The Ups and Downs of Hugelkultur

The hills are alive with the sound of plants growing. We first came across ‘hugelkultur’ (pronounce it as you will, but for us the ‘hugel’ rhymes with that Jo’burg phenomenon, the ‘kugel’) when we were paging through Pinterest while designing our veggie garden.

We saw these interesting mounded gardens, reminiscent of flower-covered Viking burial mounds, and we simply had to know more. ‘Hugelkultur’ means ‘mound culture’ in the German of its origin, or growing on a mound, but there is much more to it than that (and it doesn’t even have to be on a mound!).

The essential aspect of hugelkultur is that you are creating a raised garden filled with rotting wood, or wood that will rot. Generally you dig a pit (although you can start at ground level), fill it with logs or branches and keep going until you’ve made a mound, top it with a growing medium, and get planting. The theory is that the biomass, the pieces of wood, absorb water and slowly release it to plants as it is needed. They also break down over time, making nutrients available to the plants and also creating air pockets that the roots will exploit. By creating a hugelkultur site, which is a form of permaculture, you are mimicking the natural process of a woodland, where wood and leaves are broken down and recycled by new plants.

To show you why you should give hugelkultur a try, here are the benefits:

  • Enriches poor soil, especially over time.
  • Great way of getting rid of garden waste, especially when you cut down a tree.
  • The wood acts like a sponge, soaking up water during rainy spells and making it available during dry spells. You should hardly ever need to water!
  • Adds growing space by going vertical.
  • Excellent way to garden in areas with poor drainage.
  • Great way to garden in areas with poor soil.
  • Reduces water runoff, keeping water on site and available to plants.
  • You don’t have to wait for your compost to be ready before using it.
  • Very low maintenance.
  • A cheap and environmentally friendly way of landscaping your garden.

Try it yourself

If you fancy giving hugelkultur a whirl yourself, follow these steps.

  1. Dig a pit of about 2m x 1m (or clear an area of this size on the ground, but we’re going to assume you’re starting with a pit). As for the height of your mound, the higher the better, and most hugelkultur practitioners suggest going up 1m or so, but you could start with half of that. It is also suggested that the sides are steep, 45° or so, to reduce soil compaction over time.
  2. Place large logs and branches in the pit, starting with the biggest pieces and filling the pit up and creating the beginnings of a mound.
  3. Fill in the gaps with branches and twigs, and fill the gaps in those with leaves and kitchen or garden waste. (We threw in some comfrey leaves, great compost activators, to get the process started.)
  4. Water the wood well. It’s hard to overwater at this stage.
  5. Cover the mound of biomass with topsoil or a mix of topsoil and compost.
  6. Start planting. Use plants that grow quickly to hold the mound in place in case of heavy rains, and plant other, more slower-growing plants (even trees) around them.
  7. Mulch with hay or compost, and when plants die you can always add them to the top layer and carry on building up your ‘hugel’.

The Gardener