Stacey Arnold is the grounds supervisor for a 580-acre county government campus. She has a B.S. in horticulture and recently started midatlanticgardening.com.
 

 
 

Hugelkultur
by Stacey Arnold - posted 03/30/18

“Grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilizer.”  – Paul Wheaton

That’s a pretty big claim from a pretty big guy. Towering at over 6 feet tall, Paul Wheaton, The Duke of Permaculture, is credited with introducing hugelkultur to gardeners on this side of the pond. Translated directly, “hugelkultur” (pronounced “hoogel culture”) is German for “hill culture” and quite simply, it is soil piled over wood that you then plant in.

When I first heard about hugelkultur from Paul Wheaton, it was a true “aha” moment. Why are gardeners working so hard to keep their plants watered during the drought of summer when Mother Nature is doing just fine all by herself? No one is watering the plants in the woods during a drought! If there’s one thing that makes me want to throw in the gardening towel, it’s wrestling with a kinked hose when it’s 95 F and 100 percent humidity outside. Just imagine not having that nightmare to contend with anymore!


Cross section of a 2-year-old hugelkultur bed. Even though this picture represents the tall above-ground beds, the premise is the same for smaller “suburban” beds. Look at those happy roots absorbing all that free moisture!
FAQs about hugelkultur:

Q. Won’t the rotting wood tie up the nitrogen in the soil and make it unavailable to the plants?

A.
While the decomposing wood does require nitrogen, think of it more as a nitrogen pantry than nitrogen sink. The nitrogen will be available to the plants in the future once the decomposition process slows down. Besides, if you’re using wood that is already rotting, it’s probably ready to give back much of the nitrogen that it originally consumed. In the meantime, if you see your plants turning a bit yellow, add an organic nitrogen source such as blood meal to supplement. 

Q. What kind of wood should be used for the beds?

A.
For the most part, it’s any wood that you have access to. You can use pine, oak, maple, hickory, ash … whatever you have a good source of in your area. There are only a few types of wood that won’t work as well as others and they are cedar, black locust and walnut. The cedar and black locust won’t harm your plants but they are so slow to break down that they won’t readily give the water back to your plants as you intended. 

For more information:
Paul Wheaton, richsoil.com

Think of the woods where you live. You may have noticed on a summer hike that even during the worst of droughts, there are rotting logs in the woods that are damp with moisture. Some of us may have kicked those logs just to see how rotten they were. I have always been impressed by how much moisture they contain. There are often ferns and mushrooms growing on and around them, all during a drought. As those logs decompose, they act like sponges absorbing rainfall. That moisture is then available to plants near the rotting logs during times of drought. Pretty nifty, huh?

Now, let’s transfer this observation of nature to your backyard. How can you replicate what you’ve seen in the woods? You can either put your logs directly on top of the ground and add soil and compost on top, or you can bury the logs and then add your soil blend. For your hugelkultur beds, it’s best to use wood that is already absorbing and holding water. If you use wood that has been recently cut, you’ll have to wait a season or two longer to realize the benefits. If you use wood that is falling apart due to rot, your beds will perform beautifully, but they won’t last as long. In a perfect hugelkultur bed, you would want to use wood that is a season past its prime for firewood. During the first year, you may need to keep the beds watered until the decomposition process is well under way. Observe your plants and allow them to get a little dry before watering once they’re established. Just as in a conventional bed, they’ll send their roots deeper in search of moisture, eventually tapping into the moisture reserve below.

How tall should the beds be, you ask? That’s a matter of preference. Sepp Holzer, another permaculture guru, makes his hugelkultur beds 6 feet tall and then walks between his beds, harvesting his bounty without ever having to stoop down. That sounds like a refreshing change for a weary back during harvesting season. The hills can be 6 feet tall if you have the space, or they can be at ground level if you bury the wood first. For suburban gardeners, the latter option may be more appropriate, especially if you live in an area with an HOA or other restrictions. I’ve heard of resourceful gardeners that add hugelkultur beds along property lines that just happen to get a little taller year after year. Before you know it, you have a garden bed that doesn’t require irrigation or fertilizer and acts as a screen from your neighbors.


With the help of a tractor, the beds were excavated to depth of 18 inches. You could make the beds deeper, shallower or just pile the wood on top of the ground if you don’t feel up to digging. Hugelkutur beds, as well as permaculture, can be scaled up or down to accommodate your needs.

The beds were constructed in place to accommodate the rotting logs and soil. The 4”x4” posts were planted 12 inches deep to prevent shifting of the sides as the soil settled.

Rotting logs were added to the beds with the assistance of the tractor. These logs are good and rotten, and already contain a great deal of moisture.

The rotting logs have been placed in the bed. You can use long logs or smaller, more manageable sections of a log; again, it’s really about what you have access to in your area. Now it’s time for the compost!

We added a blend of the excavated topsoil and composted horse manure to the beds to cover the logs. Use a shovel to fill in all of the nooks and crannies around the logs. Finish it off with a good watering or wait for a good drenching rain before planting. Fill in any settled areas with additional compost.

Here’s the finished product: two 4’ x 17’ hugelkultur beds that are ready for planting. Yippee!

What type of plants can you plant in a hugelkultur bed? Anything your gardening heart desires. These beds are the perfect home for trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, annuals or vegetables. If you can grow it in your regular garden beds, they can be successfully grown in a hugelkultur bed, just without the fuss of watering them all summer. During the initial decomposition process, the soil is warmer, so you may be able to extend the growing season as well.

What kind of maintenance do hugelkultur beds require? The only difference between these beds and conventional raised beds is that you’ll need to add compost periodically as the beds break down. Remember all of that time you used to spend wrestling with that blankety-blank kinked hose? You can now use it to add a little compost here and there and harvest all of those yummy fruits and veggies.

My family and I partnered with friends, Sean and Anna Taylor, in their vegetable garden to build two hugelkultur beds that reflect a more suburban garden. Even though they have over 5 acres of land, we buried the rotting wood 1 ½ feet deep and added about 2 feet of soil to the top. From the outside, they look like typical raised beds – but on the inside, they are holding moisture and teeming with all kinds of beneficial microbes.

Here is a disclaimer: The wood we used to build the beds was old, pressure-treated horse fencing. To prevent the leaching of the chemicals from the pressure-treated lumber into the garden soil, we lined the beds with plastic strips. In a perfect world, you could use logs, rocks or another natural material to build the sides of the beds to prevent any leaching and skip the plastic since it contains synthetic ingredients.


Fast forward a few months to early June after the peppers and eggplant were planted. These plants thrived with minimal watering and produced loads of eggplants and peppers. Now imagine what you can do in your own garden! Are you tired of watering yet?

 

A version of this article appeared in a March 2014 print edition of State-by_State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Stacey Arnold. Illustration courtesy of www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/.

 

 

 

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