Every fancy gardening website extols the virtues of raised beds. I personally, resisted them for years but a combination of hugelkutlur and raised beds changed my mind! Before, we get into how to build a hugelkutlur raised bed, let’s discuss the why you should build a hugelkultur raised bed. Also, we can answer the all important question:
What the hell is Hugelkultur and how the hell do you say it?
The easiest definition of Hugelkultur (hoogle – cult – er) is it is a hilled bed where the center of the bed is large trunks of wood and debris covered in dirt. I added that stab at pronunciation because one time I asked readers how to pronounce diatomaceous… 80+ helpful comments later I decided to edit the article and never ask for help on that score again ;).
But back to hugelkultur; There are a lot of benefits to this traditional style of hugelkultur beds, such as cost, size, soil warmth, etc, but for me the aesthetics just weren’t what I was looking for.
Why Your Raised Beds should be a Hugelkultur Raised Bed
I have always been resistant to raised beds. My vegetable gardens growing up always were in-ground. I can recall the tilling and dirt clod smashing needed to prep a garden from very early years. As a side note, I can’t, to this day, explain why may parents insisted on having a garden growing up. It wasn’t their “thing” and we always spent summers angrily hoeing and yelling at groundhogs. At one point there was an incident where we electrocuted an opossum. Which, while an awesome display of electricity was not exactly the intended result. It did, however, keep the F’ing groundhogs at bay for some time. Till we finally realized the fried opossum had grounded the whole apparatus out. Which resulted in the loss of All. The. Corn.
Also groundhogs can suck it.
However, back to my garden, I was resistant to raised beds due to the added cost of whatever material you use to surround the bed, then the cost of dirt, the labor of construction, and the constant fight to keep the beds from drying out. I know lots of other gardeners who feel the same way. With all that against raised beds how can building a hugelkultur raised bed change everyone’s minds?
First, there are ways to prep raised beds for less. So much so, we wrote about it right here! Also, let’s be frank: Raised beds look good. As a permaculture enthusiast I shouldn’t give a twit about “looks” and focus on functionality but my artistic background just wants to make beautiful things. Raised beds are easy to edge, weed, fertilize, decorate, etc. But the watering. Oh the watering… Raised beds can be like a terracotta pot and need watering on a daily basis (twice daily?). Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Hugelkultur raised beds saved me from that fate of standing around with a hose and it can save you too! A lining of spongy wood and chips soaks up the water, then, releases it back to the dirt and plants slowly. Added bonus of a hugelkultur raised bed is the fungal cultures they bring. I attended a soil scientist’s (what a cool job title) class this spring at Organic Growers School and learned so much about how microorganisms and fungus assist the health of your plants. BUT that is a topic that needs its own series of posts. What was most important is that, outside of seedlings and a month of drought I haven’t watered my raised beds. During the drought I didn’t water the established perennials in these beds AT. ALL. I feel like an infomercial but damn… It is kind of amazing.
Have I sold you on having a hugelkultur raised bed? I bet we have! Now what? You got to build those puppies!
How to Build a Hugelkultur Raised Bed
We have detailed articles on building regular raised beds and fancy ones (Linked for your convenience). We even talk about how to fill and prep those raised beds for less. But if you are lazy, like me, here is a quickly tutorial on how to make a hugelkultur raised bed.
Step 1: Build some Raised Beds
Not some of those ridiculous 2 inch raised beds either… We are going to need some deep old boxes to make a good hugelkultur raised bed. I suggest building them at least 6 inches deep and actually follow my own advice. Though it doesn’t always look like it. On the below hugelkultur raised beds we had this brilliant idea to level them in the landscape and then spent an entire day digging only to end up with one of the sides being buried about a foot into the ground. However, they are damn level.
Step 2: Wood is Good
Depending on how deep your bed is, you are going to fill the bottom 1/3 to 1/2 with wood matter. Deeper beds can take more wood matter and still have room for lots of dirt. In our deeper beds we used old logs we found in a wood pile, then branches (some of them fresh), then tiny sticks the kids picked up in the yard.
Step 3: Chips Aren’t Just for Snacking
Even if you have a low raised bed you can follow this step. Our top layer was simple ground wood chips. These break down fast but hold water well. I even use wood chips in the bottoms of large containers so I do not have to water the containers as often.
That’s really it, just add dirt on top. But I make it seem a lot more complex and fancy in this in-depth tutorial about prepping beds for less.
It all sounds so great, amiright? But I bet you are wondering how these hugelkultur raised beds held up in the long run. Well, I’d be happy to say they have held up fabulously! The pictured beds above are two years old and going strong.
I plan to pressure wash the wood in the fall and stain, to help protect them, but as for fertility, water retention, and general upkeep?! I can not complain. Honestly, they still look good and grow like crazy. I’ve been neglectful in keeping up with the harvest (and weeds) due to the rate of growth, even in the heat of summer.
But if that isn’t enough for you then let’s take a second to check out these tomatoes… Certainly, these are a variety of heirloom Roma’s which are resistant to cracking, but LOOK, like really LOOK, no cracking! Through days of no water and days of deluge every evening I have managed to get tomatoes that aren’t cracked. I have never, in ground, or regular raised beds, managed to make that happen without a lot of TLC.
Tomatoes crack when water isn’t regulated. Guess what regulates the hell out of some water?! A Hugelkultur Raised Bed, That’s what! Anything that keeps me from having to babysit my plants will earn a place in my gardening secrets list.
So if you want to reap the benefits of good soil culture and water retention all while maintaining aesthetics then I think a hugelkutlur raised bed should be in your near future. If you try this techniques please let me know in the comments how well it works for you!
23 thoughts on “How to Build a Hugelkultur Raised Bed and Why You Should”
Is one kind of wood chip better than another? say Doug fir vs cedar? We have a sawmill here on our property so I used wood chips(but no logs just chips) in the bottom of my regular garden beds several years ago when I first filled them just trying to use free resources that I had but I feel like they really robbed the soil of nutrients/nitrogen. Do the log make a difference too?
Logs degrade slower and take less nitrogen. There are good and bad things for each type of wood. Some make it more acidic, some break down really fast and rob nitrogen. I have access to a good pile of chicken compost all the time, so nitrogen robbing isn’t nearly as much of a worry. If you don’t have a good source of nitrogen then I’d stick with less chips and larger items that won’t rob nitrogen as fast.
Could this method be a problem with termites?
Most of the South Eastern United States is chocked full of termites. They are an important part of the ecosystem. They are only an issue if they are attacking your house. If you live in a barren neighborhood then maybe you won’t have any around. We live near a river and greenspace so all you need to do is turn over some logs to find termites. Long story short, I wouldn’t suggest a hugelkultur against your house as sure, termites might come. I guess I don’t really understand your concern unless you plan on putting this next to your foundation. In which case I wouldn’t suggest even putting a wooden raised bed next to your foundation. Ground contact with wood does eventually cause rot and attracts all types of pests you would not want in your home. In your garden it doesn’t matter as much.
What is a minimum safe distance from your home to keep the garden to keep termites away?
Not a clue. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a recommendation even if I did know.
I no longer use horse tanks to catch rainwater off the barn from watering my large ground garden so I used this idea and put mine in the horse tanks. They’re 2 tanks just off the edge of my deck ramp yet accessible by me from the ground as needed. As my husband died i no longer needed the large ground garden, of the work,…the horse tanks are sufficient for me. A long moisture thermometer would be nice or a useable suggestion from you. Patricia
Sounds like a very cool set up.
My raised beds are 30″ tall and are half filled with logs and branches. My load of fill dirt arrived, and it is full of rocks. Do you think this is OK? Organic material, compost and wood chips will go over it.
I guess it just depends on how many rocks! Some will be fine. You just have to make sure their is plenty of non-rock area for seeds to germinate and roots to grow.
I love your ideas. And your writing style. Gives me a chuckle – needed these days!
Thanks! Life is serious stuff, but it doesn’t always have to be!
Do you have to add dirt later on once it decomposes?
We add compost each year so the level stays about the same. You will need to add something to the beds over time as the soil level decreases.
Great article. Have been playing with the idea of raised beds. Getting to the ground is so o o easy but at 78 elevating to the upright position is way difficult.
My mom has a couple raised beds on legs. They are really great if you have back problems and can’t bend over. The same tricks works in those.
Ya, I’m excited about that?
Rock on! I discovered hugel about 5 years ago, did a “mound” over a tornup construction damaged area of the yard, best onions and winter squash ever! Logs, sticks, walking path chips, freshly mowed (untreated) grass, topped with a large load of “garden mix” from bulk supplier. Moved on the next year with strawbales staked on a hillside, large wood, sticks, spring-trimmed shrub clippings, shredded mail, chopped comfrey for green manure, load of “garden mix” filled to the top and leveled. AWESOME vegs year one. Liked the look, so landscape blocked to the breaking down straw bales, great look for the FRONT yard. Taters, beans (now picked at waist height, zukes, patty pans, herbs, Tomatoes, mixed up year by year, best raised beds ever! I do “mini-Hugels” with wood chips for walking paths in every window box, planter pot and hanging basket, still water regular, but NEVER dry out. Time to replace 15 year old wood beds, going up to 18″ with 6×6’s but starting the fill with rabbit screen on bottom (big mole problem) then big old rotting logs, etc. etc. Would never do it any other way again!
It is amazing hoe much it helps keep the moisture even. Not waterlogged but not overly dry.
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Looks like I have you added! Not the best about sending out newsletters but you will get one the next time I do!
Well. I found that amazing! I have had raised beds before and I said never again! Between the watering and the cats thinking they had found a comunal potty, it was just not very desirable. But I do find this so interesting. I had never heard of using the wood material for holding water before. I will find some way to implement some in my garden.
And I love your writing style.
Thank you so much! I struggle with my writing style, as I am a bit quirky in real life and try not to be quite so odd on the interwebs.