Hugelkultur : (hooogul-culture)
While walking in the woods, most of us have noticed that earthy-smelling soil beneath the leaf litter and especially around rotting logs. Well, that rich soil is the idea behind hugelkultur, used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany and roughly translated: “mound culture.” Anyone who has excess logs, branches and other wood debris can use them to create such a raised, water-retaining planting bed that becomes even richer over time.
Permaculture systems have long used hugelkulture to recreate what happens naturally on a forest floor where woody and leafy debris accumulates and breaks down into spongy humus. This humus helps retain moisture, improve drainage and build soil fertility. To mimic this in our own backyards is a relatively simple process and there’s more than one way to go about it.
Preparing the Area: Beds are built either on top of the ground or by digging a trench and burying all or part of the wood. The size and shape of the bed is entirely up to you. Since you have to fill in the spaces between the wood, many people cut the sod off of the area they are going to use and dig down a little further, reserving the sod and soil to be used as filler.
Wood: Anything from logs and log chunks, to twigs. Put the largest wood on the bottom. Don’t use locust, walnut or treated wood, period. Conifers can be used if they are old and partially broken down. You can use fresh cut wood if you’re not going to plant immediately but aged or rotting wood works best.
Filler: To fill in the spaces between the wood pieces and create a smooth planting surface, use the sod or the soil you just removed or get material from elsewhere. The slow way to do this is to begin building a compost pile right onto the woodpile as you accumulate materials. Throw kitchen scraps, garden waste, leaves and straw right on top of the wood and down into the cracks. Once the wood is covered and the organic matter is broken down, you can plant. To produce a bed more quickly, fill and top the wood pile with ready-made compost and/or soil to create a smooth, mounded shape.
Dimensions: While most hugelkultur look much like double-dug beds, be creative and use whatever fits your site. A quick scan of ‘hugelkultur’ on Google will reveal a plethora of shapes, and sizes.
When to Plant: The fresher the wood, the better it is to wait several months before planting. Beds made with well-rotted logs, compost and soil, can be planted immediately. You can also plant the bed in a cover crop and then use the resulting green matter for mulch or compost. Crops which particularly appreciate the hugelkulture method are: potatoes, squash, pumpkins, melons and many berries. For at least a few years, shy away from root crops. This method is also great for ornamentals and landscape plants.
Benefits: Creates garden space from rotting wood and –Rotting wood: releases moisture slowly and is often used to regulate soil moisture in areas without irrigation, soaks up moisture in wet areas making planting possible, warms the soil, creates beneficial habitat for soil microorganisms, and provides humus.
Other Uses: Buried wood can also be used around newly planted trees to hold and release water and in swampy areas to soak up excess moisture.
In short, this mouthful of a method is designed to take advantage of the natural fertility and moisture-conserving qualities of rotting wood. So even if your German accent is a bit rusty, I urge you to give it a shot. We’ve had a successful hugelkultur bed at The Lord’s Acre now for two years and plan on putting in more. At the very least, out of sheer curiosity, you’ll have neighbors coming over to help you move your wood pile.