Hugelkultur beds can be a great way to grow vegetables when existing soil is poor or space is limited. Hugelkultur is a German word meaning “hill culture” or “mound culture.” These are raised mounds 4-5 feet high from which plants are grown on all sides.
When not in bottomland, much of the soil in the Catskills is very rocky. Our property is no exception. We found a broken plow blade in the woods from the early 20th century. My guess is they tried to plow, almost immediately broke their plow blade and gave up on that idea. The evidence suggests that this was primarily pasture land. Because of this we knew that putting in a traditional vegetable garden would have been very challenging. Some type of raised bed was the best option.
Typically raised beds are some sort of wooden framed structure that is then filled with top soil. We elected to get a little more creative with something called hugelkultur beds. Hugelkultur is a German word meaning “hill culture” or “mound culture.” These are raised mounds 4-5 feet high from which plants are grown on all sides.
We started out by removing the few inches of soil we could and tossing this to the side for later use. Fairly large chunks of wood that were not suitable for firewood were used as a base. This was about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide. On top of this, we placed smaller branches, then twigs, then leaves. You can also use other biodegradable materials such as cardboard. This all got a cap of horse manure (I hear cow is the best) and finally the top soil that was initially removed. The top of the mound is about a foot wide.
The beauty of the hugelkultur mound is that it maximizes surface area, due to its shape. Its footprint is about 50 square feet, but it has a planting area double that. Hugelkultur mounds are usually oriented north-south, but they can be situated differently. Each mound has 4 different mini-aspects, allowing for plant placement that maximizes each species preferred aspect. As the leaves, twigs, branches, and eventually the larger logs break down they release nutrients. This reduces the need to add more fertilizer or compost each year. The wood also holds moisture better than soil alone, so the hugelkultur is a bit more drought-hardy, reducing the need for supplemental watering.
The downside is that it is definitely a lot a manual labor. Having several friends, neighbors, or family members to help with the construction would be a big help. A small tractor would also be very helpful, especially if more than one mound is to be built.
We will have to wait and see if it produces…
Top soil removal and large wood storage
Large wood base
Branches and sticks
Leaves, some cardboard, and some horse manure
A lot of horse manure
Top soil and a wee one for scale