Huglekultur is the latest gardening sensation that is actually a very old form of “no till” and “raised bed” farming. It has been used in Eastern Europe for centuries. It is a German term that translates “mound culture” or “hill culture” and was probably developed over time and out of necessity to improve farming conditions in rugged and mountainous regions. There are various ways you will find this spelled…hugelkulture, hugelculture, etc…and it falls into several popular categories including permaculture and raised bed gardening. While traditional huglekultur is particularly beneficial in hilly areas, various adaptations can also be very useful in dry/desert regions.
If executed well, this method of gardening can improve a spot of land for decades to come. While the original point of this method was finding a way to grow food in unfavorable conditions, people are starting to use it for lots of different reasons. It can be use merely to improve areas of poor soil, such as compacted clay; to grow in areas that are too hard to till (or if you can’t/don’t want to till), for sloping or uneven areas, to sustain plants in dry regions, or if a traditional garden just isn’t your preference. The basic principle of huglekultur is to make a pile of logs and other wood waste, such as prunings, clippings and limbs. This is then covered with dirt (traditionally pieces of sod turned face down, but not necessary) and compost material.
There are multiple benefits to this method of growing, just as there are multiple variations that can be used to get these benefits. It can be done on a large or small scale and designed to fit each garden or gardener’s needs. If you don’t want a raised bed, you could still take advantage of a huglekultur bed by digging out an area and recess the huglekultur in the trenches so that it is ground level. This could be beneficial in swampy areas to ease standing water problems, or if you live in a neighborhood that doesn’t allow above ground beds.
Another huge benefit of huglekultur is the reduced need for watering. Rotting wood has an incredible capacity for holding water for extended periods like a sponge. A large bed can sustain plants through months of drought. This makes huglekultur beds a perfect solution for growing in very dry climates, including desert conditions. This wet, spongy environment is also a perfect home for microbes, fungi, and worms which greatly increases the soil quality. Established huglekultures are high in nitrogen, but in the early stages the nitrogen is consumed by the new wood as it begins the rotting process. This temporary depletion of the nitrogen can be countered by adding nitrogen supplements, plenty of green materials (such as grass clippings), or growing plants that need low levels of nitrogen. It also helps to plant nitrogen fixers, such as beans, peas, legumes, and clover. In addition to all of this, as the wood decomposes over the years, it actually raises the soil temperature and can lengthen the growing season!
These raised garden beds are usually much bigger and taller than what most people are used to. To reap the most benefit, the taller the better…with optimum being 6 to 7 feet high, by 5 to 6 feet wide. One this size can hold moisture through an entire summer. A bed two feet tall can hold moisture for up to 3 weeks. A huglekultur bed can be any sized the gardener chooses as long as he remembers one basic rule of thumb - the shorter the bed, the narrower it should be. A 3 foot high bed should only be 4 or so feet wide. Two more things to remember is that there will be shrinkage in the first month or two, so it’s best to build it a foot higher than you want it, and make sure it’s not to wide for you to reach the whole growing area. These beds can be allowed to rot down to soil over time, or added to each year.
To get started -
First, decide the purpose of your beds. If you are wanting to conserve water, you need to make sure your bed is large enough to retain moisture between rains. If your purpose is to make use use of uneven terrain for a garden, you need to make sure you construct it so that it is structurally stable on the slope.
Next, decide how big to make your beds. Remember that it takes LOGS to make a huglekultur and lots of them. Our first bed was about 40 feet long and required ten small pickup truck loads of logs… and that does not include the branches, fill dirt, and topsoil.
Don’t spend too much time and energy being overly precise in the construction. Do remember to pile the big logs first, then add limbs and brush, to fill in the gaps between logs. Lay the logs so that they are stacked as closely as possible. A lot of debate rages as to if the logs should be fresh or partially deteriorated. We used both in our huglkultur but tried to place the newer logs in locations where they contributed to the stability of the pile. Our logic was that the longer they lasted, the longer the pile would remain on the slope we are trying to use. You will know the rotting process has started when you see fungi growing on exposed parts.
Once all internal elements are in place, water the bed thoroughly. This initial watering will fill up the “sponge”, help start the decomposition process and wash soil into any air pockets between the logs and limbs. Top off the bed with a good quality soil for the initial planting. Plant your plants where-ever you can manage to find a place. Early in the huglekultur’s career you will have to dig around the logs but with time it will become more soil and less log. Your plant’s roots will find their way between the logs and find the nutrients they need.
By adding the soil and compost material, you can plant your huglekultre as soon as you finish building it. Remember to layer the compost material to speed its decomposition; green, brown, green, brown with a little nirtrogen in the form of animal manure or chemical fertilizer thrown in to replace what’s depleted by the huglekultur itself. It also does not hurt to turn the compost matter occasionally to keep the biological process stoked and working. If you have access, add worms to make it all work better.
As your huglekultur “melts” you will need to add more compost material. (Our first huglekultur “melted” down 8 inches in the first few months.) Just like people, if you keep keep building it up it just becomes better as it ages.