Hügelkultur: The Benefits of a No-Dig Raised Garden Bed

Hügelkultur: The Benefits of a No-Dig Raised Garden Bed
Contributor
Contributor
External Guest Writer
June 2, 2022

What is Hügelkultur?

Hügelkultur, pronounced hoo-gul-culture, is a traditional way of forming a raised garden bed that had been practiced for centuries in parts of Eastern Europe. The term translates to "mound culture" or "hill culture," as the method is known for its raised gardens that are supported by slightly aged wood, creating nutrient-rich soil, and a unique-looking garden.

How Does It Work?

Traditionally, Hügelkultur beds, also known as hügel beds, are formed on a patch of land that has been raised by rotting wood chips and plant matter. Plants, crops, and trees are then planted on the topsoil, where the roots take nutrients from the decomposing organic matter below the earth.

Over time, the roots of the planted foliage take over the raised garden beds, and the structure stabilizes. The garden bed is able to sustain various types of crops and vegetation, particularly herbs, root crops, and leafy-green vegetables. Gourds and peppers also thrive well on Hügelkultur raised gardens.

Rotting wood chips, grass clippings, and organic material make up the mound that creates the raised garden beds. Over time, decomposition releases nutrients and nitrogen-rich material into the soil, forming a self-sustaining ecosystem that mimics natural environments.

The Pros and Cons of Hügelkultur

Hügelkultur-raised bed gardens have their own pros and cons. For the most part, Hügelkultur-raised beds are created to provide a healthy ecosystem within the garden, and to promote a fruitful growing season for the foliage planted. However, they require large garden spaces, and may attract pests and vermin with the decomposing organic matter.

Pros

Gradual Fertilizer

As the rotting plant matter decomposes, it slowly releases nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and other minerals that are essential to plant growth. The wood chips are hidden from extreme weather and wind conditions, so the woody material and plant matter decay at a controlled pace, intermittently providing nutrients to plants on raised beds.

Self-Sustaining Ecosystem

A large Hügelkultur garden can provide enough fertilizer to supply the raised bed for decades. It is a self-sustaining ecosystem that relies on natural processes for the moisture and nutrients plants need to grow. A hügel bed is extremely low maintenance, and is even used in stormwater management as the mound has excellent water retention benefits.

Utilizes Plant Waste

Most plant wastes end up in landfills, but for hügel bed gardens, plant wastes act as the foundation for the raised beds. Anything from grass clippings, woody debris, fallen trees, and even treated wood can be used to fill up raised garden beds for Hügelkultur. The nitrogen-rich material provides more than adequate fertilization for plants grown on the hill mound. 

Adaptable to Any Garden Layout

Hügelkultur-raised garden layouts are not limited to Europe, as gardeners should be able to utilize the method to fit any garden landscape. As long as there is ample space to plant, hügel-raised garden beds can be scaled to fit average garden sizes anywhere in the world.

Tiny Air Pockets

One of the benefits of Hügelkultur is the formation of tiny pockets of air that allow plants' roots to breathe. As organic matter and wood breaks down below the earth, the space left behind produces a pocket of air that provides good air circulation around the plant roots. The air pockets contribute to the quality of the soil, and make for adequate water retention.

Beneficial Insects

With decaying matter comes the insects that feed on them, and many of these insects are beneficial to plants with their castings, or feces, acting as fertilizer. Vermin, like earthworms, are welcome in gardens, and provide beneficial burrows that regulate air circulation and water drainage for the plants growing on the hügel bed.

Worms, beetle larvae, and other beneficial insects contribute to the hügel ecosystem, and are symbiotic in nature to provide plants with extra nutrients. They feed off grass clippings and other rotting plant matter, but leave healthy plants alone to thrive.

Cons

Root Rot 

Root rot is prevalent in raised beds, brought about by consistently damp soil, and bacteria that feed on rotting plant matter. With high levels of decomposing material in raised garden beds, plant roots are most susceptible to root rot and other forms of the disease, particularly when the mound was improperly sanitized beforehand. 

Fungus and Mold

Fungus grows on organic materials such as coffee grounds, leaf litter, food scraps, and super-rotten wood that have been exposed to a consistent moisture source. Fungus isn't always dangerous to plants, but when unchecked, fungus suffocate live plants, and quickly overtake the steep beds.  

Fungus Gnats, Termites, and Other Pests

Not all insects that feed on decaying matter are beneficial to plants. Some, such as the fungus gnat, carry diseases that can spread to plants as they feed off of decomposing organic plant matter. Termites are also known to feed off of rotting wood, and some species of plant-destroying beetles start off as harmless larvae feeding off decaying matter.

Introducing beneficial but predatory insects will help ward off pests, and the use of organic pesticides like neem oil and Diatomaceous Earth (DE) will promote healthy gardens without harming beneficial insects, bacteria, or nematodes.

How to Build a Hügelkultur Bed

a small hugelkultur bed

Building a Hügelkultur bed is no easy task, but the results are worth it to see a unique-looking garden bed perfectly set up for spring planting. In creating a raised hügel bed, hardwood like black cherry works well as an intermittent fertilizer, as the material breaks down slowly. 

However, not all types of wood are suitable for Hügelkultur, and it is best to stay away from trees such as black cherry and black walnut, as black walnut wood chips may have juglone toxin that will stunt plant growth. 

  • First, dig up a patch of soil where the mound will be formed, then stack up hardwood logs in a hill formation. Add grass clippings, plant matter, soil, and other organic materials around the mound to fill up the gaps formed by the wooden logs. Pouring boiling-hot water over the mound will sanitize and kill any pathogens hiding in the soil.
  • Second, place a sheet of topsoil on the mound to cover the decaying matter. Create a thick, even layer where the topsoil will not erode or otherwise fall off the hilltop during watering. Sheet mulching will help stabilize the top layer. Wet the soil with plain water to soften the soil, and make it easier to handle for the next step.
  • Third, plant foliage as usual. Any plants that can be planted in harmony can be planted in the garden, from herbs to ornamental plants. Small trees and fruit-bearing plants can also be planted in the garden, but incompatible plants should be separated per mound for the best layout. Water the plants as needed and allow them to grow. 

Let Nature Handle It

Hügelkultur is a sustainable form of agriculture categorized under permaculture farming for its ability to repurpose what is otherwise regarded as waste. As nature decomposes the wood and composting matter hidden beneath the soil bed, the nutrients go back into the live plants to help them grow, recirculating nutrients through the ecosystem.

Consider Hügelkultur in urban and suburban farming, where there are ample plant wastes produced everyday. Hügelkultur is an alternative solution to the ever-growing problem of unnecessary waste, and allows decaying matter to give back the nutrients to the earth.