Verbage:

The realm of permaculture no doubt has many wackily innovative ideas and methods. Among them, I believe that I find hugels to be the most fascinating. No more than glorified compost piles, hugels (pronounced HOO-guls) boast an impressive array of ecosystem services and also beautifully exemplify permaculture design principles like stacking functions, integrating elements and capturing energy.

A cross-section view of your typical huge.

A cross-section view of your typical hugel.

Hügelkultur is German for “hill culture”. It is a method of composting that involves building mounds of biomass on top of dead wood in order to streamline the process of decomposition. The mounded area also provides excellent growing space for annual gardens as the pile turns organic matter into bioavailable nutrients. In short, hugels are a fusion of raised-bed gardening and sheet composting. This process mimics the natural succession of decomposition on the forest floor and notably improves fertility, water retention and soil temperature. Not bad for a dirt-smothered debris pile, eh?

A Bit on Soil Science:

The process is relatively simple. We pile logs, branches, cuttings and topsoil to make a raised garden bed that decomposes from the inside out. These beds are in turn loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets and plenty of water for the roots of what you plant. Year after year, the soil becomes enriched and fills with microbial life as the wood gradually shrinks and decays. This decay also creates more air pockets and, in effect, aerates the soil for better growing conditions. As heat is given off during decomposition, the soil will retain warmth giving you a slightly longer growing season. The logs and branches act as a sponge, catching nutrients and excess water from passing into deeper reaches of the soil where roots cannot reach them. The captured water and nutrients are later fed to the plants you grow on your hugel.

To Do is To Learn:

I first heard of hugels when I visited Sepp Holzer’s farm in Austria. Though hügelkultur has been practiced in Europe for several hundred years, Sepp is widely known as the hugel authority. Seeing them built on his sprawling, terraced farm in the Styrian Alps helped me to recognize their immense utility in our landscapes.

This pond was created on Sepp's farm using nothing more than hugels and an artesian spring.

This pond was created on Sepp’s farm using nothing more than hugels and an artesian spring.

Certain hugels were designed to direct wind or water while others simply complemented natural features of his landscape. Each of Sepp’s creations were unique. He masterfully demonstrated how each bed could be built to any scale while also having functions that are tailored to meet specific needs. I learned of various compositions, shapes and locations that played into the design. After getting some hands-on training with their construction, I was eager to build some of my own stateside.

We chose to build our largest hugel along the contour of a steep hill that falls away to our lake. The strategy behind this design was to catch surface water at the top of the hill rather than letting it cascade downward. This will help reduce erosion while also minimizing our need to water. We’re also hoping to offer some windblock to more delicate annuals.  Here is a quick rundown of how we just recently finished construction:

  • After digging a trench roughly 3 feet deep by 3 feet wide, we filled it with sections of felled oak and elm. The excavated soil was then put back on top of the logs. Hugel Trench

 

  • We then began progressively adding organic matter to be composted starting with branches and working our way to smaller debris like plant cuttings, straw and leaf mulch.Hugel Leaf Cover

 

  • Each layer of debris was covered with upside-down turf to help compress loft and retain shape. This also helped us recycle the sod we cut to make room for the bed. Hugel Sod Blanket

 

  • Finally, we added compost to cover the turf and provide a growing medium that was ready for immediate planting. In reality, amending with topsoil isn’t necessary. But it helps kickstart the process. This hugel is ready to grow! Finished Hugel

With only a weekend of work, we created a landscape element that will provide numerous benefits for years to come. Other than additional compost, we gathered all materials on site and were able to recycle yard waste into valuable plant nutrition. The construction was very straightforward and our largest investment was sweat equity. Even if it seems bizarre, we’ve been thrilled with the results. We’ve already observed it catching water and warming the topsoil.

I expect this year will give us many more lessons on hugel dynamics. As our new bed “breaks in” we’ll get a better understanding of it’s functions as well as it’s limitations. We’ll be sure to keep you updated as the season rolls along. Our goal is perfect this method at our home before offering it to our valued customers. Imagine having a custom-designed hugel of your own!

-Rob