Raised garden beds: Huglekulture instead of burning fallen trees and branches. Hugelkulture instead of irrigation.

Huglekulture. For if you have piles of dead tree wood lying around and want to clear it away. Hugle kulture is a creative and productive use for it than burning it into ash and particulate matter and toxins in the air. If you prefer to grow food with less irrigation and create shady and sheltered gardening niches, check out the photos of our hugle kulture beds below and some tips on making them.

I first  saw Huglekulture beds watching a video about  Sepp Holzer’s farm, “The Krameteroff” . …..this amazing place seemed to be this venerable man’s life’s work…..a shining example of permaculture in the Austrian alps. Sepp did not speak English and had not heard of permaculture, but he was doing it, and in an exemplary way …over a long time.

Hugelkultur is a great way to disposing of green waste, rather than sending it up in smoke and making air pollution. You make raised garden beds loaded with woody material, then cover it with earth and mulch. Naturally there will be many air pockets. In the moist environment of a cultivated garden bed,  the fungi which feeds on dead trees gradually takes over the mound and eventually all the wood decays into soil. As the years pass, the soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. Compaction is never an issue.

Due to all this subsidence you should probably NOT plant  trees on the beds as they will probably topple over before long. BESIDE the beds however , they should do very well and if deciduous, will provide vital summer shade yet allow the winter sun in. 

As Bill Mollison said “Mimic Nature”. A hugle bed reminds me of rain forests where ferns and mosses and mushrooms and even tree seedings grow on rotting logs on the forest floor.

During the first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil, giving you a slightly longer growing season.   Plus, by holding the moisture wood contains,  hugelkultur COULD  be part of a system for growing garden crops in the desert with less irrigation.

Some woods lasts a  long time as jetties and tool handles and so fourth,  because they are loaded with natural pesticides/herbicides/anti-fungal/anti-microbial compounds. We have found that microbial action ( and therefore the composting action) stopped altogether when we incorporated a lot of fresh Eucalyptus bark into a compost heap. It eventually all decomposed but only years later. Bark is good for paths for that reason, and on the surface of a bed where the air and rain gradually decay it.

Beware od using toxic wood, Black walnut and Oleander should be avoided . Known excellent woods for Hugle culture are: alderscottonwoodpoplar, willow (dry), tagasaste, wattles, pine, vine and fruit tree prunings, bamboo and birch.  Im sure there are thousands more.

Some people are concerned because they know that wood is high in carbon and will consume nitrogen to do the compost thing, saying that this could lock up the nitrogen and take it away from your plants. They say to use  well rotted wood  for this reason. But to me,  hugle kulture is a far superior  alternative to burning wood to get rid of it, and you probably don’t want to leave said wood  lying around for years rotting, (which it will only do in a wet climate…..in a dry climate it will be deemed a fire hazard) so I encourage you to make hugle kulture beds instead of making a bonfire. We have used fresh wood with good results.

 If you put a thick layer of soil over the wood, to encapsulate it, keeping the wood from drying out, your plants will happily grow in that soil for some time. If you plant out seedlings in the bed with a handful of fungal compost, the beneficial saprophytic fungi introduced will do well in the aerobic and moist conditions of this raised garden bed, and will proliferate throughout  the woody material. As the fungi eats the wood,  fungi’s predators ( eg fungal feeding nematodes and  mites)  will be delivering nutrient to your plant roots each time they defecate. Hooray for nutrient cycling! Again, a good quality compost will introduce the whole soil food web including those vital fungi predators. So fears of nitrogen drawdown appear unfounded when you use a little bit of bio complete compost.

The following drawings and notes are from https://www.gardenmyths.com/


“ In the drawings below the artist is trying to show that while the wood decomposes and shrinks, the leaves, duff and accumulating organic matter from above will take it’s place.

Raised garden bed hugelkultur after one month

Raised garden bed hugelkultur after 20 years

raised garden bed hugelkultur after two years

GArden Myth’s continues “To go all summer long without a drop of rain, you need to build your hugelkultur raised bed gardens …. six feet tall. But they’ll shrink! Mostly in the first month. Which is why I suggest you actually build them seven feet tall.

Hugelkultur raised garden beds can be built just two feet tall and will hold moisture for about three weeks. Not quite as good, but more within the comfort zone of many people – including urban neighbors.

Some people will start out with hugelkultur raised garden beds that are two and a half feet tall and plant only annuals. And each year they will build the size of the bed a foot higher. So that after a few years, they will have the bigger beds and the neighbors never really noticed. And if they’ve tasted what comes from it – they might be all for it without caring about the big mounds.

Besides, isn’t this much better use of the wood than hauling it to the dump, or chipping it, or putting it in those big city bins for yard waste?”

I usually build hugelkulture raised garden beds about five feet wide. This makes for some mighty steep beds. Just pack that soil on tight and plant it with a mix of heavy rooted plants to hold it all together. Quick! Before it rains! If you are going to build beds shorter than three feet tall, I suggest that you make the beds no wider than four feet wide.” 

Thanks to Garden Myths for those tips.

The following illustration appears in the book “Sep Holzer’s Permaculture”

Armed  with this book I set out to make huglekulture beds with gusto.

On my first attempt , executed in an alley cropping area,  everything , especially the potatoes, were doing well. I kept piling on poo and old hay and all was well till a gang of renegade chooks discovered it and DESTROYED the lot in one afternoon. I use to be so nice to my chooks. Now they have a bit less freedom to roam.

It probably took a few years to get over that and go for attempt number 2, pictures as follows. This time poultry were firmly policed, and only one attack occurred by a  clutch of 5 week old chickens. The damage was quickly repaired.

Learning from the great man Sepp I planted young pear trees between the mounds, and had a lone pioneer tree ( a Tagasaste) casting some much needed shade on the area. Pioneer trees do not live long and this Taga died this year but the pear trees are established now and should be able to withstand the sun. In your micro climate, excessive wind rather than fierce sun may be more of a threat- and trees may be essential as a windbreak. In Western Australia we have a brittle environment which is Allan Savory’s way of saying it is hot and dry for a long part of the year. And though it is trendy to deny climate change due to fossil fuel burning ,  something terrible IS happening. I have been here since 1985, with my hands in the soil nearly every day since, and for the first 20 years it rained or dripped for 10 months of the year. In 2008 it began to dry out noticeably and temperatures both hot and cold have become  ever more extreme to this day.   It is now wet for only 2 months of the year, dry for 10,  and not surprisingly, the region is turning to desert. This is the case in many parts of the world.

 So I come to some advice I received from Sepp Holzer’s protégé, the delightful Zach Weiss, on creating huglekultur away from it’s native origins , Germany and Austrian where it is a traditional gardening technique. As Zach pointed out to us during his excellent “Water Stories “ course, in humid climates like Austria you can create a raised bed on top of the ground and the only thing to be careful of is to not place them exactly on the contour as they may impede drainage and become too wet. But for us in dry Western Australia, it’s important to DIG a PIT, pack in the logs as tightly as you can, mounding up branches and compacting it all as  much as possible, then use the earth removed from the pit to pound into all the spaces as much as you can.  Cover that with  AMPLE compost and mulching materials. When sourcing mulch I would go for stringy stuff that interlaces  and holds together on a steep slope, like seaweed, bark, pine needles, hay and unchopped straw, rather than fine stuff like say, saw dust or grass clippings. I’m also going to experiment with roughly woven bamboo mats which I might find layed over the mulch helps hold everything  in place on steep hugle mounds.

  Finally,   plant your drought hardy tough plants and water them every day until established, and that probably means….. for a year.  I put my short little experimental hugles on the contour and ( speaking for my plants ) would have liked to have more shade from the afternoon sun already in place. I have planted an almond to the west. It  and the pears will take over the shading  role for them from this summer on.

Hugle bed completed and planted out.

Figure 1  First spring

Herb Robert is a medicinal plant as is fever few. Both are great quick growing plants which tolerate heat, drought and poor soils. Robert  sadly tends to wane after a year .Maybe the soil improves too much and he moves on. Alstromeria or Peruvian lily comes in many colours, is a great cut flower and does exceedingly well  in the same dry conditions.

Figure 2 Note the birdnet below keeping the chooks off the hugle beds

I remeber being able to plant out about 20 strawberry plants on this bed, Sadly only one was left alive at the end of Summer. I’ve given up on growing food plants  for now, Im going to play the long game with succulents and flowers.

Firstly, I can find many flowers and herbs (and obviously succulents) that survive hot and dry conditions.  I can only think of one vegetable like that : sweet potatoe . …. IF they get established in the spring . Even they struggled this past summer as we really didn’t have any spring season to speak of and had a week of 40 degrees in December. It was a killer Summer. Secondly, flowers are important to pollinators and flowers make honey, thanks to  the bees. Scented geraniums have their uses in life…… besides being extremely drought and poor soil tolerant, they smell divine. And sometimes, I include plants  just because they look beautiful.

Secondly, the pear trees are doing very well with out any individual watering  from me, although    I’m hosing the little plants on the swales.

Thirdly, Matilda our  dog has excavated under one swale hunting rats, which are a big problem not just in hugle mounds and they always eat my veges. Rats are anywhere where there is a dry place: under a log in a hugle kulture , under  a chook house roof , in my roof, in the glasshouse, everywhere.   In our rain free long summer, they make nests in macadamia and wattle trees. We are about to declare war on them. We refuse to use bait as we are trying to build back the owl population. Firearms with heat sensing scopes have been purchased.

Time to train the pears into a sunscreen.

Closing Remarks

Huglekulture can be successful in a hot climate but at first you cannot skimp on compost , mulch and water. However it takes no more of these than gardening on poor soil “on the flat”.  Bonus though, you can   fit a whole lot more plants in a small footprint. And maybe do a bit less bending. One thing I have to observe is that these beds have never had a weed problem, not even a hint of a weed. Interesting! Too fungal for the weedy species, the  early successional plants?  All those pine needles we put on perhaps? 

Figure 4 Finally the desired effect of vegetation covered mound has been reached and perhaps one day that vegetation will contain more raspberries and strawberries. But for now, New Zealand spinach, medicinal herbs, bannah grass and ornamentals are shading and cooling the soil life so they can continue making soil and paving the way.

The main advantage of hugles is in the creation of micro climates.

To me this is where the design possibilities presented by hugle beds come in. You can put them on the contour and like a swale in reverse, they can be a speed bump that slows, spreads and sinks rainfall into a pit full of wood, which soaks it up, only to release it back to your plants slowly throughout the next months. A bit like a dam.

Use them as a windbreak / sun trap, creating sheltered areas. Put succulents on the harsh sun side and your water loving  plants like ferns and comfrey, hydrangeas and raspberries on the shady side ?

Maybe run tall ones  on a North/South axis to create more of that gentle aspect…. the east facing slope that many  plants thrive in, getting early morning sun but sheltered from the fierce westerly sun. Plant  the fast- growing drought tolerant bannah grass on top to provide even more shade in the arvo? They can always be chopped down and fed to the cows in winter to let the sun in. I’m thinking of making a very tall U shape hugle kulture  bed  open to the sun. The winter sun will stream into the protected space  in winter, and I will create a bamboo shade roof over the top which  I will grow grapes over to shade it all in summer. What could go wrong? As usual , we will give it a go and find out.

I hope this has inspired you to try out huglekulture as a woody debris disposal system which looks good and provides various micro climates and eventually food. The possibilities are endless really, I even saw hay bales placed in 2 parallel rows with the space between them filled with wood and earth and seedlings grown on top. Share your ideas and experience on huglekulture, please!  

We are always keen to take on WOOFERS who want to join us in Earth caring projects and maintaining the food forest we have created, so get in touch if you want to help and learn.

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