Create Low Maintenance Garden Beds with Hugelkultur

New hugelkultur bed producing beans, chard, cucumber, and lettuce.

New hugelkultur bed producing beans, chard, cucumber, and lettuce.

If you have woody garden waste like fallen trees, branches and shrubs, instead of burning or throwing it out, put it to good use by creating raised garden beds that retain moisture, build soil fertility, and increase drainage. This easy to build garden bed method, used in Eastern Europe for centuries, turns a waste product into delicious fruit and vegetables.

What is Hugelkultur?

Hugelkultur (pronounced hoo-gul-culture, which translates to ‘mound culture’) is a traditional way of building raised garden beds by piling woody debris either in a trench or on the soil surface and covering it with green garden waste, followed by a layer of soil on top for planting into. The wood retains moisture by acting like a sponge, watering the plants from below by releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, reducing the need for irrigation. As it rots and decomposes, nutrients release slowly to the plants growing on the raised bed, eliminating the need for fertilizer. Build the beds with steep sides, as if an upside down ‘v’ shape, because it helps to improve drainage, increases the surface area for planting, and makes harvesting easier.

How to Design Hugelkultur Beds

Design Hugelkultur beds so one of the sides faces the prevailing wind direction. This acts as a windbreak for the other side, particularly effective when building more than one bed side by side. Each bed shelters the next from the wind, protecting the plants. When choosing your plants, put hardier plants on the sides facing the wind, and more sensitive plants on the sheltered side. If the beds are aligned North to South, sun exposure will be maximized and plants will have more energy for growing big and healthy. Fruit trees planted close to the beds will thrive on the rotting wood. If located on the windy side they will protect the beds even more.

How to Build Hugelkultur Beds

Build Hugelkultur beds at any scale by hand or with machinery. The bigger the better, because more material means it will grow more plants and last longer. If using machinery, dig a ditch 1 to 1.5m (3 to 5 ft) deep and 1.5 to 2m (5 to 6.5 ft) wide. If digging by hand, size the bed according to your capability. The height of the bed will depend on your preference and amount of available material.

When choosing material for the beds, keep in mind chipped or small wood rots faster and releases nutrients more quickly, which can over fertilise plants, while bulky wood like trees and logs take longer and releases nutrients more slowly with less risk of burning. Choose plants according to the material used and their nutrition needs. High nutrient crops like pumpkins, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, sweetcorn, and potatoes benefit from quickly released nutrients while less demanding crops like peas, beans, and strawberries prefer more slowly released nutrients.

Remove the top layer of soil and separate it, then fill the ditch with your woody debris, even shrubs and trees, including their roots. Loosely pile the earth and turf excavated from the ditch on top of the woody material, followed by the topsoil. A bed height of 1 to 1.5m (3 to 5 ft) is ideal because it makes harvesting easier for people of average height and will accommodate a lot of bulky material.

Excavating the ditch to be filled with woody material.

Excavating the ditch to be filled with woody material.

Adding the excavated soil to the mound. Branches pegged around middle-section of the mound to hold soil.

Adding the excavated soil to the mound. Branches pegged around middle-section of the mound to hold soil.

Filling the ditch with logs and branches.

Filling the ditch with logs and branches.

Leaf mulch added to mound, ready for planting.

Leaf mulch added to mound, ready for planting.

When raised beds are too flat on top, it causes soil to become compacted. This reduces oxygen supply, and stops decomposition, which creates foul smells and hurts plants. Hugelkultur beds built with sides that are at least a 45-degree angle can help avoid soil compaction. If the soil is heavy, build beds with sides of 60 to 70 degree angles. Avoid making the sides of the beds smooth so that seeds aren’t washed or blown away. Plant into or sow the bed as soon as possible because plants will benefit most from the loosely piled soil.

Building hugelkultur beds to take advantage of an otherwise unused resource produces beautiful healthy plants and food with little effort, so go ahead and try it!