above. A good hugelkultur mound can supply a steady stream of nutrients to the soil above it, for up to 20 years.
Since you don’t walk or step on the hugelkultur mound, the soil is much less likely to get compacted. This will allow better root growth, and lets worms do their work throughout the soil.
Allows proper drainage
As hugelkultur mounds are raised, they allow proper drainage. So even though the mounds retain moisture, your plants will not get waterlogged. This is especially helpful if you live in an area with thick, clay soil. Soil with a lot of clay has a very hard time draining, so hugelkultur is great to use if you have clay soil.
Enables earlier planting
The soil in hugelkultur beds warm up more quickly than soil in the ground. This means that you can start planting earlier in the spring than if you were planting directly in the ground. That’s especially important for home gardeners who have a shorter growing season.
Extends the growing season
Hugelkultur beds also hold in heat later in the season, which can extend your growing season further into the fall. The heat from the decomposing materials under the soil helps hold and distribute the heat into the bed.
Since you add top soil on top of the rotting wood, there is fewer weeds that pop up. You will still get weeds from seeds that blow onto your mound, but you won’t have as many weeds growing from roots in the soil.
More surface area to plant
Hugelkultur mounds, though they are tall and bulky, actually give you more growing space in the garden. For example, if your mound is 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall, your hugelkultur mound will give you a 9 foot wide section of growing space, instead of 3. That’s important for gardeners who want to maximize their space!
Easier tending and harvesting
Since hugelkultur mounds are up off the ground like raised beds, they are easier to tend and harvest. Older gardeners love having raised beds so they don’t have to bend down as much to weed and harvest. And these tall mounds accomplish that perfectly.
Best materials for hugelkultur
There are many materials that you can use when building your hugelkultur bed. Rotting wood is the base, but some care needs to be taken in choosing your wood.
You can use hardwoods or softwoods, but you definitely want to stay away from black walnut or locust. Willow will sprout, unless it is completely dead and dry. Cedar is also not good to use in hugelkultur, as it takes a very very long time to rot.
Wood chips, saw dust, leaves, hay, and straw are great for this type of gardening. You can also use shredded newspaper or cardboard. Think of these as the “browns” used in composting. They are the carbon-rich ingredients.
You also want to add “green” material, such as grass clippings, manure, kitchen scraps, or compost. With a good balance of “greens” and “browns”, composting will take place right inside the mound.
How to create a hugelkultur mound
Step 1: Plan out your mound
Most hugelkultur mounds are 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, and 3 feet tall. Mounds should go in a north-south direction, so as to get sun to most of the hill. You can get very desirable results if you put the mound on a grassy area. I suggest putting bricks or rocks around the perimeter of what will be your mound.
Step 2: Dig out some soil
Most experts suggest digging a trench out the top 1 foot layer of grass and soil. Try to keep the grass as intact as possible, like sod. Put this layer off to the side – it will be used later.
Step 3: Lay out your rotting logs
Lay your rotting logs in the trench. Adding branches and bark will help fill in the area a little more. It will also help to put some wood chips or sawdust in this first layer. Water this layer very well.
Step 4: Put the grass/soil layer over the logs
On top of the wood, put the grass/soil layer that you removed from the area, grass side down. The grass will help react with the wood to start the composting process. Water this layer well, also.
Step 5: Layer your other materials
This is the fun part! Get creative, based on what you have. Layer your materials on top of the grass/soil layer. You can use manure, kitchen scraps, or grass clippings. Basically anything that is considered a “green” material in composting. Manure and kitchen scraps are often considered the best “green” materials to add to your mound. Again, water this layer very well.
Step 6: Top with compost and garden soil
On top of all of your material, you will want to put a decent layer of compost and garden soil. This is what you will be planting into, so you will want it to be good quality soil. The compost and garden soil are likely the only things in the hugelkultur mound that you have to buy. And again, you will want to water this thoroughly.
Step 7: Plant your mound
Some hugelkultur experts recommend planting right away, where others suggest you wait awhile to allow the decomposition to get a good jump start. So it’s really up to you! Hugelkultur mounds can accommodate pretty intensive gardening methods. Square foot gardening is popular, and can really help you get the most produce from your mound.
You can use your hugelkultur mound to plant pretty much anything you want! Perennials are excellent to plant, but annuals do very nicely too. People even use them to plant berries and trees.
Step 8: Add mulch
Adding mulch on top of your mound will help conserve water even more, as well as helping to discourage weeds. Straw and leaves are great for mulch, as is grass clippings. Just make sure the mulch is not too close to the base of the plants, as this can harbor disease.
Step 9: Weed and water your mound as needed
The first year after building your hugelkultur mound, you may need to water much more frequently. Especially if you are planting seeds in your bed. During the second, and consecutive growing seasons, you will probably only have to water once or twice during the middle of the summer if you live in a dry environment.
You will likely have very few weeds, but you should pull up any that emerge. Weeds will rob nutrients from the plants you are trying to grow. If you find you are getting a lot of weeds, add more mulch.
Do you want to try hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur is an amazing way to grow more food in a smaller space. It is especially helpful if you have poor soil. While it is quite a bit of work to get it started, it will reward you with years and years of nutritious soil, and less work in the long run.
My soil is poor, sandy clay. I haven’t done a hugelkultur mound in the ground yet, but I did a raised bed in hugelkultur style. I got a 4’x4′ raised garden box for free last year. I put lots of rotting wood in the bottom, then manure, leaves, and soil.
This bed sat unplanted last year. Even with no mulch over it, there was very few weeds, and the soil isn’t compacted at all. I just planted it this spring with fast-growing vegetable seeds. Here is a YouTube video I did on it.
I will be doing a full-on hugelkultur mound sometime soon. The benefits are amazing, and I can’t wait to try it! Are you going to try it?
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