Why Garden Using Hügelkultur Beds? Tina Lawlor Mottram

“Why Garden Using Hügelkultur Beds?”,”Why Garden Using Hugelkultur”,”What is Hugelkultur?”,”Permaculture”>

Introduction Please click on the images to make them more legible

A Hügelkultur bed is a tall, raised area for growing food made with sloping walls, filled with rotting wood, and composting materials, and topped with a layer of homemade compost or manure. You can find them in Germany, Austria, and other parts of central Europe. If you are unfamiliar with the term Hügelkultur, it is pronounced Hoo-gel and the word is a combination of two German words; the first, Hügel, can be translated as a sloped hill, a hillock, a mound, or a type of hill mound. The second word, Kultur, derives from the Latin Cultura which means culture, nurturing, or cultivation.

These beds were possibly invented as a way to utilize leftover sawn logs at a time when burning wood was banned in these countries. There are many advantages to growing food in these tall Hügel beds as opposed to growing in rows flat on the ground as we do in conventional agriculture. Read on for detailed steps on how to make one in your garden and why I think it’s a good idea.

Why build a Hügelkultur bed? 6 advantages.

1. If you limited space in your garden, this type of raised bed offers a larger growing area on the sloping sides so you can use the rest of the space for flowers, play areas, football or basketball, or whatever your household chooses.

2. As a way of storing carbon, you can utilize any sawn-off logs from pruned trees and bushes. It is a wonderful method of using rotting wood without burning it, which creates a fertile gardening space. Material added directly to the bed when constructing it will rot down gradually, feeding your growing vegetables. By adding layers of green waste, covered by autumn leaves and dried grass, the bed will become a living compost heap and its fertility will grow for many years depending on the amount of wood added.

3. Make a fertile bed from neglected land
If you have just moved into a new build, you may discover that the valuable topsoil has been stripped off by the contractors and sold on as useful soil cover for other sites. If the garden has just been neglected and overgrown, this type of bed will restore fertility and utilize the “waste” and over time, the soil fertility will benefit. Providing you use a crop rotation system like on any garden, the bed will transform into a habitat equally loved by wildlife and you.

4. A self-watering raised bed after the second year
You can see from the drawings that the centre of the raised bed consists of an excavated hole filled with logs and other brown and green waste. This rotting wood provides moisture for the interior of the bed feeding the roots of the plants you sow in the top layer, and this means the bed will rarely need watering until all the wood has rotted down. If you travel a lot, or this bed is in a holiday home this provides you with peace of mind that you can leave it for a month and it will literally water itself.

5. An accessible garden
For gardeners in wheelchairs or with some mobility issues, this type of bed is perfect for just parking a wheelchair so you can weed or pick the produce. I know this from my own experience in a wheelchair in the summer of 2022. The tall shady shade provides some welcome shade for snoozing toddlers in buggies or anybody who wants a refreshing drink in the shade. You can make the path beside the bed wide enough for easy access with a firm surface so the wheels do not get stuck.

6. You can plant earlier than normal
Because of the bulk of the bed, you can usually start planting seeds earlier than on a flat soil bed. This is because more heat is retained in an area where the composting action is taking place and all your seeds will certainly enjoy this too. Early spring planting is possible with a Hügel bed.

Any disadvantages? 6 I have noticed.
1. It’s hard physical work initially
No doubt digging the initial bed is backbreaking so you need to be physically fit, be able to use a shovel, or else get some helpers to excavate the site at the beginning. Dig as deep as possible because the wood inserted into this cavity will provide nutrients and moisture over time.
2. Topsoil for coverage of the bed in its first year
Remember that you are making a raised bed with wood, leaves, compost, twigs, and brown waste. Initially, you are going to need lots of topsoil and compost to cover the layers underneath. Try to make sure the final layer of topsoil is at least 3-6 cm (1 ½-2 inches). The cheapest and best solution is homemade compost or well-rotted manure if available. Factor in that you need a lot of it for coverage in the first year of the bed.
3. It takes time to become productive
The first year of the bed is not very productive because the bed needs to settle and there will be precious little nitrogen available for hungry plants because of the internal rotting of wood and decomposition of material added. My advice is to spread a 2-3 inch layer of compost, and the same of manure to get the bed started. Pat this down well and then plant nitrogen fixers like peas, beans, green manures, or clover so that by the following season, there is plenty of goodness available for the crop that follows.
4. One side may be in the shade
One disadvantage of the high beds is that one side may be positioned in the shade if you place your Hügel bed in a north-south direction. Making the bed with an east-west orientation, you will find that most areas get some sunshine throughout the day.
5. Some wood is not suitable
You can check the types of wood to use in the FAQs below. Neither Cedar nor Yew, for example, is recommended because they are toxic and this could leach into your soil.
6. The height may shrink over time
While the wood rots inside, these beds seem to collapse. You can dress with a top layer of manure or compost. You may also notice that little air pockets may develop and you will need to fill these with compost (or whatever material you have available). Just tap the material into shape without damaging the roots of any visible plants in the holes.

So you’ve weighed up the benefits and the possible problems and now you want to build one? Follow my steps below to make your own Hügel bed.

How do you make a Hügel bed?

How to make a Hugelbed and why you should
How to make a Hugelbed and why you should

My illustration will help you. Just click on it to enlarge it, so you can read the detailed instructions or print it and you can see what goes where. There are notes for crop rotation too and suggestions for plants.

It is best to start in the autumn if possible when summer crops have died back, so that the materials are fixed in one place over the winter period and have time to settle.

Tip: Cover the whole area with agricultural fleece or plastic for 2-3 weeks before digging and the weeds will die back.

1. Start on bare soil by removing the roots of perennial weeds like dandelions. You do not want these to invade your brand-new growing space so add them to the compost heap to rot down.
– Define the area and mark it out with stakes at the corners. I usually lay long branches to remind me where the bed will be. Make sure it is east-west or north-south orientation if you know the pattern of the sun in your garden.

– Start digging! Dig a trench in the soil but remember to retain the clods of earth to use later. These are valuable topsoil and can go back into the bed when the area is dug. Pile these clods upside down on one side of the Hügel bed to use later. Dig at least 1 foot (30 cm) deep but I advise you to go much deeper than this. The deeper it is the more material you can pack in and the longer it will keep fertile.

2. Start adding the wood.
It is important to add any hardwood logs first, as these will take a lot longer to rot down. Place these in the bottom of the trench and pack in any gaps with twigs and straw to make sure the whole surface feels quite sold.
– Cover it up after an hour’s digging with fleece or plastic and go back to it another time. Do your digging gradually! Otherwise, you will be aching and there is a long autumn ahead for you to do this task. Do an hour at a time and then rest for a bit.
– Softwood logs should be added after the hardwood. If you have any rotten wood, just add this with the softwood logs. Make sure to check any stamped pallets and only use those without dangerous chemical preservatives that could leach into your growing area.

3. Start adding green and brown waste
Once the wood is added, you can cover it with layers of alternate green waste and brown waste.
Brown waste: dry materials like twigs, fallen leaves, and thin wooden prunings or shredded paper act as a brown layer. Fill any large gaps and tap the material into a solid shape. You need it to stand upright but do not knock all the air out either! Some oxygen is also necessary for composting processes to work well. Just aim for a mound shape that balances well, with slopes that will eventually become the growing surface of the bed.
Green waste includes fruit cores, kitchen waste (no meat or dairy), green leaves like comfrey are excellent, or if you have mowed the lawn, just empty the contents straight on the bed.
– Continue to add alternate layers of brown, then green waste until you reach the height of the bed you want. German beds can reach 10 feet high but some of mine are a modest 3 feet. Once you are happy with the height, lay a covering for a few days to allow the heap to settle and to keep it warm. This starts the composting process while you are not digging and just adding layers.

4. Re-lay the excavated top soil clods
Next time you visit, lift the cover and then use the excavated clods of earth placing them back on the heap, upside down with roots upwards and grass down so that rots back into the bed. Pat the clods down firmly to make a solid sloping wall to the bed. Some gardeners like to add stakes at this stage leaning against the walls, to keep the shape. These can act as stakes for climbing plants and I include them in my drawing because they have proved useful but they are not essential.

5. Add the top layer
Finally, you are going to add the top layer of the bed, remembering that the sides will be sloping and vertical. Use the compost or manure discussed earlier and lay this on top of the bed. If it feels very dry, water the whole bed and make sure it sticks together. If it is winter you can save on this stage by leaving it to settle with any rain or snow that follows. If there is a strong wind forecast, it is better to cover the heap to avoid all that valuable topsoil flying away.

What wood is recommended? Is there any wood to avoid?
In the UK many of our native trees are perfect. Pruned branches from cherry, birch, alder, oak, apple, pear, hazelnut, and most fruit and nut trees (except walnut) can be used. Avoid fresh willow or hazel cuttings because they may start to grow in there and you want a clear space for your chosen vegetables. Lay the branches on the ground to dry out slightly before you add them to the pile if there is any danger of sprouting.
Trees to avoid are yew, spruce, eucalyptus, fir, mulberry, and black walnut because they are toxic and take a long time to decompose. In the US, Black Locust should be avoided too, because it is slow to decompose. Many of these listed trees affect the germination of other plants, due to the chemicals they emit.
Now that your Hügel bed is complete, you do not want weeds to settle in so either start planting peas or broad beans to fix nitrogen into the soil or cover the bed. In spring, lift the cover and start planting. Once the peas or beans are harvested, cut the stems at the soil level, leaving the nitrogen-rich roots to decompose straight back into the bed.

A mini history of Hügel beds; a part of permaculture

These beds are associated with permaculture, which I define as an almost self-sufficient growing area or ecosystem, that does not need human intervention. Permaculture encourages wildlife, such as earthworms to till and aerate the soil, small mammals like shrews, reptiles like lizards, slow worms, and snakes with lots of insects as pollinators for crops, food for other creatures or just to live their lives, and birds who lay eggs and breed onsite. In a permaculture orchard, fallen leaves will rot back into the bed in the autumn providing valuable bulk for the soil, and companion planting ensures pests and bugs are kept under control. The reason why these gardens are so sustainable is that the whole system is based on the natural process of the decomposition of wood. In a forest, just look at the life that emerges from a fallen trunk or tree branch on a forest floor. Ants, spiders, woodlice, various insects, and animals make a beeline for it to chew and feed, and if you are lucky, fungi and mushrooms may sprout too. The rotting wood helps to absorb rainwater, and for plants growing in the Hügel bed, their roots can access this easily, which means less watering for you.

The tradition of building Hügel beds was very common in Germany, Austria, and central Europe, at a time when burning logs was forbidden, but there is little written documentation available about Hügelkultur. You can see references below to Adams, who describes it as a “centuries-old technique” in 2013, and the first time it appears in modern gardening books is in a brochure published in 1962 in Germany by Herrman Andrä, whose famous description of his grandmother’s garden is now seen as the first mention of Hügelkultur. Sepp Holzer wrote about these beds in “Permaculture”, his book that describes agriculture that works with nature, while growing food and also welcoming wildlife, and keeping digging to a minimum. Selzer published “Mound Cultivation: The Gardening Method of the Future” in 1979, establishing it as a method of gardening suitable for those following the permaculture methods.

Permaculture uses natural pest control methods, and companion planting is employed to benefit targeted plants, and making compost from waste ensures that permaculture is a circular practice, with the soil fertilized by a natural waste conversion similar to what happens in forests. Sepp Holzer was inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, a German academic whose educational methods are better known than his agricultural practice. Forest gardens and no-dig gardens are typical examples of permaculture. No herbicides or pesticides are utilized, composting is the way to keep the soil fertile wihtout chemicals and animal manure is a valuable, natural addition to soil, keeping it fertile. Rain collection is the norm and these Hügel beds add an extra, unique way of watering crops by utilizing rotting wood to provide it.

Linda Chalker Scott has produced an excellent leaflet about the origins of Permaculture and Hügelkultur and Dana O’Driscoll offers subscribers a free newsletter on various topics relevant to growing and living well with the land. See the links below if you want to read further about the history.

How do I maintain the fertility of my Hügel bed?

Like any soil that continuously grows crops, it is important to keep a crop rotation system in place to ensure that the soil is not depleted from mono-culture gardening.
In its first year, very little nitrogen will be available for plant growth so it is best to plant nitrogen fixers like peas, beans, and legumes which will make their own, and leave it in the soil for the crop that follows on. After that, follow the beans or peas with cabbages, which will thrive on that nitrogen left behind, and then some root crops. After the roots, plant tomatoes, squash, or any hungry vegetables but if you have leaf mould or manure available, I would add a mulch once a year to maintain fertility. Cabbages and that family are not keen on manure so make sure you use leaf mould or compost in a cabbage year. Try to use a crop rotation system so that your bed will keep producing.
Remember the bed will shrink over time and the amount of moisture available is dependent on both the height of the bed and the amount of wood left to rot down. If your bed is only 3 feet high, you may need to check it in very hot weather to make sure nothing is wilting. Water if in doubt.

Which season should I start to make my Hügel bed?
The ideal time to start your bed is in the autumn when other crops have died back. Cover the area with black plastic, horticultural fleece, or even cardboard to allow perennial weeds to be weakened. However, if you have a spare area in your garden at any time of the year, lay a layer of cardboard or polythene and use it to store old branches, large logs, and any material destined for the bed. Just allow it to start rotting down. Lift this layer to dig out a trench in the autumn, and just lay the wood inside the hole.

What can I grow in my Hügel bed?

In year 1, plant nitrogen fixers like beans, peas, and green manures. After that, use a Crop Rotation plan and have fun making patterns on the slope with various colours and leaves. If you do not know much about Crop Rotation Tina Lawlor Mottram, then read my article about it on this link on VegPlotter. Then return here to continue to year 2.

In year 2, treat this as the first normal year of your crop rotation and plant all the hungry crops that will take advantage of the nitrogen fixed by the peas the previous year. Sow big feeders like squash or pumpkins at the base and allow them to climb stakes you have placed at planting time. You can also try tomatoes, courgettes (zucchini), and aubergines (eggplant). Place shallow-rooted crops like lettuce, salad, and herbs at the top. Aubergines (eggplant) will benefit from the brighter sunshine and shelter of the south-facing side.
In year 3, follow the hungry feeders with beans again. Sometimes I plant onions and leeks this year too as they need similar soil and conditions. In that winter or the following year 4, interplant brassicas among the beans and peas because they grow over a longer period and will benefit directly from the nitrogen left. Any plant from the cabbage family like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale can be sown here.
In year 4, the final one in this cycle, follows with root crops, which are super easy to pick from this bed. Apart from beetroot, carrots, and turnips which you need to harvest, allow all other roots and stems to stay in the bed over the colder months to add to the overall fertility but also to stop winter soil erosion. You can just cut the stems when spring arrives.
I love seeing sunflowers growing and their heads appearing over the top of the bed, and how they follow the sun all day long. You can leave the stems in place over winter, either picking the seeds to eat or leaving some for the birds to feed on.

How big (or small) can my Hügel bed be?
I have tried small beds (3 feet high) and they are productive but after 3-4 years, I needed to add some mulch annually. The bigger it is, the more moisture-retentive it will be. If it is not very full of logs or not very tall, the fertility will be reduced as you plant hungry crops. So I advise you to build as tall as you can because the bed will gradually fall in height over the years anyway. Allow generous paths between two Hügel beds to make sure your visitors in wheelchairs or buggies can access the area easily. You will need to be able to reach the top of the bed easily to harvest and if it is more than an outstretched arm, you will need a stool to pick. Design your bed well because it will be there for many years.

Although digging one out can prove to be very hard work, I recommend trying out at least one Hügel bed so you can see the benefits firsthand. You will not regret it! Although it is very heavy-duty digging to make the initial bed, you will see how the watering works in a hot summer and can enjoy fruit and vegetables for many years. These beds make a unique feature in your garden that can be used to fit into an organic, permaculture, or a no-dig system and provide you with a new gardening experience. Let me know if you have any further questions and if you would like to find out a bit more, the articles below will help to answer many of your questions. Now is a good time to start!

Recommended sites for further reading
https://sunshinefarmny.com/2019/05/24/building-a-hugelkultur-garden-bed/ hugelkultur: the ultimate raised garden bed (richsoil.com)
Hügelkultur: the mound method for home gardeners – AgriLife Today (tamu.edu)