Hügelkultur in dry climates?

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Image: Urbania Hoeve.

Hügelkultur, popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, is the practice of burying logs in a mound to create a raised bed that composts in place. As the logs break down they add organic matter and create, in theory, a rich soil full of air gaps, fungal and microbial life.

But the thought of mounding anything in our dry climate doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in my post about the pros and cons of raised beds, if I didn’t have contaminated soil I’d grow my veggies in the ground. A Root Simple reader from Cyprus, which has a very similar climate as ours, said that Hügelkultur experiments there had not worked out. I’ve also heard that Geoff Lawton is skeptical of the practice in dry climates. And I’ve found no peer reviewed research on the practice.

But I also want to keep an open mind. I get asked about this practice a lot and have to confess ignorance. If you know of a Hügelkultur experiment in a dry climate please leave a link. Perhaps there’s a dry climate variation?  Has anyone seen any research? Have you tried it yourself?

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33 Comments

  1. What if a trench was dug below ground level and the logs place in it? Seen where corn was planted in shallow pits in the arid southwest by indigenous cultures……

    • This is what I’ve been curious about. Wish I had the space to try both above and at ground level. Someone should do an experiment . . .

    • Very bluntly: Highbeds of huegelcultur doesn’t work in dry climates. What does work is Zaï holes (just Guegle for more info). And if you want to dig more, make trenches instead of holes filled with plantmaterial. Highbeds dry out within a few weeks after the rains stops. And then everything else stops as well, plantgrowth on top of the bed, decomposition inside of the bed. I have successfully germinated plantmaterial in July and August in Portugal with little water. Zaï holes and lowbeds work, highbeds don’t.

  2. I saw a video a few years ago called ‘Greening the Desert’ about work in Jordan. I seem to recall (but could be wrong) that hugelculture was part of their strategy. Anyway, the video seems to be available online.

  3. I have no experience and no opinion, actually, about using it as a deliberate planting method. But I do have experience of mounding over tree trunks and breaking them down.

    The ones I did were the remnants of fir trees of about 10″ in diameter and a foot or so in length (plus another 9″ or so of roots). I just put them at the bottom and center of each new pile I was constructing. I’d say they took 3 or 4 trips through passive piles. It was pretty impressive to me, actually. I’d say it took 3-4 years in piles that were about 4′x4′x4′.

    After the second year the piles’ moisture had penetrated enough that I could fork into a crack and break the trunks up a bit. After that, it went much more quickly and there were only chunks remaining for subsequent piles. The distinctive curly roots were definitely the hardest to break down despite how relatively slim they were. Roots were still identifiable and largely intact 5 years and possibly a 6th.

    Interestingly, we had a massive (and I mean MASSIVE!) pine tree taken out at least 5 years ago. Those roots, which are in the ground (clay) as opposed to a compost pile, show very little evidence of breaking down. I am still hacking away at the roots just on the surface and only beginning to make some progress in removing some of them 6″ deep.

    I guess that suggests that this method makes some sort of sense. And when you have large hunks of wood that won’t fit in a chipper and aren’t stable enough to attack them with a chainsaw what choice do you have but to let nature and relentless roots do their work? This may be more a strategy of necessity than one of preference.

    • Forgot to say that I may or may not water my piles once or twice a year in the worst part of the summer. Despite how dry our climate is, the core of my piles are moist when I break them down. There’s 8″-10″ of dust dry stuff all around the exterior but the decomposed stuff at the core is moist enough to form clumps about the size of bowling balls.

      Maybe this suggests it’s not a bad method for climates as dry as SoCal.

  4. We’re doing junk mail swales out in the high desert. That seems like the dryland equivalent.

    I’d like to try a mashup of the two: burying the kind of thing you’d put in a hugel in a pit. Early on it can store water for the tree, and later, when it breaks down, it can provide nutrients.

  5. I saw some hugelkultur beds at the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, CA. I believe those beds are several years old and serve a variety of functions, providing privacy being one of them, but maybe someone from there could comment on how the beds are working? Here is the website: http://www.permacultureskillscenter.org .

    I have a garden in the Central Valley and currently combining some ideas from hugelkultur with sheet mulching. I dug down several inches, then put down successive layers of branches, leaves, grass clippings, and soil amendments, ending with the soil taken from the hole. I did end up with beds several inches above the original soil level, but am hoping the organic matter underneath will help hold the moisture. Winter vegetables are doing quite well in these beds but the real test will come in the summer.

  6. I’m not sure what you’d consider the upper limits for a dry climate but I’ve tried a couple of smaller hugelbeds and found they work pretty well. I don’t have big logs to work with, largest was around 4 inches diameter (apart from a few random blocks 2-3x that) and the bed itself only 12-15 inches high. It was the only patch of happy green plants on our place last summer though. Not watered much and we had a solid crop of beans from it. Too dry on the edges for strawberries, lost a few plants there, but it was a particularly hot dry summer and they didn’t do well anywhere else either.

    I have solid clay under six inches of silt so my plan from here is to dig out the silt, layer in the hugelbed and mix the silt back in with compost and manure. I did that small scale with a weeping mulberry last year, large rose prunings and weeds only, no logs, mounded up, and it’s done very well.

  7. I tried the Hugel method last year in a 4x2x11 inch high raised bed. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money filling it up with soil and all of my compost wasn’t ready. I had a lot of twigs and branches, small logs and stuff like that so I just filled the wooden bed about 8-10 inches. I then added leaves and whatever soil, compost and manure I had. I planted a Glacier tomato plant, celery leaf (not celery itself)a couple pepper plants and some Matina lettuce. That Glacier tomato plant produced heavenly right through November and the other plants were bountiful.

    It isn’t dry and arid here in New England, but my raised beds can get very dry in a NE summer. I have to water often and I didn’t last summer. I can’t say if it all broke down yet because right now we have about 8 inches or so of snow left from the melt and another foot on the way. But I will say I didn’t need all soil, compost and manure to raise wonderful vegetables in that raised bed.

    My comment on the reader who talks about the “roots.” I had a 40 foot pine tree fall (almost got my house) a few years ago and I now have garlic planted there. I’ve been dealing with those roots for the past few years. They do not die. I can not compare roots from a former live tree to Hugel method fill. Just sayin’.

    • Looks like someone beat me to it, but I also just want to mention the wildflowering LA project at the arbo. I didn’t design it, but I was responsible for most of its construction. We’re all very excited to see how it performs. The woman who designed it does the sub-grade Swales with logs at her property in alta dena and captures quite a bit of water and has a lovely garden that I don’t think she irrigates. At least rarely. Anyway, the arbo had a lot of large logs still left over from the windstorm a couple years back and a LOT of sod that I ripped up from the lawn that used to be where the wildflowers are now, so a hügel was actually a pretty appropriate design considering our unique circumstances. There’s also a sub-grade hügel at the site and another swale that’s back filled with stones. The wildflowers are about to start blooming soon too! It’s a good time to go soon!

  8. I was going to mention the Arboretum experiment as well, but it’s in it’s infancy. It’s only been in place for a few months.
    I’ve long thought about using this method in pits, removing soil to create a berm, then adding the rest, but i have never gotten around to it.
    I once found a random site from israel (in English) about five or six years ago when I was searching for info on water conserving gardening techniques. They were using Hugel and had a lot of supporting pictures. According to the photos they had good results, in the background you could see the dry desert climate. Who knows how much water they were using though…

  9. i think the reasoning goes “if u have to have raised beds in a dry climate, better make them hugelkultur (i.e. fill the bottom with wood) than just filling them with earth” because of the woods water-retention and aeration properties. at least, this is the reason Iwant to build a hugel in hot and arid Greece… (i can’t dig it’s practically all rock). what do u think?

  10. What about the nitrogen that is being lost while the wood is rotting? Do the hugel mounds suggest planting with nitrogen-fixin plants (like the beans one of the commenters mentioned)?
    This has always intrigued me as well – great post

    • I think it’s less of an issue with older logs, particularly already rotting ones, but since I only have very fresh logs for mine (most for the next bed are still growing at this point…) adding nitrogen fixers seems to work well. If you can inoculate the seeds too that’d probably be better.

      It seems like a very forgiving method, I’ve used green Eucalyptus and Leyland cypress and had loads of potatoes, beans and apples to harvest, no sign of the cypress needles anymore and everything has grown well. Definitely worth giving a go, whatever the material you use.

    • I’ve read that the nitrogen used in decomposing the wood means that hugel beds don’t do as well the first year as they do the second and succeeding years. I have tried to compensate for that by adding chicken manure and blood meal–we’ll see how that works.

  11. I live in central Florida where we have a dry season from Nov-May and a wet season from May to October (or it used to be that way, now all bets are off). We can be seriously hot and dry during all twelve months of the year, but also seriously hot and wet, it’s all very unpredictable. I have used woody brush, small tree branches and banana trunks to make an enormous hugelbed forty feet long, six feet wide and four feet high. It was situated to capture down-slope rainwater run-off. I topped it with free hardwood and softwood chippings from a tree service. No soil added whatsoever. I planted native plants or adapted non-invasives like beauty berry, yaupon holly, wax myrtle, clumping bamboo (small varieties), cranberry hibiscus, aloe, sweet potato, cassava, chaya. The hugelbed receives only rainfall for moisture. Unbelievable production and tremendous soil building. The total height of the bed reduced by half in two years time.

  12. I was part of a volunteer team that dug in two large hugel beds for in.gredients in Austin, Texas. These beds are going strong 2 years later, and I think a big part of their success is that we dug down at least 16″ and built up from there. The finished beds just look like in-ground rows, but have the benefit of actually acting as swales and catching any rainwater we get. Good mulching practices and drip irrigation also help. I’ve seen crops in these beds start sooner, get bigger, and last longer into the summer than many others here.

  13. I am going to make a log mound with two old christmas trees. I am so glad I happened upon this webpage. I alway wanted to do this but “Hesitated.” If you have ever saw The Snow White movie were the villainess character peeps out a window the same happens to me when I dare even to take in a breath of fresh air. So, not knowing what would happen living in a new suburb along with my well maintenance neighbor glaring too often into our backyard at my organic weed barriers they are a little patchy my empty cardboard boxes made into stepping stones. Wow,wow instant beneficial microbes to our hot weathered sandy soil,how wonderful. Ps. if anyone knows how to encourage lizards to live in the yard let me know. I am still waiting on them to come back. I’ve made 3 wood piles hoping to see them again. I know everyone who owns outdoor cats around us need pets to love but I am waiting to see one lizard in my garden,again!.

    • Lizards like rocks both to hide under and to sit on. And funny you should mention cats. Ours are indoor only and yet they managed to kill a lizard last week! At least we don’t have any mice. Good luck with your experiment and let us know how it goes.

    • Our lizards like to sun themselves on the henhouse metal roof.

      Our little family of lizards is also retarded. We are constantly saving them from getting eaten by chickens. Or they stick their head in the chicken wire and don’t know how to back out so we have to pull them out. Or they run away from the humans trying to help them and toward the chickens. I swear our compassion has helped breed a race of super-special needs lizards.

    • I’ve been wondering about lizards lately. We’re rabbitproofing the vegie garden, but there are a few bluetongue lizards around and I love them in the garden (No snails. Slugs under bricks, but never any snails.) There were at least two lots of babies last year, so they’re pretty happy and established & I want to keep them that way, but seems like the chicken wire might be an issue. Some sort of lizard gate maybe?
      And not sure about Sara’s lizards but mine are roughly fingertip to elbow long. We have small skinks too but I don’t think they’re as good at snail control.

    • The biggest (and dumbest) one is maybe 7-8 inches from nose to tip of tail. We could tell it is the same lizard we have been rescuing because of the scar. The smaller lizards (I think they are Big Stupid’s babies) are maybe like 3 inches from nose to tip of tail. I swear none of these lizards has a survival instinct.

  14. I live in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. We have had 2 1/2″ of rain this year, maybe 4″ the season, July to June. We have 8″ of soil on top of sand. When I make hugel beds I start around 16″ in the ground. The first layer is cardboard that has been soaking in water. Then logs from cottonwood and 5 year old pine. Next minimal nitrogen, stinging nettles or horse manure. Last the soil and sand from the bed. The cardboard, I believe, is aiding in great results. We have 105 plus temps.

  15. I live in the high desert area of southern Idaho. I had a mess of branches and made a modified hugelculture raised bed which is surrounded by landscaping brick. I filled the bottom two-thirds with the wood and leaves, added composted leaf mould and soil before planting. That garden thrived. Second season found it sunken a bit but that just gave me an opportunity to add more compost and soil. I plan to build more beds like this in the future.

  16. I created hugelbeds on my farm in the sierras where we get 55″ avg. rain in the winter and none from april to october. The beds were made using 10″ logs and smaller pieces of logs, branches and roots, then covered in clay soil. After three years the larger logs hadn’t changed at all. We made some mistakes, like not having enough dirt to fully cover some of the logs and not being able to get a mulch to stay on the piles. However, if i were going to do it again, i would dig down 3′ so that the beds were 2-3′ above ground. This would create a catchment to hold the winter rainfall that would enable the breakdown of the wood. I’d also use burlap to hold mulch in place. From the extensive research i’ve done, digging pits and filling them with organic matter is much more effective than traditional hugelkultur in a dry climate.

  17. I live IN Round Rock Tx I have 2 hugel berms first one I dug down 1 foot then used 3 year old logs , branches , leaves and grass clippings . The second one I dug down 3 feet filled with the hole with green oak then stacked old decomposing logs branches and leaves another 3 feet . Excited to see the results . Planting the plants I started from seeds 10 weeks ago next week . I have seen people put logs in pots then fill with soil and get amazing results .

  18. I had great success in the high desert of Eastern WA two years in a row. While it is more/less a desert, there is a good deal of snow fall in the winter/early spring and that may be a big part of its success.

    I have a friend that said he’s done really well in West TX with hugelkulture beds. I wish he’d send pics or something… Apparently he used a track hoe to excavate 3′ deep trenches and filled them and mounded them up another 2′ above the original surface level. Then he piled compostables and soil on top. Because he used hardwood timber that was only dried about 6 months he used a soaker hose to establish his annuals the first year. I’m interested to see how it performs over the next few seasons.

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