A Recipe for a Hugelkultur Raised Bed

I’ve been wanting to do a hugelkultur bed ever since I saw an article about a village store garden where people could walk around these really tall raised beds picking their veggies without bending.

Hugelkultur is a Central European-style raised bed which uses rotting wood as its foundation. Toby Hemenway mentions it in Gaia’s Garden, offering the hot tip that he can start potatoes a month early in this kind of bed. The hugelkultur raised bed can be built in many different ways, towering as high as you can reach or in a deep trench so that the planting surface is more or less level with the ground.

The bed is a layered affair with rotting wood at the base. On top of that goes a layer of twigs, which serve as air pockets and then you can get creative with straw, green manure, upturned sod, compost and your favourite earth-feeding solutions, topping it off with about an inch of good soil. Unlike regular raised beds, you don’t have to fork out for piles of soil. The soil builds itself in the pile as the wood rots.

You can build these beds up to over two metres, if you are able, and they’ll slowly sink down. The higher the bed the easier it is to pick the produce. I decided to make ours about 1.3 metres high, aware that it will sink a little and also knowing that I can build it up even higher after the harvest and just before fall planting.

Here’s a step by step guide to how I did it. Gardening is a bit like cooking in that as long as you understand the basics, you can get creative with your own ingredients.

The trench: I dug a very shallow trench about 15cms deep and about 1.5 metres long by 1 metre wide. If you think about it, you can make the bed as long as you want, curve it round and, as Hemenway suggests, use it to create swales.

Layer 1 – Rotting Wood: I used maple and some apple wood as that was what was laying around. It makes sense not to use wood like locust or cedar which take eons to rot. We also shoved in some really rotting stuff from the forest.

The more rotten the wood the quicker the bed will compost down.

Layer 2 – Twigs: I broke these up and layered them to create an open weave framework. This allows air to circulate and speeds up the rotting process as well as providing a platform on which to pile the upturned sod.

Layer 2 – Favorite ingredients: I wanted to enrich the bed so I added a few extra ingredients. I threw in some wood ash from the wood stove for extra potassium. It also had bits of biochar in it which I understand is pretty good for soil.

Layer 3 – Upturned Sod: We don’t have lots of grass sod so I dug up ‘weeds’ and big clumps of grassy stuff as a substitute. Each clump I dug up revealed several juicy worms as a bonus. As I was digging out the sod I thought this could be the basis for a small pond at the bottom of our garden. As well as sod you can use straw, grass clippings, green manure and leaves.

Layer 4 – More ingredients: On top of this I sprinkled some diluted pee to add a bit of nitrogen, with crushed egg shells for calcium and some lime to help counteract the acidity of our Georgia red clay sod. While I was at it I thought I’d throw in some mycorrhizae that I had lying around. Then I stuffed the gaps with some nicely composted dark wet maple leaves which we have in abundance.

Layer 5 – Composted Cow manure: We have an ample supply of this from our neighbor’s cow barn. It’s mostly rich and powdery so I layered that on top of the sod — mixed in with the red clay I’m hoping it will compensate for the fact we don’t have any great soil.

The Border: I decided to border the bed to support the sod mixture and used some hardwood maple and dogwood that we’d cut for firewood as well as one rotting log that was the exact length of one of the sides.

Finishing Touches: I was so pleased with the finished product I wanted to stick in a pole and flag announcing my new ‘arrival’. However Biscuit, my jackhuahua doggie decided to do the honors followed shortly by the chickens.

Two weeks after writing this my beets are already sprouting in the bed. Next crop is some organic purple potatoes!

According to Hemenway, squash and cucumbers love these tall raised beds and I can see a beautiful permaculture guild forming including a fruit tree of some kind. Not only is it fun to do and relatively easy but I love the idea that by using what’s laying around I am building great soil quickly. I can keep adding to the height and it cost me virtually nothing.