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When you have to cut down a tree in your garden, you have a few options to dispose of its leaves and branches. You could burn them, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. You could hire someone to haul them away from your property, which may cost a few hundred dollars. Or you could use hügelkultur gardening methods to benefit other areas of your garden.
Hügelkultur gardening is a method that involves using mounds of soil built from organic material like logs, branches, leaves, and mulch. These mounds provide nutrients for plants that you grow on them while maximizing surface area in your garden by planting vertically. In this article, we discuss four different hügelkultur gardening methods and the pros and cons of hügelkultur.
Hügelkultur Gardening Methods
According to Scott Wilson, Master Gardener at Galileo School of Math and Science, you can trace the first mention of the word “hügelkultur” back to the 1960s. Other sources cite the 1970s as the first time German horticulturalists coined the term “hügelkultur,” which roughly translates into “hill culture.”
Regardless of its etymology, the concept of this gardening practice is simple. It utilizes the sustainable gardening principles of permaculture or permanent agriculture, particularly the concept of enriching the soil to make other plants and organisms benefit from it.
In hügelkultur, you bury logs, branches, and leaves in trenches and then cover them with soil. Burying a fallen tree underground hastens the decomposition process, allowing you to enrich your soil much faster. The soil will take the nutrients from the logs and twigs, and other plants in the area will benefit.
There are four primary methods of applying this gardening practice.
Deep Trench Method
This method is a classic permaculture method where you dig a deep trench to fill with logs and soil. You repeat this process of filling a trench with more logs and more soil until you reach a two-meter-tall hügelkultur mound for your garden.
This method may not be suited for your area if you have limited gardening space. Having a small source of logs may also be a problem because you may not reach too high of a mound even after digging a deep trench. The digging aspect is another factor that most gardeners may have a problem with because you need heavy machinery to achieve an ideal deep trench.
Shallow Trench Method
This method is a more manageable version of the classic method. A shallow trench method would have you filling a trench with smaller branches and twigs and then topping it off with soil to reach a mound that is about a meter tall.
This hügelkultur method also acts like a compost pit, where you put compostable material in a pile and then bury them under the soil. Because it is like a compost pile, you may have to allow a year for decomposition to enrich your soil before your plants can benefit from the mound.
A no-trench hügelkultur method would have you piling your branches and logs directly on the ground without having to dig a trench to bury them in. Piling all the tree branches and logs would smother the grass underneath it all, which would add to the overall nutrients of the mound as green matter.
Green materials like grass and manure produce nitrogen, and they would work with your brown materials or your branches and logs to enrich the soil better. However, since this method has no trench, you would need a soil source to fill every crevice of your mound to avoid any hollow and loose spots.
If you have a ready source of soil in your gardening area that can bury a no-trench hügelkultur mound, you can build a mound as large as you feel comfortable. As long as the last layers of your mound are something you can grow plants with, like garden soil or compost, then you can easily raise plants in your hügelkultur bed.
Raised Bed Method
Just like the no-trench method, a raised bed hügelkultur mound does not require any digging. You may build a garden frame as you would for a vegetable bed and then fill that space with your logs, branches, twigs, and leaves.
Just like the other methods, you could mix nitrogenous materials with your carbonous materials to enrich the soil you use for your raised bed. The natural decomposition process that occurs will help improve your garden soil.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Hugelkultur Gardening
Hügelkultur is popular in gardening circles for being an easy way to enrich the soil with otherwise useless logs and branches. Although giving your garden plants the chance to benefit from excess nutrients from these materials is good, hügelkultur may have some issues you should consider. Here are some pros and cons of hügelkultur gardening.
- Carbon Sequestration: When you bury logs, branches, twigs, and leaves from a fallen tree, you are returning all their nutrients to the earth, which would otherwise get released into the atmosphere if you burn them.
- Moisture Retention: Although there is no peer-reviewed research on hügelkultur’s ability to retain moisture, many practicing gardeners agree that they have used less water to maintain their hügelkultur garden mounds. This concept is similar to how mixing compost in the soil allows the soil to hold more water. With logs in the mix, the entire mound would act as a large sponge holding a lot of moisture.
- No-Till Gardening: Because hügelkultur utilizes decomposition, your garden mound is constantly changing as the bacteria and fungi work through their natural processes. As such, you would not have to constantly till your soil for your plants after building your hügelkultur mound.
- Unsuitable Wood: Beware of some tree species that you use for your mound-like cedar and black walnut, which may kill nearby plants, thus defeating the purpose of enriching your soil. Cedar trees also take too long to decompose, making them unsuitable for a hügelkultur mound.
- Rooting: Watch out for unwanted bushes or shrubs that you include in your mound as green materials. These plants may take root in your mound when you did not intend for them to grow.
- Nutrient Toxicity: If you live in an area with constant rainfall and a shallow water table, you risk leaching your hügelkultur mound’s nutrients into the water table, thus contaminating your water source.
Hügelkultur gardening utilizes decomposition for enriching the soil. This gardening method involves burying otherwise unusable logs, branches, twigs, and leaves under the soil to create a sustainable gardening environment.
This method is also space-effective since you can build mounds as tall as you want so you can utilize your garden area’s vertical space. By planting upwards, you cover more area and get to plant more than you could horizontally. If you are interested in other gardening methods such as aquaponics click here.