Harnessing Hugelkultur

By on October 11, 2012

These Turkey Tail mushrooms growing on a log demonstrate the nutrition and moisture offered by wood.

If you’re deep into permaculture you know about Hugelkultur. If Hugelkultur makes you say, Who?, then say hello to an easy composting method.

Hugelkultur (HOO-gull-cull-toor) is a German word for building a new garden area with branches or even trees as the base. It’s sometimes referred to as wood composting. The area can be any shape, and it can be a low or steep mound. Organic waste is layered on top of the branches, and a cover crop or plants make the top layer.

Similar to sheet mulching or a traditional compost pile, the Hugelkultur mound will heat up (but not as much as a compost pile) and for a few years this can make it a season-lengthening spot for growing tender vegetables. As the wood breaks down the temperature will drop, and air pockets will take the place of some of the lost wood. This mixture of soil organisms, oxygen, and moisture will create superb soil.

How to build a Hugelkultur mound

In our video about growing potatoes in a Geobin, Tricia follows the traditional Hugelkultur method by adding layers of branches, followed by other organic materials, to make a bed for the potatoes. Here’s the diagram from the video, with potatoes, compost and then straw on top. When using hugelkultur outside of a bin, add leaves, twigs, and grass clippings along with the compost. 

A Hugelkultur mound will provide excellent soil for up to 20 years.

If a tree falls ... you can practice Hugelkultur

Next time a tree falls in your garden think twice before you call the tree service or get out your chainsaw. A downed tree can keep on giving to your garden’s ecosystem in a special way.

Instead of a pile of broken branches, you can use a fallen tree as the base of your mound, and heap branches at its sides, then layer on organic materials, and add plants on the top. A newly fallen tree will use up a lot of nitrogen as it decomposes, so be sure to add bone meal and blood meal amendments. A tree trunk that is already rotten will not use as much nitrogen, and those nitrogen-rich amendments would not be necessary.

The fallen tree is a reservoir of water and as it slowly decays it will release that moisture. Bushes or small trees planted on the mound will reach their roots down to drink the moisture from the rotting tree—to such an extent that they can survive in arid climates without extra water.

For more information about permaculture, look at the second edition of the classic, Gaia’s Garden.

Instead of firing up the chipper-shredder, try Hugelkultur with your extra branches this year.

  Comments (10)


What does one do in years two and beyond to keep the bin going?  Can one plant potatoes again or should one start over?


Posted by James S on Oct. 13, 2012 at 10:56:29 AM


are there alternatives to bonemeal and bloodmeal? I don’t like using them…

Posted by Hendrica Regez on Oct. 13, 2012 at 1:08:54 PM


U will want to check out permies for great info on hugels. Don’t use those products of mass death, better is various meals and rock dust. I can’t say it’s harvested sustainably but at least it not perfectly tied to suffering and death! I like kelp meal, but I wouldn’t overuse it I don’t know about the salt content. Rock dust local should be able to help u find some.

Posted by Keith on Oct. 13, 2012 at 10:21:04 PM


Green stuff has a higher nitrogen content.  Grass clippings are easy to come by.  Alfalfa meal, should you have available, is like 12% nitrogen.  Livestock manure is great N source.  Poultry or sheep or goat manure are much better than cow or horse.  There is a danger of weed seeds in manures.  Urine also is very high in N, but you should dilute, and don’t use on root crops, I imagine. 
  There is a great, tho somewhat complicated discussion of this at the Colorado State Extension site entitled “Organic Materials as Nitrogen Fertilizers.”
Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Posted by Rikardo on Oct. 24, 2012 at 7:20:08 AM


Llama poop is amazing. Better than other manures, imho.
1.7% nitrogen, 0.69 phosphorus, 0.66 potassium.
Will not burn when applied directly to plants. And no weed seeds.

Posted by Jackie Earnshaw, CPDT-KA on Apr. 12, 2013 at 10:33:47 PM

James, After the first crop of potatoes you can plant them again. If you want to add more layers that is fine too.

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 15, 2013 at 3:31:51 PM

Hendrica, Look in this sidebar under Fertilizer Solutions for things you can substitute for Blood Meal and Bone Meal. Click on N to replace Blood Meal and on P to replace Bone Meal. http://www.groworganic.com/fertilizers.html

Keith, Rikardo and Jackie—Thank you for your valuable suggestions!

Posted by GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 15, 2013 at 3:34:26 PM


How many potatoes can I plant in a 3by4 round hulgleculture?
Can potato varieties be grown together? I bought 4 varieties,  one pound each. I’m wondering how many wire rounds I will need.
Thanks, Karen

Posted by karen black on Nov. 29, 2014 at 7:10:45 PM

If you do not care about keeping track of each variety, yes you can plant different varieties in the same round. You should plant the potato pieces about 8-10” apart so you will need multiple rounds or as the potatoes grow and the tops are tall, you can add another layer, then another set of potato pieces. But if you want to plant all at once, you might just need 3 rounds.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Dec. 01, 2014 at 4:57:49 PM


Hendrica, I’m no expert on bone and blood meal (I don’t use them either), but rabbit droppings may be able to substitute since it is so high in nitrogen. I used my rabbits’ droppings on my tomatoes this year and I have one plant that’s well over 6 feet tall and requires 3 cages to keep most of the branches upright.

Posted by Cassandra on Sep. 19, 2016 at 1:21:06 PM

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