What is hugelkultur

The word may be difficult to pronounce, but the concept is quite simple. Hulgelkultur’s word originated from german and simply means “hill/mound culture.” This regenerative technique is centuries-old. So what does that mean? This method uses wood, twigs, leaves, and other organic debris to create a “raised bed” as part of the growing medium.

How does hugelkutur work?

The idea behind is really simple and efficient. The plant materials are laid down like a sandwich from the biggest material to the smallest one. In the first layer, logs are laid down, then twigs, leaves, compost, soil, and mulch at the highest level.

As the plant materials start to break down and decompose, it helps improve soil quality, increases soil organisms, minimizes water usage, and reduces plant waste. This method mimics what already happens in nature, and it’s proven to work to improve soil quality.

Benefits of hugelkultur

  • Improves soil structure – the rotting plant materials will create the perfect environment for microorganisms to thrive and release nutrients to the soil.
  • Minimizes waste – instead of being burned or unused at the landfill, the plant material will be used to aid plant growth. 
  • Reduces water usage – the rotten wood will act as a sponge absorbing and holding water in the soil.
  • Extend the growing season by aiding soil warmth – as the plant material is being broken down, some heat will be generated, keeping the bed warm. This is especially beneficial in regions where it takes longer to warm up in spring allowing growers to get ahead of the season by planting a little earlier. 
  • Saves money – in most scenarios, people are working with less than ideal soil, and improving soil quality is essential to grow healthy plants. however, it can be costly to purchase material. So using plant debris that didn’t have a purpose to fill some of the soil space will save you money. 

Potential downside to hugelkultur

  • There is a possibility of introducing unwanted pathogens and pests into your vegetable garden if infected material is used.
  • Access to the plant materials required to build a hugelkultur bed is not always easy. Most people do not have tree stumps and branches lying around.
  • Treated wood can introduce chemical pesticides and herbicides into your garden (even some types of trees have naturally occurring pesticide properties, so it is important to check the source of your material)

Raised bed garden and hugelkultur

Hulgelkultur has been becoming more and more popular among those choosing or looking into raised bed gardening. I like to say that filling your raised beds is an investment, it can break the bank very quickly depending upon how you choose to fill your raised beds. I highly recommend bulk soil when filling a lot of raised beds. But even then, it can be a couple of hundred dollars to fill your beds, depending upon how big your garden will be.

Not everyone has plant materials lying around to make a hugelkultur raised bed, so it may not be feasible for everyone to follow this method. I recommend checking with neighbors and friends if they plan on cutting/trimming any trees, so you have the chance of snagging those materials because it lands in a landfill. Even if you don’t have the opportunity of using large plant materials such as tree logs, grass clippings, and twigs can still serve a purpose!

I highly recommend new and experienced gardeners to experiment with using raised gardens to produce part of their food. Raised gardens are simple to maintain, fertilize, neat, reduces water usage, easier on your back, and simply good all around.

Maintaning a hugelkultur bed

Although this method provides many advantages, there are a few downsides, not big enough to be a setback. In my personal opinion, hulgelkultur beds tend to sink faster than non-hugelkultur beds, this means that at the end of every growing season, I have to add more compost on top of my beds than usual. I don’t recommend adding the twigs and stumps to fill the top of the bed at the end of the season as it will make it more difficult to garden and sow seeds.

What kind of wood can I use?

Not every kind of wood is suitable to build a raised bed, and not all kind of wood is suitable to use for hugelkultur. Some trees have certain compounds that can reduce the germination rate of plants. Some examples are gold rod, pepper tree (invasive tree in the state of Florida), eucalyptus, walnut, and others.

Even though it is common for most households to have leftover wood from house projects, I would avoid using any wood material that has been dyed or chemically treated as those materials can leach into the soil, contaminating it.

What other types of materials can I use in a hugelkultur bed?

  • Grass clippings
  • Cardboard ( I like to add to the first layer from bottom-up to prevent weeds from growing through the soil)
  • Straw 
  • Compost
  • Leaves
  • Manure
  • Wood chips 
  • Branches and sticks
  • Paper bags (you can add towards the last year as it tends to degrade quite fast)
  • Logs

 

How much of my bed should be hugelkultur?

It is important to note that a portion of the bed will be filled with different plant materials, and depending upon the height of your bed, it can become a problem. Large logs can get in the way of roots and not provide enough soil for plants to grow. If too many thick logs are added into a shallow bed, it can lead to problems including irregular shaped/small carrots, lack of nutrients, and others.

I recommend leaving at the bare minimum over 6 inches of good quality top soil in the highest level of your beds but ideally 10-12 inches. Most vegetables don’t grow roots past 6-8 inches deep, but I have seen tomatoes and brassicas going well over 16 inches deep.

Another substitute for people using beds that are not high enough for all the layers of hugelkultur is using wood chips to fill the bottom of the beds. It is very important only to purchase materials that have not been treated with any pesticides or dye. You can also reach out to local arborists as they tend to look for places to dispose of their plant material and wood chips.

Final thoughts

A not enough spoken reason why many should garden is how it benefits the planet. Industrial agriculture is harmful to us and for the planet as it tends to be filled with pesticides, herbicides, and other compounds that are detrimental to all beings.

When having the ability and privilege of having the space, time, and resources to produce part of your own produce you are not only getting better quality food, but you are also creating a more sustainable environment by offsetting part of your carbon footprint, providing shelter for wildlife and aiding the planet overall.

Nature is wise beyond what we can comprehend; although many things may appear purposeless, nature is always reusing all that is given. If we pay enough attention to how nature works, we can live in harmony with one another and protect this invaluable place that we call home.

Hulgelkultur simply put is naturing showing us that nothing is wasted and everything serves a purpose. The rotting wood will feed the soil and help gardeners save money and time.

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