Hugelkultur variations

5 Hugelkultur Variations and What You Need to Know

If you search the web for hugelkultur beds, you’ll find lots of different approaches. If you compare two images, they often look so different it’s hard to believe you’re looking at two pictures of the same thing. Everyone seems to have their own way of building hugelkultur beds. But how do you know which hugelkultur variation is right for you? Keep reading to get the information you need to pick the right variation for your garden or homestead.

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Hugelkultur beds are a fantastic way to grow food using little to no irrigation by working with nature. Plus, these beds are really fairly straightforward—they’re just soil and buried wood, after all.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Well… it turns out there are a lot of different ideas on what constitutes a hugelkultur bed or how to build it, and people can be very opinionated about which is the “right” way to do it. This post takes all the different hugelkultur variations and breaks them into 5 general types, so that you can find the type that fits your needs.

5 Hugelkultur Variations

  • 1
    Slash Pile Covered with Soil
  • 2
    Buried Beds (Fully or Partially)
  • 3
    Small-to-Medium Beds Above Ground
  • 4
    Large Beds Above Ground
  • 5
    Formal Raised Beds

For each hugelkultur variation, we’ll go over a brief description of the variation and its pros and cons.

All hugelkultur beds bring a number of advantages to your garden, creating rich soil, reducing watering needs, and providing habitat for beneficial fungi.

In general, I won’t repeat these advantages in each of the pros and cons sections unless the specific hugelkultur variation is superior (or lacking) in that one area. This post is about how the different hugelkultur variations compare with each other, not how they compare with other types of garden beds.

If you want more information on hugelkultur beds then make sure to check out these blog posts.

Hugelkultur Beds Series

This is part 2 of a multi-part series all about hugelkultur beds.

As you read through the descriptions and pros and cons of each hugelkultur variation, take a moment to think about your own situation and which type will work best for you.

To help you with this, we’ve created an easy-to-print cheat-sheet that highlights some key takeaways and offers a list of questions to help you figure out which hugelkultur variation is right for you. Sign up to get your cheat-sheet so you can get started with the best hugelkultur bed for your wild homestead.

1st Hugelkultur Variation: Slash Pile Covered with Soil

You may find examples of this hugelkultur variation on a lot of websites and in YouTube videos. People hear that hugelkultur beds are just buried wood, so they make a slash (or brush) pile and add soil on top and call it good.

This variation also gets a lot of use when people end up with a lot of woody debris and are looking for a way to use it up. Often this is from pruning trees and shrubs, which can produce quite a bit of branch-size woody debris.

Compared with just burning the slash, this hugelkultur variation is a great option. But it does have some draw backs that unfortunately has led to people feeling that hugelkultur beds don’t live up to the hype.

In the long run, this method can work great, and it’s by far the easiest to build out of the 5 hugelkultur variations. But in the short run, this variation is prone to drying out and having issues with rodents.

Of all the 5 variations, it’s also the most prone to settling. In other words, if you plant into it right away, you might find that parts of your garden start to cave in a bit.

After the bed settles and the slash has mostly broken down, you’ll be left with a nice mound of rich soil. You can either plant into the mound directly or harvest the soil to use elsewhere.

It can seriously take about 10 years for the slash to turn to soil with this method. This may seem like the quick-and-easy method, but it’s not for the gardener in a hurry.

That said, you don’t need to wait for the soil to break down fully to start planting in it—especially if you add leaves, or old bedding from your chicken coop, or other organic material on top of the hugelkultur bed each year. This will help build soil on top, as it would in any garden.

Slash Pile covered with Soil

Pros

  • Simple to build
  • Does not need large pieces of wood
  • Great way to use up yard waste
  • Can build a large amount of soil

Cons

  • Prone to drying out in the short run
  • Rodent issues
  • Large amount of settling over time
  • Takes a very long time to become productive
  • Needs soil from a different location in order to cover it

2nd Hugelkultur Variation: Buried Hugelkultur Beds (Fully or Partially)

Partially buried hugelkultur variation is great for dry climates

This image shows the construction and results 2 years later for one of my partially buried hugelkultur beds. I chose this type because the ground was so compacted that I wanted to break through the top layer to help the plant roots out. 

This hugelkultur variation is very similar to the next 2 on the list, except instead of building the hugelkultur bed fully above ground, this bed is either fully or partially buried below the existing ground level.

As with most hugelkultur beds, the general way to build this variation is to place the largest woody debris (logs) on the bottom, then add soil, and then add smaller woody debris (small logs or big branches), then add more soil, and then repeat the cycle through to the smallest woody debris you have.

The difference is that with this variation, you first need to dig a trench that’s the same length and width as your hugelkultur bed. Then you add the logs to the trench, and then the soil, going through the above cycle of wood, soil and more wood.

Wild Tip

When building a hugelkultur bed, make sure to fill in all the cracks between the pieces of wood with soil. This will minimize rodent issues, help prevent future settling, and keep the bed from drying out. (The exception is the slash pile hugelkultur variation.)

This will result in a hugelkultur bed that is slightly mounded above the surrounding ground level, but it’s mostly buried below ground level. If you want, you can continue to add more wood and more soil to build the bed up above ground level.

The big advantage to this hugelkultur variation is that you can reuse the soil you dug out, so you don’t need to bring in extra soil unless you want to continue to build the bed up.

Since the logs that will hold the water are mostly below ground level, this bed is less likely to dry out. That makes this hugelkultur variation a good option in hot and dry climates.

But by burying the hugelkultur bed, you lose the advantage of micro-climates that large hugelkultur beds have when built above ground. This includes blocking and breaking up the flow of wind across your property, which can extend your growing season and reduce evaporation in other parts of your property.

What you gain (in addition to water retention) is that the hugelkultur bed looks just like a regular mounded garden bed, which can be more acceptable to neighbors or family members (assuming you don’t build the bed higher.)

Buried Hugelkultur Beds (Fully or Partially)

Pros

  • Best variation in terms of water retention for dry hot, dry climates
  • No need for extra soil (if not built up)
  • Can look just like a regular mounded garden bed

Cons

  • Less micro-climates than taller beds
  • Does not block or break up wind as well as taller beds
  • Requires digging a trench

3rd Hugelkultur Variation: Small-to-Medium Beds Above Ground

The small to medium hugelkultur variations still provide benefits

This is my front planting area early on when I was just getting it setup. The areas mulched with straw are a series of small hugelkultur beds. I wanted this area to stay open so I was limited to small beds. These beds provide a limited benefit but still help to improve the soil with organic material.

This hugelkultur variation is built the same way as the previous variation, but instead of digging a trench, you just place the wood on the ground and add soil on top of it. Start with large pieces of wood, and then follow the wood --> soil --> wood --> soil rotation, using smaller and smaller pieces of wood as you move through the cycle.

With this variation, you’ll stop building the hugelkultur bed when it’s 3 feet high at most. If you keep your bed fairly small (about a foot high), you may only have one layer of wood and one layer of soil.

By keeping the bed smaller, you don’t need as much wood or soil as you would with a larger bed, but you lose some of the advantages that a larger hugelkultur variation can confer.

Since these beds are small, they won’t be able to hold as much water as a larger above-ground or buried hugelkultur bed. But you will still build rich soil over time, and you’ll create a good environment for beneficial fungi, which will help your plants.

These beds will create some micro-climates, but not to the same extent as larger above-ground hugelkultur beds. But this hugelkultur variation will look more like a regular garden bed, making it more acceptable to neighbors and family.

Small-to-Medium Beds Above Ground

Pros

  • Less wood and soil required
  • Looks like a regular mounded garden bed
  • Easier to build than larger variations

Cons

  • Less micro-climates
  • Does not block or break up wind
  • Retains less water

4th Hugelkultur Variation: Large Beds Above Ground

The large hugelkultur variations provide the greatest amount of benefits

This is my tallest hugelkultur bed about 3 months after being built. While not small (~4 ft tall) this bed is much smaller than the largest hugelkultur beds that can be 7+ feet tall. But this bed still provides a lot of benefits and is doing great.

These beds are built the same way as the smaller beds, but they are much larger. This hugelkultur variation can be 4-7 feet tall, or even taller! This means that these beds will be also need to be wider than the smaller beds.

Since these beds are so large, they create more extreme micro-climates than smaller hugelkultur variations, and they’ll break up the flow of wind across your land.

The top of these beds will be drier, while the bottom will be wetter. In addition, depending on orientation, these beds will likely have some parts that get a lot of sun and other parts that are shady. If you make these beds curved instead of straight, you get even more micro-climates.

By creating all these micro-climates, these large hugelkultur beds can support a wider range of plants than the other hugelkultur variations.

Harvesting these beds can be tricky.

The lower parts will be easy to harvest, but the top can be hard. Some people have even built wooden scaffolding on the outside and added paths midway up to make it easier to harvest the upper levels of large hugelkultur beds.

But these beds will require much more soil and wood to create. (You’ll need large logs.) Given their size, you may also need to use a tractor or excavator to build.

One option to minimize the amount of soil you need to bring in is to dig down around the beds and pile that soil up on top of the wood. This works well, but it will create low areas around your beds which may trap water and end up staying muddy, depending on how well-drained your soil is.

Filling in these low areas with small branches and wood chips or chop-and-drop material can solve this issue.

The final issue is that this hugelkultur variation may not be acceptable in appearance to neighbors and family, and because of their large size, they probably are not appropriate for small urban lots.

Large Beds Above Ground

Pros

  • Superior water holding capacity
  • Good at breaking up and blocking wind
  • Lots of micro-climates

Cons

  • Requires large amounts of soil and wood
  • Harvesting the upper sections can be tricky
  • May require a tractor or excavator to build
  • Not always acceptable to neighbors and family
  • Harder to build than other variations

5th Hugelkultur Variation: Formal Raised Beds

This hugelkultur variation is great if you want to hide your hugel beds

This is my new kitchen garden (in-progress). What you can't see is that these beds go down ~3 ft and are filled with multiple layers of logs and other woody debris plus soil. Hugelkultur beds can blend in and look "normal".

This final hugelkultur variation is where you make the beds look like formal raised garden beds. This can be done by just building a regular raised bed with wooden sides and then adding logs to it as you fill it up with soil.

You can also dig a trench and fill that in, like in the 2nd hugelkultur variation, and then just add your raised beds on top.

The advantage is that these beds can look more formal and easily pass as regular garden beds. But you lose the growing areas from the sides of the beds and the micro-climates found on those areas.

Harvesting from these beds is no different than harvesting from a regular raised garden bed.

These beds are likely to be smaller than the larger hugelkultur beds, but you can dig down in addition to building up, which provides more water holding capacity. Our new kitchen garden was built this way to maximize its water-holding capacity.

In addition, since these beds will be smaller, they are less likely to block or break up wind moving across your land.

This hugelkultur variation will also have the added costs of the material needed to build the retaining walls of the raised beds (unless you can salvage the material and get them for free).

Formal Raised Beds

Pros

  • Easily passes as a regular raised garden bed
  • Harvesting is easy

Cons

  • Added costs of the material for the raised bed framework
  • Less micro-climates
  • May not block or break up the wind depending on height of the beds

Next Steps – Picking the Right Variation for You

Hugelkultur variations

Out of the 5 hugelkultur variations covered in this post I have built 4 of them on my homestead. Each time I picked the variation I did because it was the right one for that situation. Which hugelkultur variation is right for your site?

At face value, these beds seem straightforward. But as you can see, there are a few hugelkultur variations, each with their own set of pros and cons.

Understanding these pros and cons will let you choose which hugelkultur variation is right for your specific situation.

On my own homestead, I’ve built 4 of these 5 hugelkultur variations, totaling around 300 feet of hugelkultur beds. The only one I haven’t built is the slash pile variation, since I’ve wanted to be able to plant sooner rather than later.

In each case I looked at the situation and determined which variation was right for that spot.

As you are thinking about your own situation, look through the pros and cons and pick out the hugelkultur variation that’s right for you.

And if you need a refresher on hugelkultur beds in general make sure to check out our intro blog post, “Hugelkultur Beds: The Best Raised Beds for Your Garden.”

So which type of hugelkultur bed have you built or are planning to build? Let me know below in the comments!

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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.

  • Mike says:

    This is a great post, that really helps to get the point across the hugelkultur is more of a principle than a very specific design. My first use of hugelkultur was my herb spiral, which I filled with woody debris prior to filling with soil. My next plan is to build some extensive, partially buried beds. I’ve got a ton (literally!) of logs and branches (mostly pine), that I’m planning on using. My task now is figuring out orientation and size of the bed(s).

    • Daron says:

      Hello Mike and thank you for your comment! I have yet to build a herb spiral but it is on my list to do at some point and I like the idea of making it a hugel bed. Sounds like you have an awesome hugel bed project in the works–thanks for sharing and good luck!

  • Wynne says:

    I thought #4 was the “real” hugelkutur bed. I dug a #5 as a compromise for neighborhood aesthetics but kind of felt I was cheating. Thanks for the validation!

    • Daron says:

      Yeah… Some people will feel that #4 is the only real hugelkultur bed but I think that limits the use of this technique to a relatively small number of people. I would rather expand the definition to help more people use hugelkultur beds since all these variations provide benefits. Thanks for sharing!

  • Gerry says:

    What I like the most about your descriptions is that they are simple and to the point for a beginner like me. I have been interested in making a Hugel mound for a few years now but this year after reading your blog has inspired me to make this year the time to get going! Thank you!

  • guillermo says:

    Hi! I´m considering to make the buried variation. I have a question: what is the best kind of wood to put into the trench, green wood , dry wood, or almost rotten wood?

    • Daron says:

      Hey, good question! Really any wood can be good to a point. If you’re using green wood watch out for willows and cottonwoods since they can sprout from cuttings. But I have used cottonwood without any issues–I just let it sit for a while to make sure it actually died.

      My strategy is to use a mix of all the types of wood you mentioned. But sometimes I only have a single source of wood and I have used that without any issues. Older rotten wood breaks down more quickly which means you get a faster response but the hugelkultur won’t last as long. So if you can have a mix some of the wood will breakdown quickly and feed your plants right away, while the fresher wood will take more time. This makes your hugelkultur bed last longer.

      Also, make sure that you don’t use wood from trees that are extremely rot resistant like black locust or western red cedar. In small amounts you can add them to your hugelkultur beds but I would keep it to a very low percentage.

      I hope that helps and good luck!

  • guillermo says:

    Thanks for your answer! I will try it that way

  • danielle says:

    thank you so much for the information. I now realise I am in the process of making two of the five variations, and all types are beneficial, in the right spot. The first one is in the duck pen to elevate the ground – brush and used bedding (stray and hay) – may plant something next year after I add leaves to the pile this fall. Spring run off is making one heck of a messy muck… and the second, is the large above ground variation, just behind my regular garden, this should break the wind, and help with the regular garden keep moist.

    • Daron says:

      You’re welcome! I hope understanding the different variations and the pros and cons of each will help you get the most from your hugels. As you said all are beneficial in the right spot. Good luck!

  • dennis says:

    I am looking at building tall raised beds and this is a good idea to implement with them. The beds will be around 2 foot tall and made out of earth bags covered with a cement mix. How much earth should I have on top to grow annual vegetables?

    • Daron says:

      I like to have about 6 inches over the top of the wood just to be safe. You can use less but I’ve found that I get much better results during the first year if I have at least 6 inches of soil on top. With less sometimes the plants struggle during the first year. But another key step is to make sure to mix soil in between all the pieces of wood–this will let the plant roots wind their way through the wood down to the soil below the bed. Otherwise the roots can get “stuck” if they reach a large air pocket and can’t keep growing.

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