HugelKultur Raised Bed

Building the Best Hugelkultur Raised Bed on Your Backyard Farm

As I began researching and exploring various gardening methods, I’ve been reading more and more about the Hugelkultur raised bed method. This method is a hot topic and is based on the idea of building a raised garden bed using a variety of materials, many of which you may already have on hand. As the raised bed ages, the material in the center of the mound breaks down and creates a rich environment for growing food. Hugelkultur gardening is a great method to add to your backyard farming bag of tricks.

We’ve used this method and adapted it several times and I’m excited to share what we’ve learned.

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What is a Hugelkultur Raised Bed?

Hugelkultur gardening is based on the same principles that are at work in the forest.  This method uses a combination of wood, compost, grass cuttings and fallen leaves, and creates a deep bed that decomposes over time.  Basically you are going to create a mound of materials with the larger items in the center of the raised bed. This composting garden bed might start out at 5-6 feet but will eventually settle down to just 2 feet or so.

The decomposing wood creates a sponge-like environment that retains moisture and adds nutrients to the garden bed over time.  In addition, the decomposing process naturally creates heat and can actually raise the temperature of your gardening bed.  Many of the photos I’ve seen of these garden beds are created with a huge mound in the center (6 or 7 feet), but I’ve also seen the bed done just a few inches above ground.

To create a smaller mound for your hugelkultur raised bed garden, you can dig down into the soil and place your larger items like logs and sticks into this hole before filling it with other materials. You still need to make sure that the mound is above the ground level since it will settle over time.

In addition to adding nutrients and creating a warmer bed, the Hugelkultur raised bed method also attracts beneficial animals (such as worms) and creates natural spaces for air and water.  For all the benefits, you do need to put in a lot of work up front and you need to be aware of nitrogen depletion as the wood decomposes.  During the first few years you need to continue to add nitrogen via green composts, nitrogen fixing plants, or naturally nitrogen rich supplements (like rabbit poo).

Create a Hugelkultur Raised Bed

Select a Sunny Location

Like all vegetable gardens, you will want to choose a sunny location for your hugelkultur raised bed – preferably a spot that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight. The soil in your location is still important even though you will be adding to it with your raised bed, so if you have poor drainage or impacted soil you may want to loosen the soil before you get started.

Lay Down a Layer of Cardboard

If you are planning to bury your garden partway, you should start by digging a hole. You can dig down 12-18 inches and then build your garden within this trench. To decrease weeds on top of this space you can place cardboard . Since you will building such a large mound, there is no need to remove the weeds, you will simply cover them and smother them. Always build raised beds so you can reach the center of the bed without stepping inside the bed – 4 feet wide is a good choice.

Lay Down Your Large Items like Wood

This is where you will put the bulk of your large items like logs, fallen branches and twigs. Choose a mixture of soft and hard wood – preferably wood that will decompose quickly.

Create a Hugelkultur Raised Bed with logs, branches and sticks

Create Hugelkultur Layers

Next you will want to add a layer of whatever you throw into your compost bin – greens, grass clippings, fallen leaves, etc and pack this down into the spaces in the logs. Build the pile higher – at least 3 feet but as high as you wish. Remember this will settle over the years. Water your hugelkultur garden well and continue to fill any holes.

Cover With Compost

Once you have a packed pile, cover with a few inches of compost material and a layer of mulch to keep weeds down. Like lasagna gardens, your hugelkultur raised garden bed needs time to cure before it is ready to plant. If you create you garden bed in the fall, it will be ready to plant in the spring. To help aid in decomposition, keep you pile wet, especially for the first year.

You can see the layers as I lay down the larger materials for the hugelkultur raised bed

Your Hugelkulture Raised Bed at Work

You’ve done all the hard work of creating your hugelkultur bed, and now it’s time for your bed to get to work. With the high pile of decomposing materials, your hugelkultur garden bed will start to heat up. This speeds up decomposition AND makes your growing season a bit longer. As the woody material begins to break down, the wood become spongy and retains water. After just a few months you will have a warm hugelkultur raised bed with excellent water storage, nutrients and full of beneficial micro-organisms.

There are reports of first year hugelkultur beds that produce massive amounts of crops, but the real benefit continues for years where you’ve created a permanent, healthy raised bed.

Nitrogen in Your Hugelkultur Raised Bed

The biggest challenge you are likely to face with your hugelkulture raised bed is the depletion of nitrogen. Decomposition naturally removes nitrogen from the soil and since you are decomposing large pieces of wood you will need to monitor your nitrogen levels. There are many options for adding nitrogen to your bed and you should plan to do this for at least the first few years. Here are a few ways to increase nitrogen in your hugelkultur raised bed.

  • Plant a nitrogen rich cover crop
  • Plan nitrogen fixing plants such as beans and peas
  • Make sure you add nitrogen rich items to your bed such as grass clipping or coffee grinds
  • Add manure – we often add rabbit poop to our garden beds since it doesn’t need to break down before using

What Grows Best in a Hugelkultur Raised Bed

Figuring out what grows best in a hugelkultur raised bed may take a little trial and error. In general, we’ve chosen to grow annuals, although we did create a modified hugelkultur raised bed and after it settled we used it for our blackberry bed. For a vegetable garden here are a few recommendations:

  • Avoid root vegetables at least for the first 2 years
  • Alliums (such as onions) are a good choice
  • Squash and melons are a great choice since they love the extra heat
  • Leafy greens are a great choice
  • Planting peas and beans will benefit from the rich garden soil and contribute nitrogen for your other plants
  • It’s best to plant a variety of plants and avoid planting a monoculture

Over the next year we’re planning to create a new hugelkultur garden bed and I will be updating this post with photos and details, so come back soon for more.

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1 thought on “Building the Best Hugelkultur Raised Bed on Your Backyard Farm”

  1. We do a combination of many methods. I don't know if that's good or bad, but that's what we do. I definately like the idea of using what I have and what might be otherwise be wasted.

    We have some friends from Kenya and they do something like this. Because their soil has so much clay they use that to build their homes. So they dig out an area and then fill it with branches, leaves, animal bedding…whatever they can find. Then they plant in it. I think it's interesting that people adapt to whatever works in their enviroment. There's not really one "right" way to garden.

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