How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
Do you want to build a hugelkultur bed but don’t know where to start? This post is part of a series of posts on hugelkultur beds and how to get started. If you’re ready to build your own hugelkultur bed and just need a step-by-step guide, then this is the post for you.
Hugelkultur beds are a fantastic way to work with nature to grow food using little to no water. If you want to learn more about what hugelkultur beds are and what they can do for you, then check out the other posts in this series.
Hugelkultur Beds Series
This is part 3 of a multi-part series all about hugelkultur beds.
- 1Hugelkultur Beds: The Best Raised Beds for Your Garden
- 25 Hugelkultur Variations and What You Need to Know
- 3How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed - current post
This post is all about the steps you need to take to build your own hugelkultur bed. There are actually several different variations of hugelkultur beds, but for this post, I’ll walk you through how to build the traditional hugelkultur bed built above ground.
This is the most common type of hugelkultur bed, and it’s easy to adapt as needed.
For example, you can easily build a hugelkultur bed partially (or even fully) underground by adding another step at the beginning and digging a trench that you can then place the wood in.
This post will focus on the steps you will use to build a hugelkultur bed above ground.
5 Steps to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
- 1Placing the Large Wood
- 2Adding the First Soil Layer
- 3Adding the Medium-Sized Wood
- 4Adding the Second Soil Layer
- 5Topping the Hugelkultur Bed Off with Mulch
So, are you ready to get started? Before you read on, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet, which has some great tips on where to get the wood you’ll need to build a hugelkultur bed. Plus, it outlines all the steps covered in this post so you can print it and take it outside with you.
Before you Start: Finding the Right the Location and Choosing the Right Wood
A hugelkultur bed is an excellent long-term investment for your property, but it takes a great deal of time and materials to get it started. Before you grab the wood and the shovel to build a hugelkultur bed, make sure you have a good location picked out that will fit in with your long term plans for your homestead.
Here are 2 blog posts that can help you find the best spot for your hugelkultur bed and figure out how it fits in with the rest of your homestead.
You’ll also need to start thinking about wood.
Because if you want to build a hugelkultur bed, you’re going to need lots of it. Collecting the wood is often something that happens bit by bit over time, well before you’re ready to start building.
I have an area of my land that’s basically waiting in reserve for these kinds of materials, because I never know when I’m going to be able to find a good source. My pile grows and grows, until at last I’m ready to build.
So what kind of wood should you look out for?
As you go through the steps to build a hugelkultur bed, you’ll need large pieces of wood for the bottom layer and medium pieces for the layer above that. Some people also include a third layer with smaller wood pieces.
The larger the wood, the better the hugelkultur bed will work in terms of retaining water and supporting your plants.
But also keep this in mind—the size of the wood you use when you build a hugelkultur bed will determine how big your bed will be.
If you use large rounds or logs that are a foot across, then at a minimum your hugelkultur bed will need to be around 3 feet tall, and likely even bigger. That may not be a practical option for everyone, depending on how much space you have.
If the bed height is an issue for you, you might want to look into other hugelkultur variations that involve burying the wood partially or completely underground.
But in general, just remember to consider how big you want your final bed to be when you’re thinking about the size of your wood pieces.
Wood from hardwood trees and conifers can work well for hugelkultur beds. But some trees, like cedar, take an especially long time to break down, so avoid using too much of that.
Try to use a mix of fresh and rotten wood, if possible. The rotten wood will support your plants earlier on, and it will help inoculate the soil with beneficial fungi.
In time, the fresh wood will break down and support your plants over the long haul.
When you’re choosing your fresh wood, make sure you don’t use fresh wood from willows, black lotus, or other trees that will sprout easily from cut wood. If you do, then before you know it, you’ll have tree shoots springing up all around your garden! Wood from these trees should be safe to use after it’s been sitting for about 6 months to a year.
Ready to get to work? Let’s go.
- Make sure to choose a smart location to build a hugelkultur bed so that it works with the rest of your homestead.
- Keep in mind how big you want your final bed to be when you choose the size of your wood.
- Use a mix of fresh and rotten wood.
- Don’t use too much wood from rot-resistant trees like cedar.
- Don’t use fresh wood from willows or other trees that will sprout from fresh cuts.
Step 1: Placing the Large Wood
Now that you’ve chosen a location and you know what kind of wood to use, you’re ready to get to work.
The first step when you build a hugelkultur bed is to place the large pieces of wood down in the area you want to build.
Make sure you leave some small gaps (about 2-3 inches or 5-8 cm) between the large pieces of wood, so you can get some soil between them later.
When placing the wood on the ground, keep the width of the hugelkultur bed a bit smaller than you ultimately want the bed to be.
You’ll be adding soil and mulch later, which will increase the width of the bed on both sides.
When you build a hugelkultur bed, don’t make it too narrow, or the sides of your bed will be too steep. The mulch—and potentially the soil—will fall down the sides. You will want your hugelkultur bed to look more like a mound as opposed to a pyramid. This will also make planting easier.
Summary of Step 1
- Place the large pieces of wood on the ground.
- Keep the width of the wood a bit smaller than the ultimate width of the bed.
- Keep small gaps (2-3 inches or 5-8 cm) between the wood.
- Follow the general guidelines for choosing wood covered in the section, “Before You Start.”
Step 2: Adding the First Soil Layer
Once the wood is all placed on the ground, the next step to build a hugelkultur bed is to add soil on top of the large pieces of wood.
Some people just throw the soil on top and call it good. But you’ll get better results if you take the time to fill in all the small gaps in the wood with soil.
While this is slow going, you’ll have less issues with the soil settling, less rodent issues, and your bed will do a better job at holding water. Plus, your plant roots won’t run into air pockets as they grow.
You can also add manure or other nitrogen-rich material at this step instead of (or in addition to) soil. You should avoid using fresh, hot manure from animals like chickens, since this could burn plant roots. But if you mix it in with soil, it should work fine.
At this point, the soil should completely cover the large pieces of wood by about an inch or 2 (2.5 to 5 cm).
Summary of Step 2
- Place soil on top of the wood, and fill in all the small spaces between the pieces of wood.
- Cover the wood with 1-2 inches of soil (2.5 to 5 cm).
- Nitrogen-rich material like manure can be used, but composted material is easier on your plants than fresh manure.
Step 3: Adding the Medium-Sized Wood
Now you should have a nice mounded hugelkultur bed. But when you build a hugelkultur bed, you’ll want to keep going to get the most benefits out of your work.
The next step is to add medium pieces of wood to the mound. These should be smaller than the wood used in the Step 1, but still substantial.
Again, when you’re laying the wood, keep in mind that you’re aiming for a mound, rather than a pyramid. Leave some room on both sides of the medium wood so that they don’t stretch too far over the lower layer.
Follow the same guidelines from the section, “Before you Start,” in terms of choosing between fresh, rotten, or rot-resistant wood.
It’s still a good idea to leave small spaces between the pieces of wood in this step, so you’ll easily be able to fill in the gaps.
Summary of Step 3
- Add medium pieces of wood to the soil-covered mound created in Steps 1 and 2.
- Follow the general guidelines for choosing wood covered in the section: “Before you Start.”
Step 4: Adding the Second Soil Layer
The next step when you build a hugelkultur bed is to add another layer of soil. Follow the same general guidelines from Step 2.
But at this point, you’ll want to use more soil and compost as opposed to manure. Your plant roots will quickly reach this level, and the soil and compost will support them better.
After this step, some people recommend adding small pieces of wood and then a final layer of soil to top it all off.
In my experience, the small pieces of wood provide minimal benefit, but they can cause problems when trying to plant into the bed.
If you’re only going to plant with seeds, then this is not an issue. But if you’re transplanting plants into the bed, I’d recommend skipping this small layer of wood.
When I build a hugelkultur bed, I’ve stopped adding the top layer with small wood pieces. Instead, I use those pieces for mulch or other projects.
If you’re not adding a layer of small wood, then this is your top layer of soil. That means it should also be the thickest.
You should aim to have a layer of soil 4 to 6 inches (approx. 10 to 15 cm) deep over the top of the hugelkultur bed when it’s completed.
Summary of Step 4
- Add soil to the hugelkultur bed following the same general guidelines from Step 2.
- Optional: Add another layer using small pieces of wood, and top that off with soil.
- Aim to have your top layer of soil measure 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) deep.
Step 5: Topping the Hugelkultur Bed Off with Mulch
When you build a hugelkultur bed, the final step is to add a good, thick layer of mulch on top. While hugelkultur beds are great at retaining water, they can still dry out.
The mulch layer will retain water and help jump start the life in your soil.
For more information on how to work with mulch and different types you can choose from, check out these 2 posts in our mulching series:
In general, you’ll want to have a mulch layer at least 2 inches (5cm) thick. But keep in mind that, depending on how steep the sides of your bed end up, some of the mulch will slide down from the top to the bottom. So you may want to add extra mulch to the top just to be safe.
Summary of Step 5
- Add a good mulch layer at least 2 inches (2.5 cm) thick.
Final Thoughts on How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
When you build a hugelkultur bed, you’re giving a gift to your future self. It’s a lot of work to make the bed, but it will get more productive—not less—as time goes on, and the amount of work you need to do each year will decrease.
This post covered 5 steps to build a traditional hugelkultur bed above-ground, but there are many variations on this method.
For example, you could build a sunken hugelkultur bed that’s partially buried.
To do that, just dig a trench first and then add the wood from Step 1 to the bottom of the trench. Then follow the steps the same as normal until the bed is at ground level, or above ground level, depending on how you want to build it.
Sunken hugelkultur beds can easily pass as regular garden beds in terms of appearance, and they seem to work better at holding moisture in really dry climates like the American southwest.
Don’t forget to check out the other blog posts in this series to learn more about what a hugelkultur bed is, how it works, and the different variations you can build.
One more thing. Before you go off to build a hugelkultur bed, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet, which has some great tips on where to get the wood you need to build a hugelkultur bed. It also outlines all the steps covered in this post, so you can print it and take it outside with you.