A hugel bed (also known as hugelkultur) is basically a garden bed filled with logs. In theory, the logs will absorb rainwater like a sponge, allowing for less frequent watering of the bed. As the logs break down, they provide a steady stream of nutrients. To make a hugel bed, dig about a foot down into the soil. (To avoid digging, some people have just built the bed on top of the soil or created a small frame like a raised bed.) Place logs, branches, and sticks into the trench. Cover the logs with upside-down turf, grass clippings, compost, manure, leaves, etc. Top with soil and mulch, and then plant your seeds.
Some people report amazing success with hugel beds, and others declare them as failures. I’ve had mediocre success but have learned a few things along the way that should make the bed perform better in the future.
1. Mulch doesn’t like to stay on the bed. I’ve tried combinations of leaves, grass clippings, weed cuttings, and wood chips. All it took was one storm to wash the mulch to the base of the bed. Leaves were the worst choice, and grass clippings held on the longest. Dense plantings help keep the mulch in place.
2. Some plants have grown well for me on the hugel bed and other plants haven’t. Kale, radish, and lambsquarter have been the most successful. Tomatoes and squash died from lack of water after the mulch disappeared. Plants with deep taproots can be planted toward the top of my hugel bed, but shallow-rooted plants do better near the base.
3. Hugel beds = shaded areas. The height of the bed causes various areas to be shaded throughout the day. If planned correctly, this can be helpful during the hot summer months.
4. Mice love the hugel bed. There are crevices between the logs that dirt didn’t fill in, so I find new mice holes in the side of the bed every year. There are fewer crevices as the dirt settles and the logs decompose, so I’ve only seen one hole this year. The mice haven’t caused a problem except the time they dug a new hole near a plant and uprooted a couple of radishes. My bed has about 3 layers of logs. To prevent mouse-sized crevices, I should have added compost, manure, or soil in between the layers of logs instead of just on top.
5. Ants love the hugel bed during wet weather. When the soil is too wet, ants turn to the hugel bed for protection and build mounds on top of the bed’s mulch. I sprinkled diatomaceous earth on them, which caused them to move their mound 2 feet over. They think they’re clever, but I have a 25 pound bag of the stuff.
6. Some people theorize that the logs will trap nitrogen in the initial stages of decomposition, causing a nitrogen deficiency in the plants. I haven’t found this to be the case, but I occasionally water the beds with diluted urine just in case.
I haven’t found the hugel bed to be as user-friendly as a regular garden bed, so I’ll keep it but I won’t build another one. Or maybe I’ll figure out the trick to a successful bed and change my mind.
Do you have a hugel bed? What are your thoughts and experiences with it?