Hugelkultur, translated as “hill culture” in the German language, is a sustainable agriculture technique that uses woody materials, such as logs and twigs to grow a garden or a farm. Essentially, hugelkultur is nothing more than wood buried in soil that you grow plants on top of. These plants can consist of plants of all sorts, including annual and biennial vegetables and herbs, and perennial plants such as fruit trees. Hugelkultur beds can be made into raised beds and terraces.
Hugelkultur essentially mimics how plants grow in a natural forest ecosystem, where trees fall over onto the forest floor, other organic matter falls and accumulates on top of the fallen trees, breaks down, and provides a fertile place for the seeds of new plants to germinate and grow on top of the decaying wood and other organic materials.
This environment not only provides extremely fertile soil for new plants, the woody materials also soak up water like a sponge. Such “hills” in a forest can last for many years, providing a rich growing environment for new plants and recycling nature’s organic materials back into the earth. Such resulting soil is teeming with soil life.
The first humans to practice hugelkultur for growing their own food likely observed such goings on it in nature, and decided to use such processes to their advantage. What they likely discovered were extremely fertile growing conditions that lasted for many years and needed no fertilization or irrigation. Such systems basically cared for themselves and required very little effort or maintenance on the part of the growers.
Hugelkultur has been used in Europe as a growing technique for a very long time, and its use in now spreading to other parts of the world, including the United States. This is largely in part due to the teachings and the practice of permaculture around the world, and the world-wide speaking engagements of a very famous sustainable farmer from Austria named Sepp Holzer, who has applied hugelkultur on a large scale on his farm located on the steep slopes and terraces of the mountainous Austrian landscape.
Using hugelkultur in our own gardens and farms provides many advantages, including:
- Using old woody materials, such as twigs, logs, branches, and even entire trees, that would otherwise need to be disposed of off-site or Hugelkultur is a great use for trees debris that has resulted from storms.
- Can be used flush with the ground, in raised bed hugelkultur mounds on top of the ground, or even placed in traditional wooden raised beds to achieve the same benefits over the course of many years.
- Does not require any complicated skills or knowledge, just strong muscles and helpers. The more friends that you have helping you to move the wood and to set up your hugelkultur bed, the faster and the easier that the work will be. Providing food is always a great way to encourage other people to help you!
- Hugelkultur is scalable. It can be used on a small scale in a backyard garden, or in a large-scale landscape or farm to create berms and swales to grow perennial plants and to help store water on the landscape.
- Can start small and then build onto it as desired.
- Can effectively be used in a variety of climates, including in desert regions.
- Helps people to become more self-sufficient and to help feed the hungry, including in harsh climates.
- Produces tiny air pockets as it composts down, aerating the soil.
- Can completely eliminate irrigation needs.
Helpful hugelkultur tips
- Some types of wood are better than others for hugelkultur use. Some types of trees have wood that contains phytochemicals that will inhibit the growth of other plants, such as Black Walnut trees and conifer trees (which have a resin that keeps the wood from breaking down for a very long time). Many other types of wood from deciduous trees should work well in a hugelkultur bed, including alders, poplars, cottonwood, popular, apple trees, birch, maple, and oak.
- Very rotten wood is preferable to slightly aged wood, because fresher wood contains a lot of carbon that will tend to “steal” nitrogen from any plants that are growing on the hugelkultur beds, which also require nitrogen. Therefore, if the wood that you are using is not very rotten yet, you will need to add some organic source of nitrogen (such as composted animal manure) to your hugelkultur bed when you are first setting it up to alleviate this issue, and to encourage efficient composting of the wood in the bed.
- Taller, larger hugelkultur beds are typically better than smaller hugelkultur beds. This will encourage greater water storage as well as provide more growing space, as you can grow plants on the sides as well as on the top of the hugelkultur mound.
- Use straw or another type of mulch that can be attached and anchored to the hugelkultur bed. This will help to retain moisture during the first couple of seasons, as well as to help block unwanted weeds.
For more information about hugelkultur, and how you can build a hugelkultur bed yourself, check out the hugelkultur page of the website of famous permaculturist Paul Wheaton, at www.richsoil.com.