What is Hugelkultur? Hügelkultur is a centuries-old traditional way of building a garden bed from rotten logs and debris, and it is often utilized within a larger permaculture system.
Hügelkultur has been practiced all over the world for hundreds of years and has endured over time because it is so effective, regenerative, and produces some of the happiest plants you’ll ever encounter!
Let’s Break It Down
Hügelkultur literally translates to “mound culture” or “hill culture” because this type of garden bed is essentially a giant, layered mound of wood, bark, organic matter, and earth in which plants and crops can grow.
"Hugelkultur is regenerative at its core. You're taking old, rotting wood and turning it into something beautiful and new." - Sam Kalk, Founder & CEO
While there’s a correct way to structure and build a Hügelkultur bed, it’s not something that has to be exactly precise. As long as you have 32 square feet of space to build your bed, you’re good.
Permaculture practices like Hügelkultur are all about using what you already have to maximize your space while creating optimal growing conditions for a variety of crops and plants – without hurting the environment!
Building a Hügelkultur bed involves layering rotting wood, lumber, and other organic matter (that would probably be thrown away otherwise) into a big pile and then letting science do its thing - break it all down.
This process creates a super fertile, moisture-retaining sponge-like garden bed that's a perfect growing environment for vegetables, herbs, flowers, and a variety of other crops and plants.
As the decomposing wood breaks down, it releases crucial nutrients and water into the soil, all of which help to aerate the soil.
As the rotting wood, organic matter, and other layers decompose into each other, this also creates an atmosphere teeming with a healthy web of fungi, insects, and microbes.
Drought Resistant Garden Bed? Yes, please!
Hügelkultur beds conserve water, which is so important when living in the drought-stricken Inland Northwest and trying to be responsible about your water usage.
As the bed’s layers decompose, the rotting wood in the base layer of the bed will begin to hold water like a sponge, making the bed drought-resistant.
Your plants grown in your Hügelkultur bed will not require as frequent watering as plants that are planted directly into the soil or into a raised garden bed.
HUgelkultur is all about the LAYERING
TOP LAYER: a mix of compost, topsoil, mulch, spray-free straw, hay, or other mulch alternatives
3RD LAYER: a mix of twigs, leaves, and organic garden debris/clippings.
4TH LAYER: a mix of manure, compost, and subsoil - this layer fills in the gaps of your bed or hill.
2ND LAYER: a mix of smaller branches, and untreated lumber (a great way to use half-rotted lumber).
BASE LAYER: A mix of large chunks of old or rotting wood, large branches, or bark that help to create a nutritive bio-sponge that holds moisture and provides nutrients for years as it decomposes.
Hügelkultur beds can vary widely in size throughout their lifecycle.
When initially built, they can be as tall as 6 feet but will compress down to about 2 feet tall as the layers of wood, trees, and organic matter all decompose into each other. Science!
HUgelkultur Garden Beds vs. Traditional Raised Garden Beds
HUgelkultur Garden Beds…
They are “no-dig” raised beds, so they release less carbon than traditional beds.
Require 50% of the soil to fill since you’re using other natural materials to fill the bed in addition to the soil.
Great way to maximize your space and increase your garden’s yield.
Better at holding moisture and naturally building more fertile soil over time.
A sustainable way to use old branches, organic matter, grass clippings, plant roots, or other materials you would otherwise throw in the garbage.
In areas where too much water is an issue, the height of the bed prevents plants from drowning.
Can be tall enough that you don’t have to bend over or kneel to harvest your crops, making it a more accessible option for disabled folks or people who can’t bend or kneel to tend to their gardens.
Traditional Raised Garden Beds…
Require tilling and digging, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, damaging the already fragile ozone layer.
Most folks fill raised garden beds with soil and compost, which can get expensive very quickly, and traditional garden bed soil is not as fertile as a Hügelkultur bed filled with microorganisms.
Dry out quickly and require frequent watering, often multiple times a day in peak summer heat.
Step-By-Step Guide for Building Your Own Hugelkultur Bed
1. Identify a spot in your yard that is ideal for building your hügelkultur bed. Ideally, you’re going to need at least 32 square feet (ex. 8 x 4 ft) of space to be successful with a build like this (but we’ve seen and built beds many times as big, and smaller too!).
2. If the area where you’re going to build your bed has grass, you will need to remove that and strip it down to bare soil before proceeding
3. Gather materials such as old or rotting wood, lumber, bark, branches, grass clippings, plant roots, wood chips, cardboard, compost, hay or straw, etc.
4. Lay the BASE LAYER - a mix of large stumps or chunks of old or rotting wood, large branches, or bark.
5. Lay the 2ND LAYER - a mix of smaller branches, and untreated lumber (a great way to use half-rotted lumber).
6. Lay the 3RD LAYER - a mix of twigs, leaves, and organic garden debris/clippings.
7. Lay the 4TH LAYER - a mix of manure, compost, and subsoil - this layer fills in the gaps of your bed or hill.
8. Finally, add the TOP LAYER - add compost, topsoil, straw or hay, and mulch
Plant things that need more water nearer the bottom and those that like it drier near the top.
You can plant in the sides as well to increase yields in a small garden.
You can plant in the sides as well as top and bottom increasing yields in a small garden
Tree Varieties To Avoid Using in Hugelkultur
Black Locust (will not decompose)
Black Walnut (juglone toxin)
Old Growth Redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination)
Building a Hügelkultur bed is one of our favorite projects to work on at Dryland Revival.
Reach out to chat with our team to discover how we can help your regenerative garden dreams come true. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org