A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Hügelkultur Raised Bed
Successful Hügelkultur Gardening
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By Stacy Benjamin – Do you wish that you had more gardening space, but you don’t want to add more summer watering chores to your to-do list? Then a building hügelkultur bed may be the perfect solution for you. What is a hügelkultur, you may ask? Hügelkultur (pronounced HOO-gul-culture) is a German word meaning hill culture or mound culture and is a traditional farming technique used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany. It utilizes large pieces of wood and plant waste to build a deep, nutrient-rich bed requiring minimal irrigation and fertilization. The technique’s basic premise is that as the wood and other biomass decays, it retains moisture and supplies nutrients to the mound.
Selecting a Location
The size of the hügelkultur can vary depending upon your space. A rectangular bed that is at least three feet wide and six feet long is a good size, or you can build a round bed that is six feet in diameter. You will want to find a large enough location for constructing a big mound with room around the mound for the plants growing in it to thrive and spread out. As with most gardens, you’ll want to find a sunny location for your hügelkultur. Hügelkultur beds are well-suited for use in areas with compacted or poorly draining soils that can pose a gardening challenge. I use my hügelkultur to grow pumpkins, so I selected a site in full sun in a neglected area of the yard with heavy clay soils.
Planning Ahead for Your Hügelkultur
It takes at least a couple of seasons for a newly built hügelkultur to begin settling and breaking down the organic materials that are necessary to form the deep, moisture-retentive soils. These soils are key to the success of this technique. The end of summer is a good time to assemble a hügelkultur so that it will be ready for next year’s gardening season. As you are chopping firewood, pruning trees, and trimming the garden in the summer, you can set these materials aside so that you’ll have everything you need when it’s time to build the hügelkultur.
Building a Hügelkultur Bed
The hügelkultur is constructed in layers using varying sizes of organic materials. The bottom layer is constructed with the largest-sized materials, and it should be built with logs or thick branches. This is a great use for odd sizes or shapes of woody debris. Partially rotten wood that may not be ideal for using as firewood is also a good choice for building a hügelkultur. Avoid using species known to inhibit other plants’ growth through allelopathy, such as walnut, and avoid species that are slow to decompose, such as cedar.
The second layer is built with smaller-diameter branches and twigs. Leaves and wood chips can also be used for smaller-sized materials. The third layer should consist of nitrogen-rich materials that will break down quickly to provide nutrients and retain water. A variety of materials can be used in this layer, such as manure or compost, kitchen waste, grass clippings, or garden trimmings. Be sure to avoid anything containing weed seeds.
When the hügelkultur is finished, it should be a minimum of three feet tall, so keep this in mind as you are building the bed. The bottom layers should contain a substantial amount of woody material. As you add each layer to the hügelkultur, try to nestle the materials together and push them down a bit. Water each layer after it is placed on the hügelkultur to start the decomposition process.
The third layer should contain a few inches of topsoil or dirt to cover the other materials in the bed. Finally, cover the whole mound with mulch. You can also use straw or wood shavings — whatever you typically use for the best mulch to prevent weeds in your garden will work. Now that you’ve assembled the hügelkultur, you will leave it to sit over the fall and winter to settle and start decomposing.
Planting and Maintenance
In the spring or summer, when you are ready to plant, be sure to check that the materials have settled sufficiently so that there are no large gaps or air pockets in the upper portion that could leave your seedlings high and dry. You can use a stick or a trowel to tamp down the planting area before planting, and you may also want to press a little bit of compost in and around your plantings or seeds to ensure good root contact with the soil/compost in the upper layer of the hügelkultur.
Although the ultimate goal of a hügelkultur is not to have to water it, or only water minimally, I recommend watering it occasionally during its first year. This is because it takes time for the organic materials to break down sufficiently to provide deep moisture-retentive soils.
If keeping deer out of gardens is a problem or if you have free-range chickens, you may want to protect your hügelkultur by putting up a fence around it. You can make an easy fence using steel posts and chicken wire. Fasten the two ends of the chicken wire together loosely so that the fence can be easily opened as needed. My hügelkultur pumpkin patch was a huge success last year, so much so, in fact, that we added a second hügelkultur this year. I hope you will find this traditional agricultural technique a welcome addition to your garden!
Will you be experimenting with building a hügelkultur bed? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published in the May/June 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.