Friday, June 24, 2011

Permaculture Projects: Hugelkultur

Anatomy of Hugelkultur

What is Hugelkultur?
This is a German compound word - aren't they all?
It translates as mound/hill (hugel --> WHO-gull) + culture/cultivation (kultur --> cull-chur).

Hugelkultur is making raised beds that are filled with rotting wood.  It is such a simple concept, but it is an amazing method to use.

Wood pile core of a hugelkultur bed

Benefits of Hugelkultur
  • Full of slowly decomposing organic matter
  • Full of nutrients.
  • Builds fertility over time.
  • The rotting wood is a massive sponge for water (read that: very little or sometimes no irrigation needed - fantastic method of water harvesting/preservation).
  • Heat from the decomposing wood helps create a warmer microclimate
  • It will last for YEARS!  30 years for a deep bed is not unheard of in climates without a high rainfall.  10-15 yrs for a deep bed in areas with high rainfall.  5 yrs or so for shallower beds.  As the bed ages, it will slowly shrink further and further down to the ground.

Side by side comparison of growing cantaloupes - seeds from the same packet!
Left - traditional garden method; Right - a very shallow hugelkultur bed
Look at the difference!

Creating Hugelkultur
Find your woody material.
This can be downed trees, old firewood, pruned branches and twigs, rotten logs, etc.
Wood can be fresh or rotting.  Rotten wood does decompose faster.
Just about any wood can be used.  Paul Wheaton recommends against Black Locust (since it almost never rots!), Cedar (it has natural pesticides and herbicides), and Black Walnut (contains a chemical that prevents plants from growing near it).

Mound your woody material
Lay the wood in a long mound.
It can be any height you want it to be.  1-2 feet is common in backyard gardens, but Sepp Holzer builds his mounds 5-6 feet high.
You can also lay the wood in a dug trench, so that the total height is not as high above ground level.

Cover your woody material
If you are not going to plant immediately, you can add additional compostable items: grass clippings, manure, kitchen scraps, garden waste, sod, etc.
Cover with a few inches of soil and/or compost.

Plant your mound
That's it!

Sepp Holzer's Raised Bed System... really a form of Hugelkultur
Please click on the diagram or link below to see a larger image.
Concerns about Hugelkultur
If you are using fresh wood, there is concern that nitrogen will be sucked into the wood during initial stages of decomposition.  While that is technically true, it appears that this system either mitigates that due to a concurrent release of nitrogen or due to an unknown mechanism unique to this technique.  Either way, people plant vegetables (high nitrogen utilizers) right away into brand-new hugelkultur beds all the time with fantastic results.

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  2. Can this be done inside of a walled raised garden bed structure? I like having my garden away from the critters...

  3. For which climate is this best appropriate? Would it be ok in mediterranean climate?

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  5. A caveat: be sure to fill your air holes! put down a layer, add soil or compost, water well, do it again... Otherwise your roots will get air-pruned and you'll be very unhappy with the results.

    And yes, it works quite well for a raised bed.

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