Hugelkultur, which is German for “hill culture,” is a centuries old way of making sustainable raised garden beds. The method employs nontoxic and noninvasive materials from the earth such as logs and branches, fallen leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, food waste, dead things the cat brings in, spent grains from the local brewery, seaweed, animal manure and kitchen scraps. The mounds, comprised of whatever biomass is readily available, are topped with soil to create a nutrient rich pile where herbs, flowers and food can be planted.
Hugelkultur beds can be built on rocky, hilly, infertile soil, yet will grow amazingly healthy plants. One hugelkultur hill or several hills (guilds) creates high-yielding, low-maintenance food and herb gardens using native forests as a model. Guilds are installed to attract and sustain plant pollinators; creating habitat for birds, butterflies, bugs and other beneficial beings.
Guild construction is simple; it begins with layering first logs, then branches, wood chips, leaves and easily compostable items, and topping off the hill with a layer of soil. Some hugelkultur gardeners dig a shallow hole first so that the logs are below the ground surface, and use the soil for the top layer of the guild. It’s important to thoroughly soak each layer of material to ensure a good start for the guild, and completely cover the branches and logs to keep in the much-needed moisture.
The advantages of hugelkultur are many. The gradual decay of logs and branches makes for a consistent source of nutrients. The composting wood and biomass generates heat, extending the growing season. The wood acts like a sponge as it decomposes, trapping water. This is so helpful in areas that have limited rainfall. Soil aeration increases as the branches and logs break down.
Nutrients added to hugelkultur guilds constantly feed the growing plants, allowing for high yields in small areas. This can be a big advantage to those who have limited space in which to garden. As herbaceous plants in the hugelkultur end their life cycle, they can be chopped up and dropped on the guild, providing a continuous biomass resource.
It’s especially useful for hugelkultur gardeners to observe how Mother Nature sustains a perfect balance by witnessing plants in their native habitat. Becoming aware of details such as how plants grow, which ones grow together, what constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem, and what bugs live in the soil will provide invaluable information that can be used to create rich hugelkultur guilds.
Suzanne Tabert, bioregional herbalist, is director of herbal education and herbalist mentor at the Cedar Mountain Herb School. She teaches with great passion and excitement, bringing her wealth of knowledge to students in both Washington and Northern Idaho. For more information, visit CedarMountainHerbs.com.