HUGELKULTUR MOUNDS: How To Make Them & Do You Really Need Them?

HUGELKULTUR MOUNDS: How To Make Them & Do You Really Need Them?

       Hügelkultur (hoo-gul-culture) sounds like something impossibly hard to do just trying to pronounce it, right!?  But it’s actually one of the easiest things in the world you can make in your garden! Hügelkultur is German and translates to “hill mound” or “hill culture.” That sounds way less scary right?

         Oh it doesn’t?

         Are the words ‘hill’ and ‘mound’ freaking you out and making you envision your entire yard as one big hill?

         Fear not!

        You’re not really making a hill or a massive mound.

        Today is a bit of a doozy, but I tried my very hardest to answer as many questions as I could in regard to this subject, even down to what kind of climate you live in! So if a climate doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip the parts you don’t need! I also have links to a lot of the books and places I researched (which also leads to other resources that yes, I did read. Because I’m a nerd like that).


(image credit: Permaculture UK)

      The concept of hügelkultur was made popular by famed permaculturist Sepp Holzer, whose permaculture garden is on a steep slope in Austria, 5,000 feet above see level. He’s also worked with people all over the world, especially on arid, dry, degraded land, and uses hügel mounds there too!  

     Following Sepp’s formula is a simple, and yes, a liiiittle bit labor intensive if you don’t have helping hands. But it’s easy enough to do on your own (don’t mind the deer or neighbors that’ll be staring at you. Soon you’ll have the last laugh!). Here’s how you make one:

- Dig a trench anywhere from 1 to 3 feet deep and 4 feet wide

- Fill it with rotting wooden trunks and whole bushes—roots and all. You can use freshly cut down wood, but it will lock some nitrogen up for a year or so, until it can break down enough, so be mindful of that.

- Put organic matter like grass clippings, small shrubs, twigs, fresh leaves, dry leaves, you name it on top of the wood.  If you dig up the ground, be careful and separate the top soil/hummus from the grassy turf. Set both carefully aside as you’ll flip over the turf grass side down on top of this organic matter pile

- Next is a nice healthy layer (3 to 8 inches) of hummus--aka, top soil. If you were careful when digging up you separated and saved that turf and soil)

- Add an additional layer of compost if you’d like and/or plan to plant right away.

- Last but not least, you can add straw to protect the soil from the sun & drying up quickly.
When all’s said and done it should be at a height of roughly 5 feet tall with the sides at an angle of at least 45 degrees. This means it’s narrower at the top. And that’s it! Why such steep edges though, you ask? Because steep beds avoid compaction from the increasing pressure and the greater the mass, the great the water retention benefits.
        If  you’re worried the sides may slide down, place some green (aka, fresh) pole branches (or even bamboo) along the sides of the mound and tack it in place with wooden nails (aka, a thin-ish branch you’ve semi-broken to make a ‘v’ clip) to keep the run off at a minimum.

        If you’re worried you can’t reach the top because you’ve made it so high or you built taller support trellises for runner/pole beans, simply create a path or two in the middle and side with some shorter bamboo or wood planks shoved in to use as access points to get to the top.

       Or, more simply, you can just lay a ladder against the mound when and where you need to access things!
        Some people have made them on flat ground without digging a trench to place their logs in and found that their soil on top dries out really fast or that the logs don’t really decompose. I’m not surprised. Unless you’ve thoroughly covered the logs with soil, the exposure to air dries them out and keeps them from rotting and at the same time, is gulping moisture trying to make up for it.
        Also, most people have only made one mound—Sepp’s directions are usually for more than one as it creates a biome, and shade on the lower ground in between, thereby helping retain moisture.

        Cover your logs if you decided to not dig a trench.

        The cool thing about the hugel mounds though, is that you don’t have to make them straight! You can dig your trench to be curvy, twirly, triangle, whatever! You can make them the curved walls that surround your raised beds, if you wanted to (just note the position of the sun and how high the mounds are as it will affect the amount of light your garden beds receives)!


(image credit: unsplash)

Really, any kind is usable save cedar, juniper, redwoods, or any kind that resist breaking down. Sepp says that soft woods such as poplar or pine will decay within 3 to 5 years and hardwoods like oak can take 10 to 15 years to do so. So depending on how long you want your mound to stay tall will depend on what type of wood you use.

        I imagine for raised bed systems, soft wood might be a better approach as opposed to the hardwoods, which might be better for slopes (in my opinion).


(stock image credit: Istock)       

Having read through not only Sepp’s books but also other people’s blogs and YouTube videos on their attempts at hugel mounds (all with varying degrees of success and failures) I’ve noticed quite a lot of people haven’t actually put Sepp’s planting practice to use. Those who have, have seen success.

        His formula for what to plant where is also contingent on the fact that he builds more than one mound, and they’re parallel to each other (aka, one in front of the other). He also notes that you do need to water these mounds during dry spells and to do so at the base of the mound.

He also reminds us all to take into account that a lot of nitrogen and nutrients, so it's a good idea to plant crops that are heavy feeders like squash, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, and egg plants, who can handle the amount of nutrients first coming out. After three years less demanding plants such as beans, peas, and strawberries can be planted.
I've noticed in my research quite a lot of people noted failure of crops, but more than half the time it was because the crops they tried to grow were the kind you shouldn't plant right after making the mound.

        At the base/edge of the mound you can plant things like onions, walking onions, and garlic, while on the steep sides you can plant things like strawberries, herbs, and even squash so that the vines can grow up and over the mound, offering shade. In general the top does dry out a bit faster so it's best to put plants who can handle drier soils on top like beans, peppers, and tomatoes.
But if you put 2 inches or so of mulch on top, like hay, it should help with decreasing the amount of times you'd have to water it.


(image credit: Connecticut Public)

       Hugel mounds can be put anywhere that’s most convenient for you to access, plant, and harvest from. You can also use them to separate spaces which will also make mini climates biomes as well! If you’ve heard of swales and berms, you could essentially make you’re your berm a hugel mound as well by adding the logs and downed bushes first before throwing the soil on top of it as you dig your swale.

       You can put them on a slope (which is a great idea, btw) but do not put them parallel with the slope.


        The first mound will absorb the most water and has the very real potential of creating a landslide. It also blocks the other ones further down from getting enough water. Always put the mounds at an angle on the slope. I saw a couple of bloggers tell people to put it parallel with the slope. Yikes. Please don’t do that.

        You can also use them on flat ground for windbreaks to protect your garden. Just make sure that you find out which direction your wind normally blows (or at least the very hard, damaging winds) and build them against the direction of the prevailing winds. As windbreaks they can also help with noise control. I’ve been to a place with massive mounds and it really does cancel out noises surprisingly well!


(image credit: istock       

Having researched through dozens and dozens of articles of people who are practicing hügelkultur in various climates and regions of the world, I found that quite a lot people who want to build these mounds (myself included) want or have to plant in very dry regions/climates. Sepp goes over this in his book Desert or Paradise: Restoring Endangered Landscapes Using Water Management, Including Lake and Pond Construction.

        Hugel mounds were designed to deal with areas that have access to a lot of wood and trees— often more wood than a human can possibly deal with in a timely manner due to storms that suddenly blow a bunch of trees down. But region wise, Sepp does break it down a little.

        If you live in a wet environment like the PNW (Pacific North West) you don’t need to dig at all as it gets so much rainfall. Simply put the logs on top of the ground to keep it from rotting down too quickly.

        If you live in a more arid place where the soil’s very sandy you might have to dig 2 and half feet down.

        Arid regions in Arizona that have their homes/land in the hilly, pine tree forests (as opposed to the flat, desert portion with no trees), or the chaparral area of Southern California (like where I live. It’s a mix of indigenous oak, sycamore, pine, elder, and even alder and aspen) can benefit from hügelkultur if built and managed correctly.

        I would like to point out from experience in my own garden—uncovered wood and wood chips dry out too fast to decompose and DO rob the soil of moisture trying to save itself. The wood chips that I had buried down in the earth have already decomposed because they managed to stay wet long enough thanks to the above layers taking the brunt of the sun.

        For this reason I have a suspicion that hügelkultur on its own without other permaculture methods to aid it, wouldn’t be the best idea for hot regions.

        If you live in a desert finding trees of any kind is going to be upwards of impossible. On one YouTube Channel, Nack’s Permaculture, they're experimenting and using tumbleweeds to fill in their hugel beds. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

        I think people often forget that permaculture isn't a one-sized shoe fits all sort of thing. It’s open to, and encouraging of, experimentation. Sepp uses these mounds very specifically on steep slopes and used what he had and had an abundance of with—fallen timber.

        Most people from what I’ve researched online when trying to find people who’ve made hügel mounds, don’t appear to have read Sepp’s books and relied simply on hearsay and many have made simply one mound (Sepp encourages that you make more than one for optimal results).

        On top of that I’ve seen that gardeners creating these mounds aren’t making the sides nearly what they should be at 45+ degrees or more—meaning that a lot of people have complained that it doesn’t work. Which, sure, because it wasn't built properly.


        Why make a hügel mound, you ask? What’s even the point of making a mound when you could just buy a bag full of soil (haha omg please don’t buy the
bagged soil), and grow it in a raised bed? That’s a great question!

        It’s simply another way to make a raised bed or separate spaces that you can plant into at all sides rather than just one flat area. It also should help in making your need for watering plants in your raised bed a rarer occurrence than a traditional raised bed once established, as the wood below keeps moisture in the ground for the plants to have access to along with nutrients.

        Because of how it’s designed and planted it’s also a great option for those with physical impairments who can’t just get on their hands and knees or bend over low to the ground to pick strawberries or weeds. Wheelchair users can simply pluck-and-go along the sides and those with bad joints or who use walkers can enjoy the same benefits. Most of what you need is in reach—sometimes even on the top!

        While a hügel mound can be 5 feet tall, it’ll eventually decompose down to a height of 2 feet tall over the course of several years—and given enough time, become completely flat once more. But as with all things in permaculture, build it to suite your needs. If a 2 feet high mounds is what you want, do it! Just make sure that the sides are steep. When they’re not very high it causes problems with decomposition.
        So should you make hugel mounds? If you want to! There’s no one who says this is the end all-be-all of garden beds, and your climate and growing region has a major impact on that. People in deserts probably shouldn’t be trying to make hugel beds unless they have some kind of woody material they can work with (like tumbleweeds, apparently!).
        Permaculture is all about observing, experimenting, and documenting. Just because a hugel mound works in one area doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for your area—or lifestyle or land. Experimenting is wonderful and if you think your property or life would benefit from a hugel mound, well then you know where your shovel and rotting wood is!
If you have any questions or comments don't hesitate to leave them down below! I would love to talk to you about this subject! Have you tried hügelkultur? What was your experience?

There'll be another blog up this Saturday dedicated to tomatoes!

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BLOGS Dry Hügelkultur Experiment: Hot, Aired Hügelkultur Experiment: Hügelkultur:

Away To Garden: Hügelkultur how to:

Garden Myths: A more scientific approach to hügelkultur:

Farmers Almanac: How to make a Hügelkultur bed:
Hügelkultur Works: What veggies to plant and where: 


Plant Abundance: Hügelkultur 5 year experiment:
Nack’s Permacutlurel: Hugel Ditches In The Desert:
Polyculture Farms Dryland Permaculture (based in Australia): Not Hugel Mounds, but similar, and why it’s not  for every climate. The whole video is great, hugelkulture talk starts at min 6:40:


 Permaculture by Sepp Holzer:

Desert or Paradise: Restoring Endangered Landscapes Using Water Management, Including Lake and Pond Construction
by Sepp Holzer:
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