What if there were an easy, all-natural way to make raised garden beds? Welcome to the world of Hugelkultur!
What is Hugelkultur? Hugelkultur is a natural gardening practice that involves the breakdown of various logs and branches. As these pieces decompose, nutrients are released into the soil. As a result, you can have plants that are big, strong, and produce amazing results.
What is Hugelkultur?
Originating primarily in Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe, Hugelkultur (pronounced HOO-gul-cul-toor) starts with an area that has been mounded to promote optimal growth. Layers play a huge importance with Hugelkultur and while it may seem complicated at first, once you understand the science behind it, the process begins to make sense.
The raised bed is made with all-natural products and most of them should naturally exist in your backyard. If not, you can always ask around as neighbors will be able to supply anything you are still missing.
Is Hugelkultur worth it?
Yes, Hugelkultur is absolutely worth it. For the most part, you will already have the materials on hand and if not, your neighbors will be more than happy to give you some of their yard waste.
The process shouldn’t take more than a few hours and once you have your Hugelkultur raised bed made, it is very self-sufficient.
You do need to water the area well but this is a natural process of gardening. And the result will be vegetable plants that create a higher yield and that are healthy and strong.
The only real downside to Hugelkultur is that the aesthetic may not be as pleasing as you want. The raised mounds can be quite large and fit into a natural aesthetic rather than a manicured garden.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
As we mentioned earlier, you should have a lot of the materials needed for Hugelkultur in your backyard. However, spreading the word around to your friends and neighbors will ensure you have everything you need.
The preparation process can take a few days or even a few weeks, depending on what you have available. The size or number of beds you plan on making will also be a factor regarding how much you need to prepare.
One of the first layers will include old logs or fallen branches, which can be the hardest to find. If you live close to a forest area, you can make a trip out to the wilderness to collect these items.
Other natural pieces include leaves, grass clippings, straws, small sticks or branches, and compost. Again, look around at what you have and make a list of items you still need to gather.
Select a site
Most plants that you will be growing prefer sunny spots, so be sure to start with this location. Look for objects that could impede sunlight, such as large buildings or mature trees with a large canopy.
The ideal area for Hugelkultur is about 8 by 4 feet, so measure this out. If you have the space, you can plan for multiple beds.
The fall is the best time to start your Hugelkultur raised beds. This allows the wood a few months headstarts for decomposition before you start planting in the spring.
Clear the grass
As you will need to dig in this spot, and grass needs to be removed. The same goes if you have a lot of weed growth.
The easiest method is to mow your grass or weeds back and then cover the area with cardboard. This will add on an extra week or two but will help bring the area back to dirt, which is what you want to start with.
To get the most benefits of Hugelkultur, you want to dig out the entire area of the bed. This is because multiple layers need to be placed.
However, you don’t have to dig too deep. Aim for an overall depth of 12 to 18 inches for the entire area.
Be sure to keep this precious topsoil for a later layer of your mound. Place it to the side where it can easily be accessed.
The first layer of Hugelkultur is the old logs. These don’t need to completely fill the dug-out area so if there are gaps in between the logs, that’s okay.
You may need to cut the logs down to fit the raised area, so do so in this step. Lay them down but don’t stack them.
The logs should all be in a singular layer, usually lengthwise. This helps them break down faster.
The branch layer
You should have a large collection of smaller twigs and branches for this next layer. These should be placed on top of the logs but really act as a filler between any gaps.
Try to use a mixture of wood types here. This can include hard and softwoods.
Be sure not to use any types of wood that can release toxins, such as black walnut. Cedar or redwood branches should also be avoided as they take a long time to rot.
The grass layer
The next layer will be smaller objects, such as grass clippings and fallen leaves. If you have a lot of extra compost, you can also add it here.
Basically, you’re creating layers that fill into each other so there aren’t pockets of air left behind. If there are too many gaps in the process, the mound will collapse on itself, which can disrupt the plants you eventually plant.
Repeat the process
Hugelkultur is about raised mounds but you can make them as large as you want. One of the benefits of digging a trench is you can bury some of the logs so the mounds don’t look so large in your yard.
You want at least three layers of each type of material, so stack until you feel it looks right or you run out of material.
You will also find that as your mound grows larger, it will form a sort of rounded pyramid look. This is necessary so the logs don’t fall off of each other.
Water the mound
To help start the entire disintegration process, water is key. Once everything is stacked, water liberally to ensure it penetrates deep into the wood.
This step also helps settle the material and if you notice gaps between the logs, you can add more leaves or grass clippings to fill them.
Finally, once you have your layers, you can finish off with a thick layer of dirt. Spread out the topsoil that you dug earlier so it covers all of the logs and branches.
If you have extra compost or manure, you can also add it in this step. This may be an area where you need to purchase more topsoil as you want to aim for it to be 2 to 3 inches deep.
To help suppress weed growth, you can also add a final layer of bark mulch.
Can you create a border around your Hugelkultur?
How you design your Hugelkultur raised bed is completely up to you. While some people like the all-natural look, others may want more structure.
You can use Hugelkultur in traditional raised beds with wooden sides. Just make sure the sides are tall enough and if need be, dig your trench inside of the border to allow for enough layers.
Another option is to create a border of large rocks. This will mean you can’t grow plants on the side of your raised mount but it does create a tidier look.
How long does Hugelkultur last?
The wooden logs you use for the base of your Hugelkultur will take years to break down. You can expect these nutrients to last for at least 10 years, if not longer.
To extend the lifespan of a Hugelkultur, ensure you have nice, thick logs. These naturally take longer to break down, so nutrients will continually be released into the surrounding soil.
What grows best in a Hugelkultur bed?
The beauty of Hugelkultur is that you can grow just about anything. The raised mounds are so full of nutrients that all manner of plants will thrive.
Most gardeners use Hugelkultur for vegetables as it will produce higher yields. However, you can also use the beds for simple flowers if you prefer.
What is the best wood to use in Hugelkultur?
Overall, if you can use a variety of wood types, Hugelkultur will be the most successful. Different woods means different periods of time for decomposition, which translates to a steady release of nutrients.
Hardwoods, such as oak, beech, maple, and poplar, will decompose slower than others, so be sure that the majority of your logs fall in this category.
However, adding softwoods, such as fir and pine, are also beneficial in the first few years of building a hugelkultur bed. Be sure to include different types of wood in each layer for the most benefits.
Hugelkultur is fairly simple and yet creates amazing results. All you need are a bunch of old logs, some smaller branches, grass clippings, and leaves. The beauty is most of this already exists in your backyard!