Hugelkultur Gardening

Victory gardening seems to be on the upswing as people turn their attention to growing food. I’m a big fan of hugelkultur guilds. This type of gardening is super easy and brings high yields!

Hugelkultur is German for “hill culture.” Hugelkultur employs nontoxic and noninvasive logs and branches, fallen leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, food waste, dead things the cat brings in, spent grains from the local brewery, seaweed, manure from chickens, rabbits, horses, etc., compost, whatever biomass is available, and topped with soil. Into this nutrient rich pile herbs, flowers, and food are planted. One hugelkultur hill or several hills, aka “guilds,” create high-yielding low-maintenance food/herb gardens using native forests as a model. Hugelkultur beds can be built on rocky, hilly, infertile soil, and will grow amazingly healthy plants! Guilds are installed in mind of attracting and sustaining plant pollinators; creating habitat for birds, butterflies, bugs, and other beneficial beings.

Hugelkultur guilds are as easy to construct as layering first logs, then branches, wood chips, leaves and easily compostable items, and topping off the hill with a layer of soil. Some people will 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.

Here we’ll see the construction of a small – 6 feet across – Hugelkultur guild.

First step is larger logs. Keep in mind that this is a small guild, hence the first logs would be on the smaller size. I’ve seen guilds that were 10 feet tall and 30 feet long that started with downed trees and large logs like the one in the featured picture on top. So cool! On top of the logs are a succession of every growing smaller sticks.

We had willow available to us, so that’s what we used for even smaller sticks and added the leaves. Willow contains indolebutyric acid, a rooting hormone that helps to give the newly planted plants a leg up in establishing themselves. Small traces of this rooting compound is also found in honey!

The apprentices and I went into the woods to find our material. We dug up buckets of nutrient rich decaying leaf mold, sawdust, and plant material. At each layer, we did a thorough watering. 

More plant material! More water!

Here we begin to add finer materials and softer leaves like nettles, chopped comfrey, and grass clippings. If going into the forest isn’t an option, go to your neighborhood composting site for wood chips, grass cuttings, and yard waste. I always use organic, but it’s up to you what you use!

Our last layer is good, rich topsoil. Again, we got ours from under trees in the forest where bugs, including worms, and mycelium are plentiful. Garden stores sell mycelium compost and topsoil. Add a few handfuls of red wrigglers – they love living in Hugelkultur guilds! Take care to completely cover the bottom layers of logs and twigs. This ensures that sun and air won’t wick much needed water from exposed logs.

Then we planted! This particular guild was planted with foxglove on the top, and ferns and herbs on the sides. I see sage, parsley, thyme, and kale! Choose what you need and what works best for your family.

Pretty, isn’t it?

After a good watering, we stood back and the chickens came in to scratch the whole thing to pieces! The fence doesn’t look that great, but it does give the guild time to establish itself.

Hugelkultur Advantages

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 and allowing for steady dampness. This is so helpful in areas that have limited rainfall. Soil aeration increases as the branches and logs break down.

Nutrients added to the 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.

Take some time to observe how Mother Nature sustains a perfect balance by witnessing plants in their native habitat; how they grow, who grows together, what constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem, i.e. multiple heights and life cycles of plant varieties, bugs in the soil, mushrooms and other decomposers, pollinators, etc. This will provide much valuable information that can be used when creating rich hugelkultur guilds. Have fun and let me know how your gardens grow!

Suzanne Tabert

Suzanne "Queen Bee" Tabert

Suzanne Tabert, bioregional herbalist, is director of herbal education and herbal mentor at the Cedar Mountain Herb School. An herbal medicine instructor for 30 years, Suzanne teaches with great passion and excitement, bringing her wealth of herbal knowledge to students in an engaging and vibrant manner. She is the primary instructor at CMHS and an adjunct faculty at Bastyr University. Taking students to wild places and giving them tools to engage and connect with flora, fauna, and the exquisite beauty of nature is the icing on the cake of life, and one way that Suzanne is making a difference in the world, one person, one group at a time. She is currently writing a wildcrafting book that will be able to be utilized by people of all walks of life who wish to take their health back into their own hands. Cedar Mountain Herb School is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, Partnership in Education with United Plant Savers, and the American Herb Association.

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