FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS I have grown my vegetables in raised beds, but the kind that you need to purchase lumber and bolts and use a saw and hammer to construct, then fill entirely with soil and compost. Lately I’ve been looking longingly at photos of a centuries-old, sustainable way of making raised garden beds called hugelkultur, or hill culture.
“It’s like sheet mulching or lasagna gardening,” says Dave Whitinger of the National Gardening Association, who regularly lectures on the subject, but in hugelkultur, “wood is the first level of your sheet-mulched bed.” That’s his robust hugelkultur onion bed up top.
Read along as you listen to the April 22, 2013 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify
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my hugelkultur q&a with dave whitinger
FOR DAVE (above), the idea of this style of recycling came from a walk in the forest—from the observation about how spongy and alive the ground is from all the years of fallen wood and leaves, and his wanting to emulate that. With some research, he and his wife found that it wasn’t a new idea, and that hill or mound beds with a woody base layer had been around for hundreds of years.
A Texas accent notwithstanding (Dave gardens and farms in East Texas, in Zone 8B), he tells me that hugelkultur is pronounced “HOO-gul-culture.” It’s a permaculture-style practice that uses woody debris including branches, twigs, and even logs as a resource, rather than burning them or removing them.
By capitalizing on woody debris, Dave says, you’re not importing and not exporting things, either–in other words, acting sustainably. “If you burn wood, you’re literally exporting carbon into the atmosphere.”
how to build a hugelkultur bed
Starting a hugelkultur bed Dave’s way does look a lot like the preparation of a giant bonfire, however, at least at first. The basic steps:
- Accumulate wood (above, Dave’s giant hugelkultur bed at the start; you can start much smaller). The wood can be chips, branches, even whole logs or old firewood that’s getting punky (the bottom layer of an old woodpile, for instance). Ask your power company to drop a load for you if you don’t have a supply, but use what you have first.
- Which woods? Softwoods like birch and alder, apple, cottonwood and poplar, and willow are often mentioned as highly desirable for the growing area/base of the hugel bed, as are maple and oak. Black walnut, which contains natural chemicals that prevent plant growth, is not recommended. Some sources advise against naturally rot-resistant cedar, black cherry and black locust, especially when freshly cut, and particularly in the growing area of the bed (compared to use as side “walls” in above-ground hugel beds). Opinions about the use of conifers also vary; some sources say to let the wood age first before using in the growing area.
- Site the bed-to-be in sun if you’re growing vegetables, but a shade garden could be grown hugelkultur-style, too, if you like.
- Mow the grass down on the area to be gardened. Then smother what’s there with cardboard, like this. Don’t till.
- Pile up your wood. Make any shape that you want, perhaps a keyhole-shaped bed, or put several of those together, as Dave did, and you have “a mandala-shaped garden that you can walk inside.” His is 30 feet wide, “full of pathways all through it.”
- You can put borders such as stones, logs or 2-by-8-inch boards to define the bed, though Dave doesn’t bother with edging.
- Speaking of which: If you’re making a conventional raised bed like mine, put wood in first before filling with soil and compost and so on. Use woody debris as a base layer inside your boxes.
- Cover your woody base with compost, a little soil, straw, old manure, spoiled hay, grass clippings–whatever organic material you have, to a depth of about 12 inches on top of the wood. If you have Nitrogen-rich material such as fresh grass clippings, put them right near the wood to help it get started breaking down.
- Within a few days the bed will start to settle down–but Dave prefers to prep new hugelkultur beds in fall, well before spring planting. “I like them to spend the whole winter relaxing,” he says, “and get colonized by microbes and so on.”
- Be aware that you will be low on N at first–but, “the bed will give it all back in time,” says Dave. Newish beds do well with potatoes, for instance, which don’t crave lots of Nitrogen—but don’t try to plant your corn (a very heavy N feeder) on a new hugelkultur bed.
- Aftercare in subsequent years: As the wood breaks down, it will start to collapse somewhat. “We add compost to the bed whenever we’re planting,” says Dave, filling in planting pockets as needed at that time.
- Dave Whitinger’s slideshow and more detailed hugelkultur how-to provides further inspiration.
what grows well in a hugelkultur bed?
KEEPING THE “biomass” of all that wood right on site does more than make a great raised bed. It also gives the little creatures—fungi, mycorrhizae, bacterium, insects and more—the food they crave, and an ideal environment to thrive in.
Plants grown in a hugelkultur bed thrive, too—Dave’s hugelkultur-bed onions, for instance (top photo), are much more vigorous than those grown conventionally, and he has had excellent results with herbs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, gourds, peppers and much more. Not just gourds but also other cucurbits–pumpkins and squash–likewise do well.
“I can’t think of anything that doesn’t do well in a hugelkultur bed,” he says.
The resulting crops are “miles ahead of people who are growing it with a field of triple-13 fertilizer,” he says, referring to store-bought generic synthetic bagged 13-13-13. Indeed.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 22, 2013 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(All photos courtesy of Dave Whitinger, used with permission.)