Hugelkultur is a method of building flower beds by covering the wood with soil; large piles of wood and sometimes other organic matter. You can dig a trench and fill it with wood, or just stack the wood on the ground and cover it. There are many different approaches, as Paul Wheaton points out, and the results are impressive. This has to be one of the lowest tech systems I’ve ever heard of.
Why would you do this? As wood decays, it has an incredible ability to retain water and creates a nifty little ecosphere to promote a healthy soil network of microbes, fungi, insects, and worms. Over time, the decaying matter provides nutrients to plants and creatures, and as the wood decomposes, it helps keep the soil from compacting. Some experts say the results can have a positive impact on the bed for 15 to 20 years. Plus, it’s a really fun word to say.
I had a large pile of firewood from some dying trees we felled several years ago, and instead of starting a new bed, I decided to convert an existing raised bed planter. I’ve seen videos of giant beds from Hugelkultur, but various permaculture resources recommend dimensions of about 6’x3′, so my 4’x4′ pot should be perfect. By the way, this is one of the same beds from the screw tower solution. I started by removing all the soil from the pot and lowered another foot below ground level.
When I removed the worm tower, it was full of happy worm life, with worms in the tube and hanging out of the holes in the side. There was pretty strong evidence that the worms went in and out of the tube to feed on the bacteria in the compost and carry the nutrients directly into the soil. The soil also had a large number of regular earthworms, a big change from several years ago. I almost hated to part this bed because the things we’ve tried over the past few years really seemed to work, but the dramatic claims about the benefits of Hugelkultur make it a worthwhile experiment.
After removing the dirt, I layered the wood and added a couple buckets of compost from different stages. Avoid using wood from trees that contain natural toxins, such as cedar and others. from this list here – and if you find a good list of recommended wood to use, please post it in the comments of this article. I covered everything with the soil I removed and then covered it with white clover seeds.
Maybe we won’t and leave the clover in the garden next year, I’m not sure yet. I haven’t seen anyone add unfinished compost, so it was a random addition, but I have several stages going, which can give the soil life a boost.