Hügelkultur: Permaculture for the Modern Gardener

By Avery Walker

The year 2023 saw a continued rise in the number of Americans taking an interest in gardening and sustainable living, and 2024 already promises to do the same. With the modern cost of living increasing, including rising grocery prices, learning to grow fruits and vegetables is a useful skill for anyone to develop. From pots on balconies and in windowsills to sprawling homesteads, gardening can take many shapes and forms. For gardeners of any skill level with a little land to work with, learning the technique known as hugelckultur may be a perfect beginner’s foray into permaculture.

Hügelkultur, a German word that breaks down into “mound culture” or “hill culture,” is an old practice that is gaining traction in modern sustainable gardening movements. Said to have been practiced as far back as the Middle Ages in parts of Eastern Europe and Germany, hügelkultur was popularized in the 1960s by a German gardener named Herman Andrä as a way to make use of wood and other organic scraps. Though the term hügelkultur may not be widely known in the United States, you may already use some of the principles of mound gardening in your own raised beds.

So what is a hügelkultur? These mounded raised beds should be carefully placed and are best begun with a portion of land that experiences water runoff. Usually set perpendicular to the base of a slope, a hügelkultur can be simple or elaborate, with some mounds even formed into mazes or beautiful garden features. The gardener will first remove the sod from the area where the mound will eventually reside. Hügelkultur beds are often set down into the ground at the base, by digging a shallow trench for the first layer of components. Once the area is cleared, untreated wood, such as fallen trees or log scraps, is laid out along the bottom of the trench. Gardeners must avoid using cedars, black walnut, willows, or any kind of painted wood, as these woods will not function correctly in a hügelkultur bed. Working upwards, smaller pieces of wood and branches are piled on top of the logs, using organic scraps like grass clippings or other plant waste to fill in the gaps. The upper layers of the mound can be made up of finer compost like leaves, kitchen compost, or manure. Once the mound has reached the desired height, which is usually between three and five feet tall, the gardener will cover the hügelkultur in topsoil. Though crops can be planted immediately, many gardeners suggest creating the hügelkultur in the fall and planting the following spring. This gives the mound time to settle and allows the internal compost to begin breaking down and releasing nutrients into the soil.

A well-built hügelkultur will last five to six years, in which it requires very little maintenance. Over time, the buried logs and other compost will release nutrients that can feed bountiful gardens without the need for any added fertilization. The positioning and structure of a hügelkultur can eliminate the need to water the garden, as it traps natural runoff like a sponge. Hügelkultur has even been known to provide a way of growing food in desert climates. Mound gardening is an affordable alternative to building raised beds from purchased lumber or metal and is a great option for properties with fallen trees or other wood debris. As with any garden, the hügelkultur will still require weeding, but in most other ways it has the potential to be completely self-sufficient after planting, especially during the second year and following.

When it comes to modern gardening, hügelkultur is one possible and easy solution for providing large quantities of food in diverse climates and with little maintenance. From hobby gardeners looking to try something new, to agriculturalists and horticulturalists working to solve food supply issues, hügelkultur is more than just a fun word. It is a fantastic way for us to work together with the natural processes of the earth to provide for ourselves in a healthy, sustainable way.

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