Hugelkultur for Your Garden

Hugelkultur is a form of sheet composting (also called mulch gardening and lasagna gardening) developed thousands of years ago in Eastern Europe. The process utilizes woody wastes such as fallen logs and pruned branches to build soil fertility and improve drainage and moisture retention.

Hugelkultur is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. This makes for beds loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets—so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self-tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water - and then refeeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding SO much water, hugelkultur could be part of a system for growing garden crops in the desert with no irrigation.

From HubPages:

If you walk through a natural woodland, you will see many fallen logs and branches on the ground. The older these logs are, the more life they sustain. A log that has rested on the forest floor for five or ten years will be covered in moss, mushrooms, wildflowers and even young trees. Poke at it a little and you will notice that the decaying wood is damp in all but the most vicious of droughts. Hugelkultur is designed to take advantage of the natural fertility and moisture-conserving qualities of rotting wood, while speeding the process of decomposition up. The heat produced by decomposition also helps protect cold-sensitive plants.
Living on 65 acres means we've got no shortage of downed trees and rotting logs. So yesterday I dragged a few over to an extension I built on our raised herb beds and plunked them down to create the first of many hugelkultur beds at Better Farm.

How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
  1. Gather woody waste materials such as dead logs, extra firewood, pruned or clipped branches, and more. The wood can be either rotting or fresh, although already rotting wood decomposes fastest.
  1. Lay the wood in a mound about 1-2 feet high and stomp on it a bit to break it up. You can dig a trench to lay the wood in, if you wish.
  2. Cover the wood with other compost materials such as autumn leaves, grass clippings, garden wastes, and manure. (This stage is optional if you aren't planning to plant the bed immediately.)
  1. Cover the wood and compost with a few inches of dirt and/or prepared compost (we went with the dirt we shoveled out of the compost pit last week).

You can either let the bed sit for awhile to rot, or plant it immediately. Among the plants known to do well in hugelkultur beds are potatoes, squash, melons, and a number of different species of berries. Other gardeners plant the bed with cover crops for the first year to improve the fertility even more before adding vegetables or other plants.

Other Techniques

You can achieve similar results, though much more slowly, by simply burying logs and other wood waste in trenches around your yard in areas where you want to improve fertility and moisture control.
In swampy areas, buried logs will suck up significant quantities of water quickly and release them slowly, reducing the chance of standing water or flooding.

In drier areas, the logs will act in the same way, releasing stored water slowly into the surrounding soil and reducing the need to water.

Hugulkultur garden after one month

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.