Hugelkultur for Easy and Prolific Raised Bed Gardening
This is, in my opinion, the Holy Grail of outdoor gardening if you are a backyard farmer. My garden did not always look like that photo above. It took several seasons of trial and error during which we tested a variety of raised bed methods. After a few years, I found the perfect marriage of affordability and productivity in the technique I am about to describe.
Pronounced "hoo-gul-culture", this German term means hill culture. Essentially, it is a garden constructed from decaying wood and plant biomass. You can achieve this with a large pile or mound in your yard or you can create it within the confines of a wood-framed garden bed. We chose to do the latter and, after witnessing the astounding results, have never looked back.
Why are we in love with this strange-sounding technique?
- It's less expensive. Instead of filling your garden bed entirely with expensive top soil, you use a layer of branches, logs, etc. on the bottom.
- It holds moisture while also allowing drainage. The decaying wood stays moist while the interstitial space within a hugelkultur bed allows standing water to drain away.
- It builds fertility. As the biomass breaks down, it releases nutrients to your vegetable plants.
- It maximizes growing space. If you choose to create a traditional mound, the 3-dimensional nature of it gives you more surface area on which to plant.
So, how is it done? We'll walk you through it.
1. Select your location.
Choose the sunniest spot in your yard. As we mentioned in our troubleshooting article, vegetable plants need as much sun as possible. When selecting a location for your garden, it is important to consider how much shade nearby trees and buildings will cast during the summer.
2. Build your garden bed frame. (optional)
You can create a hugelkultur mound without any sort of frame. It's just a matter of personal preference. If you would like it to look like a raised garden bed, there are countless designs from which you can choose. We have used kits like these that come complete with lumber and we have also built our own.
If you would like a very simple design, we recommend boards that are 2" thick and 12" wide. This will give you a nice depth for building the hugelkultur layers. (The length will of course depend on how big you would like your bed to be.) At each inside corner, drive a stake into the ground for structural support.
Cedar is the ideal lumber of choice as it does not decay quickly and wood-chomping insects do not like it. (Some folks use cedar fence planks that are 1 x 6 x 6, as they are less expensive than larger cuts, but you will need more stakes along the walls inside the bed for structural support.) That said, we have had great success with just plain old pine boards! They are very affordable. Ours are several years old and still going strong. (We do not recommend pressure-treated lumber because the chemicals may leach into the soil and be taken up by your vegetable plants. This hasn't been proven, but the thought is enough to make us steer clear of it for this purpose.)
If you would like to use cedar and need step-by-step instructions for building garden beds, you will definitely want to check out Tracy's article in our how-to section. She will walk you through it!
3. Lay down a layer of branches and logs.
Scavenge fallen branches, sticks, and logs for the bottom layer of your hugelkultur bed. Avoid walnut (juglone toxin), black locust (won't decay), and redwood (also won't decay). Place your largest items down first and then follow with smaller sticks and twigs. You can also first scrape the turf from your planting area and then place it upside down over the logs to create even more soil volume.
4. Follow with leaves and manure.
Our chickens serve many purposes on our little farm (including entertainment) and we try to make use of everything they produce. In our henhouse, we use the deep litter method (more on that later) to provide us with rich manure that is added to our hugelkultur beds.
5. Top with aged compost.
The top layer of our beds is aged compost that we create from kitchen scraps. You can also purchase it from a garden center or home improvement store. Compost provides many nutrients without being "hot", so to speak. Chicken manure is considered "hot" because the high nitrogen content can "burn" plants, causing wilting and browning. Since we will be planting directly into this layer, we want to make sure to use aged manure or compost. (Check our our article about how to make the best compost easily.)
6. Plant and enjoy!
Hugelkultur gardens get better with time. During the first year, the decomposition process will actually steal some of the nitrogen from the surrounding layers (another reason we top our logs with chicken manure). It is wise to add nitrogen into the top layer of soil or plant crops that do not require as much of it. Legumes (beans) are nitrogen-fixing and will help with this issue. After the wood has started to decompose, it will then release that nitrogen back into the soil for the plants to utilize. It's a beautiful process with a beautiful result: your food!