Hugelkultur, pronounced hoo-gul-culture, is an ancient way of gardening or farming. Practiced for hundreds of years in Germany and Eastern Europe, hugelkultur is now receiving widespread attention and interest by farmers worldwide. The word hugelkultur is a German word meaning raised mounds or hill culture and is constructed on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable material. These growing mounds hold moisture, build fertility for the plants, maximize growing space, and provide nutritious soil for growing fruits, vegetables and herbs. They are particularly useful in places where water is scarce, allowing farmers and gardeners in the tropics to continue to grow during the dry season.
Instead of burning wood debris, pile it up for hugelkultur mounds; they can be any size, using wood stumps, branches, and twigs in different sizes and decomposition stages as the base. One of the main benefits of hugelkultur is that little irrigation is needed because the wood beneath the soil holds a concentration of moisture acting much like a sponge. For farmers and gardeners who believe they cannot grow fruits and vegetables in the dry season due to lack of water, building hugelkultur mounds allows them to harvest more often and have fresh produce year round. Another benefit is that no fertilizer is needed; the wood and other compostable material within the pile release nutrients slowly as they decompose. Also, there is no need for tilling because the decomposing wood creates pockets of air and there is lots of beneficial fungal activity within a hugelkultur mound.
Hugelkultur mounds last for many years and are not easily moved, so it is important to choose locations wisely. Mounds should be built in shady areas for plants needing shade and in sunny areas for plants needing lots of sun. Mounds can be built level, but there are benefits to curving them to take advantage of the lay of the land. The mound in these photos has been built on contour to absorb more water from surrounding swales.
Plants needing drier conditions can be placed at the tops of the mounds while plants needing more moisture can be planted near the bottom — closer to the sponge-like wet decaying material.
To build a hugelkultur mound you can either build it directly on top of the soil, or dig a trench 6” to a foot deep in the shape you desire. Use about 30-40% wood material for the mound, laying it directly on the ground or in the trench. If you use the trench method, turn the removed sod upside down directly on top of the wood. With either method, it is good to place smaller sticks and twigs wedged between larger branches to hold the pile together. The dirt removed from the trench can be added to the top later. If you do not dig, you must find topsoil elsewhere to add to the top of the pile; so either way, you must dig. The width at the bottom of the mound should be 2 to 3 times wider than the ultimate height. Add layers of filler using various compost materials such as dried leaves, grass clippings, or other organic matter. In the hugelkultur pictured here, cow manure and seaweed were added. To the top of the pile, add a healthy layer of soil mixed with compost (about 6 inches) taken from the trench or, if you placed the wood directly on the ground, from elsewhere.
Plant seedlings immediately. If you are not ready to plant, put in a cover crop such as beans to hold the soil together and help build greater fertility in the mound. Place mulch around your plants. In the photo below, fibrous material from coconut trees is held in place with small sticks. Watermelons and squash will wind their way down the hill and cucumbers and some tomatoes will latch onto the strings suspended overhead. Plants to discourage insects are planted around the seedlings, such as marigolds near tomatoes.
Be creative! Combine art with science by choosing various types of plants and shapes and sizes for your mounds using material you have on hand.