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Hugelkultur Gardening

Victory gardening seems to be on the upswing as people turn their attention to growing food in these uncertain times. I’m a big fan of gardening in hugelkultur guilds, which can be built on flat or hilly land and fertile or infertile soils. In fact This type of gardening is super easy to create and maintain and brings high yields!

Hugelkultur is German for “hill culture.” Hugelkultur employs nontoxic and noninvasive logs and branches, fallen leaves, pine and fir needles, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, food waste, dead things the cat brings in, spent grains and coffee grounds from the local brewery and coffeehouse, 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 or clay soils, infertile soil, on hills and awkward areas, and will grow amazingly healthy plants as the beds are built on top of the ground! Guilds are installed in mind of attracting and sustaining plant pollinators; creating habitat for birds, butterflies, bugs, mycelium, and other beneficial beings.

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 and dropped on the guild, providing a continuous biomass resource. Think about adding grass clippings in the summer and thickly layered fallen leaves in autumn.

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 prefer digging 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. My husband and I built a guild that was 15 feet tall and 30 feet long that started with downed trees and large logs like the one in the featured picture on top. That’s our squash and pumpkin guild. Over time, we’ve seen the decomposition of the logs and sticks having an effect on the height. That’s what we are after and the deer and geese poop along with decaying plant material keep this guild well fertilized.

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.

On top of the logs are a succession of ever 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 their roots. 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 and mycelium rich decaying leaf mold, sawdust, and plant material. After adding each layer, we did a thorough watering.

More plant material was piled on thickly.

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. Ask your neighbors if you can take their leaves and fir/pine needles that they’ve so carefully bagged up. I always use organic or non-sprayed, 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 wigglers – 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 the 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! Feel free to choose whatever plants you want to grow in your guilds. Take advantage of height successions. Fruit trees in the middle of a guild can accommodate vines such as thornless blackberries and hops. Sun loving plants can provide some shade for smaller plants that require less sun and can be planted beneath the taller plants.

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.

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!

Here are some pictures of guilds planted on a slope. We created level guilds by shoring up the downside of the slope with bigger logs firmly placed with some rebar. These logs made a catch-all for the successive layers and kept the guilds from rolling down the slope.

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.

2 Comments

  • Boojie C says:

    Can this be done on a sloped mountainside?
    We have a place in a temperate rainforest environment in the Appalachian mtns and would like to avoid burning the many 2-6” diameter trees we need to cut down for a garden.

    • Hello Boojie!
      Absolutely yes! Hugelkultur guilds are perfect for creating on mountainsides. I believe you would achieve amazing results. No need to cut down those trees! In fact, collect the leaves from those trees to add to the guilds at the making of them and each autumn to add to the biomass. Incidentally, I made a miserably failed attempt to add pics of some of my guilds on a slope on the post and had to send it to my web guru. He created a more cohesive article with pics of slope guilds on the bottom of the article.

      Let me know how it goes for you ~ I’m always interested in hearing about people’s adventures. And I’m here for your questions as well. Consider going to our forum to post additional questions, if you will. I’d really like to get the forum active.

      Peace! Suzanne

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