Do you have random tree branches, logs, leaves, or other wood debris on your property? Perhaps you just cut down a tree and now have to call in a landscaper, burn the wood, or buy a wood chipper.
But is there a better way? A way to use the wood to feed and water your garden for days, weeks, and months on end?
What is Hügelkultur?
Hügelkultur is a gardening method of gardening by creating a trench, mound, or raised bed over compostable biomass such as branches, logs, or other plant material, then planting a garden on said mound. This debris not only benefits the plant’s growth but the soil’s health.
There are copious amounts of nutrients leftover in decomposing branches, twigs, and leaves which benefit plants. I mean, that’s what forests do.
You can also use Hügelkultur in trenches and raised beds (we do this often).
The Benefits of Hügelkultur (How Does It Work?)
By using fallen branches, logs, and other organic materials to create raised garden beds, Hügelkultur improves soil fertility, reduces water usage, and increases biodiversity.
The decomposing wood and other organic matter not only provide valuable nutrients but retains moisture in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation and creating a long-term sustainable garden bed.
Additionally, Hügelkultur can be a cost-effective way to create a garden bed, as materials are often available for free.
For example, when we planted our strawberries in our raised bed, we used Hügelkultur to fill at least half of it. This saved us money as we only needed to buy half of the soil. Plus, we didn’t have to do the work of tossing, burning, or disposing of the branches and leaves on our property.
Here are the benefits of Hügelkultur:
- Soil improvement: The decaying organic matter in Hügelkultur beds provides nutrients and improves soil fertility over time, similar to compost.
- Water conservation: Hügelkultur beds are designed to hold moisture, so they require less watering than traditional garden beds. This makes them ideal for dry climates or areas with limited water resources.
- Long-term sustainability: Once established, Hügelkultur beds can last for years, requiring minimal maintenance. They also help reduce waste by using logs and branches that would otherwise be discarded.
- Increased biodiversity: The organic materials in Hügelkultur beds create a habitat for a range of beneficial organisms, including fungi, bacteria, and insects. This helps create a more diverse and resilient ecosystem in your garden.
- Cost-effective: Hügelkultur beds use materials such as fallen logs and branches, which are often free. This makes them a more cost-effective option than traditional garden beds, typically requiring expensive lumber, drip irrigation systems, soil amendments, and fertilizers.
How Long Does Hügelkultur Take to Break Down?
In general, it can take anywhere from 1-3 years for the materials to fully break down and become part of the soil. During this time, the bed will shrink somewhat as the materials decompose and settle. However, the exact time for Hügelkultur to break down depends on the materials used and the climate.
In Hügelkultur, we should be using materials that are already decomposing, so it shouldn’t take too long for them to fully break down.
Keep in mind that even as the materials are breaking down, they can still provide benefits for your garden!
Improved soil, reduced watering, and promotion of beneficial soil life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi still improve your garden while the mounds are decomposing.
How to Start a Hügelkultur Mound, Trench, or Raised Bed
Here’s how to start a Hügelkultur mound, trench, or raised bed (and what we do):
- Choose a location for your Hügelkultur mound. It should be in a spot that gets plenty of sunlight and has good drainage.
- Gather materials. These include logs, branches, leaves, and other organic materials. You can often find these for free, either by collecting fallen branches or by asking local tree removal companies.
- Dig a shallow trench for your mound. This helps anchor the mound and prevent it from shifting. you can also use an empty raised bed.
- Start layering your materials in the trench, starting with the larger logs at the bottom. Layer the branches, leaves, and other materials on top, making sure to water each layer as you go to help it settle.
- Once you’ve filled the trench with materials, cover the mound with a layer of soil. This helps create a planting surface on top of the mound. We like to fill our trenches and raised beds with half Hügelkultur and half soil. Just make sure the plants have enough soil space to grow their roots.
- Plant your garden! You can plant directly into the soil on top of the mound, or you can create planting pockets by digging holes into the mound and filling them with soil.
5 Common Hügelkultur Mistakes
1. Using the Wrong Wood
Some types of wood won’t break down easily or are harmful to your garden and plants. Here are some to look out for:
- Cedar and redwood: These woods contain natural oils that can be toxic to plants, so it’s best to avoid them in a Hügelkultur mound.
- Black walnut: This type of wood contains a chemical called juglone that can be toxic to some plants. Avoid using it in your mound. Recommended: 10 Best Companion Plants for Walnuts, Pecans, and Almonds
- Treated wood: Wood that has been treated with chemicals, such as pressure-treated wood, should not be used in a Hügelkultur mound. The chemicals can leach into the soil and harm your plants.
- Diseased or insect-infested wood: Using wood that is diseased or infested with insects can introduce those problems into your garden.
Instead of these woods, try to use hardwoods like oak, maple, and birch, or fruit woods like apple and pear. These types of wood will break down easily and provide nutrients for your plants without harming them.
Also, make sure to use wood that is at least partially decomposed, as fresh wood can take longer to break down and may actually deplete the soil of nitrogen as it decomposes.
2. Not Watering Enough
Dry Hügelkultur mounds won’t decompose well and limit plant growth. It also makes for an unstable mound. For best results, water each layer as you go to help the materials settle. Hügelkultur mounds and raised beds are naturally well-draining, so it’s difficult to over-water them.
3. Not Planting Properly
Some people make the mistake of planting directly into the decomposing wood, which can be too acidic and may not provide enough nutrients. Instead, create planting pockets by digging holes and filling them with soil.
You can also reduce acidity by layering in brown (carbon) materials such as dead leaves, wood chips, and sawdust. In these cases, the wood is already dead and is mostly made of carbon.
As a guideline, make sure your plant has enough soil to grow roots. For example, most herbs and flowers only require around 6 inches of soil space to grow well.
4. Using Too Much Nitrogen
As the organic materials in your Hügelkultur mound decompose, they release nitrogen into the soil. However, if you add too much nitrogen in the form of compost or manure, you can actually slow down the decomposition process and create an imbalance in your soil.
It’s best to let the mound decompose naturally without adding too much extra nitrogen.
Similar to acidity, you can provide carbon materials to balance out the nitrogen. A good ratio for compost is 30:1 carbon to nitrogen, and it’s similar for Hügelkultur.
5. Building a Mound That’s Too Tall
If Hügelkultur mounds are too tall, they can be difficult to plant and harvest from. Try to keep your mound at a manageable height, around 3-4 feet tall.
For more about Hügelkultur, check out this great video by Self-Sufficient Me.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
- 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
- Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
- 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.