An Introduction to Hügelkultur

Hügelkultur is a method used by some permaculture gardeners to create raised garden beds for the growing of food crops, usually those crops which require a high level of nutrition in the soil and like a soil that can retain a high level of moisture. While this method is best suited to areas which experience drought or low-water conditions in the summer and areas where the underlying soil is less than ideal, it could be a great method to use in all areas.

The term comes from the German term, 'mound culture' or 'hill culture'. It has been used in Germanic countries and in areas of Eastern Europe for hundreds of years and now has a strong following around the world where permaculture is in practice. In Hügelkultur, raised beds are created by piling up logs and wood and covering them with various forms of biomass, compost and sometimes straw. The wood and other matter slowly rots down in place, releasing nutrients and creating a valuable and good quality soil for the growing of food crops. The wood harbours useful soil life and also draws in water and stores then releases it like a sponge. This means that the need for intensive watering throughout the year is reduced.

The mounds created with this method have several advantages over other raised bed methods. Not only are they better at retaining moisture and filled with useful humus, they also create several different environmental conditions in a relatively small space. As you are composting in place, the organic material rotting down will slightly warm the soil, increasing the length of your growing season and helping plants that are on the slightly more delicate side. There are also fewer problems with soil compaction, as the decaying wood will create air pockets over time, keeping the soil aerated.

Beds should be narrow enough that you can easily reach to the centre of the beds. The taller you make them the more moisture they will retain. A six foot high mound might sound extreme but it can mean easy picking of produce as you won't have to stoop and the bed will not require any watering all summer and will survive an entire summer of drought conditions. Most people go for a two or three foot high bed, which can still last without water for two or three weeks and has many of the same benefits as the larger mounds. You can vary the width and the exact style but the principle remains the same. Remember the mound will shrink considerably over the first few years.

Do not use cedar wood, cherry or black walnut to form your beds. Most woods, however, are fine. Pines are not ideal but with other biomass they will work okay. The best wood to use is wood that is already quite rotten though newly cut wood can also be used in combination with a nitrogen rich material like grass clippings or sods. This is because wood uses up a fair amount of nitrogen in the initial stages of its decay, so this must be taken into account. You can inoculate wood with mushroom spores to add even further to your food yield.