How to master the hugelkultur gardening technique

Farm & Dairy

The idea of hugelkultur is to form dirt mounds on top of piles of woody materials and then plant your garden on top

hugelkultur garden

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(FARM AND DAIRY) – My dad has taken to calling me a farmer due to all of my hobby gardening lately. I think it’s kind of funny because I’m lightyears away from the vast knowledge of a farmer. But I appreciate the compliment. Maybe one day I’ll have that sort of knowledge base. Until then, I’ll just keep learning. 

This week I decided to investigate the hugelkultur gardening technique after a friend of mine shared a TikTok tutorial.

Hugelkultur gardening interests me because I live in the woods. There are tons of fallen trees, skags and piles of rotting wood I can use.

What is hugelkultur gardening?

The idea of hugelkultur is to form dirt mounds on top of piles of woody materials like logs, branches, twigs and wood chips and then plant your garden on top. The wood soaks up water and provides moisture to the plants. Additionally, as it decomposes it continually feeds the soil.

Hugelkultur gardening improves soil fertility, keeps the growing area moist, allows for good drainage, reduces the need to weed and provides a productive way to recycle woody materials. It mimics the natural conditions in a forest where plants will grow on top of decaying trees. It’s kind of like gardening and composting at the same time.

Setting up a hugelkultur garden

The ideal time to set up a hugelkultur garden is in the fall for the following spring to allow organic materials under the soil to start breaking down and enrich the soil before planting. However, you can plant on top of it as soon as it’s constructed.

You can construct a hugelkultur garden as an independent mound or you can make layers in a raised bed for the same effect. 

First, dig out an area to start building your hugelkultur garden. Remove 1-2 feet of dirt and start backfilling with a layer of woody materials — logs, sticks, branches, twigs, wood chips. Use smaller pieces of wood such as branches, twigs and wood chips in the base layer in shallower gardens. Deeper beds can incorporate dry or rotting logs in the base layer. Your woody layer should be no more than half the total height of your garden. Remember your garden will be piled to whatever height above ground that you dig it to underground. If you removed a foot of dirt, add a foot of wood.

Next, you’ll need to layer a couple of inches of green waste such as grass clippings, manure, leaves, food scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds on top of the woody base layer. Cover the wood so that it’s completely blanketed in organic matter to jumpstart the base layer’s decomposition.

Finally, you’ll want to fill the top layer with soil. If your hugelkultur garden is an independent mound, pile the dirt you removed initially for the final layer. If it is a raised bed, cover the top with soil suited to raised bed gardening.

What to avoid

Like composting some things should be avoided in a hugelkultur garden.

Leaves and wood from these plants should be avoided:

  • walnut (particularly black walnut)
  • eucalyptus
  • tree of heaven
  • manzanita
  • sugar maple
  • red oak
  • sycamore
  • goldenrod
  • American elm
  • pepper tree
  • black locust
  • black cherry
  • cedar and pine

Other things to avoid:

  • treated wood
  • dog or cat waste
  • grass clips from a treated lawn
  • weeds that have gone to seed

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