Hügel what?Nov 01, 2020 12:00PM ● By Gayle Morrow
Have you heard of hügelkultur? While it sounds like a cake you might bake for your family’s holiday brunch, it’s actually a kind of gardening. If you hurry, you can get started on your own hügelkultur project now, before the ground freezes and the snow flies, putting you well on your way toward a more productive 2021 garden.
If you’ve guessed that hügelkultur (HOO-gul-culture) is a German word, you’ve guessed right. It means hill culture, or hill mound, and it made its first appearance in the early 1960s in a German gardening book. It’s similar to “lasagna gardening”—layers and layers of biomass that you periodically add to and that you don’t have to till, but with hügelkultur you end up with a hill or a mound instead of a traditional flat growing surface. It’s a helpful technique where soil is poor or sparse.
Here’s how it works.
You can start with an existing raised bed or you can build up your hügelkultur garden on a flat section of lawn or other bare ground. First, make a mound of logs, branches, or sticks. If you already have a brush pile you can use that. If you’re lucky enough to have topsoil, you can dig down several inches to recess your bottom layer. Be sure to save that topsoil—you’ll need it later. In the raised bed I used as a hügelkultur experiment this past growing season, I moved the dirt to one side, then filled in the space with sticks and branches.
On top of the wood, which decays over time and provides nutrients for your plants, you need lots of nitrogen-rich stuff. Think compost, manure, grass clippings, even seaweed if ya got it. Don’t be stingy here—just pile it all on.
Finally, add a layer of soil (in my raised bed, I topped it with the dirt I’d scooped off to the side), followed by some sort of mulch—hay, straw, leaves, newspaper—to help with keeping the weeds down, keeping dirt in place until things get established, and keeping moisture in the mound. Then start planting.
It’s hard to mess this up.
You can make your mound just a few feet high, or you can make it six or seven feet. Try surrounding it with straw bales; pallets could provide support for a really, really tall mound. As for dos and don’ts, just
know that certain woods aren’t ideal for your bottom layer. Black locust and cedar don’t rot very well; black walnut has toxins that plants don’t like. Of course you wouldn’t want to use wood that has been treated with chemicals.
I grew delicata squash in my hügelkultur experiment and, given the lack of rainfall, it did pretty well—better than some other sections of the raised beds where the basil withered and the tomatoes drooped.
If we get a ton of snow or the ground freezes before you get the chance to move any soil, you can still make your layer of logs or sticks, then add compost/kitchen scraps and other nitrogen rich material throughout the winter. In the spring, top it off with soil and get to gardening.