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How to Make Hugelkultur Raised Beds

James WhiteThe technique of making Hugelkultur raised beds has been in practice for probably thousands of years, though lately it’s becoming increasingly popular. Hugelkultur beds are created by putting compost or soil on top of rotting wood and using the small hill to plant.

Many fellow gardeners seemed to have an endless list of good things to say about these raised beds. So after hearing about the harvests other gardens were putting out, I decided it was time to test this method and see if it lived up to the hype.

hugelkulter bed | courtesy RichSoil.com

Image by Rich Soil

Benefits of Hugelkultur Gardens

  • You can grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization.

  • No need to till once your garden is built.

  • This type of gardening works in a variety of environments, even the desert.

  • Improves the fertility of your soil.

  • Uses rotting wood that would otherwise be discarded, making it perfect for trees knocked down in storms.

  • Makes food more flavorful, especially fruit. Tomatoes and berries will be even more delicious.

  • Improves drainage.

Now that you know the benefits of this gardening system, let’s move into the labor part – actually building your raised beds. While it might seem like a hassle to put these gardens together, once they’re built they’re so low maintenance, it pays off in the long run.

How to Make Hugelkultur Beds

  • Gather wood. Ideal woods are things like maple, poplar, dry willow, birch, oak or cottonwood. Avoid wood such as black walnut, which is toxic to plants, or cedar which is full of natural herbicides and is antifungal/microbial. Hardwoods break down more slowly and will sustain your garden bed for longer.

  • Pick the site for your garden. If you’re growing vegetables, you want a spot that gets plenty of sun.

  • Mow the grass in your garden site; there’s no need to till, though.

  • Pile up your wood. You can choose whatever shape you want. You can start small and then add more later, or keep it small if you want – but I’d recommend a larger garden bed. If you plan to go really big, consider renting equipment to make the work easier.

  • If you want to have edges, you can build a border to define the bed. Use stones, logs or boards.

  • Cover your log wood base with whatever organic material you have. Compost, straw, soil and grass clippings are all good. Put nitrogen-rich things like fresh grass clippings nearest to the wood, to help it get started breaking down.

  • As the bed settles over time, the wood will break down, so add compost to the bed whenever you plant in the years to come. The wood acts like a sponge, retaining water. It may not be necessary to water your raised bed after the first year, unless there’s a long drought.

In a first-year Hugelkultur garden, you want to plant things like potatoes, tomatoes, beans, lettuces or berry bushes. Avoid planting squash, broccoli or corn your first year, since these plants have a high nitrogen demand. Unless there’s a large amount of organic matter on top of the wood, the breakdown of the wood the first year is very demanding on the nitrogen in the surrounding environment, so it’s necessary to add nitrogen, plant things that have a low nitrogen requirement, or use plants that add nitrogen to the soil.

The gradually decaying wood provides nutrients for the soil and plants, and the composting process produces a slight heat that leads to a longer growing season.

Thriving for Years to Come

While the initial startup can be more labor intensive than a traditional garden, my hugel bed will be growing for the next 20 years. The hardwoods used as the base of my garden will provide nutrients and moisture for decades, while the soil around it grows more fertile.

The effort put into this will absolutely be repaid with abundant and delicious harvests. If low-maintenance, sustainable gardening is what you’re looking for, these raised beds are ideal for you. Plant your garden, sit back, and reap the rewards for years to come.

hugelkultur bed | courtesy Port Angeles Community Gardens, www.PACommunityGardens.org

Photo courtesy Port Angeles Community Gardens

oakiecreek
6/17/2016 9:16:31 AM

Hi James. We live in a flood zone in NC. There is a creek that runs thru the property that overflows whenever we get 3 or more inches of rain. If we clear out the trees and brush that's growing along the creek and create a barrier of Hugelkultur Raised Beds along the creek, do you think it will also help prevent the flooding issues we have? Thanks in advance for any advice.


rattlerjake
6/17/2016 7:37:20 AM

I make a similar raised bed with wood chips that I get by free the truck load from a load tree service, makes a lot of beds and can be used as a mulch as well. Works extremely well, but the chips will break down faster than whole logs. It is much easier than moving whole sections of wood though.


miwin1000
4/28/2015 1:28:45 PM

The only tree logs I have are paradise trees...I'm afraid if I use these to build a raised bed, they'll start to grow!


nebraskadave
4/27/2015 8:06:26 AM

James, welcome to the GRIT blogging community. Already, you have me interested in your posts. I read about Hugelkultur a couple years ago when clearing out a vacant lot with trees that had to be cut down. I didn't really give it a try yet but it's on the list to do some day in the future. The articles that I read were a little more labor intensive. They suggested digging a trench first then filling it with wood branches, paper, and cardboard. Then covering up the pile with the soil from the trench. They suggested to leave it lay dominant for one year for the nitrogen reason that you indicated, then plant away for the next 25 years. I like your method better. No digging trench. ***** Have a great Hugelkultur day.


jqofva
4/16/2015 5:29:19 PM

What are the sticks on the ground for? Do you add more wood from time to time? Is it okay to put non-rotting wood on the bottom, with the rotting wood over it?


jim
4/16/2015 11:47:12 AM

I would think something against the house may create an issue with drainage up under the house or even into a basement area without proper drainage under the mass. I could be wrong. I went of a farm tour here and the man was doing the same thing calling it permaculture. This is definitely a great way to do things, yet is also very long term and takes a lot of thinking about where to do this since once in place it will never be moved.


mjr
4/16/2015 8:41:53 AM

Has anyone built a hugel-berm up against a house's crawlspace wall?? in a cold, wet climate like Ohio?? it would seem to have, not only temperature moderating effect but also wind damage abatement potential, with a gravel path at the edge of the foot to keep stormwater controlled... what do you think would be needed to shape such an intriguing berm idea? I have to cut trees to mitigate falling-tree hazards in this lovely woodlands space around near the house... so the cost of this project would pay back over time, easily, right? ttys because we're eager to hear more about this reality of hugel-berming with its humanly favorable garden at the path edge!