Ask A Master Gardener – Hügelkultur Gardening

Gardening methods have changed over the years. New methods come via experimentation from seasoned gardeners, keeping the good and discarding the bad.  Older methods are sometimes list to the passage of time, but one method that is enjoying resurgence is hügelkultur. Hügelkultur is simple, low-tech, and inexpensive.  The concept behind this method is turning woody material, into a usable resource, thereby reducing waste material.

Master Gardener Volunteers provide unbiased, research-supported information so that readers can be confident in the results of their efforts. There has not been significant research into this method, but Washington State and Montana State Universities, as well as University of Minnesota and UC Berkley, have all initiated studies. Experimenting is a great thing in gardening.  If you have an amount of waste wood, try hügelkultur and see what happens, just be realistic in your expectations.

Hügelkultur translates to “mound culture” and has been used for some time in Eastern Europe and Germany. The origin of hügelkultur is debatable.  Some sources indicate it is “centuries old,” but the first reliable reference of the term comes from a 1962 German brochure written by avid gardener Herman Andrä.  His work was heavily influence by a fellow German garden enthusiast, Rudolf Steiner who taught about “hillock gardening” in the 1920s.  Andrä and Hans Beba, also a follower of Steiner, collaborated on a book about hügelkultur.  That book became the impetus behind the resurgence of interest within the permaculture movement.

To create a hügelkultur bed, either make a depression in the earth, or simply pile material on top of the soil, making a bed that is six feet long and three feet wide. Begin with a layer of larger logs, avoiding cedar or walnut, because both produce biochemicals that detrimentally influence seed germination.  Next, add a second layer made up of smaller branches, followed by filling all the crevices with leaves, organic material, kitchen scraps, etc.  Water each layer well as the mound is built; finish it off by adding several inches of soil to the top and sides.  When complete, the mound should stand roughly three feet tall.

The mound must rest for several months as it decomposes and settles into something more appropriate for a garden bed. In our more northerly climate, it will take more than a few months of decomposition for the bed to be ready for planting, so plan on a minimum of 12 months.  However, if you use partially rotted wood in the initial build, the decomposition process will occur more quickly.

There are some drawbacks to this method. Weeds are a significant problem and flourish rapidly on the surface of the mound.  Also, the mounds will also collapse over time.  In the original German publication, the authors indicate that the beds have a lifespan of only 5–6 years and must be rebuilt from scratch.  Therefore, it would be unwise to plant any type of tree or perennial bed such as asparagus, strawberries, or other fruit in a hugelkulture bed.

There are anecdotal claims that the bed retains water so well that supplemental watering in not necessary. It is also nutritionally balance so that fertilization is never required.  None of these claims have been substantiated and may not be entirely accurate.  For instance, in the initial breakdown, the wood is high in carbon and will temporarily tie up nitrogen to start the decomposition process.

Happy Gardening.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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