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hugelkultur, nature’s raised garden beds

Onions in hugelkulture bed, copyright Dave WhitingerFOR 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
or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

my hugelkultur q&a with dave whitinger

 

 

Dave Whitinger, copyright All Things PlantsFOR 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.”

starting a hugelkultur bed; Dave Whtinger photo

 

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.)

  1. Leonie says:

    Hi, I have recently heard about this wonderful method of growing food and have a very limited space. I was wondering if building a hugel kulture on top of a concrete slab would pose any problems – it gets the best sun and I’m just not sure if there are any drawbacks to not having it on soil. I’ve noticed a large variety of beneficial insects around the rest of my little garden – mostly in pots – which I know is essential to happy plants.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Leonie. I do not know with a certainty, but I think if you piled stuff deep enough, it would be like a giant container, sort of, and fine. I see comments on various permaculture and hugelkultur bulletin boards online about it, and people seem to do it anywhere (e.g., urban settings) if that’s where the only spot is.

        1. Carol Shannon says:

          I’ll be trying this too! My lot has several concrete pads from former owners that I’d love to cover up. And I have brush to start the base.

          1. Gene says:

            Here, we call those “Lasagna Gardens” by layering cardboard, newsprint, straw, compost, etc. on our native clay. Its as hard as concrete in the summer; but grows stuff just fine.

            Scotts claims that they can grow Kentucky Bluegrass on a slab as long as they give it water and Scotts fertilizer (of course) so go for it.

  2. Dianne says:

    We tried for three years with the hugelkultur bed growing first butternut squash, then sweet potatoes and finally melons, and then gave up. Voles or wood rats consumed all our plantings. We also had an increase in voles in the garden. We found that we had built a prime piece of real estate for them…just the kind of home they love! We finally dug it all up. It sounds great if you don’t have any problems with pests.

    1. Calzo says:

      This is the second year since the creation of my hugelkultur bed. Same thing happened to me, one bed is full of voles that are eating all the potatoes. We have some snakes around but it is not enough. I think that the garden should be enclosed in a fine mesh net so to avoid infestations,and I am planning to do so. Hoping for the biota to get in balance is like having deers and rabbits eating all your food hoping that wolfes pass by instead of building a fence. It is better to enclose the garden and let only demolitors (pillbugs, worms, etc….) plus predators (lizards..) get in and stay inside.

  3. Tracy says:

    Hi, a quick question about Hugelkultur beds: What is the purpose of the woody foundation? Is this just a way to break down nusiance pieces of wood constructively? Does it perform some vital nutrient purpose? Form and shape? Essentially, couldn’t one just make a huge pile of soil (made from broken down compost, leaf mold, grass clippings, etc.) and plant in that?

    1. kelsey says:

      Hi Tracy,

      A properly created hugelkultur bed does not need to be fertilized or tilled at all, the wood breaking down over a long time provides the airation and nutrients needed, it also should not need to be watered, period. The wood soaks up water in the winter and spring and holds it through the summer. Essentially, it is a pain to build, but then becomes maintenance free! Very different from simple dirt and compost gardens.

      1. Barbee says:

        I agree with all of the above with one addition.
        My 1st year w/ hugleculture turned out to be a flood year.
        All my friends and neighbors who do planting at ground level suffered awful losses.
        Not just sudden drowning but root rot from the continuous moisture (months!) Yes, I had looses too, but I fared much better because of the ‘elevated’ nature of the huglebeds.
        So! Another plus and advantage for huglebeds is protection from seasonal flooding.
        Just sayin’.

        1. margaret says:

          Thanks, Barbee–good point, and true about raised beds in general (though with conventional ones of soil it can get muddy eventually, of course, compared to hugel beds). Nice to hear from you.

  4. Karen says:

    I have a LOT of very OLD lumber, non painted or stained. could I use that for a base? it’s already sitting in a pile and I really hate to throw it into a landfill, but the wood is too old to be reused in any buildings

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. I don’t see why not, if as you say it is untreated (in all the ways — stain, paint, preservative…).

  5. shannon stoney says:

    I made two of these last year. At first they didn’t do too well, but then they really took off. Raspberries especially seem to enjoy the extra drainage and organic matter.

  6. louis desena says:

    hi Margaret-glad to have “info” available from you on “hugelculture and permaculture”-it’s
    really “catching on!!!”.love the article and info.–keep it coming!!!-

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Virginia. I don’t see why not, since it is the way that nature manages itself, basically, in a wooded environment anywhere. You are kind of simulating that–as if limbs had fallen, and leaves etc. had fallen on them, and so on. Or like composting in place–which again, you can do anywhere (just with different available materials). There are certainly permaculture groups in Florida (search on Google for Florida permaculture), and this is one practice within the larger system of permaculture, roughly speaking.

  7. Rita Wilson says:

    I built one smallish one this spring. I read lots about them first, printed off the most important tips and away I went. I’m growing peas and beans this first year to help it get going. I put the bigger wood in the very bottom of the hole, then added smaller limbs and pieces of wood as I made my way toward the sky. So far, the plants are looking good and growing like crazy. No store bought fertilizer was added. Only limbs, old hay, old compost, new compost, rabbit doo-doo and fur, plus milking cow dung (I’ve read that steer has too much salt and that milking cow is the best). This experiment has really be a lot of fun. If I’m pleased then I’ll build two larger ones this fall. I too, am bothered with varmits digging into it, but my dog and two kitties do their best to ward off all evil critters. I caught a squirrel digging up my special sunflower seeds and enjoying them before he ate the entire planting. Never a dull moment when gardening, especially with inexperience.

  8. Wendy Newman says:

    I’ve built my new vegetable beds using this method as inspiration — used an enormous pile of 2-3 years worth of prunings from all sorts of different trees and shrubs and even threw on the thick stalks from the sunflowers. Covered it all up with compost, soil and very aged horse manure. The different lengths and widths of plant material created the structure for the beds but I had to be careful not to include any willow, currant or forsythia because it sprouted!
    I’m not using the beds for root veggies yet, but it’s working very well for everything else.

  9. Barbee says:

    I did this on my new property at my new house this year. (Been in house 8 months now).
    I have to admit that being a ‘raised bed’ person, this was a natural fit. And my results these 1st few months have been awesome!.
    My husband and I built a house on virgin cow pasture on clay. Black gumbo clay -near Dallas, Texas. Zone 8a.
    My ‘modified’ hugleculture/raised beds have been amazingly perfect. What I did was to dig a pit where the beds were to sit, I filled these pits w/ dead fall trees, fresh logs, brush from the hedgerows and hay from the ‘lawn’. We built 7 beds-by hand!-tossed on some top soil and planted.

    Well-then it stared raining. It started raining in our area in January-and it is still raining here in June. (We had 2 1/2 inches last week)
    The raised beds saved my spring veggies, my summer veggies and I’m pretty sure my huglebeds are Very well watered! It’s funny-each bed has a halo in the soil. There’s a peculiar moistness that surrounds the beds-I think that means it’s working. Anyway-veggies love it-even the 1st year. My melon vines REALLY love it and I recommend it to everyone any chance I have.
    Thank you for introducing me to this method-so far only one negative . Crawdads. I have crawdads that have been burrowing in the beds-but that may be more of a result of flooding than the method.

  10. shannon says:

    The biggest bottleneck for the hugelkultur beds is: where to get the soil to put on top of the wood. You can dig out a trench, put the wood in the trench, and then cover the wood, but this is a lot of work. You can, like Dave, lay the wood on the ground, and then go get soil from elsewhere to pile on top; this is a little less work. Having some machinery to haul the soil and/ or dig it out helps a lot, but doing this by hand is back-breaking. Dirt is heavy! My experience is that merely piling compost and leaves on top of wood does not do much good: you need some actual dirt.

    1. Greg says:

      Hi, Shannon, what I used instead of dirt was coffee grounds. I left two five gallon buckets with lids at a local coffee shop and picked them up every few days. Starbucks gives away bags of grounds too. I layered my bed with deadfall from my urban neighborhood and the coffee grounds. The fresh smell of coffee was a nice addition. I added leaves and more twigs in the fall and more grounds. I’m four years in now and still add sticks and leaves as I find them.

      1. bruce says:

        I thought I read somewhere that using coffee grounds will result in plants absorbing the caffeine. Anyone have an opinion. A guess a morning caffeine radish might be a little more healthy?

  11. Judi says:

    I find this concept interesting. I garden on 4 acres and I’ve been thinking of putting in an arc shaped row of varied coloured lilacs in a location that gets full sun. The difficulty is that the bedrock is at the surface and the ground there is also very wet in the spring. I was thinking of a berm. Would wood debris help. I do have lots of it. Any issues I should consider?

  12. Debby says:

    I use hugelkulture as the backstop for shrub and flower beds at the rear of my yard where it starts to slope down towards woods. Sort of a retaining wall to ensure I don’t loose all the compost enriched soil I’ve spent years working on. The beds weren’t very deep when I first started but, over time, I was able to increase the depth as I kept adding branches and other material (leaves, grass clipping, etc) to this ‘back wall’. I did worry that with the breakdown of materials it would stop being an effective means of erosion control but that hasn’t been the case. I’m a big fan of the practice.

  13. Leia says:

    Last year in the Spring I dug a bed and added lots and lots of wood from our yard. Once the hole was filled I added soil. My intention was to plant it but health issues with my husband prevented anything of the sort. I just ventured to the back of the garden to look at it today and there are some holes in it but I think I will add some more soil and compost and see how veggies grow in it.

  14. Ana Muir says:

    It is great to see this listed here. I’ve only become aware of this method in the last few months because I’ve seen it in several gardening magazines. It’s amazing how the water cycle works here. It rains, the water goes through the soil on top of the wood/branches, the wood absorbs the water, then the absorbed water evaporates watering the top soil again.

  15. Susan says:

    We just purchased some property. There is a hilled slope on a portion of the property. I wanted to know your thoughts on doing hugel mounds on the hill.

    1. margaret says:

      Agree, Josie. Love this subject, and lucky you being in TX: Maybe you can go hear Dave talk sometime, depending where you are.

  16. Jack Sydnor says:

    Hello,
    I was looking for this podcast about Huglekultur, dated April 15, 2013. The link seems to be broken. I was originally looking for information on this and came across you and your radio program which I’ve now been listening to. I’ve been catching up on all the past episodes that are available and I am really enjoying these.
    I was still hoping to listen to the program on huglekultur.
    Thank you,
    Jack Sydnor

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jack. The radio station had a server failure, and the archive had to be rebuilt. So far 2017, 2016 and 2015 are back online. Let me see if I can get this one from earlier back up online.

  17. Michele Lucas says:

    We just bought 5 acres of sandy prairie land in Colorado. Nothing is growing there right now. I’ve been planning to create Hugel beds for a long time and was wondering if one can plant a small tree atop a Hugel bed or are these beds limited to crops and plants?
    BTW, thank you for the suggestion about contacting my power company for logs and branches. Great idea! Now if they’ll only deliver them to me it’ll be a big score!
    Great article!
    Michele

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