Hugelkultur beds are wood with soil on top

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.

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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

Nurse logs - nature's hugelkultur bed

Nurse logs are nature's hugelkultur beds. Here you can see moss and young trees growing on this nurse log. By mimicking a nurse log hugelkultur beds let you work with nature to boost your garden. Image credit: Virginia State Parks (CC BY 2.0)

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.

Key Takeaway

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

Structure of a hugelkultur bed

Hugelkultur beds are wood buried in soil. Here you can see one of my large hugelkultur beds being built. You can see that I carefully filled all the openings between the pieces of wood.

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.

Wild Tip

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.

Summary

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

Wood needed for a hugelkultur bed

Hugelkultur beds can take a lot of wood. This can require a lot of work but the result will give your garden a boost for years to come.

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.

Summary

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

Hugelkultur beds are beautiful and a gift to your future self

After all that work the completed hugelkultur bed is well worth it. This is the same bed from the earlier pictures but 6 months later. In a couple years this will be a 10 foot tall hedgerow providing food, privacy and wildlife habitat.

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.

Hugelkultur beds - the best raised beds for your garden

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Suzanne says:

    This is a wonderful post!! So much interesting information!!

  • Denise says:

    What about the negative issue that wood as it breaks down greatly diminishes the nitrogen content in the soil?

    • Daron says:

      Hello and thank you for the comment. In my own experience and the experience of others this has not been an issue. The wood breaks down slowly mostly through fungal activity which does not use up nitrogen in the same way that bacterial decomposition in a compost pile does. There is some bacterial decomposition so some nitrogen would be used by the bacteria but not to a degree that would have a negative impact. A lot of people mix in some nitrogen rich material like animal manure just to be safe but I tend to just plant some nitrogen fixing plants instead and have not had any problems. Overall, hugelkultur beds tend to be a great source of nutrients for plants as opposed to a limitation.

  • Sarah Murdick says:

    Great post!
    I am wondering if hugelculture would work to terrace a steep slope. I know that may sound like a crazy idea, but would it be possible to make the beds stay put or would they wash away in a rain storm? Thanks

    • Daron says:

      A steep slope could be challenging if you just put the hugelkultur beds on the slop on contour. But if you put them slightly off contour so the water would not build up behind them that could work. One option would be to put swales along the hillside on contour and then run hugelkultur beds slightly off contour between the swales. That way the water would be caught in the swales and not by the hugelkultur beds. Another option would be to build terraces normally using earthen materials and then build the hugelkultur beds on top of those terraces. Though that could make for some fairly wet terraces. Having them slightly off contour could still be a good idea. Though this all depends on how big your hugelkultur beds are and how steep your slope is. I would plant shrubs/trees on the downhill side of the hugelkultur beds to help secure them regardless. Hope that helps and thank you for your comment!

  • Bob says:

    Looking forward to parts 2 and 3. Our property is heavily wooded. We cleared for a house, then cleared an area on the north side of the house to start our garden. It gets sun exposure from around 7AM until 6-7PM during the spring, summer, and early fall. I was planning on orienting 2 beds on a North/South axis instead of East/West. My thinking was that the inside of the beds would get more sun for sun loving plants and the outsides would get less sun for partial sun and shade plants. Is that sound reasoning?

    Thanks for sharing you knowledge and experience with us neophytes.

    • Daron says:

      Hello and thank you for your comment! For garden beds in general that run north/south you will get good overall sun exposure since the east side will get the morning light and the west side the late afternoon light and the whole bed will get the early afternoon light. If your beds are relatively flat on top then the sun exposure will be fairly even. If you make them more mounded then the east side will be shaded in the afternoon and the west side will be shaded in the morning.

      Some people grow their tall plants along the west side of a north/south garden bed to shade the other plants in the later afternoon. As long as you get good morning and early afternoon sun this can be good for your plants.

      But in a north/south garden bed if you plant tall plants on the south side (in the northern hemisphere) these will shade the plants behind them on the north side of the garden bed. So it would be best to plant tall stuff along the west side or on the far north side to ensure the other plants get full sun.

      Hugelkultur beds are often built as mounds instead of flat beds though you can make them flat. My new kitchen garden beds are hugelkultur beds but they are being built to be flat instead of mounded. It is easier to get even sun exposure with a flat bed but a mounded bed does create more micro-climates which can support a wider range of plants.

      I hope that has helped answer your question. At the end of this comment I added 2 links to sites that talk about the different orientation options for garden beds and some of the other factors beside just sun exposure to consider. They might help you decide what is best for your garden. In my own garden I have a mix of orientations. But in general north/south orientation is the most popular.

      Good luck and the next post on hugel beds should be out on April 8th and the 3rd post on May 6th.

      Permies.com thread on garden bed orientation

      Gardening Know How – Crop Arrangement Article

  • Doug says:

    I’m very excited to have found this site! I have
    started some hugel beds but needed some
    motivation to realize their potential. Your efforts
    have helped me to really get going this spring!
    Thank you

  • Marjorie says:

    Great article! Thank you.
    Can you comment on wood types? I had read, and took it as fact, that utilizing large amounts of conifers in one hugelkulture would be a bad idea for soil acidity. Plus, avoid including rot resistant species like Cedar and Tamarack. For us, given we are homesteading in the Boreal Forest, both concepts are a hardship. We’ve built 3 hugelkultures, with minimal conifers included and love them, but their value as a garden would increase greatly if I could increase the ratio of conifers, since that is readily available and a good use for a lot of deadfall I will otherwise need to deal with.

    As an aside too, to reduce the anxious waiting for slash pile hugelkultures to be useful, we planted our squash patch on one immediately and let it go wild. We barely watered it through a 4 week drought I. July. Had the chickens not found the garden first, we would have had a wonderful harvest in year one already.

    • Daron says:

      Hello Marjoire and thank you for your comment! Using conifers should not increase soil acidity. The issue with conifers increasing soil acidity is complex and not actually due to the conifers themselves being acidic. As they breakdown they will actually bring the soil closer to a neutral state. Here is a great (and short) YouTube video from a biologist in the Boreal Forest talking about this: https://youtu.be/_B8-1sVcfzE

      But I would still go for a mix of conifers and hardwoods when possible. That being said I think you can increase the amount of conifers in your hugelkultur beds without any problems.

      My recommendation is to let your conifer logs sit for a couple years in a pile and potentially even bury them with leaves or other organic material such as branches. This will help hold moisture in and jump start the decomposition process. Then after a couple years remove the logs and use them in your hugelkultur bed.

      I always like to include a mix of various types of wood and a mix of fresh and rotten wood. I think this diversity of material types and age will give you better results.

      I would try to avoid the rot resistant species but you could include them in small amounts. I have used red cedar in my hugelkultur beds without any problems. I just keep the ratio very low and make sure they are spread out and not clumped in one spot in the bed.

      Good luck and I hope the chickens don’t get in your garden this year!

  • Lynn says:

    I have 4 raised garden beds designed as hugelkultur beds. I put them together last fall and planted this spring. In places, fungus is growing on top of the top soil and in between the boards that make up the raised gardens. First, is the fungus normal? Second, should I just let it grow or take it out/off? Third, is there anything I should worry about with regard to eating the produce?

    • Daron says:

      Hello Lynn and thanks for the comment! The fungi is normal and various types of fungi are almost always found in soils–you just can’t always see it. As far as I know there is no risk for eating the produce–I have never worried about it. If the produce looks like it is rotting then of course I would not eat that but the fungi in the soil is not something I would worry about.

      In general fungi in your soil is a sign of healthy soil. While there are some fungi that will damage plants the vast majority are beneficial and just help breakdown dead plant material which in turn helps build your soil.

      Here is a link to a YouTube video that you might find interesting–it focuses on fungi and trees but the same thing happens with a lot of other plants. In general plants and fungi work together in a healthy garden.

      I would just let the fungi grow–in my own gardens I tend to view fungi as a sign that things are going the way they should in terms of overall garden health.

  • terre tulsi says:

    If you want to see perfect evidence of how this works in nature take a walk through a forrest like the Superior national parks in northern Minnesota, where fallen birch and other trees are going back to nature.

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