Create a raised hot bed for spring and fall planting, simple raised bed gardening, or decoration with this simple method of hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur is an ancient form of composting that utilizes woody waste as the carbon substrata, to retain soil moisture and soil fertility. You can utilize the principles of hugelkultur by simply burying wood waste throughout your yard and garden, in order to increase the moisture holding capacity and fertility of your soil. It breaks down slowly over several seasons. A hugelkultur raised bed is a garden in its own right. It can be any size or shape that you wish, although most hugelkultur raised beds are rectangular.
Hugelkutur raised beds rely on branches, rotting wood, wooden stumps, and waste wood, as the foundation of a raised garden bed. A hugelkultur bed is like a big compost pile. It is similar to lasagna gardening, but with the carbon inputs coming from wood waste. What I really like about hugelkultur gardening is that it utilizes a waste material — wood — that I have in abundance, making this a very frugal way to create a garden, where none existed. In fact, hugelkultur gardening is completely free, if you live where wood waste and manure or grass clippings are free. Most raised bed systems involve double digging, buying in materials for a framework, and then filling the bed with finished compost to get it ready for planting. The fertility of this kind of bed, lasts for the first season, and additional compost must be added annually to keep the bed productive. This is labour intensive and costly. On the other hand, hugelkultur beds utilize waste wood, fallen leaves, fresh or half rotted manure, grass clipping or weeds, and finished compost — all of which I have in abundance. The finished compost is only necessary if you plan to plant the bed immediately. One can build a hugelkultur bed using wood waste, leaves, needles, and grass clippings and let the compost break down naturally, planting it once the process is almost completed. The wood will break down slowly, over several seasons, while the nitrogen rich additives will heat up sooner and make the bed usable in a season, if its is kept wet. Further, once established, the hugelkultur bed is less work and doesn’t not need to be re-fertilized annually, as the break down of the wood adds soil fertility to the bed for many years.
Benefits of Hugelkultur raised bed gardens
1. Warmer than the surrounding soil
A hugelkultur bed is a decomposing compost pile. So it generates heat. This makes the soil warmer than the surrounding soil.
2. Breaks down over time and so maintains fertility
The wood waste breaks down slowly over several years and so the bed maintains its fertility. It doesn’t have to be amended every season.
3. It is a carbon sink.
By putting wood into the ground, the hugelbeds remove carbon from the atmosphere and recycle it to be used as a growing medium and plant fertilizer.
4. Hugelkultur beds are ready to plant, earlier than the surrounding soil.
Raised beds are ready to plant earlier than the surrounding soil. The snow melts off earlier, and the bed stays warm later into the year, so it is great for both extending the fall growing season, and getting a jump on spring planting.
5. Hugelkultur beds have a natural frost drain.
Cold air falls to the lowest point, so hugelcultur raised beds, are surrounded by a frost drain, which is important in Northern areas, lengthening the growing season.
6. Plants on a hugelkultur bed can be planted closer together.
Hugelkultur beds lend themselves to intensive methods of gardening, as they maintain moisture, as the wood holds water. And they are fertile.
7. Hugelcultur beds are easier to weed.
The beds are higher and so they can be weeded in a standing position. Starting them with clean soil and hot compost also helps reduce weeds, and a heavy mulch can make them almost weed free for the first seasons.
8. Hugelkultur beds are easier to manage for the elderly and handicapped.
Since the beds are higher they require less bending and stooping to plant, weed, maintain, and harvest.
9. When part of a permaculture forest garden, hugelkultur beds can be seeded with mushroom spawn, and will provide additional food growing areas.
If you plan this into your bed, by using woods that are favourable to certain mushrooms, you can have a successful mushroom crop in addition to fruits and vegetables.
How to build a Hugelkultur bed:
The hugelkultur bed seems to be in vogue right now. When I mentioned that I was utilizing the multitude of waste wood at Joybilee Farm to create a raised bed, hugelkultur garden, it seemed that everyone around me had already made a few or knew someone who had. The community garden, in Grand Forks, BC had a hugelcultur workshop this spring. The neighbor down the road just built one in her yard, and there’s a folk figure in Midway that knows everything there is to know about hugelkultur. So I enter the community of hugelbed gardeners, following in the footsteps of a movement toward permaculture, and sustainable gardening.
When considering to build a sustainable, frugal, raised bed garden using permaculture and hugelkultur techniques, forget the Lee Valley Catalogue and the manicured, tame, and expensive raised beds made from planed lumber, and purchased corner braces. Forget the truck loads of bought top soil and steer manure (manufactured from GMO-Corn fed steer waste, no doubt). Vegetable gardening needs to be affordable and a little less tame. We live in a forest so there is a lot of waste wood lying around. In other years we have burned the waste wood, or at least planned to. There are piles of waste wood, all over our 140 acres that someone planned to burn at some time. We also have a chipper. Its noisy. And uses gas. And once we chip the wood, there aren’t too many places that we can use it, with no lawns and no fancy-smanzy, polite flower gardens. We do have goats after all, which keep my excursions into beautiful flower gardens to a minimum. This week they ate down the daffodils. just as they were coming into flower.
Some strong builders of hugelkultur beds begin by double digging the bed below the surface of the surrounding soil. We just laid down cardboard on the forest floor. The wood we used was from the area that we cleared when we put in our garden, closer to the house. The other garden, is susceptible to frost any day of the year, and so we thought by moving the garden uphill that we might actually get a few weeks of frost free growing. Still waiting to see that work out.
1. First layer: Cardboard, well soaked. You could also use several layers of newspaper, or waste straw or waste hay. You are basically blocking the sod and weeds from growing up through the wood. After a year, the underlying sod will die back and it will no longer be an issue, after this layer breaks down. You could also use leaf mould, or straw. Don’t use a commercial weed block, as it would also block subsoil moisture and you will need that to peculate through your bed.
2. Second layer: Waste wood, branches from firewood, fallen twigs, stumps, partly rotted wood. At least 3 feet deep. Wet it well with a hose before proceeding. The internal moisture is key to keeping the bed warm, and decomposing. At this stage you can place long, narrow trunks of trees to act as a barrier for the bed and keep your branches and soil in place. You can support them with stakes, placed in the ground at critical areas.
3. Third layer: Half composted manure, pressed between the branches of waste wood. We piled on the manure and jumped up and down on the pile to get it inside the wooden branches. This was the most labour intensive part of the process. Shovel the half composted manure into the spaces between the branches, then jump up and down on the pile to pack it in. It needs to be packed solidly to encourage the break down of the wood. Wet again to soak the pile well. If you don’t plan to plant the bed right away, instead of half composted manure, you can use grass clippings, fresh manure, or any other nitrogenous addition that you would put in a compost pile. Intersperse with some wood ashes and bio-char if using acidic woods like pine, or add small portions of lime and magnesium salts do help with balancing fertility and acidity.
4. Fourth Layer: Pile finished compost over it all, to a depth of 6 inches. Soak it all well. It can be planted immediately. Place the finished compost on the top and smooth the top to get it ready for planting. Our bed was 25 feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide. It was placed on a hill so Robin terraced the bed in the middle, so that the water wouldn’t run off.
5. Fifth Layer: Straw mulch. After planting place a straw mulch on the bed to hold in moisture and make weeding easier.
6. Finally, dig a trench all the way around the bed to drain water from the surrounding area and guide it into the bed, to help the wood maintain its moisture level.
7. Plant with trees, bushes and vegetables. Trees planted on a hugelkultur bed will root downward and eventually make contact with the subsoil. Consider the pH of the trees used in the bed. Pine trees are acidic and will increase soil acidity as they break down, for instance, making it a really good medium for blueberries and other acid lovely fruits.
That’s the basics of making a hugelkultur bed: Carbon from wood waste and nitrogen from grass clippings, manure, or weeds. Firmed up into a raised bed garden. For the elderly this kind of garden can be made taller in order to be worked from a standing position. Hugelkultur is an affordable way to create a garden from waste materials, with the potential for less work and sustainable fertility over many years.
Over the years, as the wood breaks down inside the bed, the soil level will drop. You can top this up with the regular application of mulch or with additional finished compost. Both will add additional fertility to the bed.
Other hugelkultur Ideas
A Design for an Improved Hugelkultur Raised Bed Garden for Older Gardeners
How to Garden In Winter without a Greenhouse
Growing Mesclun Salad Greens in a Hugelkultur Raised Bed
What’s your method for building a new garden without spending a lot of money to get it right? Leave a comment.
Paul Weatherford says
Would this work with an above ground garden that is on legs, if that is technically called something else like a planting table etc. then I apologize for any confusion with me choosing the proper name. Bottom line an oblong planting area 12 to 24 inches deep say 5 to 10 feet long and 2 to 4 feet wide on legs that put the planting area approximately 36 inches tall. We have an abundance of Tree Wood Chips which alot of it has turned to a nice dark mulch since it has been composting for well over a year or more that we plan to use, I was also considering adding some branches and a few small tree trunks we have laying around with possibly some fresh grass clipping it that will work, in the first foot mixed with wood chips that i will sift out of the wood chip compost. then in the top foot, use the fine sifted wood compost, mixed lightly with rabbit dropping and a touch of well aged chicken poo too.
If there is any thing else you could recommend we mix into the top foot or amend afterwards to the top few inches I would greatly appreciate. The plants I am looking to plant in the beds I will be making are some straight neck and some crook neck squash, a variety of hot peppers, and maybe some tomatoes (The type of tomatoes that do not grow to tall, I will keep the bigger beast on the ground)
In short will this work for a raised garden bed that is on legs 36 inches off the ground and if so is there any considerations (do or do not) that I need to know?
Thank you for this wonderful site and all your help!
Joybilee Farm says
No. In order for the wood to decompose and create rich hummus the wood must have contact with the ground microbes.
Hi, I live in the West Kootenay region. We are interested in using this method with our new raised beds. We are planning to purchase garden soil that is mixed with well composted chicken manure. Will this work? Or is it best to use only compost? Thanks!
Joybilee Farm says
That should work fine. Compost alone might shift the pH to the alkaline — depending on what is used to make the compost. I found that chicken manure often contains lime.
craig mateer says
We are constructing raised beds using what might be considered a modified hugelkultur method. Our beds will be 7 ft long by 40 inches wide and 26 inches tall. We have a lot of partially rotted dead trees from surrounding timber land. We will have grass clippings in a few days that will be added over the old wood material. We plan to use a mixture of compost, vermiculite and peat moss as the top layer of soil. To fill in between the lower layer of partially rotted wood could we use wood chips without a problem. We have access to large amounts of wood chips for free and currently use them for walking paths through our old garden. As we get older we are looking for a way to continue gardening that allows us to work standing or setting on the raised bed frames. We do plan to add composted cow manure to the top once the top one foot of the planting mixture is added to the raised bed. The only concern we have is whether the wood chips would create a problem in the bottom foot of the raised bed. I can’t see that it would since the bottom foot is going to be primarily dead wood to begin with.
Thanks in advance for your response.
Joybilee Farm says
Wood chips should be fine. The only time you’d have a problem with wood chips is 1) if they got mixed in with the soil (don’t mix wood chips into garden soil), 2) if you were using a kind of wood that inhibits the growth of other plants like walnut
Patricia F Hippeli says
I was wondering if this type of “raised garden” would work in North Florida? Thanks!
Joybilee Farm says
Hi, Patricia. One concern I’d have in florida would be the snakes. Hugelkultur beds, if they are left open on the sides are very attractive to snakes, and frogs. But you could safely create one with solid sides that wouldn’t be a safe harbor for snakes in your area. We are fortunate that we have no poisonous snakes in our area, just garter snakes. We’re too cold here.
Can I use old raspberry canes in the bottom of a new bed?
Joybilee Farm says
I would avoid raspberry. While technically the answer is yes, you can, raspberry is tenacious. If there are any live roots, you may end up with raspberry canes sprouting and coming up in your hugelkultur bed. They can be hard to get rid of.
Is there a natural way to keep from munching my lettuce?
Kat Enns says
I just love this, and it’s just in time! I have a lot of cottonwood debris, and some beach wood for the bed walls. I’m on the Columbia at Castlegar and I was about to haul the debris up to be taken away by the city, but you have inspired me no end. I’m retired and don’t have the $ for fancy raised beds but I have everything I need for this method, so thanks so much!
Judy Moore says
Just a thought. Could we use wood from a fallen barn? Our land has two structures that were pushed in years ago. Now being new to the land we are trying to clear the land, taking all the rotting wood to the dump. This would be ideal if we could construct a birm instead, and plant trees and shrubs for a wind break.
Joybilee Farm says
of course. You’ll want to make sure that the barn wood didn’t have lead paint or creosote used as a preservative. But any untreated wood can be used in a hugelkultur bed.
Katie Kortekaas says
I love this!!! thanks for taking time to write this down and share with others.
Ryan Scott says
Thanks for the post.
Very interesting! We’ve just had to take down 22 cottonwoods – and there are more to follow. These are GMO trees planted by one of our many mill owners at some point, that are now spreading. I’m a bit nervous to do anyting other than burn this wood because even trees we chopped down last year are sprouting now. Any thoughts? Dare we risk it? It would be nice to find something to do with all this wood that would bring us closer to our goal of a large garden.
Love your blog! You’re living the life we’re working towards – natural fibre and good food.
Joybilee Farm says
Cottonwood trees would make a really good medium to spread morel mushroom spores. I think I would be tempted to burn some in an open fire. Gather the ashes and mix with branches from the downed trees. Wet the pile really well and spray with pulverized morel mushrooms, mixed in a slurry with water. Then prepare the hugelbed with leaves, grass clippings and whatever nitrogenous mixture that you have on your place. Then top with finished compost. Wet it really well and then plant and mulch. Cottonwoods are punky and don’t make for good fuel logs. Alright in a pinch, but they neither burn hot nor long. On the other hand, they rot down quickly, and are ideal for hugelbeds.
Shrooms! Great idea.
Just so I understand, you are saying spray with morel spores and then, after topping with finished compost, plant with other things also?
Joybilee Farm says
Exactly. The morel spores will take a season or two to colonize your wood. But in the mean time you can plant and grow vegetables in the compost layer.