Hügelkultur: Making garden beds with woody material

By Jean English | Oct 16, 2011
Photo by: Jean English A hügelkultur bed at MOFGA's Common Ground Education Center made by Jack Kertesz with woody debris topped with herbaceous organic matter. The organic materials killed the grass below during one growing season. The bed will be ready for planting next spring.

Here’s a new gardening term, for me, at least: Hügelkultur. A German word for “mound beds,” hügelkultur involves gardening in beds or windrows created largely from woody debris.

At the Common Ground Country Fair, gardener Jack Kertesz presented a demonstration hügelkultur bed that he started in May by hauling cartloads of dead hardwood branches to a strip of grassy ground and placing them on top of the grass. Then he added pine needles, dead grass from a wet area, cattail stalks that had been submerged, and garden waste such as cornstalks. By September, the ground under the debris was a loose layer of rich, dark soil, and the grass was decomposed.

“This bed may get a layer of soil and compost on top,” said Kertesz. Then it might be planted to raspberries next spring, set in holes easily dug through the material.

“I think that the organisms are happy and active, and that the soil is appreciating not being laid open and baked in the sun,” wrote Kertesz on a demonstration sign. “And I like that these imported materials are part of a local ecosystem that can be tapped (and not plundered) to bring long-term fertility into the garden.”

John Bunker, founder of Fedco Trees, writes about hügelkultur, too, in the 2012 Fedco Trees catalog. He is interplanting a new, one-acre orchard with annuals and perennials planted in hügelkultur beds.

“We bury forest debris (rocks, branches, old logs etc.) in berms winding alongside the fruit trees, creating extended raised-bed terraces and water dams. By burying the brush, we can keep all the mineral and biomass in the orchard. Nothing is removed or bulldozed away. We also fertilize and, literally, build up the soil to feed future plant roots while avoiding the use of another gas-hog, the chipper.”

Bunker also plans to grow strips of grains and forage crops among the fruit trees to feed chickens in movable pens (chicken tractors) all year.

On a permaculture forum addressing hügelkultur (permies.com/bb/index.php?topic=17.0), one contributor says he piled logs, brush and other organic material into two-foot-high beds covered with leaves. Later he planted pumpkins and other crops in soil pockets made in the bed, and the plants grew well. The rotting wood, he says, is like a sponge, holding water for plant growth.

If your fall landscape cleanup creates brush piles, you might try — instead of burning them, bringing them to the dump or throwing them in the woods — piling them in a garden bed shape, adding fall leaves and other organic material, and letting the pile begin to rot over the fall, winter and spring. Then pull aside pockets in the spring where you can add soil and compost, and transplant seedlings. Or cover the whole bed with soil. (Some people add up to a foot of soil!) This might be a good system for growing vine crops, which should benefit from the warm, composting raised bed and which can trail over the sides of the bed.

Some writers suggest burying woody material below the root zone of most plants so that the rotting material doesn’t “rob” soil nitrogen from the growing plants. Others say nitrogen deficiency isn’t a problem, as the surface-area-to-volume ratio of logs and branches used in hügelkultur slows decomposition, so it doesn’t use so much nitrogen so fast. (See the two-minute video at youtube.com/watch?v=sp_IObIkInQ, about making a hügelkultur bed from very large logs topped with a “skin” of rich earth.) And adding green grass clippings to the beds can help compensate for any nitrogen tie-up.

No one recipe seems to apply to making hügelkultur beds or mounds. Instead, the practice seems to depend on local resources and topography, leaving the creativity up to you.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

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