Hügelkultur Meets Permaculture
Hügelkultur. It may be an unfamiliar word, but break it down from German and it makes total sense: hügel means “hill” and kultur means “culture”. So, literally it’s “hill culture” or growing things on a mound. But it isn’t just any mound! Hügelkultur utilizes a specially made mound with rotting wood at its core. Practiced in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, it was made popular in the permaculture community through the work of Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer. He started planting this way on his steep, mountainous site to create growing beds where there was little soil and as a means to use up fallen trees. Permaculture seeks to get multiple benefits from each design element and hügelkultur is a prime example of this.
For many people, one of the main reasons they choose to build a hügelkultur is to use up an excess of woody material on their property. If this is the case, you can certainly store up your tree and brush trimmings until you have enough to make a good-sized bed. If you still require more, ask neighbours or your local arborist when they will be working around your neighbourhood next as they will likely be happy to drop limbs and logs at your house rather than taking them to a waste site. Tree companies often have wood piles that they need to dispose of and will gladly let you take away old and rotting logs. Municipal waste depots could be another source.
- A slow release of nutrients over time
- The creation of well-aerated, healthy soil
- Productive use of excess woody debris
- A slight increase in temperature of the growing bed (microclimate)
- Additional vertical growing space
- Large water storage capacity so minimal supplemental water is needed
- Getting plant roots out of waterlogged ground or poor soil
Hankering for hügelkultur?
It’s important to first consider a few things before digging into a hügel:
- Do you have easy access to large amounts of dead wood? Larger logs made from hardwood will last longer, while softwoods and smaller debris used to fill in gaps will break down much more quickly and will require more nitrogen-rich materials to balance them because of the heavy carbon load in the wood. Wood of mixed diameter and ages is best. Avoid wood from walnuts, butternuts, cedars, yews, juniper, black locust, and Osage orange as they contain chemicals that may inhibit plant growth.
- Do you have adequate space? A mound of two-to-six feet high is best to reap the full benefits of a hügelkultur. Make sure it will not block lines of sight for traffic or driveways and take into account the height of the mound plus the vegetation that will be growing on top of it. You can grow annual vegetables on your hügelkultur or fruit trees and shrubs with perennial herbaceous plants. Account for a settling of 10 to 40 percent over time.
- Is your proposed site well-situated? Consider the slope of the land, the sun, the prevailing wind direction, and your neighbours. While a hügelkultur can be used to slow down the flow of water on a slope, you want to make sure it will run slightly off-contour because if it runs parallel to the contour lines it will create a wall for water and could lead to slumping or the hügel sliding down the hill on steeper terrain. Also, if you have a few hügels in a series, the highest hügels would collect all of the water and the lowest ones would get hardly any. If slope is little or non-existent you can orient your hügel north-south for equal solar exposure or east-west to create a shaded side and a hot, sunny side. Alternately, a hügel can be placed for privacy, wind protection, or “fencing”. If wind is a problem, build them perpendicular to the prevailing wind, or build a windbreak nearby.
Starting a Hügelkultur
You can start your hügelkultur with just a few materials:
- Fallen logs
- Smaller diameter debris and branches
- Compost or manure
- Landscape pins
- Seeds and plants
- Dig a trench deep enough to hold your wood, in the shape of your future bed.
- Place your largest material at the bottom of the trench, then cover with a layer of nitrogen-rich materials like compost, kitchen scraps, coffee, urine, or manure.
- Throw some soil on the pile to fill gaps, and water the pile well.
- Place smaller diameter branches on top of this, then layer more nitrogenous material, making sure it gets down in between the gaps. Add more soil.
- Repeat once or twice if desired. Water again.
- If sod was removed from the site, replace it on top of the pile, grass side down, then cover with two inches of soil.
- Scatter seeds (see sidebar on planting). Cover with straw or shredded bark mulch. If the sides of your hügel are on more than a 45 degree angle, pin down some broadleaf boughs to hold the soil and mulch in place until the roots are established. Now you can plant any seedlings you would like to add.
Build a better hügel!
Which seeds you choose to sow will depend on the ideal growing conditions of the various levels of your hügel.
- The lower portion tends to favour plants that thrive in in moist, cool conditions, like cucurbits (summer and winter squash, melon, cucumber).
- The mid-height portion contains more soil and is therefore better suited for root crops like carrots, beets, and potatoes.
- Best options for the top of the hügel are those plants that love warmth and want lots of vertical space like beans, climbers, and creepers!
- You can also let plants show you where they want to grow by broadcasting lettuces, greens, radishes, flowers, and other small seeds freely throughout. To ensure a more even distribution, broadcast in batches from smallest to largest.
As your hügelkultur bed matures and settles you can add material to it by layering on top of your existing mound. A three-to-four-foot-high hügelkultur constructed with large diameter logs can last around ten years. Once your hügel is no longer producing all of the benefits you desire, simply harvest the premium soil you have created and use it elsewhere in your garden—or better yet, use it to construct a fresh hügel!
You may also enjoy: Permaculture Principles, Planning the Garden with Kids, and Cultivating Health and Vitality through Biodynamic Farming.