How to Make Hugelkultur Raised Beds

Reader Contribution by James White
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The 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.

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.

Photo courtesy Port Angeles Community Gardens

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