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Hugelkultur: What is it, and should it be used in home gardens?

Hugelkultur: What is it, and should it be used in home gardens?

FS283E
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Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Washington State University
Hügelkultur is an increasingly popular way of using organic material to create mounded home gardens and landscapes. This method is often taught to gardeners in permaculture and biodynamics workshops. But is the enthusiasm for this method supported by scientific research? This publication describes how to create a Hügelkultur bed, how Hügelkultur originated, and the state of the science behind the practice. It concludes with some science-based alternatives for using woody debris in gardens and landscapes.
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What is Hügelkultur?

Hügelkultur is a German term meaning hillock or mound cultivation. It is a method of building garden and landscape beds using woody material, garden debris, and soil arranged in long, tunnel-shaped mounds. Since these beds are three dimensional, they create additional space for growing plants.

Creating a Hügelkultur Bed

There are many instructions available online detailing Hügelkultur bed construction. The earliest known are those published in a German booklet (Beba and Andrä n.d.) that was translated for use in this publication. The instructions that follow are taken directly from this translation.

First, a rectangular depression is constructed by removing sod; woody debris such as branches and deadfall is laid out along the center line at a height of two feet from end to end (Figure 1). Material is tapered to the ground along the sides. More woody debris, vegetation, and the original sod is added to the top and sides of the mound. Soil is added as well, and the entire mound is beaten with a shovel to create a smooth surface. More dead foliage is added, along with soil, composted animal manure, and worms. Coarse compost and soil are added and the mound is beaten into the desired form.

The mound is left to rest over several months, during which it decomposes and settles from its original three foot height to something more appropriate for a garden bed. Planting, watering, weeding, and fertilizing instructions are detailed. The reader is cautioned, however, that mounds have a lifespan of five to six years, after which they need to be “rebuilt from scratch.” This is an important point that will be revisited below.

How Did Hügelkultur Originate?

Popular publications provide a murky story on the origins of Hügelkultur. It has been described as “a centuries old…technique” (Adams 2013) as well as a permaculture method developed in 1978 (Laffoon 2016). In fact, the term first appears in a 1962 German brochure written by avid gardener Herrman Andrä. In this brochure, Andrä describes the diversity of plants found growing in the woody debris pile in the corner of his grandmother’s garden. This observation

Figure 1. Schematic of Hügelkultur mound construction (Adapted by Andrew Mack from Beba and Andrä n.d.)
Figure 1. Schematic of Hügelkultur mound construction (Adapted by Andrew Mack from Beba and Andrä n.d.)

inspired him to promote mound culture, or Hügelkultur, as an alternative to “flatland culture.” This method was also a useful way to dispose of woody debris, the burning of which was prohibited.

While the term Hügelkultur is not in print before 1962, Andrä’s methods may have been influenced by fellow countryman Rudolf Steiner. For instance, Andrä included this quote from a 1924 Steiner lecture on biodynamics in his booklet:

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