Hugelmounds are a truly amazing regenerative landscaping technique. They could be your preferred method of soil re-building and regeneration, and here’s why.
There’s a lot to consider when understanding the best and most environmentally balanced way of creating your new forest garden and permaculture landscape.
Hugelcultures, or "hugel mounds", are a way of creating raised beds, which over time break down into mounds of fertility. They work on the principle of mimicking how a forest works to regenerate itself — the dead wood falls and begins to decompose, fallen branches and leaf litter begin to accumulate on top. Year after year, rich soil begins to form because it creates a diverse habitat for decomposers, fungi and bacteria to thrive.
When re-creating this "forest technique", you can use logs as the base for the mounds, and top with any organic matter you have easily accessible or close to your site: branches, leaves, straw, hay, wood chips, any green vegetation, grass clippings, etc. Layer the mounds using the coarser material below and the finest material on top. Top with a fine layer of soil or compost and mulch again and they are ready.
Mounds are a great permaculture technique because they create a dynamic landscape with varying elevations and shapes, increasing the diversity of animal and plant habitat niches. Since they are raised mounds, they are also naturally easier to tend to.
Besides mounds there are several other options you have to build the soil up to become fertile and well drained. We consider hugelmounds to be the best option in a temperate climate, especially in the countryside.
Compare it to another option: tilling the field and sowing a cover crop. This method uses gas powered machinery, and is not so gentle if you consider the disruption of the wildlife and the organisms that are there to begin with.
We experimented doing that with a small area, and it didn’t work as well as I thought it might. Because we are dealing with what’s mostly subsoil, aka very little/no topsoil left, the cover crop didn’t take right away. If you have poor soil on your site you may have this issue as well — most permaculturalists usually do… that’s the whole point to regenerating a site.
We don’t use machinery, so there was no easy way to help it along, till it in or even "chop and drop" it. So we can’t really call it a cover crop, but thankfully each year, the "cover crop" does better because there is also natural succession taking place in the area and we are allowing nature to restore that zone. In the more "maintained" garden area, we plant comfrey along the borders, as well as other nitrogen fixing species like clover, peas, sea buckthorn and Siberian pea shrub.
If you have wood, brush and other organic materials on the land, we would consider hugelmounds the most ‘organic’ and low-impact way to build up your soil on a bigger scale.
It worked for us because we are low-tech and don’t use gas-guzzling machinery. Also it was a new site, so no available compost piles, and any large amounts of soil we would have to buy/acquire elsewhere and have it trucked in (more gas-guzzling activities).
Greensand, lime, bonemeal and other soil amendments are also products of industrialization, so we don’t consider them fully sustainable options. They are no doubt mined or created in large operations, packaged, and trucked around, so it’s not a truly low impact or ecological way to go about your gardening. However, adding amendments does produce ‘results’. Our style of permaculture is less about results and more about learning a natural and harmonious way to get along with the earth.
Back to hugelmounds! Creating them is a simple terraforming art; you pile or bury logs, dead wood, pieces of branches onto the ground in any shape you desire to create.
We created an artistic shape that would influence the beauty of our garden in years to come. The pathways, water flow and contours are central elements of our natural design.
Many of our hugelmounds are curved and arched to act as "berms" which capture the water as it flows downhill. There are endless possibilities in creating practical and beautiful flowing shapes with your hugelmounds. You can create a "u" as a suntrap open to the south (or north, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), or even use them as the foundation base of a terrace. Because our site has a slight slope, we also dig small swales before or behind them to help with water catchment and flow.
The best place to position your mound is in a dip or lowland, that way it will continue to get soakage. Staying wetter will just make it decompose faster. Hugelmounds are ideal for wetland type spaces where you would like to grow on drier terrain. However, you can make your mounds anywhere, and by digging smart and using the swale technique, it will still hold some water.
When using dry wood, it is recommended to thoroughly soak (or let the rain soak) your logs before you add the other finer organic materials on top. Depending on your site, you can choose to dig and lay the logs into the ground (about half a foot is fine), and then add the dug soil on top. This is helpful because the more soil you have on top the faster you can plant in your hugelmounds. If you are digging into lawn, flip the turf over and cover the logs with it before you add on more leaves/organic matter, and finally soil.
You can grow potatoes and shallow rooted crops (like greens or lettuce) on your mounds the first year. Each year with the seasons and rains it will decompose more and get juicier – with soil life that is! You can grow veggies or hardy perennials. Every year you can try something different, since the soil layer will get deeper. It’s fairly easy to maintain and tend to, and if mulched well your mound will stay relatively weed free.
By creating a hugelmound, you are creating a legacy. You are repairing years of damage to soil and creating a regenerative spot of earth for decades to come.
So next time you’re thinking what to do with that pile of branches on your land, I hope you will consider this wonderful project!
- The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource
- Hugelkultur: Composting Whole Trees With Ease
- A Recipe for a Hugelkultur Raised Bed
- A Hugelkultur Pumpkin Patch (Netherlands)