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Hugelkultur (pronounced ‘hoogle culture) is a practice that entails growing plants on raised, earthen mounds. The foundation of these raised beds is made up of fresh or rotting logs and branches that are covered in soil, layers of manure, and compostable material. Now that we know what it is, the question arises, does it work? And is it worth the effort?
Hugelkultur works as the wood underneath the surface absorb water, holds it, and gradually releases it to plants. This improves soil fertility, water-holding capacity and makes the soil more nutrient-rich over time.
Popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, hugelkultur is practiced for several years in Germany. But based on a gardener’s unique needs, hugelkultur can be approached in more than one way. People have come up with their own variations that can benefit their crops even more. So, if you plan to give hugelkultur a try, here is some information that will help you if it really works.
What is Hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur is a gardening technique in which you need to pile up a bunch of logs and small branches. Then, you cover the pile with leaves, grass clippings, compost, sod, aged manure, seaweed, straw, and soil. The pile shrinks gradually over time as the organic matter starts to decompose slowly.
They are quite long-lasting and may need to be rebuilt only after around five years.
The Logic Behind Hugelkultur
While people are still debating the logic and need for hugelkultur, nature has practiced this technique for some hundred million years. Composting is something that gives us a chance to recycle a plant and reuse it in the garden. But composting requires the materials to be broken down into smaller and finer pieces.
Thus, traditional composting only focused on recycling twigs and small branches but left heavy and thick tree trunks.
But nature has been recycling every element on this planet from the very beginning. When old trees fall to the ground, they get covered up in organic matter.
Then, they gradually rot down and get dissolved into the soil. Hugelkultur is nothing but replicating this recycling process of nature. Before the invention of mulchers and chippers, gardeners came up with the technique that helped them return the nutrients to the soil that these huge wood logs contained.
The gradual decaying of the wood offers a consistent and long-term source of nutrients and moisture to the plants. Other than this, the composting wood warms up the soil, extending the growing season.
The Components of Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur has three main components – wood logs, the hill, and the organic layer. Here is a closer look at each of the components that will help you understand the need for hugelkultur as a gardening practice:
Wood is the primary element in hugelkultur. It should be noted that the more wood you add, the more water it will hold. Also, it will help in warming up the soil better. Wood is a long-term source of nutrients as it breaks down slowly and gradually. Hardwoods usually decompose extremely slowly are a great choice for hugelkultur.
They might take up to twenty years to break down. So, if you are looking for permanent beds, you can go with maple, cedar, oak, and apple. But it is essential to ensure that logs are dead, else they will sprout.
Typically, the hill or the ‘hugely is built around six feet tall. However, people have started building three feet tall as well. This is probably because it would require lesser work and less wood. You can either dig up a trench for the woodpile or go with the no-dig beds. The shapes are also wide-ranging. You can build round or rectangular beds.
The Organic Layer
The top layer can be made up of several things such as hay, soil, manure, compost, straw, twigs, and grass clippings. The compost layer is to inoculate the pile with microorganisms and thus starting the whole composting process quicker. It should be noted that the top layer of soil in a hugelkultur raised bed should be at least as deep as the wood base.
Benefits of Hugelkultur
If the conditions are in your favor, you can benefit from hugelkultur in more than one way. Here is how building Hugel beds in your garden can help your plants:
Improves Water Retention
The wood logs and branches will serve as a sponge in which water can be stored and will release when the soil dries up. Some people even claim that one may never have to water their bed again after the first year.
However, they will require watering during long-term droughts. So, if you live in an area that receives plenty of rainfall, you would not have to worry about irrigating your Hugel beds ever again.
Enhances Soil Quality
All the organic materials you use to create a hugel bed combine to make the soil more nutrient-rich. And the nutrients that are locked up in the wood are also released into the soil slowly. This is why hugelkultur is a great way to plant vegetables with a high demand for nutrients without the need for additional fertilizers.
Raised beds, in general, are known for better drainage. But hugels being more elevated allows even better drainage. The stacked layers of wood and the organic material make these beds resistant to flooding and water clogging.
Suppose you are considering building raised beds in your garden. There is a blog that I wrote on the need for raised beds. You can read it here.
Increases Soil Temperature
Hugel beds are basically a pile of compost covered with soil. And since the decaying biomass heats up underneath, it helps in warming up the raised beds. As the temperature increases, the process of germination begins. Thus, this helps extend the growing season and even allows you to plant crops that require warmth a little earlier in the spring and keep them a little long in the fall.
Offers More Growing Space
Hugel beds, as mentioned earlier, are around 6 feet tall. And since you can grow crops on both sides of the mound, a hugel offers you a lot of space to grow. So, if you have a small garden but wish to plant lots of crops, hugelkultur would be a great option for you.
Recycles Tree Waste
Hugelkultur is one of the best ways to recycle tree waste. If you are a gardener who loves to compost almost any organic biomass, this gardening technique is something that you should try. For someone who wishes to recycle many dead trees and grow some new plants, hugelkultur can offer the best of both worlds.
Helps In Creating Different Microclimates
Hugel beds can help you create different microclimates and conditions for different plants you wish to grow easily. While one side faces the sun and offers direct and full sunlight to the crops, one side offers shade. This way, you can easily grow two different crops that require different growing conditions without any hassle. Not to mention, this also helps in promoting plant diversity.
Does Hugelkultur Cause Nitrogen Deficiency in Soil?
As the wood starts to break down in the first year, it can take up a lot of nitrogen from its surrounding, which may cause nitrogen deficiency in the soil. So, it is suggested to add nitrogen during the first year of building hugelkultur. Or you can consider planting crops that can help add nitrogen to the soil and thus balance the overall nitrogen levels.
You can plant legumes or other planting species that have minimal demand for nitrogen.
Once the logs can absorb nitrogen to their capacity, they will break down and give nitrogen back to the soil. Perhaps, after a couple of years, the nitrogen level is more than the initial level.
Thus, the nitrogen deficit caused by hugelkultur will be compensated by the hugelkultur itself, and you will be left with nutrient-rich soil.
Ways to Add Nitrogen to Soil in Hugelkultur
But if you think that your plants require more nitrogen and waiting for a year or two is not feasible, here are a few organic ways in which you can add nitrogen to your soil:
If possible, you can consider building your hugel beds during late summer or fall. Then, it would help if you planted cover crops like clover, alfalfa, or vetch that you can till into the soil during the springtime before you begin planting your crops. While your hugel rests during the winters, the cover crops will be able to add some nitrogen to the soil.
Suppose you want to know how to cover crops. I wrote an article about growing cover crops. You can read it here.
As mentioned earlier, growing nitrogen-fixing plants such as peas and legumes in the first year will help balance the soil’s nitrogen levels. These are some plants that derive nitrogen from the air and release it into the soil.
Some green clippings, green organic materials, or sod were turned upside down on top of the wood base. As this breaks down, it will help in maintaining the nitrogen levels of soil.
You can put some used coffee grounds or ask a local coffee shop to save their used coffee grounds for you. Now, you need to work these grounds right into the beds. You may even top your plants with some through their growing season. Besides adding nitrogen to the soil, this will also improve drainage, water-retention capacity, and aeration in the soil.
Animal manure is a great amendment to garden soil and can be a primary source of vital nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. So, composted manure from cows, chickens, horses, sheep, or goats can make for an amazing fertilizer. But it is important to ensure that it is entirely composted, else it may burn your seeds or plants.
Talking of composting, one animal manure can be added to the garden beds directly and does not require composting. Rabbit manure is a lot more hassle-free and rich in nitrogen and other vital nutrients.
While lime does not provide nitrogen to the soil, it can definitely help the soil absorb the available nutrients much better. This is because lime can help raise the soil’s pH level and thus impact the soil’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Conclusion on does hugelkultur really work
Hugelkultur is an amazing and sustainable gardening practice that can offer you a myriad of benefits. What do you think about this technique, and are you curious to try it out in your own garden?
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