Hugelkultur: How to Build Rich Soil Using ALL Your Yard Waste

raised garden bed hugelkultur after one month, a realistic rendering


I garden and farm (really market garden) in 3 locations.  My yard is about 1 acre of gardens and several acres of woods that I manage for cord wood and to support wildlife.  Problem: I have too many limbs and softwood thinnings and I need a good way to recycle this organic material. 

Six years ago I started Farm at South Village, a small CSA on 4 acres of heavy clay soil with 70 members.  Problem: we need to expand the farmable area for pick-your-own berries and fruits but the available land is poorly drained clay. 

Eight years ago I started Tierra Pacific Organic Farm in Costa Rica.  Problem: The soil is very depleted due to years of chemical use and compaction from cattle and it’s tough to add and retain sufficient organic matter in the intense tropical climate (heat, wind, wet/dry weather).

My solution: hugelkultur; pronounced hoo-gul-culture, means hill culture or mound culture.  It’s a way to make very productive raised growing beds by recycling organic waste.  Hugelkultur accelerates the process forests use to break down organic matter and build topsoil using large raised beds with pieces of waste wood forming the base. Then layered on top is composting materials rich in nitrogen (manure, green matter, food waste) and carbon (leaves, dry cuttings).  The beds are topped with cardboard, topsoil, mulch, etc.

The benefits of hugelkultur beds are many:

·         Maximizes water retention and keeps moisture on site. The logs and branches act like a sponge. Rainwater is absorbed and then released during drier times.  Often, you never need to water your new raised bed after the first year.

·         Builds long-term soil fertility as the gradual decay of the wood can supply nutrients for decades. Decomposing wood attracts beneficial fungi and soil life increasing plant resistance to pests and disease.

·         Improves drainage for problem soils by shedding water off the growing beds and improving soil tilth. 

·         Aerates naturally (no tilling needed) because air pockets are formed as wood rots and shrinks creating space for the roots and habitat for soil life.

·         Restores poor soil and problem areas (depleted soil, compacted soil, poorly drained soil).

·         Produces heat with the gradual wood decomposition thus extending the growing season (good in VT).

·         Maintains cool, moist soil in hot areas to extend growing season (good in Costa Rica).

·         Recycles rotting wood, twigs, branches, and logs that are unsuitable for other uses rather than burning or landfilling them.

·         And perhaps most important of all for our future, sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing more into the atmosphere. 

I have tested hugelkultur beds at home and in Costa Rica with good results.  This Dec-March we will install a new 1 acre fruit and perennial plant educational garden behind our commercial center.  And we are planning the same thing next spring to expand the Farm at South Village pick-your-own garden.

Why not begin testing how a hugelkultur raised bed can solve gardening and waste recycling problems for you?  Here are some additional resources to guide you:


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