Hügelkultur for Winter Compost


Photo credit: Washington State University

Greetings fellow gardeners, 

I am tired and happy and covered with ice bags. Life is good. 

On Saturday, I decided that I needed to reclaim my hügelkultur. It was surrounded by burdock ‘trees’, and grape vines and a very large branch that came down in the storm that I had not been able to move. I need my hügelkultur for my winter compost, and as many of you know, it is important to the local turkeys and other wildlife. 

How I started my Hügelkultur

For those unfamiliar with the term hügelkultur, according to Wikipedia it “is a horticultural technique where a mound constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials is later (or immediately) planted as a raised bed.” Mine was started almost eight years ago when a storm took down a large cedar tree in my front yard. I was able to get help cutting it into large logs, but the logs were so large, I couldn’t use them in the woodstove, and the wood was so rotten in parts that if I did burn it, it would smoke a lot. So, I placed these large logs together, and they formed the base of my hügelkultur. I then added branches, soil from planters, plant parts that take forever to break down, and all sorts of slow-moving but compostable things.  Over time, I turned it into my winter compost. I would take my kitchen scraps to the chickens along with their seeds, and once they were finished with that, I would toss it on the hügelkultur. When I started doing that, the turkeys discovered it and scratched and pooped all over it, adding to the process. I am so excited that I can do that again this winter.

The messy pile of everything I had to approach

So, on Saturday, I placed a garbage bag over each huge burdock and cut them at the base. I was able to burn them in my burn pit, along with some papers and tiny branches. Once the burdock was out of the way, I spent a little time picking burrs off my shirt and out of my hair, then grabbed my pruning saw. I approached the branch ready to do battle. It was easier than I thought, as the branch had been sitting there for a while. I was able to just snap off a lot of the smaller branches. I used the pruning saw for the larger pieces. I threw it all on the hügelkultur. What was rather distressing was the discovery of so many grapevines. I pulled them from the ground and found them, then tried to climb up a nearby tree. I got out as many as I could and threw them on too. In the next few days, as I empty my planters, I will put that soil on as well to help with the composting process.

Classic Way to Make a Hügelkultur

Hugelkultur beds can improve soil fertility and water retention while also providing a sustainable method of plant growth. Here’s how to build a hügelkultur bed:

Materials and Tools Needed:

  1. Logs and branches: A variety of woody materials, such as logs, branches, and sticks, will be required. Decaying wood is great because it slowly releases nutrients into the soil.
  2. Soil: A layer of soil will be required to cover the woody debris.
  3. Compost: Compost will help your hugelkultur bed become more fertile.
  4. Mulch: To cover the soil, use straw, leaves, or other organic mulch materials.

Steps to Make a Hugelkultur Bed:

  1. Select a Location: Choose a suitable location for your hugelkultur bed. It should receive adequate sunlight and be relatively flat.
  2. Gather Materials: You will need a mix of materials: large logs, smaller branches, twigs, leaves, grass clippings, compost, and soil. These materials will decompose over time, providing nutrients to your plants.
  3. Outline the Bed: Decide on the size of your bed (commonly around 6 feet wide by any length) and use a rope or hose to outline the shape on the ground. It can be straight, curved, or circular, depending on your preference and space.
  4. Lay Down Logs and Branches: Start by placing larger logs and branches on the ground in the desired bed shape. These will serve as the base of your hügelkultur bed. You can make your bed as tall as you like, but a height of 2-4 feet is common.
  5. Add Smaller Branches and Sticks: On top of the larger logs and branches, add smaller sticks, twigs, and woody debris. This layer helps create air pockets and further aids decomposition.
  6. Add Nitrogen: To help the wood decompose, it’s essential to add a source of nitrogen. This could be in the form of well-rotted manure, blood meal, or grass clippings.
  7. Cover with Compost and Soil: Add a thick layer of compost and soil over the woody material. This can be a mix of the existing soil on the site and additional topsoil. Spread a layer of compost on top of the soil. This will introduce essential nutrients to the bed.
  8. Shape your Bed: Shape the mound so it’s higher in the middle and slopes gently down to the edges. Hugelkultur beds can be surprisingly tall (up to 6 feet), but even a height of 3 feet will bring benefits.
  9. Mulch the Surface: Cover the entire bed with a layer of mulch, such as straw or leaves. This helps retain moisture and keeps the soil temperature more stable.
  10. Plant Your Garden: You can plant directly into the hügelkultur bed. Make sure to choose plants that are suitable for your climate and the depth of the bed.  It’s suitable for a wide variety of plants: vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even shrubs or trees. The first year is great for plants that require a lot of nutrients, as the decomposition process will be in full swing.
  11. Water: Initially, you’ll need to water the bed thoroughly to help settle the materials and establish your plants. Over time, the hugelkultur bed will become more self-sustaining as the decaying wood releases moisture.
  12. Observe and Tend: As your garden grows, pay attention to how plants are responding and adjust as necessary. Over time, the bed will break down and become a rich, fertile growing area.

Hugelkultur beds mimic the natural process of decomposition found on the forest floor and can provide a rich, self-sustaining environment for your plants. Remember, the key to a successful hugelkultur bed is time; the longer it exists, the better it will perform. It can take some time to fully break down and reach their maximum fertility, but they are known for their ability to conserve water, reduce the need for additional fertilizers, and provide a rich growing environment for your plants. They are particularly useful in areas with dry or challenging growing conditions.

Hügelkultur Mistakes

There are several common mistakes that people make when implementing hügelkultur:

  1. Not using enough wood: The foundation of hugelkultur beds is woody material, such as logs and branches. One common mistake is not using enough wood or using materials that are too small, which can lead to quicker decomposition and reduced water retention benefits.
  2. Using chemically treated wood: It’s important to use untreated wood or wood that hasn’t been chemically treated. Treated wood can contain harmful chemicals that can leach into the soil and harm plants.
  3. Poor bed construction: Inadequate construction of hugelkultur beds can lead to instability and uneven decomposition. Beds should be well-built with a clear understanding of layering and should be compacted properly to prevent settling.
  4. Not allowing for proper decomposition: Hugelkultur beds take time to break down and become fertile. Planting too soon can lead to nitrogen competition between the decomposing wood and your plants. It’s best to let the bed settle and decompose for several months or even a year before planting.
  5. Inadequate soil cover: It’s important to have a sufficient layer of topsoil and compost over the woody material to support plant growth. Inadequate soil cover can make it challenging for plants to establish themselves.
  6. Neglecting watering: Hugelkultur beds may require more water initially, as the woody materials can absorb a lot of moisture as they decompose. Neglecting proper watering can lead to poor plant growth.
  7. Not adapting to your climate: Hugelkultur may work better in some climates than others. Consider the local climate conditions, including rainfall and temperature fluctuations, and adjust your hugelkultur bed accordingly.
  8. Overestimating the benefits: While hugelkultur can improve soil fertility and water retention, it’s not a magic solution. It’s essential to manage your expectations and not rely solely on hugelkultur for all your gardening or farming needs.
  9. Neglecting maintenance: Hugelkultur beds may require occasional maintenance, such as adding more mulch or compost to replenish nutrients as the wood breaks down.
  10. Choosing the wrong location: Selecting the right location for your hugelkultur bed is crucial. Avoid low-lying areas that could become waterlogged, and choose a spot with adequate sunlight for your plants.

By avoiding these common mistakes and properly planning and maintaining your hügelkultur beds, you can maximize the benefits of this sustainable organic gardening technique.

Improvement to My Gazebo

I got some help to put plastic panels up in my gazebo so that I can enjoy the space during the colder months. and the too-many cats can stretch out a bit. Next week, I need to add the tarps to the outside of the chicken coop. Winter preparation sure is a lot of work, and I am looking forward to lounging by the woodstove with my seed catalogues.

Enjoy your week. Judith 

(Email:  sghorticultural@gmail.com)  Veggie Bites are available at https://sghorticultural.wixsite.com/website or https://gardeningcalendar.ca/category/veggie-bites/

Visit a Botanical Garden For Unique Experiences.

More on Gardening Calendar