Hugelkultur

Interesting concept known as Hügelkultur is growing as water becomes less plentiful in many areas. Many people use part of this method already. Here is a link to learn more
The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur | Permaculture magazine

The idea of using wood in the ground is foreign to me as it locks up nitrogen. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing if done correctly.

" Hugelkultur, pronounced Hoo-gul-culture, means hill culture or hill mound.

Instead of putting branches, leaves and grass clippings in bags by the curbside for the bin men… build a hugel bed. Simply mound logs, branches, leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available, top with soil and plant your veggies.

The advantages of a hugel bed are many, including:

The gradual decay of wood is a consistent source of long-term nutrients for the plants. A large bed might give out a constant supply of nutrients for 20 years (or even longer if you use only hardwoods). The composting wood also generates heat which should extend the growing season.

Soil aeration increases as those branches and logs break down… meaning the bed will be no till, long term.

The logs and branches act like a sponge. Rainwater is stored and then released during drier times. Actually you may never need to water your hugel bed again after the first year (except during long term droughts).

Sequester carbon into the soil.

On a sod lawn Sepp Holzer (hugelkultur expert) recommends cutting out the sod, digging a one foot deep trench and filling the trench with logs and branches. Then cover the logs with the upside down turf. On top of the turf add grass clippings, seaweed, compost, aged manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc…

Sheet mulching (lasagne gardening) is like composting in place. Above: just a suggestion as to sheet mulching layers. Nitrogen-rich material such as fresh grass clippings or green leaves put right on the hugelkultur wood would help jump start the composting process. Could also include seaweed, straw, dead leaves, leaf mould, etc…

The first year of break down means the wood (and fungi) steal a lot of the nitrogen out of the surrounding environment, so adding nitrogen during the first year or planting crops that add nitrogen to the soil (like legumes) or planting species with minimal nitrogen requirements is necessary, unless there is plenty of organic material on top of the wood. After the wood absorbs nitrogen to its fill, the wood will start to break down and start to give nitrogen back in the process. In the end you will be left with a beautiful bed of nutrient rich soil.

Tree types that work well in hugelkultur:

Hardwoods break down slowly and therefore your hugel bed will last longer, hold water for more years and add nutrients for more years. But softwoods are acceptable as well, a softwood bed will just disintegrate quicker. Mixing woods with softwoods and branches on top, to give off nutrients first, and hardwoods on bottom, sounds like a plan if you have access to multiple types of wood. Yet the newly decomposing softwoods at top will eat up a lot of nitrogen at first, so compensate for that.

Woods that work best :
Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout).

Trees types that work okay :
Black cherry (use only rotted), camphor wood (well aged), cedar/juniper/yew (anti-microbial/anti-fungal, so use only at very bottom or unless already well aged. Cedar should be broken down before new plant roots reach it), eucalyptus (slightly anti-microbial), osage orange (exceptionally resistant to decay), Pacific yew (exceptionally resistant to decay), pine/fir/spruce (tannins and sap), red mulberry (exceptionally resistant to decay).

Tree types to avoid :
Black locust (will not decompose), black walnut (juglone toxin), old growth redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination)."

hugel bed wood
strawbale





Hugelkultur_0

In Kansas these methods can attract the wrong kind of interest, namely termites! Don’t do this by your home if it’s made of wood! Perhaps in a really dry area it doesn’t matter but here in NE Kansas we get 34" + of annual rainfall so a 2x4 laying on the ground will be attacked by wood ants and devoured in 2 years time.

Here is a video on this method of gardening

Don’t get me wrong we have used parts of these concepts for decades but never so dramatically as this. If a large ditch formed on my property I filled it with hay, logs, and corn stalks, straw or hay and filled the top with dirt. We always used wood chips around trees to conserve water but this is much more than just sheet gardening with some old hay. Here is another video showing the concept on a larger scale

In my area we mostly see the slash and burn methods being used. Some farm families burn all organic waste and have done it in their families for generations. As people cut up firewood the piles of branches are typically burned the following year. When I was a kid the old timers taught me to leave piles of branches for rabbit and Qual habitat then later we would return to eat them. As I aged I didn’t bother to return to eat them as I had plenty. Some of the old timers were living in poverty because of their methods of doing things. The ones who burned their brush were poor and often went without later. The old timers who taught me to leave brush piles wound up with the most land , full freezers, larger amounts of spending money, their methods transformed into wealth. Cedar trees when added to a pond create habitat for baby fish which provide us more food. Looking back on my life I realize to the next generation we will appear very ignorant as many things we have done were ignorant.

Wood is sometimes available in large quantities like it as after a storm. Normally that wood is burned by the home owner or sent to a landfill where it is burned. Maybe 6 feet piles seem odd but their are multiple methods of hegelkultur if your not comfortable with large piles. Years ago I had an ash tree several feet in diameter that was in the way when we built the large pond. I’d never heard of Hugelkultur but I took it and all organic degrees and buring them under a 15 feet pile of dirt that was mostly mond muck from the bottoms of the mud Ponds. Years later it had all turned into fine dirt I used when constructing the barn foundation. Free soil appeals to me though that’s not the best use for it.

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Great writeup. I however think the opposite, that nature intends trees and leaves to rot and provide for the ground from above ground. The only instances where i can find wood under the soil to be beneficial is biochar. (which also occurs in nature with forest fires). As leaves and the dead trees fall continuously over the char the soil thrives and supports life again… and rebuilds.

I am doing a side test of a moss garden with some decaying logs on a small plot. The moss and fungi are absolutely turning the dead wood into organic matter in a hurry. (few years).

If you want to do your own tests, make a moss garden with a small pile of wood… also leave a pile of brush alone. The soil underneath is fantastic… and makes a great amendment to topsoil (where most everything we grow) roots.

Yesterday i dug some wild black rasps from underneath some trees near the river. The soil was pure sand from flooding for centuries…but the rotting leaves, fallen branches that decay leave enough nutrients for the tree and understory plants to thrive.

Disturbing soil structure to place wood under ground is against mother nature in my opinion.

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I did a psuedo hugel mount a few years ago. I have poor clay soil. It gives me cheap filler to get the raised bed up out of the muck during the 6 months of mud season we have. First year, squash did amazing in that bed and it continues to produce well.

Logs, then smaller branches to fill in

Putting the native soil back

Compost

And finally a layer of mulch

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i used modified hügelkultur to fill my raised beds. mostly did it to save cost of buying all that soil. filled them halfway with 3-5in. 7ft length wood. 1/4 horse manure and the top 6in with a good quality soil. been growing great for 6 yrs. now. i add 2-3in. of soil every season as the wood breaks down in there. i used black willow so I’m sure most of it is gone now. the 1st year i was worried my plants would die as it heated up pretty good but instead growth was accelerated.

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Hugelkultur is a concept I was introduced to about ten years ago at Mother Earth News Fair. It’s one that seems so simple, but adds very complex and beneficial effects to a planting bed. One of the benefits associated with hugelkultur that I did not see mentioned yet is mycorrhizal fungi which develops in the soil which may be mutually beneficial for the plants growing within that area.

People pay BIG money for promix potting soil that has mycorrhizal fungi incorporated into the mix. This is a free way to achieve similar objectives in your garden (or under your fruit bushes and trees) that only requires slight additional effort to accomplish long term lasting benefits. Plus if done well, the end result is a very attractive landscape feature that looks beautiful in bloom.

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I did this with my raised beds been working well. Don’t see a nitrogen problem but logs are only accessible near surface area to rob nitrogen. Seems like fresh wood chips would be more of a problem with all the contact between wood and soil.

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I wouldn’t waste good firewood to do it, but organic waste has been used thusly for as long as I’ve been interested in gardening, and I bet before that by many, many centuries, if not a few millenniums- it is such an obvious technique to use in areas with periods of poor drainage. That is, creating raised beds with an under layer of raw, high cellulose matter, such as leaves and small branches. And very tall beds indeed.

As far as potting soil with mycor, it’s a great idea when growing plants in potting soil only, but they are already well populated in most soils and adding them will not increase the population, IMO. I’ve never seen research that provided evidence that inoculation of normal soil is beneficial in any way, only evidence of a lack of benefit, although I’m not at all sure my perspective is up to date. I did find a research paper suggesting inoculation of specific species can increase production of grass lands.

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I did this for my 32in high metal raised bed mainly to save on soil space but also to promote no till (by adding bit of compost every year as it decomposes/drops down…) I used mainly large aspen 12-20in long standing upright…aspen is fairly porous wood so should allow more rooting that way. Time will tell how well it works but getting rid of the need to bend over for weeding/harvest has sure increased my motivation to work in the garden after work. This (high metal raised beds) is an expensive way of gardening but my back prefers it and it should last a long time…for me for annuals it makes sense. It was very labour intensive out of the gate!

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I did this to my vegetable beds a few years ago.

year 0-1 Constant settling and hollows developing, had critters move in and make a mess of my beds. Water usage was not diminished in the slightest.

years 1-3 still an occasional tenent (rodent) moving in water usage was slightly diminished, plants grew very well.

years 4+ no problems with critters in the beds any longer. Supplemental watering only necessary when establishing transplants.

My garden beds are 4’ by 10’. I have a total of about 200 sq ft of vegetable garden, with one of the beds not converted to hugelkultur. Overall I am happy I did it, though digging in the beds I did convert over is difficult as I frequently (even now 6 years in) hit wood if I dig to agressively.

Scott

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Scott for those privileged to have access to heavy equipment (myself among them) over-digging a bed to utilize this technique is a much less labor intensive operation. I am hoping to borrow the company mini excavator to remove some existing non-fruiting bushes around the house this week and install some blueberry/pawpaw /persimmon based permaculture beds in their place. I will likely add some rotting branches down lower to incorporate hugelkultur as well, even though I plan to add irrigation next year. Hopefully I won’t need much additional water using this technique!

I appreciate the honest feedback on how long it took to have things settle down, it will certainly be beneficial for those considering it.

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At this point I’m experimenting with establishing a couple of things into my beds. I tried establishing a small bed of nettles (mistake) a couple kinds of mushrooms and comfrey (the backs of my beds (4 feet or so) are far more shaded than I would like due to some trees and a garage.

I wish I had access to heavy equipment…lol. I dug down 4 feet, shoveling the soil onto the next bed and moved enough wood to fill to a depth of 2.5 feet.

I’m actually debating building a rear wall with a step hugelkultur raising up the shaded areas. This would serve a couple purposes. 1. It would allow me to build steps changing the growing conditions and better utilize the cooler, shaded area of the garden. 2. It would help me wipe out the nettles I used as cover (and a barrier) in a part of 2 beds. 3. The back end of the garden is either weedy (which is at least a cover or barren. I have a few logs I want to innoculate with fungi that would form part of the wall near the trees and garage.

I’m rambling at this point, but if you had a reliable and cheap source of wood chips, I’d alternate layers of soil, chips and something like leaf mould when filling in over the wood layer. Expect that you may need to monitor available nitrogen or fertilize a little heavier when establishing.

any chance you’d like some nettles? :laughing:

Scott

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I hear they cook up wonderfully when they are young! Stinging nettle is the bane of my existence when backpacking through less used trails. I will definitely pass :grin:

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@Chills

Have friends who make everything from nettles. Noone will ever except their gifts. They recently offered me a gentle flogging on the back with nettles which I passed on. They claim in many ways it is much like acupuncture. Any way nettles are truly amazing but I remember as a child my sister and I with white spots all over us in pain from the patch of nettles that grew at our pond. If any wild animals were trying to hurt me that patch and the cockleburs and sandburs were parts of my escape plan. A dog chased me once and I jumped an electric fence that was very hot which was meant for cows which zapped him. The farmer took it pretty well who owned the dog but the dog put me on his most hated list. Think if he stayed with me long enough for the nettles. In those days being dog bitten was not unusual from time to time. There were packs of feral dogs in Kansas back then. Noone hardly lived here then and didn’t want to.
Stinging Nettle — The Most Nutritious Plant On Earth? - Learn Your Land

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Nettles are tasty but can get out of hand…the one I still regret nurturing is sheep sorrel (it spreads vigorously via running roots and seeds) it is a tasty zesty green but man does try and take over…it even grows up/through woodchips

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I agree that trash wood should be used for hugelkultur, and also that even locust will eventually rot. If you make a mixed mound, with some pretty rotten wood that you found in the woods, and some fresh locust, the rotten wood will go first and the locust will go last, providing some continuity in the amount of carbon released yearly.

I used my spent mushroom logs during a fruit tree planting in 2012, and all trees took despite the drought I just dug a large hole and put in 4 logs (15-20 lbs) and the tree. The year prior I had many losses.But, Imho, there are other methods that will inject carbon and mycorrhizae in the soil without testing your back, most notably cover crops, specially the deep rooted ones.

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Nature has many intentions and most of gardening involves altering the course of the natural river at the price of our labor- in other words, fighting nature. However, for soil improvement, I believe you are essentially correct- generally speaking. Bang for the buck, organic matter placed on the soils surface accomplishes more that that buried or incorporated- mostly because it lasts longer while accomplishing most of the same things.

However, (I’m sorry but I can’t use the word hugelkutur) the improvements created by burying large amounts of undigested organic matter below the root zone of plants is mostly about improving the physical characteristics of the soil in a manner different than top-down OM amending can do- mainly by constantly shifting the soil and thereby cultivating it and keeping it loose and rich in oxygen. Deep rooted plants can also reach stored water and even nutrients released by the decay going on down deep.

I now see that this method is different than what I was familiar with because of its use of pits, which, back to the bang for the buck approach, seems like overkill to me. I garden with human powered tools and the idea of needing a back hoe to grow your own vegetables just doesn’t cut it with my gardening philosophy.

Instead of burying big logs, I would recommend raised beds with no excavation beyond the soil you use to cover the organic matter. Maybe a shallow pit where soil on the sides is also piled on to created a 3’ raised bed, or so, with the bottom half being the undigested OM. This is more in line with what I have seen in the past being used.

Prove to me that starting with burial sites works significantly better and I will congratulate you.

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Alan, as you have obviously read through the posts, you can see the photos that @clarkinks added to his original post which show above ground structures for hugelkultur, corroborating your views on this technique being utilized as a “raised bed” in its originally intended form. I stuck a few redbud branches I pruned last year into my raised bed when I was adding compost, basically doing what you suggest with hand tools. I was just pointing out that (as with many gardening/fruit growing earthwork projects) this particular job if done in ground would be significantly easier with equipment.

On the website lostinvalhalla you’ll see that “The word hugelkultur is of German origin and it translates to “mound culture” or “hill culture”. Hugelkultur gardening originated in Europe, but it is not more widespread thanks to permaculture movement who advocates for this technique.” So as many English words are borrowed from other languages, this one is too. You can call it a log mound garden if you want to :wink:

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I still respect those that are doing ‘Log Mound Garden’ but i do have a couple of observations that may or may not be valid.

  1. If the reason is to raise the height of soil above ground…why not make a swail? We all kind of do it when we grow tomatoes… we mound up the soil from the row into a berm. So if had a small area i wanted to grow i would pull the top soil from the walking area into a mound achieving more top soil area. The walking area i would put down leaves and wood chips and or sawdust, which i could turn back into the mound every year or so as it decomposes. Constantly building the raised bed with my foot traffic composting.

  2. I bury posts on my property and attach bird houses and primitive fences. Things i have learned about burying wood. 1) leave the bark on and it will rot faster. 2) If you bury a log in a hole, the top few inches of the post will decompose like crazy. Basically it composts itself. The bottom foot or feet is basically unharmed.

So with my trial and error, i think i would like to do ‘some’ Hugelkultur.

Method- Lay barked wood on top of ground not buried in early Fall. Cover with 1 to 2 inches of active soil. Return in Late Fall with bags of fallen leaves and apply. Let nature compost all fall and winter. Add yard waste and more leaves and organic waste in the Spring and Summer. Add more leaves in the Fall. Spring Year 2- I would investigate by hand digging to see what if anything would be left of my logs. I think i could easily plant in this bed now.

Final Thought- Has anyone done an archaeological dig of their log mound garden? Like took a peek at what went on in 5 yrs/10 yrs etc?

Reason- I watch The Curse of Oak Island and they dig up wood from hundreds and hundreds of years ago and the wood is still intact and for the most part unharmed. Same thought process as buried wood in mine shafts… it doesnt seem to decompose.

Is there a point of no return when burying wood? Like is burying it more than 1 foot or 2 foot less or more beneficial? What depth is optimal? What depth is unideal?

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I have personally dug up wood from mine workings from at least as old as the 1940s while building a mine drainage treatment system in 2019 that was still in decent condition. I think the reasoning behind this is the mineral soil/coal spoil that it was buried in doesn’t have a lot of biological activity 10+ feet underground. With hugelkultur, there is a lot going on at the interface of the topsoil and in addition, plant roots are surely penetrating the decaying wood and furthering the process. Plus at only a few feet down there should still be some atmospheric air available to bacteria and fungi to break down the wood. I’m not sure how much there is very deep down.

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Those huge raised mounds here would be nothing but roadblocks. And so dry nothing would grow. The way to grow anything here is in the bottom of a basin. For trees a large basin. For row crops furrows about 6 inches deep.

If those mounds work you must have wet soil and lots of rain. And maybe it’s just me but the tall ones in post 1 have nothing growing that impresses me.

What would work here is wood chip mulch on flat ground. There is nothing that works well on raised beds. You can’t keep them wet enough to grow much.

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