Hügelkultur – How to Easily Make Free and Sustainable Raised Garden Beds

Say it 3 times fast: Hügelkultur! Hügelkultur! Hügelkultur!  That’s right, that “u” has an umlaut, so you know we mean business. But just because we’re going to get down and dirty doesn’t mean hügelkultur is difficult. In fact, you can take any patch of lawn on your land and convert it to a raised hügelkultur garden bed in under an hour.  Seriously! I did it while our almost 3 year old threw constant distractions my way and started up conversations with every worm she found.

Green Beans Grown in Hugelkultur raised bed
Beautiful and full flavored beans we grew in our hügelkultur raised beds last summer!

Hügelkultur? Say what? Breaking down the german etymology

I think it’s good to know what this word really means before you start gloating to neighbors and friends about your slick new garden beds.  They’re going to ask, so be prepared!

So… what the heck is this German word I’m shouting over and over, anyway?  Roughly translated, “hügel” means “hill” and “kultur” means, well, “culture”. Not culture as in a visit to an art museum; in this case, think of culture as in “to cultivate”, like the suffix for horticulture, permaculture and agriculture.  So a hill used to cultivate! Cultivate, say, verdant, strong vegetables?  Bingo! Easy peasy.

The “hill” in hügelkultur is not just any old hill though, it’s actually a simple yet clever permaculture construction, maybe better translated to “mound”, that allows for a self-composting, sustainable bed that will evolve and continually improve for decades.

There are a multitude of ways to make a raised hügelkultur garden bed, all of them with their benefits and difficulties.  If you want to do the research and explore the methods and best practices, this is the page we referenced while creating our “hügels” that I think can stand as the go-to guide for all things hügelkultur: hugelkultur: the ultimate raised garden beds, via Rich Soil.

basic method to construct a Hügelkultur bed:

  1. Pick a spot and size for your bed.
  2. Dig out the area if you want (you can also build right on top of the ground).
  3. Collect organic materials that will rot over time, making sure to include larger materials like logs as well as some smaller materials like leaf litter or sod.
  4. Create a mound with the organic materials, starting with the larger items on the bottom.
  5. Cover with topsoil.
  6. Grow stuff! Since the soil does not run very deep (yet), you should avoid underground harvest vegetables like potatoes and carrots for the first few years.  Otherwise they will grow into and around the sticks and logs and probably not be too pretty or easy to harvest.

Over the years, the logs and other materials will decompose at a natural rate, adding great nutrition and structure to the soil while enabling a raised bed that is easy to maintain and use every year.

Step by step of what we did for our Hügelkultur Raised beds (with photos)

We wanted to expand our garden into an uneven part of our lawn, and knew hügelkultur was the way to go.  Since we don’t have much in the way of good, extra topsoil laying around and don’t wan to run off spending money again, we decided to dig down through the grassy sod and use the soil underneath, for a bed that doesn’t require any NEW material.  Pretty efficient!

First we collected rotting logs and sticks.  Lucky for us there is a large log pile by our fire pit that has been untouched for some years.  Many of the logs were so rotted they crumbled in our hands! Perfect!  You can also use fresh logs, or logs and branches you find in the woods.  You’ll also want to plan for some smaller materials like leaf litter and sod to help fill in and move things along.  If it’s natural, it’ll decompose! There’s a list of ideal trees to use here for reference; birch is supposed to be great.

rotting log pile for hügelkultur

Then we picked our spot, about 3 feet by 6 feet and removed the top layer of sod, making sure to collect the sod in one neat(ish) pile.  The sod will be added back to the bed, so it’s important to make sure it’s easy to access and transfer.

how to create a hügelkultur raised garden bed step 1 remove sod

Next, we dug out the topsoil about 8-12 inches deep, collecting all the dirt in a new pile (you’ll be adding it back to the bed at the end so staying organized helps!) You can go much deeper if you want, and get fancy with bordering and everything, but we wanted to keep it simple.  If you come across any rocks as you go, discard them or you can save them for bordering the bed if you’d like.

digging out a Hügelkultur raised garden bed

Next we added the logs, etc. in a layer that rose just above the depth of the bed.

adding logs for Hügelkultur raised garden bed

Then we added some smaller materials and the sod, trying to make sure the grass was upside down to reduce the risk of it continuing to grow up through the soil.

adding sod to logs for Hügelkultur raised garden bed

And, finally, we added the topsoil to complete the mound, packing down several times as we worked. Rake the mound to evenly distribute the soil and make sure the logs, etc. underneath are evenly covered with a decent depth of soil.  We put some long thin logs on either side just to define the bed better and aid in holding everything in place.

hügelkultur diy raised garden bed how to

This bed is raised above the surrounding ground by around 6 inches, which should be fine for the area it is in. If you are on a slope and drainage or even washout of your mound is a concern, you may want to pile more logs and soil to create a bigger mound.

So what will we grow in here?  I’m thinking a “three sisters” planting of beans, corn, and summer squash will do very nicely!

Do you have any hügelkultur experience and have advice to share?  We’re always looking for suggestions!  You can reach out to us anytime on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

Happy hügeling!

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