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Hugelkultur

Topic Type: 
Idea

Huglkultur is a technique for preparing raised beds and improving soil quality. The idea is simple: allow decaying wood to pile underneath your topsoil, and the woody materials will decompose into rich, fertile soil. Does anybody have experience with this technique? I've seen it implemented once while on a farm tour and was impressed with the improvement over traditional beds.

Dorn's picture

Sounds similar to the straw bale raised bed technique. We tried it this year as a trial and it worked really well for some crops. We found that the nitrogen saturation with the high carbon content of the bales is pretty important. We are going to try a bit more on a field scale next year.

http://www.notechmagazine.com/2012/12/straw-bale-gardening.html

ethanappleseed's picture

I have seen a number of hugelkultur beds, functioning well.

The person who has the most expertise and brilliance in this realm is James (Jim) Kovaleski, up in Maine near Scythe Supply. He builds incredible hugel mounds using only a scythe and a hand-saw. He sees 400+% increases in squash yields when planted in his beds - amazing!

4bycamper's picture

We have our 40 acres in eastern CO. The soil starts off as hard pack clay. To grow anything but dryland wheat we must amend the soil. We have tried several things with limited success and this sounds really good. Thanks for bringing it.

Shared Roots's picture

The nitrogen deficiency problems with the straw bale system are caused by the rapid decomposition of your straw.

The same goes for hugelkultur construction - OP Michael states that hugelkultur is made of decaying wood, but it is best long term to bury as much fresh green wood as possible so that it decays slower. As it decays over decades, it becomes a groundwater sponge and nutrient/bacteria accumulator and makes irrigation very minimal or unneeded.

Here's probably the definitive hugelkultur article online from Paul Wheaton: Hugelkultur Guide.

sgbotsford's picture

Go haunt the permies sites for more info. While it does release nutrients over time, wood is mostly just cellulose and lignan, and there is not a lot of nutrients in it. Two big wins: 1. It holds lots of water long term. Once saturated it will hold water all summer, so watering is hardly needed. This in turn means that the top of the soil can remain dry which hugely decreases your weeding issues.

The second thing is that the wood is rapidly colonized by fungi. Fungi create their own transport network, and some plants can tap into the the fungi network trading some sugar for a ready made root system.

The third thing is that the wood chunks provide large scale structure to the soil, and reduce packing, and create channels for air and water to move long distances.

You don't have to use logs, nor do you have to use raised beds.

  1. You can create hugel mounds. Run them east west. Plant the south face to sun lovers, the north face to things that you want to miss the summer heat.

  2. You can also use wood chips. Avoid sawdust and planer chips. They are too fine, and create a nitrogen debt, but wood chips from tree pruning will work, and are fine enough to till into the ground.

sgbotsford's picture

Go haunt the permies sites for more info. While it does release nutrients over time, wood is mostly just cellulose and lignan, and there is not a lot of nutrients in it. Two big wins: 1. It holds lots of water long term. Once saturated it will hold water all summer, so watering is hardly needed. This in turn means that the top of the soil can remain dry which hugely decreases your weeding issues.

The second thing is that the wood is rapidly colonized by fungi. Fungi create their own transport network, and some plants can tap into the the fungi network trading some sugar for a ready made root system.

The third thing is that the wood chunks provide large scale structure to the soil, and reduce packing, and create channels for air and water to move long distances.

You don't have to use logs, nor do you have to use raised beds.

  1. You can create hugel mounds. Run them east west. Plant the south face to sun lovers, the north face to things that you want to miss the summer heat.

  2. You can also use wood chips. Avoid sawdust and planer chips. They are too fine, and create a nitrogen debt, but wood chips from tree pruning will work, and are fine enough to till into the ground.

PeteJacobsen's picture

We have started building some swales running across a fairly gentle hillside. Before pulling dirt down out of the swale, we are laying small logs and slash just below the swale location and pulling the dirt onto that. It is giving use bigger mounds than we would have had using dirt alone. Because we are following the hillside, we don't have freedom to orient them east - west.