Hügelkultur is a German word meaning “hill culture”. Simply put, it’s a way to speed up the decay of fallen branches, logs, twigs, canes, vines, or any other dead vegetation by covering it with soil. Once its covered with soil, the diverse soil-dwelling life-forms feed from the vegetation as they decompose it, creating richer, moister soil as they feed.
Hügelkultur is not a new concept!
For thousands of years, people worldwide have imitated nature by creating hügelkulturs. Our modernized world nearly forgot about this process until recently, when world-famous permaculture experts Sepp Holzer, Paul Wheaton and Geoff Lawton brought the practice into the limelight and now promote it as a perfect practice for working in harmony with Earth.
Practicing hügelkultur achieves these results:
- Hide the garden’s unsightly “dead” vegetation
- Feed the soil-dwelling life-forms that help your garden flourish
- Enrich garden soil as vegetation decomposes
- Release moisture into the garden soil
Hügelkultur works in synergy with earth’s natural processes!
Hügelkultur happens all the time in nature. When a forest tree falls to the ground, fungi, microbes and insects feed on it as they help to decompose the tree into rich humic soil. It once was a tree, but it becomes part of the soil that feeds plants with rich nutrients.
Hügelkultur works all around the Earth!
Hügelkultur works in all environments – from snowy mountain tops to rain forests, to deserts.
Since our climate is dry and we get very little rain, we have learned how to use hugelkultur to benefit our food forest, and here is what we’ve learned.
How to Optimize Hügelkultur for Arid-Climate Gardens
In dry climates, if you lay a pile of fallen vegetation on the ground uncovered – it will take years or decades to decompose.
If you cover that same pile of vegetation with soil, and it will decompose faster, but if it’s not completely covered, that will delay the process.
For our first hügelkultur, we followed this diagram we found on Wikipedia. This method didn’t work too well for us in our dry climate, although it works well in moist climates.
We had a pile of branches sitting on top of the ground, so we dug up some soil from elsewhere in the garden and covered the pile with the soil. We didn’t cover all of the vegetation completely, so some branches stuck out. Over time, the soil settled down further, which exposed even more of the vegetation. After a year or two, we covered the pile with more soil, but that pile ended up taking years to become a rich garden bed.
Here’s how the unburied pile looked a couple years later – in the lower left area of the picture – it still had not decomposed!
The next hügelkultur we made, we completely buried the spent vegetation into the ground, and found that the soil rapidly became fertile. In the picture above, where you see pumpkin vine, potatoes, and corn – all growing vigorously – that’s the hügelkultur where we completely buried the vegetation, which rapidly decomposed and jump-started the soil with new life!
Here’s how the process works:
Rake any sheet mulch to the side to expose bare dirt. Set the mulch aside to use on top of the completed hügelkultur.
Dig your trench deep and long enough to hold the spent vegetation.
Beginning with the largest pieces, fill the trench with your fallen branches, twigs, canes, vines, leaves, manure, fruit and veggie peels.
Cover the vegetation back up with the soil you dug out of the trench. Our chunky clay soil needs a soaking of hose-water to help settle it in. Water the pile to help settle it, then cover the pile with mulch.
That’s it – you’ve completed the hügelkultur.
We had great success planting garlic cloves on the mounds immediately, and in the following spring our seeds grew vigorously in their new home.
Practicing Hügelkultur allows us to recycle our forest vegetation and enrich our soil with little expense or effort.
Top 10 Reasons to Practice Hügelkultur in an Arid-Climate Garden:
1. The trench you place the material into will also serve as a water reservoir in times of rain, capturing water for the water table
2. Broken and trimmed branches and other forest material transform into humic garden soil
3. Provide food for the soil-dwelling creatures
4. Release moisture into the soil as it decomposes
5. Sequester carbon into the soil and reduce carbon in our atmosphere
6. Requires less work than chipping or shredding material – especially larger branches and logs
7. As a raised-bed substitute, it requires no wood frame structure.
8. Just bury the material once, and leave it alone – enjoy the results for years to come.
9. Increases soil health and nutrition in the form of humic soil, which helps plants thrive.
10. Burning your fallen vegetation may be dangerous and will cause the potential humus to go up in smoke and release carbon into the atmosphere. Hauling it away requires a truck burning fossil fuel to carry it somewhere else. Burying it is free and helps planet Earth!
Do’s and Don’ts: Creating Hügelkulturs in Arid Climates
- Do dig a hole deep and long enough to hold your material and to leave you with enough soil to cover it back up.
- Do leave the soil you dig up next to the trench, so it will be close to the trench when you’re ready to back-fill.
- Do cover the material completely with soil.
- Don’t leave any of the material sticking out of the soil, as it will wick away your moisture and lengthen the decomposing time.
- Do include fruit & veggie peels, grass clippings, green weeds (no seeds), leaves and a little sprinkling of manure (if available) for a nitrogen source.
- Do be mindful of any seeds you may be adding to the pile in the form of weeds or spent flower heads.
- Do add only those seeds you want to see growing next season!
- Do cover the soil mound with organic mulch such as leaves, straw, chipped material or compost.
- Do water the mound to help settle it – unless you prepare the mound just before a rain!
Here’s a quick look at a Hügelkultur we created:
Look for an upcoming post on where to position a Hügelkultur to be most helpful to existing plants and trees.
Aloha to you!