July 13, 2022

A First Try With Hugelkultur

Last winter, when we were making our garden swale, we dug up a lot of dirt. Some of it became a berm on the downhill side of the swale, but with some of it, Dan decided to try hugelkultur. 

Hugelkultur is a permaculture term that I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with. It's German for "mound culture," which is actually a type of raised garden bed. It's built from dead logs, soil, branches, and sticks. According to richsoil.com, hugelkultur decreases the need for irrigating and fertilizing, plus it sequesters carbon. Since it's pretty much just buried wood, it's a productive way to use up rotting wood, twigs, branches, even whole logs, rather than dumping or burning them. Hugelkultur beds are primarily mounds, but can be made in trenches to be ground level (like my swale beds).

I confess I've been a skeptic because I've read reports from others in hot climates that say they don't work. I even mentioned this in 5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel

"Other gardeners were raving about h├╝gelkultur beds, so I put some research time into the idea. While they seemed to work well in mild climates with fair rainfall, gardeners with hot summers and annual dry spells like mine were giving up on them. H├╝gelkultur beds appeared to work better in some climates than others. Mine was one of the others."
“Food Self-Sufficiency: Feeding Ourselves,”
5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel (p. 61)

I think what changed my mind was Permies.com, where hugelkultur is a basic tenant of permaculture gardening. The key seems to be the size of the mound. Many people seem to make small mounds, which will dry out quickly. The bigger the mound, the more moisture it can hold. Dan wanted to give it a try, so here we are. Now, I'm wondering if I'll have to eat my words. Well, I hope so! Since we have an abundance of dead wood (mostly pine), hugelkulture would be a great way to deal with it.

Here's our hugelkulture in pictures.

Some people dig them out first, but Dan started with a long pile on the ground.

On top of this, he added sections of old pine logs.

He covered each layer with some of the soil from the swale.

Close-up. Longer longs could have been used parallel to the build,
but these smaller sections were much easier to move and handle.

The whole thing was covered with dirt and then I tossed on a
 clover and pasture forage mix, and covered it with compost.

My concern was that the seed and compost would wash downhill when it rained, It did, though not as badly as I anticipated. In the bare spaces on top, I  poked winter squash seeds into the soil. On the sides, I planted black turtle beans.



Close-up of the forage mix: crimson clover and chicory.

Close-up of one of the squashes planted on top.

Here it is now.

Close-up of the squash and chicory flowers. The crimson
clover is done flowering, but red clover is starting to bloom.

I have to say that I'm quite pleased with how well our hugelkultur mound has grown. I know it will take some time before all those logs and sticks break down enough to be of best benefit, but it's a start. The only thing I've watered has been the squash seeds planted on top. The top is where it dries out most quickly, and I want the squash to survive.

Time will tell how successful it will be in the long-run, but so far, so good.

Has anyone else experimented with hugelkultur? What did you think?


tpals said...

Not me, but it's something I find fascinating. I suppose it's less work to build than the keyhole garden?

Leigh said...

Tpals, I'll have to ask Dan which was easier to build! The keyhole garden required the brickwork (although the wall could be made from something else), but the hugelkultur required hauling logs and lots of dirt. It's more surface area than the keyhole, so I can grow more, but on the other hand, the top is a little more difficult to reach. It will be interesting to compare them over the years. For now, I wouldn't mind more of both!

Ed said...

I haven’t though I have read about it.

L.G. said...

We have a similar size hugelkultur mound here, with a picket fence and gate to keep the poultry and critters out of it. After experimenting with what to grow there over several years, we've found it to be most valuable for two perennial crops that require drainage:

1. Large-sized Papa Caucho fingerling potatoes brought to North America from the Andes, capable of overwintering in situ (or long-term indoor storage til the next growing season - but hedge your bet by dividing the harvest with some indoors and some outdoors in the mound)

2. Perennial Gros Vert de Laon artichokes capable of withstanding cold winters - seeds only available from Europe.

Just one comment about your photo: Those of us who must keep an eye open for timber rattlesnakes and copperheads would not be able to plant the mound so thickly. Need a pathway around it, and well-spaced plantings on the mound.

Love your website!

Leigh said...

Ed, kinda different from your garden. :)

L.G. welcome! Anything perennial always catches my attention as I've been planting more perennials. I've not heard of either of the crops you mention, but they sound like they're worth investigating.

Is your climate primarily rainy or hot and dry? You're right about needing to adapt things for one's own challenges and circumstances. There is no one-size-fits all in gardening.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Interesting Leigh (and lovely photos!). I would worry about the runoff as well - I wonder as you go and it is established if that becomes much less of an issue over time.

daisy g said...

I use a huglekulture method in my raised beds by filling the bottom 1/3 with branches, twigs, and leaves. This fills up the bottom part of the beds so I need less soil and compost in which to plant. It also adds nutrients to the soil and encourages critters and bacteria. It's always fun to experiment in the garden.

Leigh said...

TB, thank you for the compliment on my photos! Much appreciated. :) Keeping it planted will definitely help with runoff problems, so hopefully, from now, I can keep the soil anchored.

Daisy, that's pretty much how I filled our African keyhole garden. It really works, doesn't it!

Cederq said...

Do root crops do well in a huglekulture?

Leigh said...

Kevin, I plan to find out!

Rain said...

Looks great so far Leigh! I thought about trying that this year, but I didn't find the time. One of my friends, who is German actually, swears by it and she's had great success!

Nancy In Boise said...

Looks great, we did a mound but not with the branches and logs underneath. I would definitely do that if I had the property and logs etcetera.

Leigh said...

Rain, there's never enough time for everything! LOL. The hardest thing so far, is getting to stuff on top. Nice that you have someone handy who can give you tips and answer questions!

Nancy, it would be interesting if you could rustle up some branches and chunks of wood to do a side by side comparison. I'm hoping that once they start to decompose, the wood will not only feed the soil, but help it not dry out so fast.

WolfSong said...

I haven't done a huglekulture mound yet.
Working on lasagna gardening though (more like the Ruth Stout method) and it seems to be doing decently.
I love the way your mound looks, and could definitely see adding one (or 2 or 3 or more ;) ), especially for pollinator gardens and medicinals.
Perhaps that'll be my winter research project....

Leigh said...

Wolfsong, hello and welcome! I think that would make a great research project. My biggest challenge so far, is reaching the top! I'm guessing the whole thing will settle over the years, as the logs decompose. But it will be a wonderfully rich raised bed when it does.

Chris said...

Certainly the bigger the logs, the longer it can hold moisture. If it has been thoroughly soaked beforehand, that is. Which was the problem I had in my 3 year drought. No moisture in the ground whatsoever. What I learned is that in a dry climate - or if there's free-draining, sandy soils, is to put the wood on the surface. More to act like mega mulch, than hugelkultur

I didn't bother putting soil on top, because I just placed it around the fruit trees. Or you can plant squash/pumpkin seeds on the edges, and it will spring up and cover the logs. Raising any fruit off the ground

The other benefit for above ground, with no soil covering (in a dry climate) is condensation will form under the logs if there's temperature differences, overnight. The heat hits the log during the day, then as the temperatures drop overnight, it forms condensation on the bottom of the log. The only fruit trees to survive the drought, had mega log mulch.

Leigh said...

Interesting observations, Chris. I hadn't thought about soaking the logs beforehand. Of course, we have never had a drought that severe!