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Small-scale hugelkultur in raised beds

Brad Rowland |
Wednesday, 30th November 2011

Can a garden go all summer with only one watering? Can you easily sustain plants from less arid zones? Can a simple, low tech trick transform your dirt into an active soil web that feeds plants, fights bad critters and prevents disease? These are some of the claims that made Brad Rowland try out small-scale Hugelkultur at home – but what is Hugelkultur?!

Hugelkultur-raised-bed-300x223.jpg

Huglekultur raised bed

Hugelkultur is a method of building planting beds by covering wood with dirt; big piles of wood and sometimes other organic matter. You can dig a trench and fill it with wood, or just pile the wood on the ground and cover it. There are many different approaches as Paul Wheaton points out, and the results are impressive. This has to be one of the most low tech systems I've ever heard of.

Why would you do this? As the wood rots, it has an incredible capacity for holding water, and creates a nifty little ecosphere to promote a healthy soil web of microbes, fungi, insects and worms. Eventually the decaying matter provides nutrients to the plants and critters, and as the wood decays it helps to prevent the soil from becoming compacted. Some experts say the results can positively impact the bed for 15 to 20 years. Plus it's a very fun word to say.

I had a big pile of firewood from some dying trees we took down several years ago, and rather than starting a new bed, I decided to convert an existing raised bed planter. I've seen videos of giant Hugelkultur beds, but several permaculture resources recommended approximately 6′x3′ dimensions, so my 4′x4′ planter should be perfect. Incidentally, this is one of the same beds from the worm tower solution. I started by removing all the dirt from the planter, and went down about another foot below ground level.

When I removed the worm tower it was full of happy worm life, with worms in the tube, and hanging out of the holes in the side. There was some pretty solid evidence that the worms were venturing in and out of the tube to feed on the bacteria in the compost and bring the nutrients directly to the soil. The soil also had an abundance of regular earthworms, a big change from several years ago. I almost hated to pull this bed apart because the things we tried in past years had really seemed to work, but the dramatic claims around the benefits of Hugelkultur make it a worthy experiment.

After the dirt was removed I layered in the wood, and added a couple of buckets of compost from different stages. Avoid using wood from trees that contain natural toxins, like cedar and others from this list here – and if you find a good list of recommended wood to use, please post it in the comments for this article. I covered the whole thing with the dirt I removed, and then covered it with white clover seeds.

Maybe we'll go 'no till' and leave the clover in with the garden next year – not sure yet. I haven't seen anyone add unfinished compost, so that was a random addition, but I have several stages going, which may give a jump-start to the soil life.

Visit Brad's website, highlyuncivilized.com

For bigger scale huglekultur beds please see 'Earth' – So important they named a planet after it (& how to build hugel beds) by Tim Green

Help spread the permaculture word...

ConorDub |
Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 4:48pm

This would be a fantastic solution to the heat and drought here in Houston. I have a lot of friends who are increasingly using both front and back yards to garden and so there isn't much space, especially space away from their homes. This seems like it would attract termites, which is a huge problem in this area already. What's your experience with this? Any ideas? Thanks--it looks really great and we can't wait to try this!

california quaking |
Sunday, December 18, 2011 - 3:11am

I'd love to hear an answer to ConorDub's question. Here in Southern California, raised beds need watering virtually year around and mulch is only partially effective. In some areas, the soil is very sandy and needs a lot of organic matter added to it in order to make it suitable for cultivation. Small scale Hugelkultur sounds like a good remedy for both, but what we don't need more of around here is termites. Anyone have any thoughts?

Brad Rowland |
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 5:39pm

this is my first hugelkultur project, so i cannot speak from experience, however i will tell you that the beds in my article above are about 15' from my house. i live south of the bay area in california.

i could not find any good info about hugelkultur and termites, but since most of my information came from the permies site, you may want to post in that forum. the closest thread i could find on the topic is this one:

http://www.permies.com/t/11847/permaculture/Hugelkultur-Pests

best regards
brad
highlyuncivilized.com

tims |
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 4:16pm

Surely as the wood rots it will rob the soil of nitrogen?

Maddy Harland |
Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 1:29pm

To avoid the bed being robbed of nitrogen it is best to use rotting wood rather than freshly felled timber.

Also avoid allopathic trees like most or all cedars (Cypress, Redwood, Sequoia), camphor wood, black locust, black cherry, Eucalyptus, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) Black walnut (Juglans nigra) California Pepper Tree (Peruvian and Brasilian) Siberian Elm.

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