Hugelkultur

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Hugelkultur (how do you say that again? Listen here: Hügel - kultur) is the German term for "hill/mound culture." It refers to a practice, reportedly originating in Germany centuries ago, of creating raised garden beds out of felled trees. Popularized by Sepp Holzer, this method has become popular with permaculture gardeners around the globe.  In April 2014, we ventured into hugelkutur gardening!  It has proven an ideal garden bed for our hot, dry Texas climate: the base layer of wood and sticks acts as a "sponge" that holds moisture in the soil.  Selling points for this style: easy to build, uses reclaimed logs and other materials (think: no big price tag), holds in moisture like a champ!  To see how hugelkultur happens in nature, click here.
 

PHOTO GALLERY
(Please click on any of the images below to enlarge and scroll through...many of them also have captions with more info)

Materials Needed to Build a Hugelkultur Bed

  • Logs, branches, sticks, etc. We had a lot of live oak available in our area so that's what we used.  If your neighborhood has a brush collection day, it's the perfect time to pick up materials for free!
  • Good soil (see Step 2, below)
  • Compost/manure
  • Rocks or other materials for border (if desired)
  • Shovel & wheelbarrow
  • Saw and clippers, as needed

Steps

  1. Find an area in your yard that gets excellent sunlight.  Most plants need between 6-8 hours of direct sunlight, although others can tolerate less than that.  As you can see from some of the above photos, the fence behind our hugelkultur bed shades it for part of the day...so just do the best you can with what sunlight you have to work with.  
  2. Sort out your soil situation.  Hugelkultur beds take a fair amount of dirt to cover (and fill in the cracks between) all the logs and sticks that form the base of the garden bed.  We ended up buying filtered topsoil from a local rock & soil depot, and then layered organic compost on top.  N.B. Don't forget to check out your soil quality!  This ended up being a real downer for our gardening efforts this year. The filtered topsoil we bought ended up being very poor quality: it was very alkaline (basic), which is par for the course in our area, but which definitely contributed to low yields.  Click here for more info on soil pH.  Despite our best efforts to haul in high-quality organic compost (several loads of turkey manure and several of decomposed granite/humate), it didn't seem to make a big difference.  Cannot overestimate the importance of good soil!!  There is sadly only so much soil amending you will want (or be able to afford) to do after the fact.
  3. Get rid of any grass/weeds in the patch you're planning to put your bed.  You can do this in one of many different ways: take a weed whacker to the grass; lay down cardboard to kill it; put down a sheet of weed-control cloth, etc. 
  4. Determine (roughly) the shape and size of the bed you'll be building, and arrange your logs and sticks accordingly.  At this point your saw/clippers will come in handy.
  5. If desired, run a border of rocks or other materials around the perimeter of the bed.  This is entirely optional; we just happened to have all those rocks sitting around from a landscaping projects and needed to do something with them!
  6. Now comes the really fun stuff: shoveling lots of dirt to cover the logs and sticks.  At the beginning you will wonder if this method works at all, but keep going: with enough dirt all that wood WILL disappear!  Enlist your spouse/significant other/neighbors/friends to help with this step.
  7. Once the pile of dirt is at the height you want it to be (it will settle over time, something to keep in mind!), layer the top with lots of nice compost and/or mulch.  
  8. Wet the bed down thoroughly with a gentle sprinkler setting. And you're ready to plant!