Learning to build a Hügelkultur garden

  • From left,  ML Altobelli, John Marcy, Barbara Blumenthal, Patrick Murray and Carl Davis work to build a Hugelkulter garden at Fabric of Life in Shelburne. PHOTO BY SARA DAVIS

  • A completed Hugelkulter garden at Fabric of Life in Shelburne. PHOTO BY SARA DAVIS

  • Rotted logs are placed in a trench for the garden. PHOTO BY SARA DAVIS

For the Recorder
Published: 12/27/2021 1:07:33 PM

It can be exciting to come across a new concept after spending many years working with gardens. This past fall, the nonprofit Fabric of Life in Shelburne led a workshop on building a Hügelkultur garden.

The organization is dedicated to education and preservation of traditional skills. Sara Davis, marketing agent for the organization, provided an in-depth explanation and description of this unique form of gardening that was developed originally in Germany.

“Hügelkultur gardens have been in use for centuries but have become more popular in the last half of this century,” Davis said. The name refers to “hilling” or “mound gardening.”

“In a typical flat garden, if you get too much rain, you end up with a saturation issue. If it’s too dry, plants can’t get the nourishment they need,” Davis continued, adding “there isn’t a lot of ability to retain or shed water.”

That’s where the structuring of a Hügelkultur garden comes to the rescue, allowing gardeners to plant in even some very inhospitable terrain such as a drainage ditch or even on pavement.

How a Hügelkultur garden is structured

Davis described the initial work as digging a 6- to 8-inch hole that is roughly 2 feet wide and placing decaying logs inside.

“The initial layer of decaying logs creates the capacity to hold moisture,” Davis said.

If you don’t have access to logs, wood chips can be used, but they break down faster, she said. Davis said you can gather materials over time from deadfall and trees that need to come down.

Generally, the Hügelkultur is put together in the fall and planted in spring, so materials can be gathered and stored over the spring and summer.

“This saves you from burning materials as well,” she said.

The next layer is made up of fresh compost, meaning it hasn’t had a chance to break down yet. “It will digest over time,” Davis said.

The next layer is made up of smaller branches, 4 to 6 inches around to “give it some structure. When it rains, this keeps everything from washing away,” Davis said.

Next is a layer of fully digested compost, which provides nutrition for the roots of your plants as they reach down into the mound. Davis said the next layer is the loam that you dug out of your hole initially.

“When you are done, the mound should be about 18 inches across and about 2 feet high or knee high,” she said.

The top layer is where you plant your seeds or starts in the spring. Davis said one of the directors of Fabric of Life, Becky Ashenden, recently planted winter wheat in one of the Hügelkultur gardens they made this year. Davis said the great thing about the structure is it can be planted on both the top and sides.

The workshop group put together a 14-foot trench. Surprisingly, it may sound complicated, but Davis said it didn’t take very long to put together. “It took the group of us about an hour and a half to put it together.” The hardest part of building a Hügelkultur is gathering the materials. “And they are kind of fun to build with a group of people,” she said.

The benefits of planting a Hügelkultur garden

Davis said if you have a “really wet summer like last year, the rain just gets soaked up by the logs. The plants are up high and out of the way of the moisture.” Conversely, if the growing season is dry, the moisture in the logs migrates up to the plants, creating a moisture stabilization system, Davis said.

“Another really cool thing is decaying trees are a great source of mycelium and fungi. The fungus helps break down the nutrients to make them more bioavailable to the plants,” she said.

Davis said the Hügelkultur works the same way nature does, with deadfall that decays and creates a nutritious base for other plant life. “The tree fungus associated with decay is very beneficial.” Davis said the fungus and bacteria go to work breaking down the fresh compost in the layers, providing even more nutrition as roots reach deeper.

“Essentially you are making an environment for the fungi to make the nutrients available,” she said.

One of the frequent instructors at Fabric of Life who works with gardens and soil, ML Altobelli, owner of Greenery in Motion in Gardner, helped the workshop group put good soil together, which is her specialty.

“We wanted to create a good environment for the fungi to work in,” Davis said.

She added that it is important to have a soil test done so you know what to add to your soil in the way of minerals. “You can put all the calcium you want on your garden, but if it’s not bioavailable, it doesn’t do your garden much good,” she said.

The group also added a corn product to its mineral mix to provide a fuel source for fungi. Stone dust is also added to the mineral mix, Davis said.

Davis said the Hügelkultur is a better alternative to a raised bed, which “is essentially like having a large potted plant. Raised beds dry out so easily.”

Hügelkultur gardens are also a great environment for earthworms. The one downside to having a Hügelkultur garden, Davis said, is if you have a high rodent population, they can get into the stick layer and make nests.

“Really the Hügelkultur is just how the environment works on its own,” Davis said.

Cris Carl is an avid local gardener, licensed therapist and certified herbalist. She is an experienced journalist who has written for the Recorder for many years. She can be reached at cstormfox57@gmail.com.


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