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Hügelkultur Gardening

By Jill Henderson

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

potatoes planted in huge bed
Planting potatoes in a hugel bed.

Hügelkultur Construction

  • Hügel beds can be made to any length, width or height desired. The average hügelkultur bed is three to five feet tall and can be rectangular, square, round or horseshoe-shaped (keyhole).
  • Beds are typically built on top of the ground and sometimes in 12- to 15-inch deep trenches.
  • Beds are generally free-standing, without any physical support or enclosure, but can be framed at the base with blocks, untreated lumber, logs or hay bales as desired.
  • A mixture of soft (faster-rotting) and hard (longer-lasting) woody base materials usually includes freshly dead or rotting firewood rounds, stumps, branches, brush and twigs.
  • Avoid wood from allelopathic trees like black walnut (for its juglone toxicity); high-resin trees like pine, spruce, yew, juniper and cedar; and hard, rot-resistant woods such as black locust, Osage orange and redwood. Any type of wood with sprouting potential (such as willow) should be completely dead before using.
  • Small branches, twigs, sawdust and coarse woodchips are used to fill voids in the woody base before construction is complete and periodically as the bed breaks down.
  • A simple hügel is covered with three to five inches of rotted manure or compost, followed by another three to five inches of garden soil or topsoil, but this can also include multiple layers of various organic materials in the fashion of a “lasagna-style” garden bed.
  • Hügel beds are ready for planting immediately after construction.

Hügelkultur Pros

  • The foundation of a hügelkultur bed is built using free and recycled resources that often otherwise end up in landfills or burn piles.
  • As wood breaks down, worms, fungi, beneficial bacteria and microorganisms work to create and release nutrients to plant roots for up to 20 years, depending on the type and density of wood.
  • Hügelkultur naturally sequesters carbon in the soil.
  • Decomposing wood generates heat, which is helpful for season extension.
  • Hügel beds warm up faster in the spring, allowing for earlier planting.
  • Traditional hügel beds have more overall planting space because of their three-dimensional nature and require less space in the garden because fewer garden paths are needed.
  • Tall hügel beds are easily tended while standing, making them a good solution for those with limited mobility.
  • Rotting wood acts like a sponge, absorbing and releasing moisture to plant roots as needed for many years. Beds may need watering in extreme droughts, but water is retained longer—a good solution for areas with periodic or chronic drought.
  • Hügels are naturally aerated and don’t need tilling or turning.
  • If covered with straw or wood chip mulch, weeds are easily kept in check.

Hügelkultur Cons

  • Hügelkultur beds can be labor-intensive to build, depending on their size and scope. This is remedied by building smaller beds or by constructing classic raised beds using the hügelkultur principle of starting with a woody base.
  • The breakdown of the raw, woody base can rob nitrogen for the first year or two. Avoid this problem by adding a heavy layer of manure to the wood base during construction, avoiding growing nitrogen-hungry plants for the first two years, side-dressing plants with compost, or supplementing with organic nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
  • Very steep-sided hügel beds might allow mulch and unmulched soils to slide or slump. Problems related to height will naturally resolve themselves as the woody base breaks down and the hügel shrinks.
  • Tall plants growing on steep-sided beds may fall over or be difficult to tend. Grow shorter, sprawling plants until the hügel shrinks a little.
  • Because of the exposure, plants grown on tall hügel beds may be more susceptible to wind and frost damage.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in Acres U.S.A. magazine