If you have never heard the term Hügelkultur before, then you may be rather confused about the subject of this article.
But those in the know understand that this is a key approach in organic gardening – and that Hügelkultur raised beds are a common feature in permaculture gardens.
In this article, we will demystify this gardening technique, and lead you through the process of creating your own Hügelkultur raised beds step by step.
What is Hügelkultur?
Hügelkultur is a method for creating growing areas in a garden or on a small-scale farm or homestead.
The name comes from the German for ‘mound culture’.
This is a type of food growing system that has been used in parts of Europe throughout history.
It has been used in Germanic countries and in areas of Eastern Europe for hundreds of years and now has a strong following around the world where permaculture is in practice.
In this system, food is grown in raised beds with a mounded shape and form.
These mound shapes are created by marking out an area that is then filled with wood (ideally partially rotted), then topped with other organic matter, soil and compost.
Plants can then be placed into these mounds, positioned according to their growing needs.
The wood and other matter slowly rots down in place, releasing nutrients and creating a valuable and good quality soil for the growing of food crops.
The wood harbours useful soil life and also draws in water and stores then releases it like a sponge. This means that the need for intensive watering throughout the year is reduced.
Why Adopt a Hügelkultur Approach?
The mounds created with this method have several advantages over other raised bed methods. Namely:
- They are better at retaining moisture and are filled with useful humus.
- They create several different environmental conditions in a relatively small space.
- As you are composting in place, the organic material rotting down will slightly warm the soil, increasing the length of your growing season and helping plants that are on the slightly more delicate side.
- There are also fewer problems with soil compaction, as the decaying wood will create air pockets over time, keeping the soil aerated.
Step One: Deciding on Shape, Size and Position for Hügelkultur Raised Beds
One of the most important things early in the process is to determine the shape, size and location of your hügelkultur raised beds.
Beds should be narrow enough that you can easily reach to the centre of the beds. The taller you make them the more moisture they will retain.
A six foot high mound might sound extreme but it can mean easy picking of produce as you won’t have to stoop and the bed will not require any watering all summer and will survive an entire summer of drought conditions.
Most people go for a two or three foot high bed, which can still last without water for two or three weeks and has many of the same benefits as the larger mounds.
You can vary the width and the exact style but the principle remains the same. Remember the mound will shrink considerably over the first few years.
Hügelkultur is ideal for forming beds in a range of different shapes and sizes.
Since you are forming mounds with organic matter, you can easily shape them into long, straight traditional lines, circular or curved forms, or wave-shaped beds.
You are really only limited in shape by your imagination and the strictures of your site. But it is a good idea to think about practicality, and about the needs of the particular plants that you wish to grow.
When deciding where to place your hügelkultur beds, it is important to remember that south facing sides (in the northern hemisphere) will be sunnier, warmer and drier than the northern facing sides.
Plants placed towards the top of the mound structures will be those that require less water, while those planted further down will benefit from higher levels of moisture.
Step Two: Sourcing and Preparing Materials
Once you have decided on the size, shape and location of your hügelkultur raised beds, it is time to consider the materials with which they will be made.
One of the good things about this system is that you can often find everything that you require in your garden or close by.
To make your hügelkultur raised beds you will need:
Wood/ Woody Material
You will build up the bases of your hügelkultur raised beds using wood and woody material.
Do not use cedar wood, cherry or black walnut to form your beds.
Most woods, however, are fine. Pines are not ideal but with other biomass they will work okay.
The best wood to use is wood that is already quite rotten though newly cut wood can also be used in combination with a nitrogen rich material like grass clippings or sods.
This is because wood uses up a fair amount of nitrogen in the initial stages of its decay, so this must be taken into account.
You can inoculate wood with mushroom spores to add even further to your food yield.
To cover this woody pile, you will require layers of organic matter. You will require both nitrogen rich materials like grass clippings, kitchen scraps and green leaves, and carbon rich materials, like straw or dried leaves.
Basically, anything that you would include in a regular compost heap can be included in a hügelkultur mound.
What you are, in essence, doing is composting in place, rather than making compost elsewhere and transporting that compost to create your growing areas.
When sourcing materials, you should do your best to make use of materials from your own site.
Where this is not possible, you should source materials from locations as close as possible to where you live.
To top your hügelkultur raised beds and give you something to plant into, you will need a thin layer of compost/ soil.
Using home-made compost is ideal, and you can also use loam/ topsoil dug from the location of the new beds in certain situations.
Again, the less you have to import from outside your own land the better.
Step Three: (Optional) Making Bed Edging for Your Hügelkultur Raised Beds
While it is not strictly necessary, as the mounds can stand alone, you may prefer to make some edges for these new raised beds.
There are plenty of different natural and reclaimed materials that you could use for this purpose.
As above, it is the best and most sustainable choice to select materials that you have on hand – materials that you can source on or around your own property. For example, you might use:
- Logs or timber.
- Natural stone.
- Cob or adobe.
- Earth bags.
- Reclaimed bricks.
- Other reclaimed material, like glass bottles or other household waste.
In this instance, I used stone to create a low edging. We are renovating an old stone barn from the 1850s, and have a number of rocks that came from an internal wall we removed, and a new entrance that we made in an outside wall.
It is satisfying to be able to make use of this material elsewhere on the property.
Step Four: Preparing the Ground
Once you have sourced and gathered the materials that you need to make your hügelkultur raised beds, and decided where these will be located, their size and shape, it is time to prepare the ground to make your beds.
You should mark out the areas for your raised beds. One easy way to do so is by creating a trail of flour around the edges of the shape you wish to make.
Take a look at the site you have chosen. Is it bare soil, grass, or does it have other vegetation in place?
If the site is already bare down to the soil, you can simply progress to the next stage.
Where there is grass, it is a good idea to do one of two things before you begin to build your mounds.
If the site is overgrown with problem weeds, you should take steps to clear this area using organic methods before you begin.
On a Grass Site
You should either remove the turf of the area in which you will be creating your mounds, or cover the grass with a layer of cardboard or other material to suppress growth and reduce the chance of grass growing up through your new raised bed.
(In my hugelkultur mound, pictured above, I used wood chip to create a thick ground layer to suppress weeds, as this is what we had on hand.)
You may choose the former method if you require extra loam to top your mounds.
By stacking the turf upside down in stacks, you can allow it to break down to form a fertile loam that will be ideal as a growing medium to finish off your raised beds.
However, in an no dig garden, you will prefer to disturb the valuable topsoil as little as possible, and so will likely choose, as I did, to leave the grass cover in place.
Clearing an Overgrown Site Organically
Even areas of abandoned scrub and old rubbish dumps have been successfully turned into productive gardens.
Here are some hints to help you reclaim an overgrown or polluted patch of land for organic growing.
Rather than resorting to harmful chemicals, organic gardeners will always put in the labour to do things the right way.
When clearing very overgrown land, begin by cutting down any trees or woody shrubs with a hand axe or saw, before digging up as much of their root material as possible with a spade or mattock.
Next, turn your attention to clearing the bulk of the leafy biomass and any human-made material out of the way.
Bear in mind that much of the material that you clear can likely be used in the formation of your new hügelkultur raised beds.
Once you have marked out your beds and gathered your materials, it is time to create the mounds.
Step Five: Creating the Woody ‘Skeleton’ of Your Hügelkultur Raised Beds
Whether you are building your hügelkultur raised beds on ground level, or in shallow pits you have dug to retain turf or topsoil for the top of your mounds, the next stage is laying the woody material you have gathered in place.
Try to build up sturdy, self-supporting heaps that can form a structure for the raised beds and become the ‘skeleton’ for the materials that you place on top.
Especially if you are using virgin wood for this, it is key to make sure that the wood is wet thoroughly, so make sure that you give these heaps a good soaking before you progress to the next stage.
Make sure that you use rainwater for this if you can. (If you do not already have a rainwater harvesting system in place you should be sure to establish one as soon as possible.)
Step Six: Layering Organic Materials
Once you have placed edging if required or desired, and built up your heaps of wood and woody material, it is time to build up further layers of the structure using the organic materials that you have sourced for the purpose.
I topped the wood with grass and other green clippings, and then layered on some more sticks, twigs and smaller woody pieces, and wood chippings.
I then repeated this process,with more green and brown materials from around our property.
Step Seven: Topping Your Mounds With Compost/ Soil
After building up the mounds to almost the required size, shape and height, it is time to top your mounds with the compost/ soil that will serve as a growing medium for your plants.
On our property, we keep chickens, and their manure and bedding is used to build up our compost heap and provide plenty of matter to fertilize the various growing areas.
A well composted chicken manure compost, mixed with some kitchen scraps and other organic compostable materials were added to some soil and used to cover the mounds.
Step Eight: Planning Your Planting for Hügelkultur Raised Beds
The next step, once you have created your hügelkultur raised beds, is planning your planting for the coming season.
These raised beds can be used to grow either perennial or annual crops, and are ideal for polyculture planting schemes.
In this case, the new hügelkultur raised beds are to be used predominantly as annual polyculture planting areas.
This bed is one portion of a new mandala (circular) garden design, one of four curved beds that will be around the edges of a circular keyhole garden.
This central bed will be used for herbs. The curved beds will be utilised for a four-year crop rotation system.
Step Nine: Planting Up Your Hügelkultur Raised Beds
The next step in building your hügelkultur raised beds is planting them up according to your planting plan.
What you choose to plant will of course depend on where you live, as well as the time of year when you have undertaken the work.
In order to retain nutrients and maintain the integrity of the mounds, it is best to plant them up straight away, and to avoid leaving bare soil that can be washed away in the next heavy rain.
We have so far only created one of the five beds that will make up the eventual mandala design. This is part of a slow solution for this part of the property.
Other beds will be created and planted up over the next few months.
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I planted up this bed with sets of overwintering onions (Radar and Winter Red) to make use of the space before herbs go into this area next spring, along with some cloves of garlic.
Step Ten: Waiting for Nature to Do Its Work
As soon as each mound has been created, it is simply a case of waiting for nature to do its work. The heap will be quickly colonized with beneficial soil biota, and other creatures.
Plants will grow, taking advantage of the nutrients released as the materials used to make the new raised beds slowly break down.
Your hügelkultur raised beds should provide fertility as they slowly break down over the next few years.
Each spring, you can top up your raised beds with further organic material and compost to maintain fertility.
Crop rotation and companion planting will also help to keep plants healthy and productive, and ensure that your hügelkultur raised beds continue to feed you and your family (and care for local wildlife) over time.