“Hugelculture?” The name (pronounced “hoo-gull kul-toor”) sounds like it might be a
new type of yogurt or maybe an exotic fermented beverage but it's neither of those
things. “Hügel” is the German word for hill or mound and Hügelkultur (hugelculture in
English) is a term for a unique way of growing plants in rounded, above-ground beds.
The beds, which are created from layers of decomposing wood and other plant debris,
approximate the conditions found in healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems. First defined in
Germany in the 1960's, the practice has become increasingly popular in many parts of
the world driven by a growing interest in permaculture* and the need for finding
sustainable methods of agriculture. Hugel beds are easy and inexpensive to make and
have a lot of advantages for home gardeners. They are also fascinating and fun!
How Hugelcultures work
Each hugelculture mound essentially forms its own ecosystem with woody debris
forming the foundation of the biological process. Although building a hugelculture is like
making a compost pile, it's a lot less work. The wood, which can be anything from fallen
trees and large branches to old firewood, is covered with layers of additional organic
material. As the woody material on the bottom of the pile decays, it becomes
increasingly porous and soaks up water like a sponge. The decomposing wood forms a
cozy habitat for beneficial organisms, which go about their business converting all the
organic matter into a rich medium for growing plants.
The advantages of Hugelculture
It's not surprising that a method of above ground planting that utilizes odd pieces of
wood originated in cold, heavily forested Northern Europe. Planting could be
accomplished while the ground below was still frozen, and warmth generated by the
microbial action in the mounds enabled both earlier planting and a longer growing
season. So why would we, in temperate Northern California, be interested in these
funny looking mounds? First, unlike conventional raised beds, no carpentry skills or
special equipment are needed--anybody can do this. Second, hugels are very
inexpensive to build and utilize materials that would otherwise get carted away.
Hugels are space efficient, can be made in virtually any size or shape and, unlike the flat,
rectangular surface of the usual boxy raised beds, the hugel's mounded profile creates
more surface area for planting. Just like other raised beds, hugels are constructed so
that the center of the bed is accessible from the sides, making it easier to plant and
maintain. Due to the sponge-like nature of the decomposing wood, ample amounts of
nutrients and the naturally aerated growing medium, a well-made hugel bed requires
less water, especially on the lower portion. Once the mound is completed, a good
hugelculture will also require little in the way of additional soil amendments.
A few caveats and rules
Many of the same rules apply to building a hugelculture as to building a compost pile.
For example, manure from herbivores (horses, cattle, etc.) is a great addition but waste
from carnivorous animals (dogs, cats) should be avoided.
Almost any type of natural wood can be used except black walnut and black cherry,
which are allelopathic (meaning they contain naturally occurring substances that inhibit
the growth of other plants) and pressure treated wood, which contains chemicals that
resist rot and insects. Woods such as cedar and redwood break down more slowly so
they should be used sparingly.
Hugels will sink over time but depending on a variety of factors such as location,
materials, shape, size, etc., a well-made hugelculture will last anywhere from 5 to 10
years. When the old hugel needs replacing, the material can still be used as mulch or
further utilized in a compost pile. Hugelcultures are not suited for planting trees and
other long-lived woody perennials, which can be easily toppled in the wind and severely
disrupted when the mound needs to be redone. Instead, plant them adjacent to a
hugel where they can benefit from the moisture and nutrients.
Building Your Hugelculture
First, it's a good idea to let your neighbors know what you are up to because Hugels can
look a lot like burial mounds! Pick the spot: it should get plenty of sun and be protected
from the wind. Next, decide what size and shape you want your hugelculture to be. It
can be roughly rectangular, oval, round or even serpentine. The length doesn't matter
but the finished mound should be narrow enough so that you can easily reach the
center. Then mark out the perimeter and lay bricks, stones, or logs to contain the
branches, twigs, and wood chips. Then add alternating layers of green (nitrogen rich) and
brown (carbon rich)** materials similar to making compost. Top it off with at least
several inches each of compost and soil. Then water the mound thoroughly.
Fall is the best time to get started so that your hugelculture will be ready for spring
planting. Allowing the mound to sit for a few months will ensure that the materials are
decomposed sufficiently and will not pull nitrogen from your plants. If you've used mostly
When ready, use the top areas for upright crops and the sloping sides for plants that like
to sprawl like strawberries and squash. Finish it all off by covering the surface with
plenty of mulch. Once this natural process is set in motion, you can sit back and enjoy
watching Mother Nature work her magic.
**For more on composting and green and brown materials, go to:
This article was written by Maggie Mah and edited by Cynthia Nations, San Mateo/San
Francisco University of CA Master Gardeners