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The Ultimate Raised Bed: H├╝gelkultur

The Ultimate Raised Bed: Hügelkultur

By Pauline Atkins

UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County 

This article originally appeared in the 4/19/23 Mountain Democrat                                                                                                                          

At the Sherwood Demonstration Garden Vegetable Garden, Master Gardeners of El Dorado County volunteers assembled a Hügelkultur.

What is Hügelkultur

Hügelkulturpronounced HOO-gul-culture, is a German word meaning mound or hill culture. Plants or crops are grown on this natural raised bed with a mounded shape. This gardening style has been practiced in Germany and Eastern Europe for centuries.

The raised hügel bed gardening technique mimics how soil deep in the forest becomes rich with nutrients. Imagine an ancient tree falling in the middle of the forest. Over time, leaves, twigs, and debris cover the log, causing water retention. It begins to rot. Fungi, insects, amphibians, and worms move in, further breaking down the wood. Eventually, the log collapses, and becomes a long pile of compost, or what’s known as a “nurse log.” Vegetation in the forest takes advantage of this moist nutrient rich environment and things start growing.

Why create a Hügelkultur garden bed?

Adopted by permaculture (permanent agriculture) advocates, this practice encourages repurposing garden debris into a flourishing natural ecosystem. Soil fertility, good drainage, water retention, and loads of organic material for soil warming, are important gardening benefits. Just like any other garden, the hügel bed needs sun.

The Master Gardener Veggie Team coordinated Master Gardener volunteers to bring all the necessary supplies to construct the new Hügelkultur and received truckloads of large logs, twigs, wood chips, dry leaves, straw, grass, and manure. Prep work of removing old soil and installing a drainage grate had previously been completed. Similar to the making of lasagna, layering is key to the process.

How to build a Hügelkultur raised garden bed

The Bottom Layer: Large stumps, tree trunks, and large branches.

The Second Layer: Smaller branches, untreated rotting lumber, decomposing logs.

The Third Layer: Twigs, leaves, and garden debris, forcefully compressed.

The Fourth Layer: Organic material, manure, straw, and wood chips fill in the gaps.

The Top Layer: Compost, grass clippings, green waste, mulch, and topsoil.

Normally, a new hügel bed will need watering to get the decomposition process started. Our recent rain has taken care of that step. The deteriorating logs will eventually hold water like a sponge, making the bed drought resistant. As the materials decompose and age, more beneficial fungi, insects, worms, and microbial growth creates the nutrients that plants love.

The completed bed will now rest until summer planting, usually by the end of April to early May, depending on the weather. With all the worms and other organisms already in the Hügelkultur, temps may get to about 100 degrees, but then should cool down. A compost thermometer will be helpful to take heat readings.

How to use a Hügelkultur garden bed

What to plant this year? Master Gardeners will probably choose legumes like beans, or something flowery. Basil will do well in the shade of the growing bean plants. Other plants that thrive in hügelbeds include sprawlers and vining plants such as cucumbers, melons, potatoes, and squashes.

Interested in seeing a Hügelkultur? Plan a visit to Sherwood Demonstration Veggie Garden, 6699 Campus Dr, Placerville, to see the end result of our efforts. A fine example of taking raised garden beds to the next level!

Please check our website information about visiting the Sherwood Demonstration Garden. 

Master Gardener classes are offered monthly throughout the county. Our class schedule is here at the website.  

You can also learn from Master Gardeners through our recorded classes on many gardening topics. 

Have a gardening question? Master Gardeners are working hard to answer your questions. Use the “Ask a Master Gardener” option on our website: mgeldorado.ucanr.edu or leave a message on our office telephone: 530-621-5512. We’ll get back to you! Master Gardeners are also on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.