How-To: Hugelkultur Raised Garden Bed Start-to-Finish

***Please see my more recent article on hugelkultur, with a start-to-finish slideshow of the 2015 hugelkultur garden***
 
Welcome to a new How-To Monday: Hugelkultur! Every once in a while, my  husband gets a little chainsaw-happy. You see, in my neck of the woods, we have an endless supply {or, rather, infestation} of what we call “brush”…essentially thousands of young poppel trees that make great hideouts for predators of all kinds. And unfortunately, no matter how much you hack the stuff down with the saw, it immediately starts regrowing the next month.
 
This spring, my chainsaw-happy husband took to the brush and cut out a large area for my new garden, as well as a nice big area behind the house and around the animal pens. This leaves us with piles of brush that we typically haul out with the four wheeler & trailer to the gravel pit about 1/2 mile down the road. In the middle of this process, my sister sends me a message with a link to an article about Hugelkultur. That article had me immediately running outside, desperately stopping the little ones from adding any more branches to that trailer. 
 
We would NOT be hauling away our brush any longer! In fact, WHAT had I done?!
 
Never would I have thought that those piles of brush could have been of ANY use to us. Oh, how wrong I was! That one hugelkultur article led to the reading of countless other articles, which then led to watching several videos of this amazing concept. Living the majority of my life in a {beautiful!} wooded area with very rocky ground, I never thought I would find any other way of battling the soil without spending hundreds of dollars on black dirt, hours spent tilling (via a rented tiller), and even more spent rock picking. And not just one time- but every year (anyone with rocky soil knows that new rocks make their way to the surface every spring). What a headache…and who has the money?
 
However, the hugelkultur raised bed is tailor-made for my neck of the woods in many ways. We have a never-ending resource of fallen/rotten trees, logs, sticks, branches, etc- in addition to the brush we need to clear out every year. And all of this “waste” wood is exactly what is needed to get a good hugelkultur bed going. Let me explain further.
 
Yellow Birch Hobby Farm: Hugelkultur How-To

 

First off, let me define for you what exactly hugelkultur is. 
Actually, let me allow Wikipedia to definine it for you
 
“Hügelkultur is a composting process employing raised planting beds constructed on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds. Hügelkultur is German word meaning mound culture or hill culture. It was practiced in German and Eastern European culture for hundreds of years. Mounded hügelkultur beds are ideal for areas where the underlying soil is of poor quality or compacted. They tend to be easier to maintain due to their relative height above the ground.”
 
If you simply Google the word “hugelkultur”, you will find multiples of articles written about it. One forum I found particularly helpful was over at permies.com, which is the largest permaculture site on the web. It offers everything a homesteader would want, covering all areas of interest including building, homesteading, energy, animals, growing, wilderness, regional resources, etc. There you will find a forum area dedicated specifically to hugelkultur, including nearly 6000 posts from people who have tried out hugelkultur for themselves, what worked for them in their area, what types of wood they used, different designs, etc. If you have some time and interest, check it out for sure.
 
I was very excited to give it a shot. We had been wrestling with the idea of what to do about the new garden. Because it was a brush area, we have stumps and roots galore- we had been looking at our only option of hiring someone at $80/hour to bring out some equipment and tear it up for us. Now we had a way to garden without disturbing the soil at all, which I felt was pretty ideal! So I went to work and cannot express how excited I am with the results. 
 
Let me take you through, step by step, on how to build a hugelkultur bed yourself. And, better yet, I’ve taken photos of growing progress along the way so you can see that it really does work!
 
Step 1:
 
Choose an area for your hugel bed and plan for it as you would a row in your garden or any other raised bed. I chose an area that had lots of sunlight and it runs north/south as you would want a row to run. Begin piling whatever wood you have available, starting with the largest stuff on the bottom (logs), adding on top of that any branches/twigs/etc. Try to fill in and pack the wood as tightly as possible. As far as size goes, you can really build them as big as you want. An average hugel bed is 3 feet wide x 6 feet long x 3 feet high. However, the bigger/taller you build the bed, the longer it (the wood) will hold water (much like a sponge) throughout the growing season, thus decreasing the amount of watering required by you.
 
After you have added as much woody debris as desired, water this layer thoroughly. Or, if you’re like me and needed a break after this part- let nature and rain do that step for you. Then proceed to step 2.
 
Note: you would not want to use wood such as cedar in your hugel bed as it is very slow to rot (you want the wood to decompose and compost over time, thus feeding nutrients to your bed). There’s a great thread at the aforementioned permies.com that gives a whole list of wood types to stay away from.
 
Also, some choose to dig out the ground where they plan to build their hugel bed so that the logs start in the ground, giving it a better start at decomposing. The benefit of this is you could then use that sod later on when it comes time to add your dirt layer. The downside is it’s more work and you are disturbing the soil. Your call.
 
Step 2:
 This step is really important, unless you only plan to plant nitrogen fixers such as peas, beans, and legumes in your first year hugel bed. With a big mass of wood such as this, you will have heavy nitrogen draw down and will need a key ingredient to offset this. Therefore, you need to add a nice thick layer of manure or other nitrogen-rich material such as compost, grass clippings, fish emulsion, urine, etc. on top of the wood. Being that we have a ton of chickens and ducks, we always have an endless supply of manure, typically in heaps of shavings and straw in our compost piles. My husband sure was glad to see those piles reduced greatly due to this process! I added a good 6″ of manure, and as I piled it on, I shoved it into any holes or gaps present in the bed.
 
Water thoroughly, or again…let the rain do it for you (we get a ton of rain in June! I did not have to water at all).
 
Step 3:
 Next comes your layer of dirt. You may choose to buy your dirt or do like I did and use what you have available to you. I did some hand-sifting of dirt dug out of an old rocky dirt pile by my house. Typically I would fill a wheelbarrow half full of that, then add a couple shovel fulls of vermiculite or perlite (I’d received a few 100-pound bags from a neighbor who I helped out this summer in getting her place ready for sale), add a few more shovel-fulls of peat moss (also received for free, when we bought our house), and then some dirt/composted wood which my husband brought home from the lumber mill where he works (no cost). So yes, you can do it the hard and cheap way or buy your own. Whatever works for you and your situation. A good few inches.
 
Water.
 
At this point, you could use the sod if you had decided to dig and start your hugel bed in the ground. Simply flip the sod upside-down (so the grass is underneath and the dirt/roots are on top). Although this is an excellent (cheap) way to get your dirt layer, I found that the one bed I created this way has far more weeds/grass because of that grassy layer in there.
 
Step 4:
Add a layer of straw or mulch over the entire bed. This will help hold the dirt in place, as well as hold moisture and keep weeds down. At this point you can plant! Simply move the straw/mulch away from where you are planting your seeds or starter plants. Don’t move the mulch back until the sprouts are above the mulch, or until your starters are in place. 
 
In this bed, I’ve planted two zucchini plants on the far (right) end. Off to the left you can see my 4 cucumber plants. In two parallel rows over the top I planted beans.
 
And on the other side I put my romaine starters in (front, wrapping around to the left).
 
I really wanted to try out a variety of plants and see how they did. Through my reading, a lot of people suggested potatoes or like I mentioned, peas and legumes. It’s suggested too that you allow your bed to “cure” for a while prior to planting- such as creating your bed in the fall for planting in the spring. But I didn’t have time for all that and just went all in. After seeing the results, I’m so glad I did!
Planted June 8th, 2014.
 
Progress: June 18th, 2014
 
Progress: June 28th, 2014
 
Progress: July 6th, 2014
 
 
 
 
Progress: July 14th, 2014
 
Progress: July 21st, 2014
 

 Progress: August 6th, 2014
*Here you can see we are done with romaine and have planted some fall/winter carrots and spinach in their place. 

Progress: August 17th, 2014

We have pulled about 10 zucchini, made several batches of pickles, and it’s now time to pick beans!~*~I’d like to show you one more of my hugelkultur beds, this one a bit of an experiment as it was constructed of nearly all pine wood/boughs. I wasn’t sure about how this would turn out, and it was planted a good two weeks after Hugel #1. Some of the hugelkultur forums said that pine was not a good choice for a hugel bed, while others said it was just fine. I figured I would take the risk and see what happens anyway. This was a big tree we had to cut down that was shading the garden and I wanted to put it to use.

After seeing what it produced- green beans that, though planted two weeks later than those in Hugel #1, are nearly double in size, as well as an experimental tomato plant that is simply monstrous, I decided to look into why they might like this pine bed so much. And it makes sense: pine needles as they break down will release calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil. They are also very acidic, creating an acid-rich soil with a pH of around 6.5- 7. So it makes perfect sense why these plants are so big and happy 🙂

Progress: June 28th, 2014

Progress: July 14th, 2014

Progress: July 21st, 2014

Progress: August 6th, 2014

Progress: August 17th, 2014

 

 One absolutely out of control tomato plant! I must admit, I neglected it a bit- just pruning it once and now it’s so big and bushy and beyond hope haha! But it has tomatoes galore! Also, bottom right you can see some celery. I’ve never planted it before and what I did plant has been pretty unsuccessful except for in this bed.

~*~

Now, for the pros and cons of a hugelkultur raised bed, based on this year’s experience:

Pros:

  • I literally never have to weed these beds. There are a few weeds here and there, but not enough to make me pull them. The straw really keeps those buggers at bay. If you use sod, as mentioned before, you might notice a little more grass in the bed than if you don’t.
  • Depending on the size of your raised bed, the need to water is drastically reduced. If you build a 6-foot tall hugel bed, they are known to hold enough water for an entire season. Smaller beds you can typically go your first month without watering. Keep it mulched well with straw to increase this benefit.
  • Because they are taller, they are easier to pick from!
  • If you decide later on that you don’t want to use your hugel bed, you will have plenty of nutrient-rich soil and mulch to use for your future garden from the bed.
  • You never have to till these beds! As the wood breaks down inside, it is self-tilling so to speak. But you will want to add a thick layer of leaves or other mulch to your bed at the end of the season so you have some nice organic matter to work with at the start of the next! Do fill in holes or gaps as they appear over time as the bed breaks down.
  • If you plan to fall/winter garden as I do, it’s easy to use these beds to set up a low tunnel over.
  • Not all experiences are the same, but I’ve had amazing results from my first-year beds. I love the low-impact aspect of these beds, that I don’t have to disturb the soil, pick rocks, weed, till, water excessively, etc.
 

Cons:

  • We had a really wet start to our summer, and we all know how slugs love a cool, wet environment- and the wood from these beds are perfect for them. So, in the beginning of the summer I did have an issue with slugs.
  • Animals will want to make their home in these beds. I’ve had chipmunks and snakes. Early on, the chipmunks were a problem because they love to dig up small sprouts like peas. The snakes- other than the scare factor- are actually very beneficial to your garden. So if you end up getting one or two in your hugel bed, try to let them live if you can stand it- they will take care of lots of icky pests for you.
  • The actual construction of the bed might be a con for some as it is labor-intensive. I am weird and enjoy this kind of work, but not everyone shares that odd quality. I know a lot of people who have built hugel beds use heavy machinery- so if you have it, go for it.

~*~

I hope I’ve sparked a hugelkultur interest for you!
I’d love to hear if you’ve ever tried this method, and what were your results? What other forms of permaculture have you tried your hand at?

~*~

Shared at:

Homestead Barn Hop #172

About yellowbirchhobbyfarm

Hi! I'm Erin, a 19th-century homesteader at heart. Here at Yellow Birch Hobby Farm we practice self-sustainable living by way of organic gardening, canning & preserving, raising a variety of livestock, hunting, foraging, and cooking from scratch. And here at our blog, we share it all with you! So glad you've found us.

21 comments on “How-To: Hugelkultur Raised Garden Bed Start-to-Finish

  1. This is so awesome! I have never heard about this before. Glad you had a use for all of the stuff you were getting ready to haul away! A big thumbs up to your sister!

  2. Wow, I never heard of this before and I am going to try it. We have sandy soil with lots of stones and small rocks that have to be raked out. Lots of compost needs to be added too. With this soil it takes lots of watering. Can’t wait to try this. I learn so much from homesteaders.

    • I hear you on the poor soil. We’ve got it here too, which is why I was so excited to discover hugelkultur. It truly has made gardening so much easier! I hope you get a chance to try it out…you won’t regret it 🙂

      Erin

  3. Hi Erin,
    I just discovered your site through The Self Sufficient HomeAcre. I really like it! We have a six acre place in Maryland where we keep chickens, ducks, a female turkey and two crazy Guinea hens. We garden in the summer and have a tiny greenhouse for the winter months that mainly keeps herbs and some flowering plants alive for the winter.
    I love this idea for a garden! I have never heard of it. It would be perfect for our property. We always have rotten logs, tree branches ans smaller stuff to get rid of. We have an enormous Maple tree in our yard that “sheds” branches like crazy. And I love that the watering is cut down so much. It is so time consuming. We are going to try this, for sure!
    I had a major problem today with one of our roosters, Dexter. He was Top Gun, but not anymore. We have three and a coup took place in our coop! I found him wounded and hiding. Anyway, he’s in a container in the house, healing. We’ve been through this before and I don’t know if he will make it when he goes back in. We may try to separate him with the ducks and see how it goes. Always something!!!
    Hope you’re staying warm and I will be checking out your blog.
    Laurie

    • Hi, Laurie! Thanks so much for checking out my site and I’m so happy you like it :). I hope you give the hugel beds a try- they are simply awesome. I can’t wait to get going again in the spring- I have many more to build!

      I hear you on the roosters. We had a rooster whose son eventually knocked him down from his spot as top dog- and killed him. It was awful and heartbreaking- but it’s the nature of things, unfortunately. I hope your guy survives.

      It’s been very cold this week but it’s warming up just in time to dump snow on us and get cold again. What can I say other than it’s winter!

      Erin

    • Depending on how deep your flood plane gets, I would think that as long as you build up your beds big enough (6 feet high of piled wood, for example), that shouldn’t be an issue. The wood would be saturated and feed the roots. Obviously, you wouldn’t want whatever you plant to be at risk of being under water- so just be sure to plant higher than the flood level…if that makes sense? Either way, good luck! And thanks for stopping 🙂

      Erin

  4. You have sparked my interest and I am going to give it a try, we also have a lot of bush and fallen trees around our property. I plan to start one this fall for planting next spring, thank you for the inspiration

    • That’s great, Elsa! Fall is the perfect time to start working on hugel beds. I’m also going to be building more beds this fall to prepare for another spring expansion. It’s a great way to clean up those dead and fallen trees and get rid of some brush. So much better than hauling it all away or burning it 🙂

      Thanks for visiting 🙂

  5. Could you please tell me a little more about the layering of the bed using the pine boughs? Did your layer of boughs take the place of the manure, grass clippings, and fish emulsion? Thank you 🙂

    • Hi, Lisa! No, the pine boughs did not take the place of those things. They are just what made up my woody layer. Still do the layer of manure following the boughs 🙂

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

      Erin

      • Thank you, Erin! I love your blog. We live in NW Montana and I see a lot of similarities in our climates. It’s encouraging to see all the food your garden produces.

        • You’re welcome! If my family didn’t live in NE Minnesota, I’d be living in your neck of the woods. A dream of mine since I was little. Just gorgeous country!

          If you delve into the world of hugelkultur, you’ll have to let me know! I’d love to hear about it 🙂

  6. Hello Erin,
    I have known about hugel garden for a long time, but where I was living didn’t have the space for one ,I have since moved back to the house I grew up in and have an acre or so to play with now . I’m getting ready to start and will let you know how it turns out. I’m very excited because I received a huge box of every seed you can imagine from a friend in the business so I’m really going to have to make a lot of large ones to support all these seeds.
    We have a lot of pine wood and I’m hoping it will be ok. Going to have to cut a lot of brush for filler & might even be able to get some free horse manure. Happy hugeling thanks for all your good info. Sharon. ♻️ 🌱🌻😄

  7. starting my hugel today wish me luck and thanks for all the lovely info! sheesh I am out of shape this will ease me into shape I hope!

    • Thanks for reading, Sylvie! The only issue with ducks in the garden is they are so big and heavy that they just topple/crush the plants. I pretty much have had to resort to hand-picking slugs in the evenings :(. Yuck. But no matter what type of garden you have, you will have slugs. And I still would not garden in any other way! 4 years of hugelkultur and have never looked back 🙂

      Erin

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