How to Make Hugelkultur Beds for Growing Vegetables

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Garden bed edged with logs

I confess to being a long-term sceptic of the permaculture bed-building technique called hügelkultur, in which waste wood is used as the base layer in compost-filled mounds. Hugelkultur (pronounced HOO-gel-kul-tur) always seemed like a lot of work to me, with extensive digging and piling of soil and dragging about of heavy logs.

But change is good, and due to a convergence of events, I find myself on the verge of hugelling. This past spring after renovating several terraced beds, the poor things looked sadly sunken, and we’d like to avoid the volume issue next year, when we redo two more beds. The beds are being dug out anyway and I have plenty of woody materials on hand, so I plan to gain the 12 inches (30cm) of loft I need at the bottom of the beds using hügelkultur methods.

“Hugel
My new hugel beds are inspired by these created by Jon Roberts

How Hugelkultur Beds Work

There are endless ways to build beds atop wood waste, which rots slowly and serves as a source of stable organic matter buried deep in the soil profile. Fungi are primary decomposers of wood, so soil near the rotting wood becomes permeated with hair-thin fungal mycelium. Some hugel beds are built atop logs, while others use small brush as woody filler. The best wood is old and ready to rot, for example old logs from an abandoned wood pile, or in my case, a brush pile of weathered fruit tree branches.

In addition to pieces of wood, the most successful hugel beds include layers of organic matter such as rotted hay, grassy sod turned green side down, pulled plants, or food waste. Dryness is a commonly-reported issue with new hugel beds, so it’s also important to sift some soil into the crevices between wood pieces to eliminate dry pockets. To help new hugel beds retain moisture, they can be shaped to have flat or concave tops rather than peaked ones.

“Hugel
The author’s plan for her new hugel beds

Are Hugelkultur Beds Worthwhile?

Digging a big hole and hauling heavy wood and soil is a lot of work, so unless you have access to heavy equipment, think carefully before breaking ground for a hugel bed. Read critical reviews and look at lots of pictures and videos. One of the best reasons to undertake the project is that you have compacted or rocky subsoil. Compared to impenetrable subsoil, a big hugel mound is promising garden space indeed.

Building hugel beds is also quite practical where you want to use broad berms to add structure and dimension to your landscape, or you plan to install berms and swales to channel water. Or, like me, you might simply need to add significant depth to a new or renovated garden bed.

“Rotting
Rotting logs in the woods provide a natural model for hugelkultur beds

Mimicking Nature’s Plan

I live amidst woods that are rich with fallen trees, some of which have been on the ground for decades. On walks I regularly encounter rotting logs and stumps that have become hills due to accumulated organic matter, examples that prove Nature knows how to put dead wood to good use. We’ve used logs planted on end to frame beds in the past, and they lasted ten years and left the soil better for their presence. As to whether my new hugel beds succeed or fail, I’ll keep you posted. For now, it’s great to look forward to trying something new.

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Comments

 
"Thank you, this is most practical basic guide I've seen yet! In the process of creating firewood I've established a pile of rotting logs, branches, and bark that I draw from to use as a bottom layer for small projects but this post has given me several new ideas."
Nancy Hildebrandt on Saturday 19 December 2020
"The primary reason for doing hugelkulture is to attract and preserve moisture. Fields of logs buried in desert areas have supported gardens where nothing had grown before. And you should know that as wood rots beneath the surface the surface will sink. I am putting a layer of old slash and twigs, with dirt fill, in the bottom of my raised beds, followed by old chicken straw and compost, topped off with last year's dirt. Aside from adding compost annually I will not disturb or till the beds. My objective is to conserve moisture and improve my garden soil."
Roberta McCanse on Sunday 20 December 2020
"Nancy and Roberta, Thanks for chiming in, and please keep sharing your experiences on this interesting topic!"
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 1 January 2021
"I used this method in our raised beds too, and found it effective. It does drop quite a bit each year, but it just means there’s room for mulching each spring. I did make the mistake of planting rhubarb in one of the beds, and the crowns don’t like being covered. I manage, but I would never again choose to plant rhubarb in a hugel bed. By the way, all our raised beds are high enough for me to garden without kneeling down, as I have mobility issues. I can either sit or bend a bit. This was how we got onto hugel in the first place, as it would take an awful lot of soil and compost to fill such deep beds! "
Caroline on Saturday 27 February 2021
"My beds are also raised, about waist high. We have ground squirrels that eat everything they can reach so we put metal flashing around the upper edge s of our four by four beds on pallets. We also garden in bathtubs that sit up on cement blocks. I am anxious to see how things look this spring as the wood has had one season to rot in the bottom of the beds. I have compost and chicken straw to add before topping off with planting soil."
Bobbi McCanse on Sunday 28 February 2021

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