You may have already heard the term permaculture– the process of designing agricultural systems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Permaculture is a direct contradiction to traditional farming practices, which focus on monocropping and mass production. Within the umbrella of permaculture, there are many different approaches that gardeners and farmers can use to diversify their plots, increase outputs, and decrease the amount of time and resources that go into maintaining these systems. One of these approaches is known as Hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur beds are an excellent way to create a sustainable and diverse garden to create closed-loop efficiency within your system and prevent excess waste.
What is a Hugelkultur Bed?
The word Hügelkultur is German for “Hill Culture”. The actual bed itself is similar to a raised garden bed, except much higher because it’s a garden that is built into a mound. The bottom layer of the bed is filled with buried logs to provide long-term nutrition for the plants growing above.
These logs usually come from branches, sticks, and logs that you are left with after spring pruning. Instead of throwing them away, hugelkultur beds utilize them as carbon-rich sources of nutrients.
What are the Benefits of a Hugelkultur Bed?
The buried wood is what makes these beds so beneficial. Wood contains lignans, which is a carbon fiber compound that decomposes slowly, breaking down over a long period of time. This creates what’s called humus, or decomposed organic matter, at the bottom of the beds .
This rotting wood hosts fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and microbial growth, all of which create nutrients for your plants. Humus is similar to mulch, except that since it feeds the plants from underneath, it encourages roots to reach down and anchor deep into the soil, which leads to larger growth above ground.
The humus also helps absorb and retain water, so you will actually have to water your garden less often, therefore conserving resources. Many gardeners who use this technique say that after the first year, they never have to water their beds ever again.
Additionally, as the logs underneath the mound break down, it produces heat, which warms up the soil. This allows your plants to grow faster and larger.
The other benefit to hugelkultur beds is that they are no-dig. This is important, because the less you have to touch your garden, the less likely you are to disturb the complex ecosystems that form within the soil. Many gardeners use compost on their beds, but even the act of moving the compost exposes it to oxygen which destroys nutrients. With this method, the compost stays under the beds for years without disturbance.
How to Build a Hugelkultur Bed
Building a hugelkultur bed is relatively simple. The first step is choosing what type of wood you will use to form the base of your beds. The best nutrient providers for your soil tend to come from the local environment, so this will change depending on where you live. That being said, hardwoods break down more slowly, therefore providing nutrients for a longer period of time, which is preferable.
When you’re first starting, you may want to add some softer wood at the top of the pile, which will break down faster and provide nutrients right away to your plants. Having a mixture of trees will also provide a good blend of nutrients to your garden.
There are, however, some trees you should avoid using because they can release toxins into the soil, or turn your soil too acidic. They include camphor wood, black locust, eucalyptus, black walnut, Siberian Elm, California pepper tree, black cherry, and pretty much all cedar varieties.
You will also need both green and brown mulch, as well as pre-made compost to go on top of your log layer.
To build your hugelkultur bed, you need to dig a trough in which you can lay your logs, which should be about thirty to sixty centimeters deep. The width is up to you, but keep in mind that the wider the bed, the taller it can be. The typical width is one to one and a half feet.
Next, you have to place your logs into the trough. You want to get as much wood as you can in there without packing it too tightly. Bigger tree trunks, branches, and hardwoods go at the bottom, smaller twigs and sticks go at the top, and mulch and compost go on top of that.
Once you have put all your layers in, you cover it with the soil that you had initially removed when you dug the trough, and you are ready to begin planting.
Maintaining your Hugelkultur Bed
During the first year, you will need to water your bed as the wood breaks down. Some experts also recommend planting legumes in the first year, since the rotting wood uses up the nitrogen in the soil that the plants need to grow. Many legumes, on the other hand, are excellent at fixing nitrogen, so they can compete, and grow well in that environment.
Over time, the rotting wood will begin acting like a very effective sponge and will hold onto water for a very long time, which means you will no longer have to water your beds very frequently, if at all.
The bed you plant in the first year can be used for many years afterward, which significantly reduces the amount of work you will have to do on a regular basis .
A hugelkultur bed is one of the most effective ways to recycle nutrients and return them to your soil. They are great for the environment because they require less input, are less time-consuming for you because they are very self-sufficient, and they produce beautiful, healthy crops.
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