{avant gardening} Hügelkultur

I spent three years of my childhood in Germany when my father was stationed there in the army.  I have very distinct memories of the allotment gardens people cultivated at the edge of town in little individual rented plots of land, each with its own immaculate garden hut for sitting and enjoying the summer days while drinking beer and thinking about dinner.  One of the things I remember from those astonishingly tidy and productive gardens was that some of them had raised beds made out of old logs with soil on top of them.   They tended to be used for growing strawberries, at least in my memory.   I was interested in strawberries as a child, so maybe they used them for other plants as well but I didn’t notice.

Recently I stumbled across a web page on Hügelkultur, which is a technique of making a raised bed, or Hügel (pronounced more or less like heu-gle, with the “eu” as in the word “feudal,” but slightly more exaggerated), on top of a pile of brush or a rotting log.  The idea is that the wood slowly releases nutrients to the bed, while also holding on to moisture so that you don’t have to irrigate as often.  I rushed to tell my husband Michael about it, and it turned out he was already thinking about making a Hügel, having run across the concept independently.

We never throw out organic matter so we have a little pile of brush, chopped leaves and woody clippings in the corner of our backyard already. If you wait long enough, wood breaks down, so in theory this was just our very slow compost pile.  We actually lived long enough in our last house to see wooden logs in the back our property decompose to almost nothing, so I know it works in the space of a human lifetime.

Kaylee moving sticks and brush out of the corner of our yard

Our yard is pretty shady, which is why we have a community sharecropping scheme in which other people let us garden on their lawns for a share of the produce.  Our neighbors to the south have two horrible giant Norway spruce trees that blot out our sun.  Recently they told us they were calling out a tree doctor because the largest tree seemed like it was dropping too many needles and I almost danced with joy, thinking they would cut the damn thing down.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a tree hugger from way back but this stupid tree keeps most of my yard in perpetual shade and it is an exotic to boot; someone’s landscaping project of fifty years ago that got way out of hand.    Gardening tip:  if you live in town on a 75- by 100-foot plot of land, do not plant non-native trees that will grow to be 115 feet tall.

There is however, one spot of our yard that gets sun for about six hours a day.  We can grow scraggly greens and herbs there if they don’t require too much direct sunlight, so we decided to place our Hügel in that sunny spot, next to our other little herb bed.  Michael likes to dig holes, so he started by digging a hole about a foot deep to form the base of the bed. It is not necessary to do that, you can just place the sticks on the ground.  The idea is you either dump a bunch of compost and soil on a log, or you pile up some sticks and place compost and soil on top of them.  The biologically active compost should help speed up the break down of the wood, as long as the bed has enough aeration.  Since you don’t walk on raised beds, the aeration, percolation and moisture retention should be optimal.

Digging a Hügel hole

Michael, being organized and somewhat compulsive compared to me, made layers inside the hole he dug; a layer of horse manure, a layer of compost, a layer of sticks, a layer of the soil he displaced by digging the hole.  He repeated this several times, although he did not add extra manure after the first layer, and topped off the bed with a layer of compost  and soil about a foot above the surface of our lawn.  It looks kind of like a grave, I must admit.

Kaylee and Grandpa Michael adding compost to the Hügel

It is still too early to plant our Hügel, since I do not push the season after having experienced the heart ache of a hundred frozen tomato seedlings some years ago.  We will plant into our Hügel on Memorial Day weekend, when we put in our summer gardens.  We plan to grown oregano, parsley, thyme, cilantro and other cooking herbs on it and, of course, I will add a few strawberry plants in the sunniest corner.  I think of it as a long term perennial bed, so I will keep my basil in pots on the sunny deck and try to foster a permanent herb garden on the Hügel.

If it works, I will report back.

The finished Hügel

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Jillian says:

    Oh Dianna, you’ve given me an idea of what to do with the piles of rotting wood the previous owners of our new home left us! I love it. Thank you!

  2. Dianna says:

    you’re welcome. I love piles of rotting wood, they are so interesting.

  3. That was very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  4. joymullerm says:

    I like this idea rather than buying lumber to build walls for a raised bed. I definitely have branches I can use. It’s great to see Kaylee looking older and wonderful and helpful!

    1. Dianna says:

      She is wonderful and older and helpful. She is totally interested in helping Michael garden. Our kids were never like that!

      But yes, I like using sticks and logs too – it is the DIY way!

  5. Kelly says:

    Awesome. I love that someone else is doing these types of things in Saratoga Springs. I’ve read about the Hugel technique, but never tried it. I am curious to hear how it works out.

    1. Dianna says:

      Expect a follow up post in a year or so; there is a long response time for watching wood decompose. I think Saratoga is perfect for hugels, it is mangos and lemons I can’t quite manage. I have thought about building a classic orangerie to grow them but, alas, it is too shady in our yard for a glass house.

      1. Kelly says:

        Very cool. I actually visited France a couple of years ago and saw how they kept all of these warm-weather varieties of plants happy all winter. I’ve been dreaming of growing citrus and other tropical fruits up here in the north. My husband and I are thinking of building a two-story greenhouse/bioshelter, attached to our house, allowing heat to rise to the second level where the potted trees would soak up the warmth. I would love to eat a mango from my backyard.

        1. Dianna says:

          If you do that, invite me over! I have thought of putting a greenhouse on top of our flat roof over the back bedroom, but I doubt the historical society would let me. Anyway, I am dying for a green house, but have to move to get it, I think.

  6. Kelly says:

    Absolutely! I like the idea of putting the greenhouse on top of the flat roof. I wonder if you could do it in such a way that it would blend with the historical nature of your house.

  7. Reblogged this on Three Pea Homestead and commented:
    I haven’t been able to implement it yet, but this is a technique I would like to try.

  8. Joy says:

    Well, I built up a hugel today because I ran out of room to plant peppers. Gary hasn’t seen it yet so we’ll see the response to this rough architecture. I put a stump in one corner and sat there to water. Maybe every raised bed should have built in stumps at corners for weeding or picking!

    1. Dianna says:

      Ha! A stump is a good innovation. We are stumpless, but we have long handled stirrup hoes so don’t have to bend over to weed. I can hardly wait to see your huegel, or is that too personal?

      1. joymullerm says:

        No Surprise – Gary wants to build raised bed walls around it so it looks uniform with all the others. I think we should wait and see how it looks once everything grows… In the meantime he’ll hang Marika’s ceramic creepy face on the tree and maybe he’ll stay busy and leave it be.

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