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Does Hugelkultur Really Work? What You Need To Know First!

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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 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 absorbs water, holds it, and gradually releases it to plants. This improves soil fertility and water-holding capacity and makes the soil more nutrient-rich.

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Popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, hugelkultur has been 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 variations that can benefit their crops even more. So, if you plan to try hugelkultur, here is some information that will help you if it works.

picture of hugelkultur - hugel bed

What is Hugelkultur?

Hugelkultur is a gardening technique in which you must pile up a bunch of logs and trim 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 decomposes slowly.

They are quite long-lasting and may need to be rebuilt only after around five years.

The Logic Behind Hugelkultur

picture of fallen dead trees

While people are still debating the logic and need for hugelkultur, nature has practiced this technique for several hundred years. Composting allows us 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 beginning. When old trees fall to the ground, they get covered 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 developed a technique that helped them return nutrients to the soil 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 Logs

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 exceptionally slowly and are an excellent 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, or they will sprout.

The Hill

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 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 consist 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

picture of hugel bed

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 where water can be stored and will release when the soil dries up. Some 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 with plenty of rainfall, you would not have to worry about irrigating your Hugel beds 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 ground slowly. This is why hugelkultur is a great way to plant vegetables with a high demand for nutrients without additional fertilizers.

Improves Drainage

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 a pile of compost covered with soil. And since the decaying biomass heats up underneath, it helps warm up the raised beds. As the temperature increases, the process of germination begins. Thus, this helps extend the growing season and allows you to plant crops that require warmth a little earlier in the spring and keep them a little longer 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 many crops, hugelkultur would be an excellent option.

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.

It 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. You can quickly grow two crops requiring different growing conditions without 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 plants with minimal nitrogen demand.

Once the logs absorb nitrogen, 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, leaving you 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:  

Cover Crops

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 can 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.

Nitrogen-fixing Plants

As mentioned earlier, growing nitrogen-fixing plants such as peas and legumes in the first year will help balance the soil’s nitrogen levels. Some plants derive nitrogen from the air and release it into the soil.

Grass Clippings

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 maintain the soil’s nitrogen levels.

Coffee Grounds

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 will improve drainage, water retention capacity, and aeration.

Composted Manure

Animal manure is an excellent 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 a fantastic fertilizer. But it is important to ensure that it is entirely composted, or else it may burn your seeds or plants.

Rabbit manure

Regarding composting, one animal manure can be added to the garden beds directly and does not require composting. Rabbit manure is hassle-free and rich in nitrogen and other vital nutrients.

Garden Lime

While lime does not provide nitrogen to the soil, it can 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 a unique and sustainable gardening practice that can offer many benefits. What do you think about this technique, and are you curious to try it out in your garden?

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