What the Heck Is Hugelkultur? (Hint: Think Garden, Not Oktoberfest)

What the Heck Is Hugelkultur? (Hint: Think Garden, Not Oktoberfest)

Quick: Think of three German words. Got them? I came up with Oktoberfest, Bratwurst, and Wiener Schnitzel. Now let’s expand our German vocabulary to include Hugelkultur (which is pronounced hoo-gul-culture). This method of composting is easy to do and has numerous benefits.

Originating in Germany and Eastern Europe, Hugelkultur means “hill culture” or “mound culture.” It is a mound–sometimes called a berm–of kitchen scraps and other compost material on top of a small trench that’s filled with logs and branches. This method of composting tries to replicate the decomposition that happens naturally on the forest floor. It’s suitable for both urban and rural gardens, and is an example of permaculture at its best.

Intrigued? Want to make your own hugelkultur composting mound?

You’ll need:

  • a patch of land in a sunny location that’s at least six feet wide and three feet long (but those numbers are very approximate)
  • logs to fill a one foot deep hole (Logs from almost any type of tree are acceptable; you should avoid black locust, black walnut and old growth redwood logs.)
  • branches and twigs that are smaller than the logs
  • compost material that may include kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaves, seaweed, aged manure, and straw
  • turf grass (enough to cover the mound)
  • additional straw to mulch the top of the mound (not an absolute necessity, but helpful)
  • seeds (Grow vegetables and/or flowers on top of the hulgelkultur mound. Anything you would grow in your traditional garden is suitable for hugelkultur.)
  • water
  • digging spade

How to:

  1. Select a location for your hugelkultur mound. Bear in mind that size varies from the super-small to the enormous; so look for a sunny patch that is approximately six feet long and three feet wide.
  2. Dig a hole that is about one foot deep.
  3. Gather logs, branches, twigs, and composting material listed above.
  4. Place logs in the hole with the branches and twigs on top. Fill in any open areas in the log-branch pile with compost material. If you have excess compost material, then pile it on top of the logs and branches. The hole should be filled with a growing mound on top of it. Water the mound.
  5. Place the layer of sod grass-side down on top of the mound. Water the mound again.
  6. Plant seeds on top of the mound. Mulching with straw or hay is helpful but not absolutely necessary.

Helpful tips

Make your mound steep so that you have more surface area for growing things. Also, a taller mound is easier for harvesting because there’s less bending over. However, be careful that the mound isn’t too steep because then it may erode. Some experts recommend a 60 to 85 degree grade for the mound.

If your mound does start to erode, then hammer tree branches perpendicularly into the mound. Think of these branches as nails. Use these tree branches to act as braces for longer branches that are placed directly on the mound in a parallel direction to hold the mound together and prevent crumbling/eroding.

Some folks who have studied hugelkultur more than me say that the plants growing on the north side of the mound are sweeter than those growing on the south side. Consider this when planting–zucchini may be a good candidate for the north side and greens for the south side.

If you’re feeling really ambitious and decide to make more than one hugelkultur mound allow for atleast two feet between each for easy accessibility and movement.

Top ten reasons for loving hugelkultur

  1. Like other methods of composting, hugelkultur composts kitchen scraps so that there’s less trash in landfills.
  2. The slow decay of the logs means that there’s a continual source of nutrients to what is growing on top of the mound. You can expect your hugelkultur mound to last years.
  3. The composting logs will generate heat, and therefore extend the growing season for what’s sprouting on top.
  4. The logs, branches, and twigs act as a sponge, which means that there’s no need to water the hugelkultur mound after it is established (about one year). This is an especially great benefit to gardeners in drought-prone areas.
  5. Carbon is sequestered in the soil.
  6. Hugelkultur improves soil fertility.
  7. This method of composting uses wood that is not suitable for other purposes such as burning or construction.
  8. Hugelkultur is very low maintenance–no compost turning.
  9. The mound is not an eye-sore or smelly as some compost bins can be.
  10. It’s a conversation piece! A friend asks, What’s that small hill in your back yard? You eagerly reply, Hugelkultur! (Let the teachable moment begin.)

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picture of garden mound via Shutterstock