The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.



Wildflowers on a hugelkultur bedDavia asked me if I'd ever heard of Hugelkultur.  I thought the answer was no, until I googled the term and discovered that hugelkultur is very similar to the mounds I built last fall using dirt tossed over decomposing branches.  Putting a name to the method really expedited my research and turned up a lot more information than I thought was out there.  Thanks, Davia!

The idea is pretty simple --- adding wood to a raised bed acts as a sponge, evening out soil moisture so that the ground doesn't become waterlogged and also doesn't dry up.  As the wood rots, it turns into wonderful organic matter a lot like the stump dirt I rave about.

However, I think I made a few mistakes with my hugelkultur beds.  If you research the technique, you'll discover that the correct way to make the beds is to bury the woody material at least a foot or two under the earth.  I just built up piles of partly rotten branches and shoveled dirt in the gaps, a method that worked okay for the hazels and wildflower mixes I grew there, but that wouldn't have worked for vegetables.  I'm sure the branches are locking up nitrogen out of the soil as I type, but everything I put in the beds is extremely resilient and seems to be surviving.

The real problem is that my beds are too dry.  The wood hasn't rotted down enough yet to act as a sponge, and the loosely shoveled clay has a lot of air pockets that let water drain right through.  Granted, I located the mounds in an area where the groundwater is so high nothing will grow there, so this "problem" isn't so bad --- it made a nice spot to put in rosemary without ending up with root rot the way my rosemary plants usually do.

Weedy moundsProblem number two is also related to my haphazard construction.  I left bits of branches sticking out around the edges, which made Mark very leery of mowing up to the sides of the mounds.  Add to that the fact that my mulch mostly blew away over the winter and I forgot to refresh it or weed the mounds, and the result is a weed thicket.  Surprisingly, the thickly seeded wildflowers seem to be holding their ground against the weeds, and the honeybees consider this area their second home, so all is not lost.

Now that I know more about the technique, though, I want to try hugelkultur again as another winter project.  This time, I'll bury the wood deeper and plant a cover crop to add fertility for the first year or so before planting anything important.  I'll be curious to see how quickly the rotting wood starts benefiting my plants.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Thanks for the post! I inherited piles of well-rotted firewood that we haven't a clue what to do with. Guess I'll be digging trenches this autumn in our "bad soil" garden.
Comment by mrs fuzzy Mon Jun 28 10:07:14 2010

Hügelkultur is not a common German word.

Such a bed is properly named (and known as) a "Hügelbeet", which means "raised bed without a border". It is related to the Hochbeet; "raised bed with border". For those who don't read German, the second link has pictures. :-)

According to the first link, you should put a fine steel mesh under your hill to protect it from voles and other arvicolinae.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jun 28 11:57:58 2010

Mrs. Fuzzy --- well rotted wood is golden (depending on how well rotted, of course)!

Roland --- I'm so glad you know German! I don't think the people who use the term were going for just "raised bed", though. Could the "kultur" part refer to the wood in some way?

Comment by anna Mon Jun 28 13:20:24 2010

The German word "kultur" means more or less the same as the English "culture" and the Dutch "cultuur". It can have different meanings depending on the context. In the context of a Hügelbeet it just means "a way of growing things on a hill". The word "agriculture" comes from the same Latin root; "agri cultura"; "working the field".

Nothing particular to do with wood, AFAIK. :-/ The German and Dutch words for wood are "Holz" resp. "hout", should you ever come across them. German and Dutch are related languages. They're often confused by native English speakers. There's this ethnic group in the US called "Pennsylvania Dutch" who are actually mostly of German descent.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jun 28 18:19:38 2010
Now that I've looked into it a little more, it seems like "hugelkultur" is probably a made up word by its creator, Sepp Holzer. He may have used the term "kultur" as a reference to permaculture.
Comment by anna Mon Jun 28 19:13:03 2010
Anna, I tried it too. I didn't dig them very deep either because i just have a tiny community garden plot and I asimply didn't have where to put so much dirt as i was digging, so they are burried at about 12 inches deep at the most, but they are covered-first with half way done compost, and then dirt. Well, nasturtiums grew large - the leaves are like my hands. Peas are the funny thing, because half of them grew nicely and half are stunted - maybe I used different kind of wood and they affect differently? Anyway, wood definetely does something, so let's keep experimenting.
Comment by Daiva Sun Nov 21 12:05:00 2010
I totally agree that there's a lot of potential there. I'm thinking now that the best thing to do is probably not to plan to plant into them for a couple of years and to just plant cover crops or even just do a kill mulch on top and let them decompose. I'll keep playing around with the idea until I get it right.
Comment by anna Sun Nov 21 16:31:06 2010
My husband found your article I am really excited to try out this method. We have 60 pecan trees on our farm & every year besides burning the fallen limbs we were never sure what to do with them, we have even tried to give the wood away! Now we can try this out. Thanks
Comment by Samantha Mon Feb 21 17:01:16 2011
I hope you'll report back and let me know how it works for you if you give it a try.
Comment by anna Mon Feb 21 21:04:27 2011
Are there some pre-conditions or constraints regarding soil type or texture before applying Hugelkultur? when so we need to apply it? are there any important considerations before applying this method?
Comment by Dana Wed Mar 23 06:57:42 2011

I don't think there are any constraints on soil type, but there are soils that would benefit from Hugelkultur more than others. The type I'm practicing is specialized to my waterlogged soil --- I'm not burying the wood in the ground, but instead putting down a kill mulch, adding the logs, and then topping it off with soil, mulch, and compost. If you had sandy soil with the opposite problem --- too much water loss --- I'd go back to the original method and bury the logs so that you hold onto more water.

The only real problem I've run into is small mammals moving into the rotting wood, which tempts my dog to dig them out and ruin the whole bed. Some folks put down a layer of hardware cloth under the wood in an attempt to keep the critters out. Of course, if you don't have a rodent-obsessed dog, that might not matter much.

Comment by anna Wed Mar 23 08:32:31 2011
How long does a Hugelkultur mound "last" before you have to add to/change it, or does it continue on indefinitely after you have established it? I guess what I'm asking is, does it need to be 'fed' (more wood buried or anything added) at some point? Do you dig it and bury more, or add to the top? I understand the concept, and I realize half the beauty is it's self sustainability, so maybe it will take care of itself forever. Maybe I'm overly concerned because it almost seems too good to be true. :)
Comment by Rhenda Fri Apr 1 12:24:28 2011
Hugelkultur is more of a way of amending the soil when starting to grow in new ground than something you would do every year. The wood will slowly rot down and turn into great soil, so you'll just topdress your usual compost and mulch on the bed every year after you build the hugelkultur mound. With our fruit trees in waterlogged soil, we also expand the hugelkultur mound every year, making a ring of new hugelkultur area around the existing bed. That way, the trees' expanding roots can keep growing into new, prime territory.
Comment by anna Fri Apr 1 16:11:13 2011
i realised later one of my helpers used a piece of drift wood in one of the beds. the part where it is easy to tell, everything there is wilted and withered frmo salt. so its an easy fix, but don't use drift wood!
Comment by Louise Haddaway Tue Jul 24 12:45:30 2012
Louise --- That's too bad! I've read that a lot of people who live near the ocean gather seaweed for mulching their gardens and have always wondered about the issue of salt. I wonder why the seaweed doesn't cause the same problem?
Comment by anna Tue Jul 24 15:36:18 2012
I have conflicting information about using pecan limbs, any advice? Is it poisonous? Also what about pine?
Comment by Annette Sat Mar 21 00:43:43 2020

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