Frugal Hugelkultur: How to Build the Ultimate Raised Garden Bed

a hugelkultur bin in the making

A hugelkultur bed conserves water—a godsend in drought-stricken California.

The base of a hugelkultur raised bed contains a layer of dead logs and branches—organic material that, in the old days, I would have tossed into my yard waste bin for my city’s green waste truck to pick up and convert into mulch. That puts the stuff to good use. Like food scraps, yard waste belongs back in the soil, not in a landfill where it generates planet-heating methane gas as it breaks down.

But why send these resources away for processing into mulch when I can enrich my own yard with them and entice the bugs and microbes to do the hard work of breaking everything down?

What is hugelkultur?

Buried in a hugelkultur bed, decomposing wood releases water and nutrients into the soil to conserve precious resources. The organisms that break down the rotting wood to make all of this goodness available to the soil also help aerate that soil. Because the beds contain bulky wood, they require less soil to fill, which reduces the need to spend hard-earned cash on soil bagged in plastic. And on top of all of those benefits, I get to say (and write) the word “hugelkultur” over and over and over.

Had I more space, I would build hugelkultur mounds—what you’ll mostly find when reading about hugelkultur online. These tall mounds provide more surface area in which to grow plants and they enable gardeners to harvest their bounty without bending over, saving their backs and knees.

My initiation to this zero-waste gardening tactic began with dead fruit trees and barren fruit tree suckers—offshoots that spring up all over the place. Because we didn’t want to join our trees in the afterlife while cutting them down—either via electrocution by nearby powerlines or a fall from the roof while reaching high branches growing over it—we hired a tree trimmer/stump remover to do the work. We asked him to cut down the trees and remove the cherry stump.

I hadn’t planned on planting anything where the once-prolific cherry tree had stood and wanted the stump gone. But now I wish we had asked the stump remover to merely chop down the cherry tree. I would have built the hugelkultur bed over the stump and avoided the smelly, noisy, carbon emissions-spewing stump removal. I’ve learned my lesson.

Hugelkultur wood types

Go here for a discussion on types of wood to use in hugelkultur beds. I have buried peach, cherry and…fir. This summer in the yard, I squirreled away 2020’s dismembered Christmas tree trunk and planted some free succulent cuttings above it. If you buy an organic Christmas tree (or have already put yours up), and you feel guilty about killing a tree, you could throw it into a hugelkultur bed in the new year. Your hugelkultur can serve as both soil amendment and penance.

Many dead branches and logs piled on the ground. We saved these to fill hugelkultur raised beds.
These dead trees will go back into the Earth

Hugelkultur raised bed number one

Digging into our dry clay soil is like digging into rock. I’m surprised our shovel and hoe blades don’t simply snap in two when we attempt to push them in.

But after the stump remover removed the cherry tree stump, we could easily dig in that spot so we put our first raised hugelkultur bed there. As I said, had I planned better, I would have skipped the stump removal and moved directly to hugelkultur. Eventually, that stump would have broken down. Oh well. I’m always learning…

After digging down, we layered logs and branches on the bottom, followed by layers of compost, soil and mulch followed by more layers of compost and soil.

A raised hugelkultur bed in the yard filled with logs and branches in the bottom and compost and soil on top. Some seedlings are growing in it.

After my seedlings grow up, I’ll spread a bit more mulch on top of the soil. Mulch retains moisture and reduces the need to water. We have had some rain in California but not enough to bring us out of the drought so I’m a bit obsessed with retaining water in the soil as much as possible.

Hugelkultur raised bed number two

The second raised hugelkutur bed began almost directly on the soil—after removing the weeds and a bit of soil in an attempt to make the bed level. Smaller branches line the bottom of the bed, followed by smashed Halloween pumpkins, compost and soil.

A small rotting carved gourd for Halloween. This went into a hugelkultur raised bed. The decomposing gourd releases water and nutrients into the soil.

Free pumpkins, free raised beds, free plants, free seeds

Our sad soil needs all the help it can get so I asked neighbors for their pumpkins after Halloween to feed both our raised beds and compost bins. I received about 20 pumpkins in various life stages, ranging from perfectly edible whole pie pumpkins that I cooked into pies for Thanksgiving dinner to rotting, carved jack-o-lanterns that dripped a trail behind me from my bike basket as I rode home along the street.

When I posted on Instagram that I wanted to build raised beds, someone offered me five redwood boxes that she no longer needed! Then last weekend, I attended a local garden share and received a bunch of seeds, some of which I planted in the second bed. I did buy the beet and carrot seeds growing in the first bed but aside from that four dollar investment, these beds and everything in them cost nothing.

I hope I can soon post pictures of vegetables growing in my new-to-me beds. Stay tuned for those.


10 Replies to “Frugal Hugelkultur: How to Build the Ultimate Raised Garden Bed”

  1. Wonderful you have found this. I have been using the technique for a number of years in raised beds. I offer a little advice. Instead of removing the weeds before adding the hugelkultur layers to the 2nd raised beds; I put down a layer of used carboard, this does 2 things; suppresses the weeds and adds another layer of carbon that those mighty bacteria breakdown. You can also use a thick layer of cardboard or feed bags that are left over from feeding your chickens/livestock. All are carbon so all work. Remove any tape or binding from these items before utilizing. Our local recycle center gives away this cardboard away to gardeners for free-a great resource.

    I built a hugelkultur bed 2 years a go and had to dismantle it to remove it and the cardboard i had put down the year before to suppress weeds was completely gone. I could actually see the Mycorrhiza growing on the wood that i had “planted” the year before. Nature is wonderful.

    I too live in a summer drought prone area, this method of gardening is a god send.

    1. Edit note here; I meant to say:
      You can also use a thick layer of NEWSPAPER or feed bags that are left over from feeding your chickens/livestock. All are carbon so all work. Remove any tape or binding from these items before utilizing.

      Apologize.

    2. Hi Kathy,
      Thank you very much for the tips! How do you feel about the ink printing on cardboard and newspaper? I have been saving cardboard to put down but haven’t done it. Now I’m really motivated! Less work, more carbon! Yes, this method is such a godsend. We need hugels all over!

  2. Ideally I don’t want the ink but I guess you can’t have everything. I guess you could tear the first paper layer off but I do not.

    Alternatively; I worked within a bean collective; a group of friends who grow drying beans collectively, we grew over 2000 plants this past summer. At this time of year we go to the local golf course (who do not use pesticides) who will let us collect maple leaves; they don’t want the leaves so we do the work of removing them and take them off their hands. The maple leaves are placed on the bean beds to protect the beds from the pounding rains we get on the west coast. The leaf thickness put on these beds is at least 8 inches. The amount of rain we get hear saturates the leaves so there is not worry of them blowing off; however we do cut broom (invasive species) and weigh the leaves down; more carbon. Not only do the leaves help with compaction, it also suppresses the weeds/grass as well. This would be another alternative to the first layer of your hugelkultur; a good thick layer of leaves or any other debris (straw) laying around the property that totally covers the beds; anything but cedar which inhibits growth of everything. Hope this helps.

  3. I’ve used cardboard boxes flattened to kill out the Bahia grass so I can plant next spring.

  4. Hey AnneMarie,
    I immediately recalled this guy (and you may enjoy checking this Australian youtuber out, he fell across hugelkultur early in his gardening). Now, his property is filled with raised beds and looks like he’s never going back to planting directly in the ground!

    Re: your bed 2, are you planning on pumpkins coming up? I would! Really, I am so happy to see how you reach out to your community to accomplish this project. That is a hallmark of your zero waste actions (as far as I can tell) and I really appreciate your role modeling.

    “https://youtu.be/3O2qCQU7Cac”

    1. Hi Catherine,
      Thank you for the link and kind words. Hugelkultur is amazing. We are in a severe drought here in California and this will help. So far, we’ve buried carved pumpkins only without the seeds. But I wouldn’t mind some volunteer pumpkin plants 🙂

      1. I have known about Hügelkultur for some time and finally started to prep my raised beds with this process. I did put down cardboard first and then layered sticks and half burnt wood, grass clippings etc. I started seeds indoors under grow lights. Your blog and social media posts are an inspiration. I’m a big fan

      2. Hügelkultur is amazing! Enjoy your raised beds and plants. And thank you for the kind words!

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