Editor’s note: This story and photos are by Cassie Langstraat and a version originally appeared in the latest issue of From Scratch.
Chances are if you are involved in the modern homesteading world, you have heard the term “permaculture” floating around. Chances are if you’ve heard that word, you’ve heard of “hugelkultur” as well. Besides being a ridiculously funny word to try to pronounce, the term hugelkultur holds world-changing importance to modern gardeners.
So, what’s so darn great about it then? I think it comes down to one thing: water. With a hugelkultur bed, you can eliminate the need for any irrigation or watering system. Boom. Yeah, I said it. Sounds pretty crazy right? But it’s completely true. Well, after the first year, but still! Give them hugels some credit!
So I guess I should probably tell you what the heck it actually is, eh? Prepare yourself. It’s really realllly complex. Psyche! It is literally just buried wood in soil. That’s all it is! So, not only can you save tons and tons of water by setting up one of these hugelkultur beds, but you get to use up any old rotted wood you have lying around, even unwanted twigs and branches.
Before we get into the details on how to build one of these bad boys, I want to give you a little background on hugelkultur. It’s a German word. It’s been practiced in Eastern European cultures for hundreds of years and it’s been recently further developed by permaculture gurus, Sepp Holzer and Paul Wheaton. There. When I said little, I meant it.
Now, onto the fun stuff. First, I want to explain how it actually works. It’s pretty cool. Basically the hugelkultur beds mimic the natural decaying cycle of the forest floor. As the wood decomposes underneath the soil, its porosity increases so it becomes almost like a sponge. So, it soaks tons of water up, and then slowly releases it back to the plants in the hugel bed over time. Also, because the wood shrinks when it decays, it frees up little air pouches in the soil which enables a little self-tilling situation! How neat?
During the first year or two you will definitely need to water it a bit, but after that it should be completely independent of water. Oh! Another nifty benefit — because everything will be doing it’s little composting business in the first few years — you will probably get a longer growing season because the soil will be warmed up. In general, the rotted wood will make for a raised garden bed that is incredibly rich with organic material and huge amounts of nutrients.
Speaking of nutrients, let’s talk wood. Paul Wheaton makes a really good point in his article, “Hugelkultur: the ultimate raised garden bed”. Wood is high on the ol’ carbon scale. Meaning it will want lots of nitrogen to do it’s composting business. This could take away from the plants you have in the bed. However, if the wood is already well-rotted, it shouldn’t be a problem. So yes, you can definitely use fresh wood you just chopped, even if it isn’t rotted, but it could take away from your plants for a while.
While we are on the topic of wood, it’s pretty important to choose the right type. For example, Black Locust takes ages and ages to rot, so it wouldn’t be the best choice. Also black walnut and cherry can be quite toxic so it’s best to avoid those as well. Good options are alders, apple, cottonwood, poplar, willow, and birch!
Finally, how do we build one? The cool thing is, a large part of the design and size is entirely up to you. Some people build them on top of sod. Some people dig up a few feet of soil and build them in that. Some build them really tall. Some people build them shorter. Tomato. Tomahhto.
I’d say most people that I’ve seen build them around 3-4 feet tall and about 3-4 feet wide. Length varies tremendously. However, Paul advocates in his article that the taller the better. He says it holds moisture much longer that way, and you don’t have to bend over to plant or harvest.
Bonus! He recommends building it 7 feet tall because it will shrink about a foot.
So, first things first. Lay down the wood. Big logs. Small logs. Twigs. Branches. All of it. If you want, you can add soil in between the layers of wood, it will probably make it much more sturdy that way. Water each layer.
After layering the wood, add the soil on top! Voila, you have a garden!
Finally, it is best to let the hugelkultur bed settle in for a few months before planting. After those few months, plant and mulch your bed!
There can be a lot of variation with these and still, they will be successful. When it comes down to it, yes, they are much more work to set up than just your regular square flat garden bed. But the amount of work it eliminates over the years 1000% makes up for it. Not only for yourself, but for the entire world. Think of how much water we could save if each of us traded our water-hogging flat beds for one of these. Think of how much time and energy we could save with no tilling, and no back-breaking planting and harvesting! Oh did I mention less water makes all of your food taste way better? There really are just no reasons not to jump on the hugelkultur train so get to building one (or 5) right now so you can plant in the spring!