Otherwise known as a raised garden bed, a Hugelkultur bed has its origins in Eastern European and German farming. Today, it’s used successfully in permaculture gardening across the world.
The idea behind this hundreds of years old practice is to mimic how water is conserved in a forest ecosystem. In a forest, fallen trees slowly decompose, creating a fertile ground that retains moisture and it’s rich in humus.
If you’re completely new to the idea of Hugelkultur, I will teach you the basics of building your own Hugelkultur bed and the benefits this practice can bring to your gardening.
Benefits of Hugelkultur
A Hugelkultur bed essentially works as a log composing system. Logs, branches, and other woody materials go into creating a Hugelkultur bed, which is covered by a layer of soil to create a mound.
This practice has plenty of benefits:
- Creates a fertile soil that’s rich in stable humus (lignins in the word don’t break down as quickly)
- Better retains moisture to reduce the need for frequent irrigation (useful in areas where water conservation is important)
- It’s a no-till method, which comes with reduced costs and more benefits to the soil by better conserving beneficial organism
- They’re not prone to becoming water-logged
- It can increase the length of the growing season as the soil is kept slightly warmer by organic materials slowly breaking down
Therefore, this system is best at mimicking the composting processes that occur in nature, creating a fertile ground where the soil is otherwise poor or prone to compaction.
Now that you’re aware of the advantages of creating a raised-garden bed, let’s see what goes into creating one yourself.
How to Make a Hugelkultur Bed?
There isn’t a definitive way to build a Hugelkultur bed; it can be built on flat ground or in a trench in the ground and it can vary in size. The basics, however, are the same — creating a compost pile with wood, covering it with soil and sowing your seeds.
Here’s my take on how to make a basic Hugelkultur bed:
Step 1: Pick your materials
Gather all sorts of woody materials including logs, branches, twigs. Also gather leaves, manure, compost, soil, wood chips, straw and other compostable materials for layering.
Step 2: Dig a trench or mark out the space
Decide whether you want to start your pile below ground or above ground. Either way, make sure the raised garden bed is narrow enough for you to reach its center.
Dimensions can vary depending on shape, location and your preferences. Your Hugelkultur bed can be 1’ or 2’ high depending if you’ve created it below or above ground.
The key is to be able to reach its center.
Step 3: Create the pile
When stacking up the pile, it’s best to follow the ‘time stacking’ method. This involves placing the youngest and largest logs on the bottom layer. For the bottom most layers use hardwood.
Softwood and branches should be used on top of the hardwood layer. Cover with layers of compostable materials like wood chips, sod, straw, grass clippings, a thin layer of compost and then for the last layer use soil.
Step 4: Planting
Now that your pile is set up, you can sow the seeds of plants you want to raise in your Hugelkultur.
This is generally what goes into building a raised garden bed. Next, let’s see some specifics on the type of wood you should use, what plants you can grow, and how to fix a termites problem.
What Type of Wood is Used for Hugelkultur?
While you may think any wood is good for your Hugelkultur, there are some you should avoid and some you should use with preference over others.
Wood that resists decay and rotting like cedar, should be avoided. Likewise, avoid black walnut as well. It contains a plant growth inhibiting compound called juglone that won’t do you any favors in stimulating plant growth.
Fence post woods like black locust wood or chemically treated wood should also be avoided. Cherry wood is also quite resistant to breakdown, so skip that too.
Most other wood works fine, so as long as you skip cedar, walnut, black locust, and cherry, your Hugelkultur bed will turn out great.
What Can You Grow in a Hugelkultur Bed?
You can grow almost anything in your hugelkultur bed from edibles to flowers. You can sow seeds or plant seedlings. Both will grow fine.
Perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus or strawberries can also be planted. Annuals like potatoes or pepper will also grow nicely in a Hugelkultur bed.
Use your Hugelkultur bed to create a polyculture planting area and grow whatever you need — herbs, edibles, or flowers.
How to Get Rid of Termites in a Hugelkultur Bed?
The wood in a Hugelkultur will attract subterranean termites that break down the rotting wood. While they’re confined to the Hugelkultur bed, they won’t do any harm, in fact they make the soil great.
The problem starts when they attack your house. To avoid this, it’s important to treat your house against termites and that will protect your neighbour’s house as well.
Also do any sealing repairs and painting works that are needed, so as not to allow termites even the slightest chance to set up shop in your house.
Termites are best killed off by neonicotinoids, which unfortunately also kill off bees, so it’s understandable that you may not want to go down the route of treating your Hugelkultur with it.
A natural alternative would be to use a highly concentrated neem oil and spray it into the ground or use cotton balls soaked in neem oils and plant those randomly in the raised garden bed.
Hugelkultur beds may require a bit of upfront work, but they reward you with relatively little maintenance and amazing harvests.
Raised garden beds come with many benefits and are an excellent lesson learned from nature in creating a humus rich soil that will improve the fertility of your garden.
While termites can be an issue in large raised garden beds, there are treatments to keep them out of your home. Be proactive, treat your house against termites, don’t wait for it to become a problem.