Hugelkultur Beds: The Best Raised Beds for Your Garden
Have you heard the term hugelkultur being tossed around permaculture and gardening sites, but don’t really know what it is? Keep reading, because this blog post is all about hugelkultur beds and why they are an amazing addition to your garden.
The term hugelkultur is credited as being a German word that translates to “hill or mound” + “culture” (think cultivation). Essentially, it is wood buried with soil, resulting in a nutrient-rich, mounded raised bed that can be used to grow food.
This is a very old practice that originated in Germany that allowed people to grow food in abundance, without the need of irrigation.
The buried wood in hugelkultur beds create a fungal-rich garden bed that retains water and provides essential nutrients to the plants growing on and around the bed.
With hugelkultur beds, you can skip watering and fertilizing, and simply harvest the resulting abundance.
Sounds great, right?
Let’s dive into hugelkultur beds so you can start building your own on your homestead. Don’t worry about taking notes—I’ve created a free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about hugelkultur beds.
This article is part 1 of a 3-part series on hugelkultur beds.
Mimicking Nature to Benefit Your Garden
The idea of burying wood and then planting on top of it can seem a bit strange. How can that help you grow food?
To understand how hugelkultur beds work, let’s think about what happens when a tree falls in the forest.
At first, the tree is just lying there. But over time, it gets buried with leaves, needles, branches and animal manure. Fungi move into the log and start the process of breaking it down. Next, other critters like bugs start making tunnels into wood that the fungi have turned to mush.
This can take a long time depending on the tree, but as it breaks down, other plants (including some trees!) will start to grow out of it.
When this happens, the log becomes a nurse log—it is nursing the new plants and trees as they grow by providing them with nutrients and water.
Some research has even shown that a nurse log can protect young plants from soil-based diseases that would otherwise kill or weaken the baby plants.
All those fungi and other microbes in the nurse log that are slowly breaking it down keep out the other fungi and microbes that might hurt living plants. Since the fungi and microbes that break down the dead wood in the nurse log don’t bother living plants, the result is a safe environment for young plants to thrive.
When you build a hugelkultur bed, you are mimicking this natural process. But by covering the wood with soil, you’re speeding it up and creating an ideal place to grow vegetables and other plants.
Hugelkultur beds provide the same nutrients and protection that you’d find with a nurse log in the forest, but on a timescale that makes sense for you and your garden.
Basic Structure of a Hugelkultur Bed
There are many ways to build hugelkultur beds, but at its most basic, a hugelkultur bed is a collection of logs or branches that are covered with soil.
Larger pieces of wood will breakdown more slowly, which will provide a longer benefit. But these can be harder to collect and require more soil to cover.
You start by placing the largest pieces of wood on the ground where you want your hugelkultur bed to be. I like to add the wood and soil in layers—picture lasagna but with more diversity, with layers mixing into each other.
Once the first layer of large wood is down, you add soil (or manure, or sod) on top, but make sure to fill all the openings between the pieces of wood. Then add more wood on top of that, and continue the pattern—wood, then soil, then wood, and then more soil.
Most of the problems people have with hugelkultur beds come from not filling in the openings between the wood with soil. These open areas are perfect for rodents and can cause the beds to settle more rapidly and dry out. If you’re careful to fill in the cracks between the wood, you will end up with a rich and nurturing environment for your plants.
At the end, make sure you have a good thick layer of soil to plant into. This is especially important if you are using transplants and not seeds. When you’re done, add a thick layer of mulch over the surface.
There are different types of hugelkultur beds, and different ways to build them, which are covered in part 2 and part 3 of this series on hugelkultur beds, (Coming soon! Stay tuned.)
Plus, you can check out Paul Wheaton’s great micro-documentary all about hugelkultur beds, offered through permies.com. This is a great video for just 3 dollars that provides a great introduction into hugelkultur beds and highlights several examples of hugelkultur beds being built.
Benefits of Hugelkultur Beds
By mimicking nature, building hugelkultur beds will provide a number of benefits to your garden and your homestead.
Larger hugelkultur beds (4+ feet tall), made with more wood and consisting of a mix of rotten and fresh wood, will provide more benefits than a small (less than 4 feet tall) hugelkultur bed.
As mentioned earlier, hugelkultur beds create a fantastic environment for beneficial fungi, other microbes, and soil life in general (think earthworms). The wood will slowly break down, releasing nutrients for your plants and serving as a sponge to hold spring rains late into the summer.
Building hugelkultur beds is a fantastic way to reduce how much watering your garden needs. They do this by soaking up your spring rains like a sponge, holding that moisture in without flooding your plants, and divvying it out when it's needed in the hot dry months. The effect is remarkable You might even be able to stop watering altogether!
The fungi growing in the hugelkultur beds will also spread out into the surrounding land, drawing water and nutrients back to the plants growing in the beds. This is especially true if you mulch around your hugelkultur beds so that they’re not simply islands in a sea of lawns or unproductive landscaping.
Hugelkultur beds will also create micro-climates of warm and cool areas, depending on their orientation. South-facing sides will be warmer, while north-facing sides will be cooler. The tops of the hugelkultur beds will also be drier than the base.
This allows for the hugelkultur beds to support a wider range of plants compared to normal garden beds. For example, sun-loving vegetables like tomatoes can be grown on the south side, while shade tolerant vegetables like miner’s lettuce can be grown on the north side.
This diversity of habitat will support many more types of plants than a regular raised bed.
Hugelkultur beds provide amazing benefits that will result in an abundant garden.
- Supports soil life including earthworms, and fungi.
- Provides a slow release of nutrients for your plants.
- Greatly reduces the amount of watering you need to do. Can eliminate the need to water.
- Creates micro-climates supporting a greater diversity of plants.
Downsides of Hugelkultur Beds
As awesome as hugelkultur beds, are there are some downsides. I have built almost 250 feet of hugelkultur beds, and I have another 100 feet of beds planned. Most of these have been large hugelkultur beds, but a few are small.
They’ve all been working great, but it is a tremendous amount of work to build them. The small ones (less than 2 feet high and only a couple feet wide) may not be worth the effort. You might be better off just focusing on mulching with wood chips or leaf mould.
The hard work comes from collecting all the wood, placing it, and then adding soil on top and in between the wood pieces. I’ve done this both by hand and with an excavator. But either way, it will take you a great deal of time and energy, (plus money, depending on where your materials come from and whether or not you need to use an excavator.)
But all things considered, hugelkultur beds are really not much harder to build than a regular raised bed of a similar size. For one thing, you actually need less soil, since you are filling it in part with wood.
Some people also have issues with rodents in their hugelkultur beds since the gaps between the wood make great homes for these critters. As careful as I am with filling all these gaps with soil, I still have voles tunneling through my beds.
Though again, they would have done the same with a mounded raised garden bed made up of only soil.
If you make your hugelkultur beds too tall, it can be hard to harvest. It can also look odd. You can get around these issues by digging a trench so the wood is buried below the regular soil level. Another option is to make paths/supports halfway up very large hugelkultur beds to make harvesting the top parts easier.
Finally, I’ve found that when I use small branches it can be hard to transplant plants into the beds. But this can be remedied by adding more soil on top. If you’re using seeds, this won’t be an issue.
Hugelkultur beds while awesome do have some disadvantages.
- Takes a large amount of energy and time to construct. Similar to building any large raised bed.
- Requires a source of wood and ideally large pieces of wood.
- Rodents can be an issue but this is more of a problem when gaps are left between the wood during construction.
- Large hugelkultur beds can be unappealing to some people due to their size.
How to Get Started
So now that you know the basics of a hugelkultur bed, are you ready to get started?
Make sure to keep an eye out for part 2 and part 3 in this series on hugelkultur beds, (coming soon), so you can learn all about the different types of hugelkultur beds and how to build them.
But in the meantime, you can check out the hugelkultur forums over at permies.com, where you can see examples of hugelkultur beds and ask questions. I also have several posts over there about my own hugelkultur beds.
Don’t forget to check out Paul Wheaton’s great mico-documentary on hugelkultur beds offered through permies.com. You can also take a look at Sepp Holzer’s book, Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening, which covers hugelkultur beds. Sepp was one of the first to popularize the concept of hugelkultur beds, and he’s been using them for decades on his properties.
To help you keep track of all the details about hugelkultur beds, I made a free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet that provides you with a summary of this post, so you can easily get started with hugelkultur beds.