Posted by & filed under Compost, Fungi, Soil Biology, Soil Composition, Soil Conservation, Soil Rehabilitation, Structure, Water Conservation, Water Harvesting.


Wooden debris will decompose faster,
(and be transformed into a resource)
when hugelkultur techniques are
employed.

Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.

Hugelkultur garden beds (and hugelkultur ditches and swales) using the same principle to:

  • Help retain moisture on site
  • Build soil fertility
  • Improve drainage
  • Use woody debris that is unsuitable for other use

Applicable on a variety of sites, hugelkultur is particularly well suited for areas that present a challenge to gardeners. Urban lots with compacted soils, areas with poor drainage, limited moisture, etc., can be significantly improved using a hugelkultur technique, as hugelkultur beds are, essentially, large, layered compost piles covered with a growing medium into which a garden is planted.

Creating a hugelkultur garden bed is a relatively simple process:

1. Select an area with approximately these dimensions: 6 feet by 3 feet
2. Gather materials for the project:

  • Fallen logs, branches, twigs, fallen leaves (the “under utilized” biomass from the site). Avoid using cedar, walnut or other tree species deemed allelopathic.
  • Nitrogen rich material (manure or kitchen waste work well and will help to maintain a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio in the decomposing mass within the hugelkulter bed).
  • Top soil (enough to cover the other layers of the bed with a depth of 1 – 2”) and some mulching material (straw works well).

3. Lay the logs (the largest of the biomass debris) down as the first layer of the hugelkulter bed. Next, add a layer of branches, then a layer of small sticks and twigs. Hugelkultur beds work best when they are roughly 3 feet high (though this method is forgiving, and there is no fixed rule as to the size of the bed. That is where the “art” comes in!)
4. Water these layers well
5. Begin filling in spaces between the logs, twigs and branches with leaf litter and manure of kitchen scraps.
6. Finally, top off the bed with 1 – 2” of top soil and a layer of mulch.

The hugelkulter bed will benefit from “curing” a bit, so it is best to prepare the bed several months prior to planting time (prepare the bed in the fall for a spring planting, for example, in temperate northern climates), but hugelkultur beds can be planted immediately. Plant seeds or transplants into the hugelkulter bed as you would any other garden bed. Happy hugelkulturing!

72 Responses to “The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource”

  1. Craig Mackintosh

    Thanks for the great piece Melissa. One thing to note is that all that carbon will cause significant nitrogen drawdown, particularly in the first year. I haven’t made such a bed, but am guessing you’d want to have a good dose of green material in the top layers, to compensate, if you’re planning to plant out in the first year.

    And some bacterial/fungi innoculation wouldn’t go amiss to get the whole thing cranking (assuming the soil being layered on top is not already biologically rich).

    Reply
    • Nuri Saaed

      According to http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
      Another thing to keep in mind is that wood is high in carbon and will consume nitrogen to do the compost thing. This could lock up the nitrogen and take it away from your growies. But well rotted wood doesn’t do this so much. If the wood is far enough along, it may have already taken in sooooo much nitrogen, that it is now putting it out!

      Reply
  2. Ro P Gardener

    I love this! This solves several issues. My husband hates it when I randomly pile woody cuttings- this gives me an organized purpose. And it’s a great way to support integrated cultivated into a new area.

    Reply
  3. Matt Luthi

    regarding nitrogen drawdown from decomposing mulch – I assume that when mulch breaks down then perhaps it will more likely draw the nitrogen from the air rather than from the soil and so not impact the nitrogen level in the soil below the mulch. I think nitrogen drawdown only becomes an issue when the carboniferous material is dug under into the soil. Fukuoka burried logs in order to get more carbon into his soil. Until he planted accacia melanoxylon (i think) as support trees which turned out to be quicker in improving his soil.

    Reply
  4. Darren (Green Change)

    Craig, the article clearly says to use lots of:

    “Nitrogen rich material (manure or kitchen waste work well and will help to maintain a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio in the decomposing mass within the hugelkulter bed)”

    It tells you to use this stuff to fill in between the logs and sticks. So the “nitrogen drawdown issue” is already addressed.

    The fungi aspect is valid. I’d throw some aged wood chip mulch (especially looking for some with the white mycelium strings under it) into the mix to make sure some good fungi gets in there.

    A great introduction to the topic, Melissa! I’m going to go off and research it some more, since I have a lot of garden beds to build up.

    One question: you say to make the garden beds 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Are you using edging to create these raised beds? I’m not sure how stable such tall skinny beds would be without some kind of retaining structure. Just trying to picture what they would look like.

    Reply
  5. Craig Mackintosh

    Matt – it’s not just the mulch (at top) that will consume the nitrogen in the decomposition process, but, particularly, the logs and branches (at bottom of pile). Logs of wood and branches translates to serious humus-creation going on, and they will use a lot of nitrogen in the process.

    Darren – Yes, the article does say to mix nitrogen in with the carbonaceous material, but by mentioning/specifying the nitrogen drawdown factor by name I was just seeking to ensure they realise the reasons for this. If people’s plants are stunted/yellowing atop such a mound, they may thus understand why, and not just write the whole concept off.

    Reply
  6. Arian I.

    I wonder how hugelkultur would work out in a tropical climate. I imagine the decomposition would proceed faster, especially in the wet season. Perhaps forming a mound right before the start of the wet season would be the proper procedure. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Reply
  7. Kristian Hernandez

    I was wondering whether one could establish citrus trees on such raised beds. Got an old organic orchard to renew in Spain on terraces. Some useful inspiration is more than welcome.

    Reply
  8. Travis

    Sepp Holzer has citrus trees in the austrian mountains and he uses hugelkultur, but I’m not certain that he plants these trees IN hugel beds. I do know that he uses a lot of stone. He does plant many other fruit tree varieties in his hugel, usually on the side of the bed

    Reply
  9. Arian I.

    @Travis : If I’m not mistaken the stones located near the citrus trees act as heat sinks to store and release the heat needed to generate a microclimate suitable for citrus trees. In permaculture this is a common way to create warm microclimates in cool climate regions.

    I guess I should’ve known this through experience. More than once I’ve burned my feet walking barefoot on an asphalt road on a hot, sunny day ^^;

    Reply
  10. Tomas Wilkinson

    Great inspiration. I’ve been puzzling over how to sustain my herd of redworms in their compost bins through the winters when I am away in Costa Rica. They seem to set cocoons in the Fall that hatch in the Spring, but this year I will put deadwood on the bottoms before turning the piles over. The generated thermophilic heat may provide support for a longer time and help more adults survive.
    Gracias

    Reply
  11. Paul

    Should gum tree wood be placed into a hugelkultur bed? Also will this work in dry climate like dry parts of country victoria? In that climate will additional watering be necessary? If so any idea how often?

    Reply
  12. kate kerivan

    We are a small berry farm having just cleared 10 acres of 2nd growth trees. Rather than stump to plant berries, we want to know how this method would work for a commercial planting of elders, aronia, etc. IF the stumps are left in the ground. Concerned about not being able to cultivate between rows of hugelkulturs and concerned about regenerating stumps/goldenrod etc. within and around proposed beds. Anyone having planted in a clear cut woods using this method to make beds? It would be great not to stump and destroy texture, microrganisms, etc. but it has to be able to be maintained and be able to pick berries….thanks for any suggestions. We are organic growers, so no herbicides.
    Kate

    Reply
    • Jeff Barr

      I am clearing 20 acres of old overgrown pasture (some trees 12 in. diameter) and would rather not stump, too. I was thinking of digging a 2-foot trench, filling 3ft of wood layers, then 6″ – 12″ soil for raised beds. Also plan to mix in charcoal bits with organics to combine the terrepreta techniques from the ancient incas.

      Reply
  13. Pricklefarmer

    I’m imagining a sloped area of ratty regrowth (eucalypts are somewhat alleopathic but not enough to kill the process, I think) cleared and material knocked into swales and mounded with a bit of the topsoil between rows of woody waste then planted with legumous fodder crops (lab lab, pidgeon pea, lupins, lucerne) on top and carboniferous fodder crops (mangonels, jerusalem artichokes, daikon, burdock, comfrey) between. Then alternate pigs and goats in folds over it. Legumes solve the nitrogen drawdown, beets and other roots chisel-plough the soil between swales, goats and pigs get biodiverse permaforaging. Erosion mitigation, runoff capture, reduced need for mechanical mulching land sculpting and ploughing. Pigs and goats fertilize, plough, cut each other’s parasite load and reduce the need for imported feed. Later grown a canopy of tagasaste ect to further increase fodder diversity and land stability. Straight off the dome but what do you think?

    Reply
    • Dave

      priklefarmer:

      sounds like a good dome to me

      Not a lot of posts on this deal with questions of hugels as a source of fodder

      Reply
  14. Dave Whitinger

    We have published an introductory article about hugelkultur raised beds to our website. It has lots of pictures and a nice step by step directions on how to do it. The article can be seen at: http://allthingsplants.com/articles/view/dave/96/

    We will have many more articles coming that touch on practices of permaculture and we hope to introduce permaculture to a much wider and more “mainstream” gardening audience.

    Reply
  15. Bee Winfield

    Pricklefarmer, sounds really exciting what just sprung out of your head. Hope you manage to try it out and please let us know how it goes. I have been wondering for a long time how easiest to create water speed humps in the landscape on contour ,on steep hills where swales would be a major earthwork undertaking. I am thinking bundles of sticks piled up against stakes and covered with topsoil dug from just below and thrown up over the sticks or logs which would barricade it from falling back down. Then mulch and plant to hold it all in place. You’d end up with nifty access paths of subsoil on contour and a raised bed. I have been doing this for the last few days using tagasaste we planted last year in rows on contour. Cant wait to plant and see what happens. I will report with photos soon.

    Reply
  16. thom foote

    Regarding the size of the beds, I am planning to make 4′ x 16′ garden boxes on top of and around the Hk mounds. I also plan to make 4′w x 16′l x4′h raised bed Hk mounds for squash, potatoes etc. Will this length adversely affect the performance of the Hk mounds?

    Reply
  17. david cameron

    to Bee Winfield & others-I’m planning to do a pilot with used carpet waste to create contours, water-slowing & absorbing humps, and possibly even as bottom layer of hugelkulture mounds sited on old existing asphalt parking lot. Yeah I know, pure organic growers will worry about residual chems in the carpet. I’m not much of a purist-more interested in getting rid of carpet that in our province clogs the landfills and finding cheap available local things that work for quickly regenerating life on abandoned municipal & industrial properties.

    Reply
  18. chris

    err this is fine in big fields far from homes no? If not you risk having termites and carpenter ants who will be happy for a time then march out in search of new wooden pastures. They went from a tree I knocked down, to my garage and ate half of one corner, then were going for more and my house when I sprayed dug them out and sprayed more then called in for repairmen and when the structure was unsheathed I sprayed the outside then let them side it.

    I love the idea though if you have sufficient space.

    I loved the site

    Reply
  19. Thom Foote

    My 1/3 acre garden site is sloped, anywhere from 8-15 degrees facing west bordering my long driveway. I decided to use hugel beds to raise the grade on the bottom edge along the driveway to level the ground. It worked great. I have several recommendations concerning hugel beds: 1. have ALL materials at hand from the beginning, 2. They are a LOT of work to create by oneself, 3. If constructing multiples parallel to each other going down a slope and using a tractor (recommended) make sure you start with the upper one and complete it before starting the next ones downslope. This gives you enough room for the tractor to maneuver and dump loads whick makes it infinitely easier to construct, 4. THOROUGHLY water each mound at each step of the process especially in dry areas like ours north of Spokane.

    Reply
  20. Kirsten McCulloch

    I am planning to try this in a raised bed in our courtyard. One question – is it bad to use eucalyptus wood? I noticed someone asked above, but didn’t see a reply.

    I know eucalypts put out a alleopathogen (not sure if that’s quite the word) that inhibits growth of plants under them – is this going to be an issue in a hugelkultur bed?

    Reply
  21. Thom Foote

    I have read that eucalyptus wood is not a good wood to use even if it is very old. Same with cedar.

    Reply
  22. Thom

    Chris,
    You are absolutely right. It is easy to forget that we usually have the freedom and time to experiment on our own. Pine has also been panned as an ingredient in hugel beds. However, the old pine logs I have on the ground are acting fine in my beds since they too have had time to leach out the bad ju-ju that pines contain.

    Reply
  23. Thom

    My farm, Old Fart-a-muit, has a facebook page of the same name. It contains lots of pics showing our construction of our hugel beds and our central hugel mound. They may be of some use to hugel users. Next spring will be the start of our first full growing season using hugelkultur. The mound, even with a late start, produced very well this last summer from mid-June through Sept.

    Reply
  24. Thom

    I am thinking about using a variation of hugelkultur beds for my growing areas. I constructed 5 16ft beds last summer in preparation for this years season. I think I will edge them with hugel logs in order to create hybrid raised beds. They should absorb water like the buried logs but will give a little deeper growing depth at the edges.

    Reply
  25. Thom

    Chris,
    How did your experiment with eucalyptus wood turn out? If nothing else, your farm should be aromatic. If you are ever in the states, around Spokane, Washington, contact me for a good meal and good beer.

    Reply
  26. Emily

    Has anybody used hugelkultur beds to retain water? I want to impound a couple small creeks to provide water to other areas of my farm without extensive digging or causing drainage issues.

    Reply
  27. Wendy

    Would prunings from rose bushes work in as a base layer for this technique? I have inherited about 60 roses that really need work & so I have pickup-truck loads of pruned canes available.

    I got stuck on the initial instruction that said, “Avoid using cedar, walnut or other tree species deemed allelopathic…” How do you determine if a species is “alleopathic”?

    Reply
  28. krin

    I found out that in terms of termites, unlike a tree felled and just laying there on the surface, the trees in the hugelkutlur pile are in theory surrounded by appropriate fungi which would actually prevent the termites and ants from being a problem.

    Reply
  29. Thom

    I have tried on the traditional hugel bed approach. On the “shoulders” of the beds, I put hugel logs that still have a lot of structure. I did this so I could drill holes and put hoops over each bed. These logs, although exposed to the air on their top half will continue to absorb water into the buried bottom half. Finally, this makes the shoulders deeper allowing for deep rooted crops to be planted there while planting progressively shallower rooted crops up the sides.

    Reply
  30. Thom

    To Emily who asked about using hugel beds to retain water, having constructed several small ponds on a slope, I would be very leery of doing this even on level ground. Any structure that retains water needs to have a solid core for strength. Water is very heavy and exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on the face of even a small dam. You would run the risk of a blowout.

    Reply
  31. Renee

    How long will this bed last? Years? Decades? Has anyone had to dig one up and recompost?

    Reply
  32. Thom

    As I start planting, for the first time, my second year hugel beds I can’t help but wonder about shallow rooted plants like lettuce, etc being able to access the stored water in the hugel material. Hugels advertise themselves as being self-irrigating. If, however, the soil cover is 4-6 inches on top of the beds and the bottom-most hugel material is a couple of feet down, how are these types of plants going to access the moisture? I am think I am going to have to water these plants, at least initially, if not all season. Any thoughts?

    Reply
  33. Serge John

    Hello folks,

    I am currently building some hugelbeds in my back garden. The construction and technique I don’t have a problem with, only the planting; what can I put in them?

    I live in Western Germany, and so considering it is now July what options do I have? I also am experimenting with more simple bed designs (raised and double-dig) so I would like to select crops best suited to the conditions that a hugelbed provides. Would it be suited better to perennials, winter crops (considering the season) or… what?

    Looking forward to hearing your advice!
    Best of luck with all your projects.
    S

    Reply
  34. marty Roddy

    I made 1 hugelkultur bed/hill for this year in a new garden.

    I have a few questions:

    1) can I use bamboo in future hills? I can get plenty of it and it will augment/supplement the other wood I am using.

    2) Once I have built the hills and covered them with soil- can I add compost / manure / etc….? How

    3) what is the best way to limit water runoff and /or erosion?

    Thanks

    Reply
  35. janeen delany

    anyone digging trenches and then layering…..here in arizona I wonder if that might help with the moisture usage and maintain a more consistent availability during our drought plagued climate…
    feedback please!
    Thank you

    janeen

    Reply
  36. Renee

    Janeen,

    Last August I built a raised H bed for my mother in Phoenix. She soaks it once a month and has retained moisture, even through the heat.

    Reply
  37. Jeffrey Barr

    I live in north western NY; extremely high clay soil and relatively high water table. I was planning to dig 2-4 foot trenches for 4′ wide raised beds, layering with hardwood logs, then tops, finally with chips to a foot above ground level. I plan to also mix in natural charcoal with the organic material (terra preta)to increase cation effect. Question: Would digging trenches below water level (at times)be a waste of time or effort, as this would create a periotic anaerobic environment for first layer of logs? I also read that having more than 2″ if topsoil is better… up to 1 FOOT. This would create 2′ tall raised beds, needing to use HuegelK logs as side retaining walls.

    What are your comments and/or concerns with my idea?

    Reply
  38. Jeffrey Barr

    I live in north western NY; extremely high clay soil and relatively high water table. I was planning to dig 2-4 foot trenches for 4′ wide raised beds, layering with hardwood logs, then tops, finally with chips to a foot above ground level. I plan to also mix in natural charcoal with the organic material (terra preta)to increase cation effect. Question: Would digging trenches below water level (at times)be a waste of time or effort, as this would create a periotic anaerobic environment for first layer of logs? I also read that having more than 2″ if topsoil is better… up to 1 FOOT. This would create 2′ tall raised beds, needing to use HuegelK logs as side retaining walls.

    What are your comments and/or concerns with my idea?

    Reply
  39. Thom

    Another feature of hugel beds that I have noticed with my 4 two year old beds. This spring I sowed a cover crop of white clover on the beds BEFORE I planted seeds or transplants. My beds are now overgrown with an, admittedly, beneficial plant. However, because of the inherent nature of bed construction, namely, a relatively thin top soil layer especially on the sides, I am not going to be able to turn the clover under this fall. It is a real quandry. My only alternatives are to either cover it with compost and new soil or pull it up and use it as mulch.

    Reply
  40. Thom Foote

    Jeffrey, I would be extremely leery of putting the trench below highest water level. If that is your only option, you might consider building your trench above the highest water level and the mound with hugel log “shoulders”. This would allow the bed to initially absorb water when the water was highest and retain it longer into the summer without creating an anaerobic bottom layer. The shoulders would give you more depth for deep rooted plants.

    Reply
  41. Bug lover

    Help! I have inherited a garden with a large walnut tree. I have been putting the leaf fall into my compost. Will this
    damage all the worms etc in the soil?

    Reply
  42. Richard Minton Morris

    Would be interested to hear of any attempts to use bamboo as a hugel base. We are looking at using it on a large scale to recndition soil in northern Thailand

    Reply
  43. Dustin

    I utilized this technique this year and was very happy with the results. First I dug a 4×8 space out down to approximately 36-44 inches. Then I filled it with apple and maple wood from trees I had either heavily pruned over the winter or branches brought down over the winter months. After the wood, I layered in a thick layer of aged horse/sheep/chicken manure then a layer of straw and grass clippings and finally a 12-16 inch layer of soil. On completion the beds were raised approximately 24 inches. I planted tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in the beds. I also planted a second group of the same plants in soil amended with the aged manure to compare overall performance. There was a distinct difference in the growth of the two groups. Plant growth in the hugelculture beds was incredible. The plants just kept growing and growing! Water retention also was definitely affected, identifiable by very little, if any, observable water stress over dry periods. Ultimately harvest quantity and quality is the true test of whether a system works or doesn’t and judging by the never ending harvest of tomatoes and peppers this system works quite well. I will be putting the work required into building additional beds next year and will be interested in observing how the beds hold up in the coming years.

    Reply
  44. Catalina Chen

    Will it work in Southern California? And how long will the bed last? few years?
    I am sooo ready to build one!

    Reply
  45. pokachinni

    There’s a lot of responses to above posts in here. I wont be going back to check everyone’s names and put them in the top. So here goes: It has been suggested by some to not use cedar, for instance, in building hugul beds but I’ve seen plenty of plants growing in rotting cedar in the Northern Coastal Temperate Rainforest, so, in my opinion, it really depends on what your planting in it. Same I’m sure goes for Eucalyptus varieties deemed unworthy by some. Surely things grow in rotting Eucalyptus. In Cedars, I’ve seen various berry bushes and other trees growing, so if I was intending to plant a big row with guilds that had huckleberries, or Salal, as it’s main plant, then I wouldn’t hesitate to put cedar in the beds no matter what I read, in fact I would consider it unwise to plant such plants in a maple or poplar hugul bed, as it seems counter intuitive to not plant in cedar. I do not have familiarity with bamboo but if it rots, and breaks down into water absorbing and fungal colonizing carbon masses then I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to use Bamboo, or any other woody stocks of any plants to make hugul beds. The idea is to create a water retaining mass of decomposing wood, under (or in some cases when the logs are on the edges–beside) your soil. (That said, putting logs as raised bed supports outside the bed is not really hugulkulture, but it would add the element of large woody matter breaking down and incorporating slowly over time on the edge of the soil matrix) If it was mixed into your soil then you would have problems with nitrogen draw. In this case, or so I understand, the opposite occurs as the fungal life that take over the woody material serve as nutrient reservoirs, as does the spongy matrix of carbon. I also understand that fungal chemicals break the complex matter in the wood down so nitrogen from outside sources is not so much an essential factor. I would definately be inclined to leave stumps and roots in place, and build hugul mounds on them, using waterever waste materials were left over from cutting the are down, and do it on the contours. The biggest problem I can foresee with orcharding like that is that the ground is bound to be full of stumps and logs of all sizes, and roots and I guess I’d suggest trying to make it as level as possible between your hugul beds by mulching with wood chips to retain as much of the fungal life as was orginally present. Another question was about the depth of hugul beds and a high water table. The bed doesn’t need to be sunk into the ground, and hugul beds on the contour, or any swales, are bound to RAISE your water table. I wouldn’t suggest going into the water table with your beds, unless you are determined to have a lot of wood, and the beds be below a certain height. As for dimensions in general, as far as I know there are no hard fast rules about how big or small to make them, or whether to trench or build on the surface. My inclination is to remove all the topsoil and put it in a long berm upslope, then remove a small level of subsoil and move it against the berm of topsoil without mixing them. Lay the logs or whatever woody and herbaceous matter you can find, to whatever depth you choose, at the lowest point in the contour that you have removed material. It is a great idea to incorporate some already rotted wood, as this is much easier for water to penetrate. That said, it is likely to already have fungi, and if you are wanting to innoculate it with prefered fungi then that might be a problem, so some folks use unrotten trees with mycelia plugs to be sure of control over the fungi. After the heavier woody debris would be as good a time and place as any to put noxious weeds, biochar, (as was mentioned) {although I’d be thinking that larger pieces could go here and the smaller stuff, well impregnated with compost or other nutrients, mixed with the upper soils}, and tenacious sod. Then pack in the thin subsoil, and add any nitrogenous matter that you have, if you like (though I, personally, do not see this as absolutely necessary step), and water it until it is soaked. This would push the subsoil and nitrogen material into the woody mound. Wait a day and water it again. Then add your topsoil, seeds and transplants. If wood is damp and is buried, it takes a long time to dry out. Another question that was brought up was about the plants with shallow roots not being able to get water from the logs if the logs are say 2 feet deep. The understanding that I have in this regard is that may be the case in the first year or two before the bed really starts to generate an interior life of it’s own, but the older the bed gets, (just like in any no till system with perennial plants and continuous plants), the more microbiological life- particularly fungi-will be involved. These fungi will be present in the soil right to the surface and the plants will seek and find the symbiotic relations with the fungi who will be doing the same. Water and minerals will be provided by the fungi and sugars and phyto nutrients will be provided by the plants.

    Reply
  46. pokachinni

    And it has been recommended to do this in the desert or in rehabilitation projects in drylands, so southern Cali should be fine. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that there is a problem with doing hugulkulture anywhere that I’ve searched.

    Reply
  47. pokachinni

    Other hugul ideas: If a person decides to dig a trench and rocks are brought up, and if it were a temperate cool environment, I would be inclined to think they should put the rocks on the Sunward side of the bed to gain solar thermal mass to help heat the bed. These could be under the surface, but would probably have greatest effect if the sunward face of the stones was exposed. If, in a temperate cool environment you put the stones on the poleward side, this would be a disadvantage, as then the bed would take longer to warm in the spring, and would lose heat quicker in the fall, and hold frost/cold air drainage. Conversely if in a desert that has extreme heating and drying potential, I would put the rocks on the poleward side, they would have a cooling/moisture conserving effect on the beds, which would have been built primarily for it’s moisture building properties, not it’s warming properties. In the desert or dry area digging a trench on contour for your wood would make a lot more sense, catching and absorbing as much down slope flow as possible. To gain more solar power from the bed in a temperate or subarctic situation, the sunward side could be sloped on a steeper angle, while on the poleward side the bed might possibly be more shallowly sloped to gain as much solar exposure in the summer as possible. Any steeper angled bed’s slopes could be stabilized initially with a cross hatching of dead willows/bamboo poles that have been pegged in place over top of mulching material like straw. The reason I mentioned in an above post not putting the nitrogen rich materials in the bed against the large woody debris is also partly that I believe this material would be better utilized to make compost to place on the surface, or as actively aerated compost tea on the plants and surface, where it can enter the soil slowly and eventually be captured in the carbon reserves and the deep humus of the decaying micro beings in the living matrix below. Another thought about the shallower rooted plants having access to the soil moisture deep in the hugul bed: If the bed is holding moisture within it, there will be a constant capillary flow of water upwards during heating periods. Also larger deeper rooted plants will access and share water with the surrounding plants and build larger fungal and bacterial colonies that hold water. Larger companion plants will also act as heat pumps bring water to the surface and air with the effects of evapo transpiration. A complete ground cover of plants, and/or mulch will help retain moisture near the soil surface as well. It has been recommended on several sites that watering is not a bad idea for the first year-some even say two. That said, depending on the rainfall/snowload, when the beds are built in regards to the rain/snow, and if the beds were built to catch overland flow from storms, there are other factors that play into whether watering might be necessary. Keep in mind that when watering a deep mound that a slow penetrative trickle would provide the best potential. Also if a bed with this much mass, volume and absorption potential becomes damp it will take much, much longer for it to dry out, so even if you do have to water it (for the first year or so), it won’t be very often. Pine as mentioned above by someone can contain resins that may inhibit some growth, but that said, as the base layer (or two or three) in a deep woody bed, I can’t see it making a huge difference especially if the species in the upper part of the wood mound are more conducive to break down quicker and with less toxins. As with my thoughts about cedars, dead pine grows blueberries in a natural setting, so why not in hugul? I would say that rotted pine is great stuff and if that’s all I had in abundance you can bet I would be building all my huguls out of it. I guess also that the method I described a couple posts up is the opposite of what Bee was mentioning, in that I would be digging the area up that is above the bed on a slope, not below it. It would seem to be a lot more work to throw material up and over the wattled branches Bee mentioned, then to pull material down against it and over it, as I envision. In the upslope digging and pulling down method any erosion gets stopped immediately and feeds into the swale/hugul, further watering and nourishing it. Sepp Holzer uses pigs and other animals to feed and till in and on hugul beds. He plants fodder crops in some beds specifically for them, and also they eat fallen fruit. I doubt that his beds will last as long as they could if he didn’t have animals on them, but the actions and manures of the animals no doubt have many benefits. But he mentions having to rebuild his beds after decades. His beds are taller than is described here-7 or 8 feet, and are radically interplanted with self seeding annuals, and a diversity of perennial types of a great many species. In addition to using stones as a heat sinking microclimate, Sepp uses water features for the same effect and for reflecting sunlight, and also I believe he uses steep micro-climate creating bowl shaped slopes when he is planting a citrus, in addition to stones and water features. To answer a question posted early on that was not answered as to when to build a hugul bed, in regards to the rainy season in the tropics, I would think that building it before the rains to take most advantage of the rains moisture would be best. I would build deeper woody beds with the hardest and most rot resistant woods in the bottom in the tropics, so as to have the decomposition process and beds last a little longer, and have a place for the upper softer woods with quickly available nutrients to be absorbed into something. Considering the extreme biological decomposition that can take place in such conditions, it’s likely that the beds would need more frequent rebuilding, or adding on. This may be why terra preta became so widely used and effective in the Amazon, as it provides a longer term nutrient sink and stable habitat for microbiological communities, and fungal networks. Hugul beds function similarly to this as the carbon matrix provides the nutrient loading and microbiological community building that the terra preta did. In my opinion Bio-char additions to hugul beds would add longer term carbon storage, and very likely would have a synergizing effect with the rotting wood’s matrix of soil organisms, not to mention darkening the soil to help with heat absorption in temperate climates. Another idea I had was a quick rotting mini-hugul that is on the downhill side of the bed. This would be stood on and abused when working at the bed, but that is to advantage. This would be an absorption system for any materials/nutrients that erode off the main bed’s downslope. After it fully rots/breaks down, it can be tossed up on the pile and another similar quick rotting one replace it on the bottom slope again. The tops of tall hugul beds are often not utilized, and would be a great place to add nutrients without having to rebuild. The material being tossed up could be mixed with seedballs, sprouted seeds, or the seeds of self seeding annual/biennial crops.

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  48. Anne-Marie

    We have several plum trees that are infested with black knot fungus. It started a few years ago and I wasn’t able to arrest it in time. So we are cutting down these trees. Can the infected branches be used at the base of hugelkultur? I’ve been searching for this information but not able to find out anything.

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    • Roberto Pokachinni

      Hi Anne-Marie,
      I can’t answer your question for certain. Perhaps burying the wood would be enough to stop the fungus from further infecting the area, but I doubt it. Once that fungus sets in, it’s pretty much there, from what I understand. That said, if you are not getting rid of the trees which likely continue to be infected, and you are going to build a bed right near the plum tree, then I doubt it would make things much worse, particularly if you are not planting a plum or similar prunus species (which might become infected) in the mound. Most people burn diseased material, rather than composting it. If you have any other material for the hugul, I’d say get rid of the diseased stuff. There’s not much sense in risking spreading the disease. You might ask this question at Fungi Perfecti to see if they might have a fungi which you could innoculate the hugul with to outcompete the black fungus, or someway of killing it. I don’t know. Good luck

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  49. jax

    Hi all,
    Have we found any sources for how to check a type of wood is allepathic. I too am interested in trying this, however I live on an urban block and need to get it right first time or it could be costly. I would like to use Palm trees that have been getting more and more annoying, what better way to recycle them into goodness.
    Jax

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  50. Maria

    Black walnut is very toxic to most plants, and cherry is toxic to animals, but it might be okay when it rots – but I wouldn’t use it until I had done the research. Pine and Fir will have some levels of tanins in them. Known excellent woods are: alders, apple, oak, cottonwood, poplar, willow (dry) and birch. I use a “basket” type of weaving suspension for the mound. Once I dig down 2 foot.. I start the “lasagna” decomposition materials up to about 3 foot above the ground. In planters, you can mimic the same type of mound but using the planter to hold the twigs, leaves, clippings and kitchen recyclables. The work is in the preparation of the bed you want.. and then sit back and reap the delicious, full of flavor and robustness of your crops. There is no need to stand over the mound to water, no fertilizing and with companion planting – no pests to deal with. Our tomotoes did not have the horned worm, the cabbage did not have the cabbage looper, webworm, nor cross-striped cabbageworm. The cucumbers did not have the cucurbit insect pests – beetles, spider mites, aphids, squash bugs, squash vine borers. The bush beans did not have the cutworms all because of companion planting methods. Good luck with your bounty – there is much to reap with these mounds!

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  51. Kevin Y

    Jax, I think palm would be fine–I have never heard of it being inhibiting growth of other plants around it.
    I want to create small (2 ft high, 3 ft wide) HK beds in the courtyard of my school. The courtyard is really a flood catchment basin for building runoff. This is in Yuma, AZ (sunniest city on the planet!)–very dry (but I will water), and extremely hot in summer. The courtyard is purely compacted sand covered in gravel. I don’t have a good source for logs, but a tree trimming company will donate freshly chipped mulch. The ground is so hard that I wonder about just building mounds on top of the gravel–it would be simple to get loose sand that had been moved to the edge of campus during construction to put over everything. Do you think I should dig down, or can I be lazy about it? I want to plant native species, a mix of annuals & perennials. I have read of concern with nitrogen draw down from wood chips–can I compensate by adding manure? What soil amendments are recommended?

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  52. Rachel M

    Greetings & Blessings,
    I live in Detroit and am working with a massive amount of fallen Elm and Ash trees. Trying to transform our urban blight into a HK paradise, do you all have any suggestions for using these huge logs, can I plant directly on the log (with branches, leaves, compost, and wood chips) on top? Do I have to dig to retain water? We get a fair amount of rain during our growing season. Any thoughts you may have about using these types of trees that were killed by disease in my location would be very helpful for the resurgence of healthy Detroit. Thanks!

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  53. pokachinni

    Kevin and Rachel. Comments on both of your posts to follow. From what I understand, digging is not absolutely necessary, but I would certainly suggest it in a desert climate to maximize the amount of water penetration from the runoff. In the case of that courtyard (without seeing it…) I’d scratch the surface a bit to guide the water directly to the bed’s base, as well as chip down a pit, however shallow, to give the water a place to go. I’ve heard it best to use full woody debris rather than chips. You might want to go to get the logs/branches from the company before they chip them. The wood chips would be great to mix into the larger wood, and would be especially beneficial on the bottom to retain moisture and get things happening quicker. If you can only get chips then use them. You can add manure or compost. Many put that on top of the woody matter to give it more nutrients and eliminate nitrogen issues, and then put soils on top. I would definitely incorporate some of the compost/manure in the upper part of the soils to help hold moisture and create better soil structure/living matrix. You will definitely need to directly water this plot, Kevin, and your transplants and seeds directly in your climate until they and the bed get established. After the beds are established there may be no need to water native plants. There are lots of different things you can do to amend the situation, including trace mineral powders on the logs. I hopefully will be creating some hugul beds on my new property this year. I may incorporate inoculations from wild soil (from old growth systems), biochar throughout the beds particularly large pieces in the hugul woody base, and fine biochar dusts in the top and south faces for heat gain (I’m zone 3), biodynamic preps, taller hugul mounds, actively aerated compost tea, fungal inoculations, stones for heat gain and storage , and also ponds for heat storage. While those are not all soil amendments, they help boost the micro-climates and thus will enhance the biology in the area.

    Rachel, digging a trench is generally the way to start the bed, though as mentioned it’s not absolutely necessary especially in your case, and getting a volume of non woody matter (soil, compost, mulch) on top of the wood is necessary so that your plant roots are in soil not wood. The fungi from the wood, and the plants roots will eventually make connections and the plant can feed off the logs, and gain moisture increasingly from the logs. Many would not used diseased wood, but since the elm disease is killing off all the elms then I don’t think it’s going to matter much in that case. Sounds like the best use of the trees, so long as you are not planting elms or related species.

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  54. Kevin Y

    Thanks pokachinni! I think I can get the chipped wood more easily than small logs, so I will try digging a trench, filling until heaping with chipped wood, adding some compost or manure, and mixing that in with the sand I put over the top. I will mix in some “Mycogrow” from Fungi Perfecti, or add that to the waterings. I will be building these on contour with an accompanying swale, and will flood the swales prior to planting. I’m excited to see what we can get established!

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  55. Theresa

    I have plans to start a raised bed vegetable garden behind my fenced in yard to take advantage of unusable sloped square footage. I stumbled across the idea of making this a Hugelkultur bed & was excited about the project until I showed all this info. to my husband. We live in the south where termites are prevalent & the garden would be only a few feet from our wooden fence (& the neighbor’s fence as well). The house I’m not worried about since we’ve initiated a treatment for that. I saw very mixed reviews on the concern for drawing in the termites with the rotted wood, but in an attempt to gather supporting evidence for my project I wanted to run this by you. Any thoughts on termites? Thanks for your time!

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  56. Jennifer

    I love reading about this. I can’t wait to go back home and start this process. I have a HUGE stick pile that I used for critters but my new cat has eaten all the critters. I was trying to figure what to do with the sticks. I am also excited because the neighbor behind me cut down his tree so I have a whole lot of space in the back of my yard and can now make a compost pile and this type of bed. I have old wood that I can use and I will try to get some wood from his house before he moves. I picked up tires from around Detroit and created a raised bed for plants this year. I just found out yesterday that the tires will break down and leach the chemicals into my plants so I was looking into what to do for nest year. I am so excited to use recycled things. I don’t have cardboard to put down first but I do have a lot of grass. How FUN! Thank you for submitting this information.

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  57. Phil Coulthard

    I have a question about using the HugelKulture method to create a raised bed and the effect on grass roots. I have built one with grass sod blocks for all side walls. I have placed a wooden plank on the tops of all sides to sit on. The sides are 30 inch high and I have 2 foot dug into the ground level filled with logs. It looks great in the first year but I have been informed that in later years the grass roots will become shorter and may grow downwards. Is this the vase?

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  58. Cindy

    I think hugelkulture is an excellent tool and immensely useful in many circumstances. However, there are other methods which are also valuable–and perhaps more applicable–for some folks and their situations. Paul Gautschi’s film on Back to Eden gardening using sheet mulching with heavy emphasis on wood chips is a superb resource, regardless of whatever technique(s) is/are ultimately used. Ben Falk’s books and videos provide valuable information and practical experience for cold humid climates…in addition to Sepp Holzer’s work, Lasagna Gardening, etc. Having lived (and gardened, farmed, ranched) in very diverse climates, I strongly advocate learning as many different principles and techniques of capturing and retaining nutrients and water as possible. Also, I’m in the process of clearing several miles of red cedar (and others) from fence lines; they may not be the most ideal for use in hk beds or wood chip mulching, but I’ll take my chances with the carbon going back to the soil rather than burning and releasing to the atmosphere. Someone mentioned lots of carpeting they planned to use for water retention rather than take to landfills–I’ve been entertaining similar thoughts as this current farm I’ve purchased has way more than its share of being used as a dump. Darren Doherty is one who utilizes a number of powerful tools to help restore land’s ability to capture/retain water, rebuild soils…regenerative agriculture concepts. So many fascinating paths to explore…like encouraging mycelium to perform its amazing work (thanks Paul Stamets)…and seeing the incredible life’s work of so many dedicated individuals like Allan Savory and others.

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  59. Phil Coulthard

    I did not make clear my question regarding the HK raised bed. Though I note Cindy’s external references for further reading. Where I wrote in my previous post ” It looks great in the first year” actually many people do not agree, my wife thinks it looks like a grave, ready to put some one in. Probably me for digging up the lawn. A possible mechanical failing with such a structure is weakening of the wall with time as the grass roots either shorten or turn back to a vertical direction. The grass roots hold the wall together. There must be some angle of the grass slope which is critical for the wall to remain intact. It may be possible to design such beds which are more aesthetically pleasing which could turn lawn areas from green deserts to more fertile use. If every household had one such bed that would be billions of raised beds. Any help from experienced HK practitioners welcome.

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  60. Jenny

    Phil, do you mean you want the side of the hugel bed to be like a vertical lawn? Not sure how that would work. Maybe you could plant it with lawn chamomile or something like that?

    I have just made a 3′ high x 30′ long above-ground hugel bed, but there is no straight up and down wall on it, more of a slight slope. I will be mulching the sides with straw when I can afford to buy some more. At the moment you can just see the just stacked logs.

    Yes, it doesn’t look exactly “pretty” at the moment, but once some greenery starts happening, it will look great. It has only been finished a couple of weeks, and I am letting it settle. Already there is serious “forest floor mulch” happening underneath the top mulch.

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  61. Phil Coulthard

    Thanks Jenny, The sides are not completely vertical, approx 70 deg. I had thought of camomile or similar to form a motif or grass art to make the structure less like a box / grave.

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  62. lake

    I’m concerned about how you grow vegetables on the mounds without soil erosion and how do you irrigate effectively? I find the water goes right over the sides and doesn’t have time to sink in below the surface.

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  63. Phil Coulthard

    Hello Lake,

    So far, even during this dry summer, we have not watered it, or I havent but my missus might have. I thought the beauty of the HK raised bed is the reduced requirement for watering? Its all very green and much more growing going on than in the borders close by. It cost nothing for the container except sweat.

    I have built a conventional raised bed made from oak, locally sourced and wet timber. So I will compare how they produce crop.

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  64. Mel

    Has anyone tried using wattle in their hugelkultur? And I was wondering about prunings from stone fruit trees? I have just dug my trenches and about to start collecting the tree trunks/branches.

    Reply

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