I had someone on reddit not to long ago tell me he heard that HugelKultur beds are all based on myths, and that there are no benefits to building them. This blog post is for you.
Firstly lets translate the word Hugelkultur. In English it roughly means “hill mound”. For a little better explanation I think it's better to call them “mounded raised beds”. There are some rough rules people like to follow when building Hugel beds, but like most things, they are open to interpretation.
I would like to start by saying since you are going to want a good supply of dead or decaying wood to build your hugel beds, then this might not be a project you want to do in Manhattan, or Chicago. Although it doesn't mean you can't, you just might be hauling wood from hours away.
The mound shape you see with Hugelkultur beds is made from old logs, and sticks. Typically the base of a Hugel bed is made from the largest logs. This can be as simple as laying them on the ground in a long pile. The next layer will be the smaller branches and sticks. Again just lay these on top of the logs.
For “true” hugelkultur beds the next steps need to be taken, but I can say that just the sticks and logs by themselves do indeed work in raised beds.
After you have piled the logs and sticks, now you can add wood chips, and straw. Since these are smaller they can help to fill in some of the gaps the sticks and logs made. On top of this you can add manure and grass clippings. Make sure to use manure that is free from contaminants, and don't use grass clippings that may have been sprayed with chemicals.
This long pile should now make up the basic shape of your Hugel beds. On top of this is where you will pile up your soil to actually plant in. This layer can be as thin as 6” and as thick at a foot or so. It really depends on what crops you are trying to grow, and how deep the roots will be going. I personally like to use a 50-50 blend of top soil and compost. Then I will reamend this blend with organic soil amendments like fish meal, kelp meal, oyster shell flour, crustacean meal, etc..
How tall should you make the pile? How long should you make the pile? How much wood, how much straw, how many wood chips should you use?
The best part of this is there isn't a hard rule. Use what you have available, and build for the crops you are going to plant. I have seen so many different types of Hugel beds that were all successful. Just don't add chemical laden grass, animal manure that is tainted, stay away from pine and cedar, and you should be good.
Hugelkultur Beds don't have to be raised
Yep, they can be level with the ground if you want them to be. Hugel beds can be built in a long skinny trench that you have either hand dug or done with a piece of equipment. That way the end result is flush with the ground, and no one has any idea that you have piled up all of this debris in your beds. This would be purely for aesthetics and ease of use.
(Below Ground Hugelkultur Bed)
You can also build raised garden beds and pile all of the Hugel inputs inside the frames of your raised garden beds. You would just follow the same idea of piling one input on the other, and then topping it all with your garden soil. It really is super easy to do, and all of my raised garden beds have some sort of Hugel component to them.
What are the benefits of Hugelkultur Beds?
This one is for you, random reddit guy.
#1, water retention. All of the inputs you used to build your raised garden beds will help to retain water. After a season or two you should see a dramatic difference in the amount of water that is retained in your Hugel beds versus a standard garden bed. This can be especially beneficial in a an area where water is scarce. In commercial cannabis production this can help to reduce labor and input costs, which in turn can help you stay competitive in ever tightening markets.
As a lot of gardeners know, bringing in fungal activity into your garden is mostly a pain in the ass. There are tricks we try, but they never really do what we want, or to the degree that we want them to. With Hugelkultur beds, you will have long term fungal activity, and all of the benefits that it brings to your garden. No more mixing in wood chips to the top of your soil, or adding things like IMO or other inoculations. The breaking down of the wood products can take decades, and will ensure wonderful long term fungal activity that should be able to be enjoyed by future generations.
Increasing microbial activity in the soil is another thing gardeners are always trying to work on. The go to is to add compost every year, but after to many years of this you can run into problems. Since your Hugel Beds are nothing more than giant long term compost piles, the microbial activity will increase year after year with not much work. Not only will the microbes replicate, but your arthropods, and micro-arthropods will exist in high numbers because of the way the beds are built with all of their nooks and cranny's.
Dealing with waste is something that everyone should be concerned with. Hugelkultur is based off of taking typical waste items and re-purposing them and growing crops from this waste. Sounds a lot like composting right? Except you aren't going to compost giant logs, and half dead trees. Hugelkultur and composting work hand in hand.
The best part of Hugelkultur beds is all of that decaying dying matter is going to bring new life to your soil for decades. The health of the soil via microbial activity is going to be steady year to year, and you will be able to grow many different types of crops easier.
As good as Hugelkultur can be, if done wrong, you could run into issues. There are some things you want to stay away from when building your beds. Dog and cat manure are a no go. Pine and cedar are also no go's. Using treated anything should be avoided. This could be treated lumber, grass clippings, or even animal manure full of dewormers.
Like I said before, I incorporate some sort of Hugelkultur style into the beds I build. No matter if it's outdoors or indoors. It is always based off of local material availability, time on hand, crops being grown, etc... There really are so many benefits long term with Hugelkultur beds, and that's why I have been fascinated by them for over a decade now.
Don't get intimidated by the scale of some of the Hugel beds you see online. They can be as big or as small as you would like. You may incorporate all of the things listed above, or just some of them. There are no hard rules, and they really are some of the most versatile garden beds that you can build.