What is hugelkultur?

Hugelkultur, or Hügelkultur, is as it appears a germanic word describing an old European system which tries to mimic some of the natural processes one can find in the forests.

There are several advantages with hugelkultur and they may vary with the conditions where you live. I will try to layout some of the general advantages here, but will go more into details in other posts.

Moisture control

The branches and logs you’ve used will function as a sponge and over time as they rot more this will improve more and more. In the first year you might have to do some watering, but over time you might only have to do so only during the driest periods. If you have plants in your hugel mound that acts as groundcover, like squash, oregano or even potatoes, then the retaining of moisture can be even greater.
Mulching is in my opinion a must. Apart from preventing weeds, feeding the soil when it decompose, it also help keeping the moisture.

Recycle material

When constructing your hugelkultur you can utilize resources you already have access to. This is something we all should do, try to eliminate waste and transport. If you have access to logs and branches use those, if you have some old, untreated building material, use those. You must avoid using treated wood as those can release toxins you don’t want anywhere near your food source. Cedar and redwood is also wise to avoid, unless you make a wooden frame of them and intend them to withstand the decomposing process.

Grass, leaves, branches, kitchen scraps or half-composted material, seaweed, newspapers, cardboard, straw… all of these are very useful and examples of things that quite a lot freely have access to and that is very useful to use. In addition some manure would be a good addition to add more nitrogen to the soil, over time when the wood rots nitrogen will be slowly released to the soil. Planting nitrogen fixating plants and trees can also help getting nitrogen to the hugelkultur soil if you think there is a need for it.

Recycling plant debris on your property is not only good for the garden and your economy; it is also good for the environment.

Growing the soil

The soil on a property can often be of poor quality or just have a thin layer of it. That is what led me to this in the first place. I could have bought more soil, but that doesn’t appeal to me and I suspect the same goes for you.

The rotting wood creates a paradise for microbes and bacteria to go crazy in and their activity transforms this excess of nutrients, making it readily accessible for the plants to feed on. This is a vital part of the thought of growing and feeding the soil and not the plants as commercial agriculture does.

Improve drainage

In some areas there is a lot of rain and building the mound above ground can help get a good drainage, but at the same time preserve moisture to the plants. The rotting timber functions as a sponge and release the moisture to the plans over time.

If your soil contains a lot of clay, then this will be a very good way to drastically improve your soil. I would make sure that the mound had a good height so the roots of the plants will not be much below the ground level as clay easily can make it so that the wood will at time be very soaked. Here your experiences and observations are crucial, or they’ll easily turn into a learning experience..

Extend growing season

A hugelkultur mound can easily be above ground as a raised bed, but it can also be fully or partly dug in the ground. A raised bed gets heated up quicker in the spring, as it will get more sun and warmer air. A raised bed build with hugelkultur technique will add to this

The heat produced by the decomposing materials boosts early strong growth of plants such as beans, pumpkins, cucumbers and other squash, all of which like their roots in warm soil.

In the cold season having an above ground hugelkultur can be a disadvantage as it will be more exposed to cold weather, so having plants that aren’t hardy will put them at risk. In these situation on might consider digging the hugelkultur bed down in the ground.

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