What Is Hügelkultur? It’s, Compost

Many different ways to do compost, Here’s another one.

Build healthy soil your garden can rock out in with this German compost technique.

By Erica Strausshugelkulture_800

Courtesy Jon Roberts/Wikimedia

Lasagna gardening. Sheet composting. No-till gardening. You’ve probably come across these and similar gardening techniques before. They are all slightly different variations on building a raised bed from layers of organic matter, which rots down right where it is, getting better and better as it composts in place. Techniques such as these promise that you can improve tilth, preserve soil structure, and create the garden bed of your dreams without a lot of backbreaking labor or expensive, imported garden soil.

Although some of these published methods offer specific “recipes” to create ideal, no-till beds, the basic technique is simple: Pile on a lot of organic, compostable material, and let nature take its course.

The latest bed-building method to turn gardeners’ heads is actually an ancient technique called hügelkultur. The German word, meaning “mound culture,” is usually pronounced “hoo-gull culture” in English-speaking gardening circles. It is one of many techniques associated with permaculture, a philosophy that seeks to understand, mimic and incorporate natural relationships and systems into the garden.

Hügelkultur differs from previously popularized no-till bed-building techniques in a few key ways:

1. Woody Base Material

Hügelkultur beds are ideally built with a base of logs or branches and prunings from woody shrubs. The larger the woody base material, the more self-sustaining you can expect the beds to be over time.

2. Size

Hügelkultur beds can be huge. Building beds 6 feet tall or more with entire trees as base material is not uncommon. At this size, hügels can be used as growing space as well as windbreaks and will require little to no supplemental irrigation. However, hügels do not need to be enormous to be effective. This type of bed offers many advantages to the small-scale gardener, even when diminished to a more reasonable backyard size of 2 or 3 feet.

3. Angle of Bed Sides

While most no-till methods create relatively flat beds, permaculture expert Sepp Holzer advocates for a 45-degree (or steeper) angle on hügelkultur beds. In beds where the side angle is too shallow, he says the beds become compacted and the oxygen supply is decreased, which is detrimental to plant growth.

4. Long-Term Soil Fertility

Larger hunks of wood break down slowly, and their consistent decomposition provides long and even nutritional benefits to the soil and to the plants growing in the hügels.

5. Moisture Retention

As cellulose- and lignin-eating fungi act upon the woody base material, the logs and branches in the hügel break down into something like a sponge. This creates countless tiny air pockets and consistent moisture levels within the hügel. This combination is very conducive to plant root growth. Small hügels can go weeks without irrigation, while the largest ones can go entire summers without supplemental irrigation, even in dry climates.

Mound of Possibilities


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