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HOMEGROWN Life: The Making of a Hugelkultur Bed

Oh yes, I’m going to be talking a lot about hugelkultur beds because we just finished our first small 10′ section of it this afternoon. While it didn’t take very long to do, it was a lot of heavy lifting. Most of the work was actually clearing out the bed of raspberries (that never have produced a single berry) and weeds and then digging a foot of dirt out.

Building a hugelkultur bed doesn’t actually require you to dig up the dirt and sink it, but what can I say? We’re gluttons for punishment? No, actually, our soil has been so nicely amended and had this great texture that we decided to dig it out so we can add it back to the top of the hugelkultur bed. And in the past when we used to do raised beds we always found that when we included native soil in the beds they always did a lot better. My guess is that the native soil includes micronutrients and microorganisms that compost doesn’t have.

We then laid down sheets of cardboard. Of course, this is another step you don’t have to do but because we have such a problem with bindweed (which can have viable roots as far down as 20′) we decided that putting down cardboard would create a barrier to help stop the bindweed but eventually break down once it was no longer needed. Once the cardboard was down we started tossing wood of various sizes onto the pile. and a few old artichoke stalks for good measure. The wood is the key to hugelkultur. While it breaks down over time it will absorb water like a sponge while also releasing nutrients. The water absorption helps reduce your water use. If you make large 6′ tall beds you can go without adding any additional water during dry summers. Since our bed is not that high we’ll still have to supplement with summer water but we can definitely cut back since a bed that’s only 2′ tall can hold water for approximately 3 weeks. This leads to another important thing about these beds. You have to build them before the rains come, which is late fall here, so they can absorb as much water as possible before you can plant them. It’s best to use rotting wood which will hold more water and is also less likely to tie up nitrogen in the soil. Also avoid certain woods such as black walnut, cedar, redwood, black locust and eucalyptus which either contain rotting inhibitors or contain compounds that are toxic to other plants. Fruit tree wood also has a tendency to be too hard and take too long to start rotting.

After we got all the wood in place we placed a good thick layer of poultry litter which consists of straw with chicken and turkey manure and quite a few feathers (just because they are currently molting). Poultry litter is the best way we’ve found to get a compost pile up and running quickly so we wanted to use this directly on the logs to help get the breakdown process started. Again, this isn’t necessarily a step you must do to build a traditional hugelkultur bed, it’s just a step we chose to do.

Another step we chose to include was to cover the poultry litter with finished compost that we picked up at the local recycling/composting facility. $4.31 for a truckload, which you just can’t beat.

The final layer, which is really the only other thing you have to do besides using wood, is covering the bed with soil and smoothing it out. Yes, it’s a lot of work but the work we do now means we won’t have to work later. Hugelkultur beds are kind of self-tilling and since they are raised they’ll never get walked on, which compacts the soil. We’ll definitely finish off this one bed, hopefully getting more of it done tomorrow and then we can start thinking about doing some of the other larger beds. Eventually if this works out for us, I’d like to do all of our beds this way.

My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. My focus these days, instead of arts and crafts, has been farming as much of my urban quarter acre as humanly possible. With my husband, we run Dog Island Farm in the SF Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard I’m in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

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15 Responses to “HOMEGROWN Life: The Making of a Hugelkultur Bed”

  1. Very cool, and a pretty easy way to transform a problem area into productive garden space. We have a similar space that we’re going to transform into productive garden bed space and I’ve got a hankering to try this hugelkultur method. Thanks for the step by step instructions and good photos.

  2. Robert Bowyer Says:

    Hey,Great article. We are in the process of building a hugelkultur bed too so some of your description’s and photos are of help. Looking forward to the end result. I’ll keep coming back and see how you are doing and let you know how our HK is coming along.

  3. Nice job on the hugels’ and the article :)

    i made mine last year and they performed with stellar results this year already!
    here is a video clip that shows my framed raised hugel beds.
    and also an album on our fb page showing the work..
    later albums show how much the plants love it! .

    video
    http://youtu.be/VfijK7GKHpI

    album
    http://tinyurl.com/cnx9pxo

  4. Sounds wonderful…. Do you happen to know about California Live Oak wood… is it among the do not use wood? I keep hearing the leaves emit growth inhibitors too, but nevertheless I have lots of things growing near my live oaks.

  5. Oak is fine. The leaves contain tannins that can make the soil acidic, but they eventually leach out.

  6. linda schwehr Says:

    I’d be worried about the oak rot that goes so easily through soil in California. It chokes oak trees off at the ground level with a white invasive crud. A tree looks fine one day, and 2 weeks later it’s dead. Once you get it in the soil it’s really hard to deal with. If it only kills oak your garden should be fine, but I don’t know if it would infect veggies.

  7. There are some plants that affected but it shouldn’t be an issue for annual veggies. If it’s oak wood from your own property it should be fine, since it would be in your soil anyways.

  8. i hope my earlier comment wasnt taken the wrong way, because of links included.seems its not getting published.

    my intention was to share pics & video our results with using the hugelkultur technique,not to self-promote or solicit (nothing to sell here!)

    best of luck with the new beds

  9. aha! think i get it now, must need site-admins to come approve the links. i’ve not posted in these forums :)
    ———
    Nice job on the hugels’ and the article :)

    i made mine last year and they performed with stellar results this year already!
    here is a video clip that shows my framed raised hugel beds.
    and also an album on our fb page showing the work..
    later albums show how much the plants love it!
    video
    youtu. be /VfijK7GKHpI

    album
    tinyurl(dot) com/cnx9pxo

  10. Thought -can you use wood that has already been mulched to get the beds started more quickly, or is it better to use whole logs? My thought is that it will start holding water and leaching out nutrients more quickly that way.
    What do you think?

  11. Mita, definitely.
    i used lots of woodchips in mine. dumped here free by tree service. also added “fresh unsplit firewood” logs , branches,grass clippings,sawdust, and horse manure. truckloads of all that.

  12. The purpose of the logs being whole is to extend the life of the bed. The bigger they are, the longer it takes for them to break down meaning you have a longer period of nutrient release – up to 20 years (chips alone would give you 3 years tops). You can throw in wood chips as well, but I wouldn’t replace logs with wood chips.

  13. Hi Matthew, Yes, the links caused your post to go into a “pending” file. Now it should be visible. Thank you for sharing! ~Admin

  14. [...] View the original article here HOMEGROWN, Hugelkultur, Making [...]

  15. [...] fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. (A quick-and-dirty explanation of hugelkultur: You pile up twigs, [...]

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