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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. Beth Urie says:

    Incredibly timely! We are rejuvenating a 200 yr old home site/landscape, trying to figure out how to deal most beneficially and efficiently with all the debris. Hugelkultur is perfect. In our first work weekend we generated huge piles – woody separate from leafy – which will now be added to our haul of cardboard in reviving the vegetable gardens.

    I try to return organic matter back to ‘from whence it came’ with as little effort as possible, and hugelkultur seems a very efficient way to do that. Time’s too precious with so much to do, to do otherwise! Next, we must find a good source of bulk compost somewhere in the neighborhood of Wiscasset, Maine!

    Thank you, Margaret! This is great! I enjoy listening to Dave Whitinger’s podcasts about gardening in Texas. Best practices relate, no matter where we garden.

  2. Anne Larson says:

    I’ve seen some uses of hugelkultur during a tour of edible gardens in the Des Moines area. We have some folks who are really embracing this technology and having good results. In a little neighborhood, sometimes it’s more acceptable to dig a pit for the wood then pile on the compost. Seems to be working!

    1. margaret says:

      Good point, Anne. I should have mentioned the pit version! (Seems like a lot of work to me, but you are right — less “obvious”.)

  3. Brian G. says:

    Starting the bed with a base of rotting timbers is a great use of readily available (and free!) organic material from the surrounding woods. What a great idea. I will absolutely use this technique when building my next free floating raised bed.

  4. Burndett Andres says:

    Margaret! YOU are a wonder! I LOVE this idea. I’ve been thinking about building some sort of raised bed garden to grow some veggies since Himself isn’t willing to let me plant potatoes among the petunias. THIS is PERFECT! Not to mention that it lets me use all the old apple tree twigs that litter the moss garden. I’m going to DO it! Thanks a bunch…as always. Oh! I’m also savoring “The Backyard Parables.” I’m taking my time and reading the seasonal sections, pondering the philosophy and using the tips as appropriate to the season at hand. Love this book. XO

  5. Beth says:

    This reminds me of the soil in the woods behind my parents’ rural Illinois home. It’s very rich and soft, and the fallen-down trees go soft and spongy and crumble into the soil.

  6. Mark says:

    I had never heard of this technique up until recently when I got involved with working on a school garden. The previous gardener had put these huge mounds of “stuff” in 3 piles and was calling them by some funny name. This is it! It IS a bit of an eyesore, what she created. I like the idea of burying a portion of the material.
    I get lots of branches, sticks and debris from my huge Sycamore that could go towards this type of bed. You’ve got me thinking!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mark — and yes, you could disguise somewhat big digging down a bit for the base first, or with the edging idea that Dave mentions. So productive, and so easy compared to other ways of making a bed!

      Nice to see you, Sara, and me too — I am looking around for a sunny spot for my first test bed. (I think I have run out of sunny spots…maybe a tree has to go and become the base…tee hee hee.)

  7. Sara says:

    Hugelkultur has peaked my interest. We are getting ready to start a few more raised beds. I think I will give this a try! We have plenty of wood from fallen trees during a storm a month or so back.

    Thanks for the info!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ginny. It’s never a good idea to bring diseased material of any kind into the garden. As for kind of wood, you want it to rot so the more rot-resistant species (here that would be Eastern red cedar and locust) would probably be less conducive.

  8. All the prunings I have done of our fruit trees are amassed in the back of the garden serving as a refuge for small wildlife. I just could not bring myself to burn the stuff, but I do want more space to grow food. This is just so brilliant! I will probably do the pit version as our garden is urban.

  9. Frances Roth says:

    Dear Margaret,

    On your recommendation I purchase plants from Bluestone Perennials two years ago and was very pleased with the result. This year I ordered more and they arrived yesterday. I know they ship for the appropriate planting time, but I wonder if it isn’t too early to put them out. We had frost last night in Sheffield, MA, and I would hate to lose these plants – mostly mums.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Frances. I’d keep them in the garage at night and out by day till it settles a tiny bit more. I usually wait another week or so and look at the forecast. Mums are really tough though.

  10. Robert Lesko says:

    My wife and I have been considering hay bale gardening. But with brush piles accumulating, old mulch piles and ornamental grass clippings, and ,oh, storm-downed tree limbs, I’ve been debating burn or haul away. I like hugelkultur much better. Thank you, Margaret.

  11. ann gardiner says:

    Don’t know if this was mentioned? but Hugelkultur comes from German. It means, literally ‘Hill Culture.” Perhaps it came from German immigrants? I live in Italian-speaking Switzerland and have my garden in an isolated village in Italy. Around here, I have learned many other techniques — most importantly, how to use a rake. The rakes people use around here are all wood and people swear by them. They are soft on the soil, help make great raised beds without the wood or nuts and bolts, and create mounds. When I brought my metal rake out to the garden, the local guy who was helping me said, no way. It is a philosophy! So I have switched to wooden rakes now and it does make a difference with your connection with the soil.

  12. Ann Shade says:

    I leave sticks in my compost pile tho most articles say not to. This type of garden validates my instinct that the wood is helpful in aerating the pile. My husband appreciates that my garden & flower beds are rectangular & nicely bordered so he can mow in straight lines, so I doubt I will be doing this. I do use a lot of compost & composted manure as side-dressing, but it is not really ‘lasagna’ since I usually turn it under before I plant. That is a chore tho, so I am going to slowly, as I reach my mid 60’s, stop the digging & just topdress.

  13. Beverly Conway says:

    I have a summer home on the Green Bay in Menominee, MI. where a old sawmill was unearthed and it is loaded with old wood , ashes, and debris , you have given me a wonderful idea to build up the soil, this method sounds much like nature at it’s best, much like the forest floor as it breaks down , I will follow your method and enjoy what happens in the future, thank you for sharing this wonderful garden tip. It will save the back of a old aching gardener , build up, love it,.

  14. ann says:

    Might not be so good on the arid prairie but wonderful for East TX where climate is humid and parts of Europe mild climate. Past 8 months of winter and now little moisture will once again challenge gardeners around these parts.

  15. Mimi says:

    Funny…I spent all day in the yard, and for about three hours i was building my first experiment in hugelkultur. had come across a few web articles and videos this spring and became intrigued! I have been telling all my gardening friends about it and so far nobody is familiar. So it was validating for me to come in and see your post! One thing I am having trouble envisioning is over-wintering the hugelkultur bed. Will it need a cover crop? If so, how will I remove it in spring? Maybe it would be better to mulch it heavily for winter. Plenty of debris from storm Sandy around, and we had wood from pruning and cutting, so was easy to scavenge wood. I sure hope it lasts several years since it was a bit of hard labor. I love your approach…and your results!

    1. margaret says:

      Very funny, Chris. There’s a lot of that going on over here (though I do grow all my vegetables in raised beds — just so much easier to prep each year). But the rest of the garden is in terra firma!

  16. Neal says:

    Just discovered this article after building one of these today. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Neal. Apparently they get better with age, as per the podcast interview and story. Fascinating, right?

  17. Drea Leanza says:

    Hugelkultur looks like a great option for raised beds in my urban construction-debris-filled side yard. Can perennials be planted in a hugelkultur bed (such as irises and bulb flowers, hosta, butterfly bushes, etc.)? And there will be trees (magnolia, crabapple, cherry blossom) in the center of the beds; should that be a keyhole style with the tree in an “island” at soil level and the bed raised around it? Since the trees can’t be planted too deep, and the root ball would sink as the bed decayed and the trees grew, I assume a hugelkulture bed wouldn’t be good for planting trees.
    Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Drea. Perennials and such, yes. I haven’t read about trees specifically. I think asking Dave over at AllThingsPlants.com is probably a good idea — I will email as well.

  18. Heike Tomaino says:

    I am also having trouble with how to over-winter the bed….mulch it? i feel like a cover crop would take over?
    -thanks

  19. Franc says:

    This sounds very intriguing as I have fallen wood for days. I know that a cedar being that is more rot resistant may not be the best choice for the first layer, however what if it’s partially decomposed to the point of crumbling into a powdery mulch?

  20. Chris M says:

    In researching this subject I’ve come across concern over termites if the hugelkultur bed is set too close to a wooden-framed home. What do you think about this issue? Should it stop a person with a small yard from trying this technique?

  21. Dianne says:

    After trying to grow crops on the hugelkultur for three years, we have given up. Everything grows great…sweet potatoes, melons, squash….however, we never get a harvest. The reason being, the hugelkultur is inhabited by wood rates, voles, and who knows what else. The habitat of the wood rat is sticks and they eat vegetation. What a prize piece of real estate they found. We could trap them or use poison (which we prefer not to), but why keep something that has to be constantly monitored. We found we were wasting too much time, energy and money on this setup and have plans for dismantling when the weather cools this fall.

  22. Hi Margaret,

    This was a wonderful read!

    I built my first raised mound bed (hugelkultur) in 1978 and have gardened that way ever since. We have been working too hard, as of late, to rebuild new mounds, so we rely on our community gardens, which we hope will adopt this method soon, (they will if we help and show them how I am sure.) There is just so many possibilities with this method from simple mounds to “high terracing” methods as well.

    For Chris M.

    I have a background in pest control Chris. A hugelkultur mound will not effectively jeopardize your house any more than any other gardening method, if it is in proximity to you house. Termites are best “prevented” by monitoring and maintaining your home in good order, over chemical and pest control contracts.

    For Dianne,

    I am sorry you have had such challenges, but the Hugelkultur is not your issue. Your local biome presents as being out of balance with it’s predators. I am not sure where you are located, but the proper population density of some applicable snakes, raptors, and Mustelid mammals are in order. Any type of garden you plant is going to fall victim to these rodentia unless you restore homeostasis to the predator population. With these around, your current issue will be no more…

    Regards,

    jay

    1. margaret says:

      Thank you, Jay. Here, too, I am very happy when I see every one of the creatures in the local food chain all hunting down their proper prey outside in the garden.

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