How and why to build a hügelkultur
Building our hügelkulturs was my husband’s idea. He’s much more innovative than I am and tends to have the best ideas, while I’m more focused on the aesthetic, sustainability and bio-diversity of our garden.
Hügelkulturs are a longstanding agricultural practice (documented for over 60 years and likely to be much more ancient) which seem to be getting more attention for modern gardens at the moment. They are essentially piles of organic matter, covered with soil and planted into directly, essentially raised beds. They tend to have larger organic structures such as logs at the bottom and are then built up with smaller pieces such as branches, woodchip, cardboard, leaves and grass clippings.
To be truly in-keeping with the practice of hügelkulturs, local materials should be used, ideally whatever is available on-site which might typically go into a compost heap or a green waste bin at the tip.
We were lucky to inherit piles of rotting logs covered in ivy with the house we have just bought. These formed the very base of the hügelkultur and were covered with the branches of the Christmas tree which our predecessors had chucked in the garden. We had removed turf from the existing lawn to sow beds of wildflowers, which were placed grass side down on to the pile. Then leaves and grass clippings mixed with a layer of mulch which we were also spreading over flowerbeds.
We lightly watered the later layers to help the finer particles stick together, as we had made the hügels
quite steep. A thin layer of compost was patted over the final mound to plant seeds into.
As we were already in early autumn when building our hügels, we were limited on seed selection. In my beginner’s experience, it’s preferable to grow from seed rather than inserting small plants, as the structure of the hügel is supported over time by the roots spreading into the mound. I leave the roots in-place when removing a plant from the hügel. For an autumn sowing we chose winter lettuces, kale varieties, pea shoots, and radishes. Winter lettuces have been the biggest win as a useful crop.
One week after sowing seeds
We were harvesting within a month despite cooler weather
While we are still early in our hügel journey, we are big advocates. Having been to various discussions about the importance of soil structures and nutrition, I’m a believer in the concept of “no dig” and disturbing the ground as little as possible. While you can dig a trench to be filled with rotting logs and build the mound on top, we didn’t disturb the ground at all to create ours. I’m striving for the most sustainable garden possible, and hügels are excellent at both feeding themselves as their materials break down, and watering themselves as the layers of organic matter (particularly the logs) are excellent at retaining moisture and releasing it when needed.
They are also very efficient in other ways. There is no need for timber to hold together a raised bed, no need to buy compost in plastic bags which may not be sustainably sourced. You don’t need to wait for a full compost pile to degrade or risk disturbing creatures living in it in order to turn it over.
Aside from plenty of environmental reasons to build hugels, they are beneficial to the gardener in a variety of ways. A steep hugel will at least double, if not potentially triple your growing area, so they are perfect for those with restricted space. There’s no need for expensive fertilisers and hopefully not much time required for watering if the theory holds true.
Ours are now two months old and providing us with a decent portion of daily greenery, removing any need for single use plastic wrapped leaves. They cost almost nothing to build (appreciating we were lucky to have some materials available, but rotting logs can’t be too expensive).
I’m looking forward to re-seeding in spring as they really start to get going, and particularly keen to see how water efficient they are having lived through the garden stress of drought this summer.