Building a Hugelkultur Bed

in Garden,Permaculture

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First, of course, what in the world am I talking about?

Hugelkultur (from the German, hill culture) is a method of building a garden bed.  It hails from the permaculture world and means building a bed either by piling up wood and branches on the surface of the soil or digging a hole (or trench) and laying the wood in the hole.

Next soil is piled on top to bury the wood.

Why would anyone do such a thing, you may well ask.  Three things, really:

  • To obtain a nearly no-need-to-water bed
  • To improve soil tilth and nutrients
  • To have an excuse to say “hugelkultur”

Wood has a very high moisture content.  As it decomposes, it continues to absorb water like a sponge.  Having a base of rotting wood beneath a garden bed is like building your garden on top of a dense, sodden sponge that is in the process of becoming rich humus.

Getting excited yet?  I was, especially when I read tales of beds of tomatoes that made it through the summer without watering.  I like the idea of all that good stuff down there, attracting worms and other decomposers, soaking up and storing rain, breaking down into fabulous soil.

For my bed, I decided to dig a hole.  For those of you with a lot of space out in the country, digging a hole is probably an unnecessary step, but with a small suburban garden, I wanted it to blend into the garden rather than having it look like a big ol’ hugel.  I also didn’t have a source of fill dirt, and using the soil from the raised bed which I’m replacing plus the soil I dug out of the hole will be needed to cover the wood completely.

Next, since the soil under there was just so completely dry I gave it a solid soaking to get things going.  I’ve never heard of anyone doing this but it seemed logical.  And tasty.

Now I got to take advantage of the fruit of what is usually the bane of my gardening: huge, mature trees.  Many suburbanites take their fallen limbs to the curb for pickup, but since we don’t, we have a bunch of wood perfect for hugelkulture–nice, spongy, rotting wood just waiting for me to discover hugelkultur.

Fresh cut wood can be used for this method, but I had enough of the ready-to-rot stuff so I decided to use that.  It will break down faster.

Filling up the ditch was very satisfying.  I got to clear out some old wood and know it was going to turn into vegetables.

All the dirt I removed to make the trench went on top of the wood, with a couple of soakings along the way to get everything cooking.  As I did, I layered in the contents of a bag of organic fertilizer.  Overkill, surely, but I couldn’t resist.  It would give my tired soil a boost while I waited for the benefits of hugelkultur, which really begins to come into its own beginning in its second year.

After planting some cover crop seeds, it was ready for a straw blanket and a final soak.  I’ll be sure and report on the hugelkultur bed from time to time and let you know if it really is as no-water as it promises to be.

 

 



{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jennie November 16, 2011

Definitely keep us posted! I just heard of this recently and have been wanting to try it. Do you think burying an old stump (still in the ground, but very dead) would work? I guess I’ll find out if I ever get around to burying it.

2 Diane November 16, 2011

I have been wanting to try this for quite a while after reading about it on this blog (which is awesome): http://lafermedesourrou.blogspot.com/

I have been doing it myself the lazy way that she describes, I started with a pile of wood and then just started chucking my compost on top of it, along with grass clippings, manure dug out of the chicken coop, etc. and I’ve been waiting for the pile to get big enough. I think it’ll be ready for next year. Can’t wait to see how yours turns out!

3 Tomato Lady November 16, 2011

Jennie–I will!
I would think that would work just the same. Maybe take a little longer but still good. Try it!

4 Steve Spence November 16, 2011

Having a wood chipper, I’ve done this with wood chips.

5 jengod November 17, 2011

Awesome. Please post regular updates on how this bed does for you.

6 Emily November 17, 2011

So cool. I just wish I had a good source of old treelimbs. Maybe wood shavings from the rabbit’s cage for a mini bed.

Of course, don’t try this with black walnut!

7 Peggy November 17, 2011

thank you I have so much wood I need to get rid of will certainly try this figure I can run over the branches with the tractor to smooth it thanks

8 molly schultz November 19, 2011

The beds look great. I was wondering if the decomposing wood would tie up too much nitrogen?

9 Tomato Lady November 19, 2011

molly schultz–Thanks! If the wood is freshly cut, more so, but apparently once the decomposition is far enough along it doesn’t present a problem.

10 Mary November 29, 2011

Wow! I’m inspired!

11 KarenRoberson January 21, 2012

I work for Juvenile Probation and look for cool ideas to enlarge our Community Service garden at low cost, we have a huge pile of chipped trees at our disposal, I think we will try this this year. Thanks for the idea!

12 Tomato Lady January 21, 2012

KarenRoberson–I’d love to hear how it turns out! Sounds like a wonderful program you have.

13 EllisFamilyOKC January 28, 2012
14 Raven Maven January 29, 2012

Howdy:

Just wondering – I have depressed hole in my yard, and a tree we just cut down. I was going to have hubby put the trunk up against our chain link fence to keep neighbor’s dog from coming under, but then thought about the hugelkuture concept. Then, remembered the big hole in the middle of yard from a previous tree that we cut down and chipped up stump, so torn as to location, but wanted to ask you:

One problem: the tree that was cut down was from an Australian Slash Pine. I understand that pine tends to make soil acidic.

1 – is that the case, and
2 – if it is the case, what fruits/vegetables can I grow in the hugel? Was thinking of putting some strawberries in there that I’ve had for almost a year in a strawberry pot (but they’re getting compact and need to be planted somewhere).

thanks.

15 Tomato Lady January 30, 2012

Raven Maven–Pine is acidic. Strawberries do prefer slightly acidic soil, about a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Blueberries as well prefer acidic conditions, northern blueberries are grown best in 4.5 to 5.5 and rabbiteye blueberries is 5.5 to 6.0. You can get a pH test kit if you are concerned about exact levels. Here’s a partial list of some acid tolerant veggies: http://www.ehow.com/info_7782798_list-acid-soil-tolerant-vegetables.html
Good luck in the new spot.

16 Clint Baker February 28, 2012

I was researching Hugelkulture Beds and cam across your post. I am just researching to be able to do this in the future and to do a post for my blog. Thank you for all the good information. I am gonna continue to follow and read.

17 Clint Baker March 8, 2012

I am gonna link this post to a post I am doing as well! I think this is a wonderful idea!

18 candace March 25, 2012

Believe it or not, some tree companies will give away free wood and mulch if you call and ask.

19 james May 22, 2012

It’s best to layer it through out the sub soil and it’s also useful to add leaves and carnivorous branches to fix it with a little extra nitrates.
this is a list i found of the advantages and disadvantages of hugelkultur

Advantages:

* Biomass: Massive carbon boost, deep in the soil -i.e. the building block for all organic matter
* Long-term/slow release fertiliser: which will probably out live you in this respect. Certainly 10 years+
* Logs rot from the inside out.
o Provides habitat. a refuge/home for all kinds of micro-organisms and invertebrates: beetles etc .
* Logs act like sponges
o Taking-up excess water and holding it, releasing water on-demand to the soil by capillary action
o Relieves water-logging (open water in soil) replaced with water held in separate spaces/pores
o Eliminates anaerobic conditions, see above. All pathogens are anaerobes.
* Heat given-off as logs compost
o Extends season
o Reduces effects of ground frost
* Bury them deep (into the subsoil)
o Introducing organic matter where there was none: subsoil
o Subsoil has little micro-biological activity
o Create whole new soil horizons
* Expansion and contraction
o As logs rot, take-up and release water they expand and contract
(heave)
o This heaving process constantly moves and loosen the top soil above it
+ Auto-aeration of raised beds

Issues:

Nitrogen Lock-up

* Nitrogen lock-up -how it occurs
o Is a phenomena described in orthodox gardening texts
o Relates to the incorporation (digging in) of organic matter, i.e. the thorough mixing of one or more organic materials (e.g. manure, woody matter etc) with soil
+ Where material is unrotted N will be “robbed” from soil by bacteria decomposing said unrotted matter
* How buried logs are different
o Organic matter is unrotted, though part rotted logs are especially good
o Organic matter is not being incorporated
o Rather it is being introduced into a zone
* Distance to growing area
o N lock-up may occur in the immediate vicinity of the log(s) but not in the main area of the soil
* Low surface area to volume ratio
o N lock-up only occurs in the boundary between soil and (unrotted) organic matter
* Logs are layered not mixed in soil
o As opposed to incorporation: where most of the soil is in contact with un-rotted organic matter

20 karenred September 4, 2012

more info please! does this work in a a lined galvanized water tank?

21 Daisy September 4, 2012

karenred–I’ve never heard of using hugelkultur in a container but I imagine it would work. You will probably have to add soil as the materials decompose and reduce in mass as you can’t really heap up a container enough without overflowing to compensate for the shrinkage.

22 Ray December 12, 2012

I have access to a large amount of wood chips from the city. I assume that buried, and mixed with wood chips from the chicken coop would be almost as good??

23 Daisy December 12, 2012

Ray–That would work! The chicken manure plus the chips should lead to some monster veg.

24 Ray January 27, 2013

Am in process of doing trees, the wood chips and the ‘cleaning’ from the chicken coop! As soon as the first beds sit under the black plastic and warm up, tomatoes arw going in the Walls O’ Water and lettuce and spinach all around!

25 felipecid March 18, 2013

cuidado con las maderas tratadas y madera infectada .

26 Daisy March 19, 2013

sin duda alguna

27 Renee April 28, 2013

I used this method in my garden this year, in big plastic totes!

28 Dee Thompson June 12, 2013

I have trying my hand at gardening for the first time. I have my veggies in containers. I am a renter in town and cannot do a compost or the hugelkultur. What I am wondering about is, I have been trying to figure out a replacement that I can use that is in a container, that will not have a bad odor. (neighbors wouldn’t like it much).
Was also wondering if, when I plant again, if just burying a piece of wood in the bottom of the container would help with the moisture.

29 Daisy June 13, 2013

Dee Thompson–Welcome to gardening! I’m so glad when I hear people trying it, stick with it because the learning curve may be steep, but it is so rewarding and you only have to do it one step at a time.
A discreet way to compost in the city is in a big plastic (like Rubbermaid) garbage can with a locking lid. Drill holes all over the sides and bottom and lid. A 1-inch spade-type (or forstner) drill bit is big enough. Layer in your greens (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, etc.) with your browns (fall leaves, straw, shredded paper or cardboard, etc.) moistening as you go with the hose or a watering can. If the lid locks well enough, you can lay it on its side and roll it periodically to turn the compost. It doesn’t smell, it looks like a normal garbage can from a distance, it keeps out most critters, and it’s an easy way to get extra good soil for your containers.
As for putting wood in your containers, if the container is quite large, a few pieces of already sort of spongy wood would be okay. You’ll want to top off the soil as the level goes down as the wood decomposes, but I don’t see a problem with it.
Best of luck!

30 Beth Coyne June 28, 2013

I didn’t know it was called a Hungelkultur Bed. Two years ago this fall we had two large trees taken down. I moved wheel-barrels of wood chips to various parts of the yard. After a few days of this I was exhausted and just covered the remaining wood chips with a fine layer of dirt. Since I have plenty of extra plants I stuck them in. I am surprised at how well they are doing. PS This is my Facebook post for today.

31 Jacqeuline July 10, 2013

I’ve got a hugelkultur in my garden, it may be because I used compost from the garden centre for the top and final layer and put upside down turf on top of the logs but I find it gets very dry on the top, I ‘ve had the hugelkultur for a couple of months now and I do need to water it so i’m thinking that the next one I do I will not put any upside down turf ontop of the logs as carrots have a hard time growing without bending. Other than that, i’m glad to say that the rest of the veg are doin really well, much better than the veg in what I call ordinary beds. I’ve got sweetcorn, broccoli, sunflower and kale growing in it at the moment.

32 Renee July 11, 2013

Jaqu,

What are you using as a covering for your topsoil?

33 Sarah November 10, 2013

Wood chips are not as good! When all the wood is the same size, it will break down at the same rate, which is also faster the smaller the pieces are. One of the main points of Hugelkultur is the slow and varied rate of decomposition of the wood, giving a balance of nutrients over a number of years. If you have wood chips, be sure to also add logs or at least large branches in the mix. The bigger the variety of log/branch size, the longer it will feed your soil and the warmer the bed will be as the larger logs and branches take a long time and generate much more heat that wood chips do.
As for watering, you should expect to water the garden like any other veggie garden for the first year. A little less the second and by the third or fourt year it should hold enough moisture not to need irrigation.
The nitrogen overload in the first year or two can also be balanced out by planting a lot of plants with deep roots.

34 BamaGrama March 1, 2014

I am so excited by reading all the informative comments; I want to go out and begin right now! Our local Keep Athens/Limestone Clean has begun planting some of these gardens to supply food to the local food bank. It is such a sensible and resourceful idea. Will be interested in everyone’s results!

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