Hügelkultur is a method of raised bed gardening that recycles plant material back into the earth. This time of year, many gardeners are still cleaning up debris from the harsh winter. Practicing hügelkultur creates an outlet for the multitude of yard waste that will inevitably appear in the landscape. Hügelkultur has roots in Germany originating hundreds of years ago. It has been found to be an effective method of composting and creating rich garden soil with great water holding capacity and aeration.
Hügelkultur is essentially a layered raised garden. The first layer consists of rotting logs which are placed in a trench dug 8 to 10-inches deep. The layer above is smaller branches and sticks. Smaller plant waste such as brown leaves and stems are placed on top and within the spaces of the larger materials. Unfinished compost is layered on top of the raw plant material. Finally, finished compost is layered on top. The resulting mound has a pyramidal shape and should be about 3-feet wide by 6-feet long and 3-feet tall. Some gardeners choose to layer other waste into hügelkultur mounds such as cardboard and kitchen scraps. In general, follow the guidelines of composting when determining what should and should not be added.
Over time the organic material will continue to break down, decreasing the height of the mound and adding to the richness of the soil. The spaces between the logs and branches as well as the air spaces within the rotting logs promote air flow, which aides in decomposition and root growth. The pyramidal shape of a hügelkultur mound increases the available planting surface as opposed to a flat surface. Crops can be planted on the sides of the mound as well as along the top. A properly established hügelkultur mound can help prevent erosion. This style of raised gardening provides all the benefits of incorporating compost into the soil without tilling.
By layering plant materials of differing densities in a mounded row, decomposition continues at the base of the mound while finished compost remains at the surface, ready for planting.
By layering plant materials of differing densities in a mounded row, decomposition continues at the base of the mound while finished compost remains at the surface, ready for planting
During the first year of establishing a hügelkultur mound a cover crop should be planted. This will help prevent erosion within the mound while also giving the partially composted material more time to decompose. Some gardeners choose to make the layer of finished compost thicker so they can plant their desired crops in the mound immediately rather than allowing additional composting time.
Hügelkultur mounds can be used to grow any plants you would grow in a traditional raised bed, but some considerations should be made as to the placement of each variety. Taller plants and vining plants should be planted toward the bottom of the mound, while shorter plants should be placed along the top ridge. This will help keep the smaller plants from being overshadowed by the larger varieties. Each season when the crops are finished, remove the plant material above the soil surface, but leave the roots to help further stabilize the mound. Over time the roots will break down and become part of the rich soil.
If garden space is limited, hügelkultur can be used on a smaller scale in container gardens as well. Hügelkultur can be done in gardens with established raised beds by layering the materials within the confines of the planter boxes. For those gardeners who are looking for innovative ways to work with nature in order to grow the healthiest plants possible, hügelkultur is a perfect new challenge. Ultimately, the raised beds created through this method will provide a low maintenance garden with nutrient-dense soil.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor and coordinator for K-State’s horticultural therapy online certificate program.