JoAnne Skelly: Hugelkultur — explaining what it is
March 15, 2019
What the heck is hugelkultur? That's what I asked my friend Will after he said he was going to try it. He had just finished cutting down a tree and had a load of branches and bark to get rid of. According to http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/many-benefits-hugelkultur, hugelkultur, a centuries-old Eastern European and German tradition, starts with no-dig raised beds made out of logs, branches, leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost and/or other organic matter. Top this raised mound with soil and then it's ready to plant.
The theory is that the woody debris and other matter breaks down over time providing nutrients for plants. As it breaks down, it also produces heat, keeping the soil warm for the plants above and extending the growing season. As the branches and other material decompose, soil aeration increases and drainage improves. The logs and other woody matter act like sponges, holding water during wet cycles and releasing it during dry ones. Besides all these benefits, you can use up woody matter not suitable for much else.
Another source, the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia, reports hugelkultur "allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits" (https://permaculturenews.org/2010/08/03/the-art-and-science-of-making-a-hugelkultur-bed-transforming-woody-debris-into-a-garden-resource/). In fact, hugel beds are great for areas that are a gardening challenge such as spots with compacted soil, poor drainage or limited moisture. "Hugelkultur beds are, essentially, large, layered compost piles covered with a growing medium into which a garden is planted." The Permaculture Research Institute provides detailed construction directions on how to build a hugel bed.
It's possible (and an awesome idea) to replace parts of a lawn with a hugel bed. First, cut out the sod. Dig a 12-inch trench where the sod was. Place the logs and woody matter in the trench. Cover the woody mound with the upside-down turf. Finally, on top of the mound, put all the good organic matter you can think of: compost, grass clippings, aged manure, green leaves, straw and anything else. Sepp Holzer, a hügelkultur expert mentioned in the first article I cited above, recommends this technique as well as building "steep hugel beds to avoid compaction from increased pressure over time. Steep beds mean more surface are in your garden for plants and the height makes easy harvesting." The first article also has some great photos of successful hugel beds.
This sounds like something I want to try.
JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com.