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Hugelkultur - Composting + Growing

Special thanks to Mrs.JayaKrishnaVeni for her support in bringing this article into this website.

Hugelkultur was started in Germany in 1970s. Hugelkultur is done making the best use of all that litter your farm, starting from large wooden logs to the straw from your paddy field.  To start this, you just heap up the wooden logs of trees that either you cut down or that fell off during a storm. On this heap of wooden logs, add small twigs and other decompostable materials, basically the debris or litter that you need to pay and cart off your farm, e.g. corn stover. The small gaps in between these logs and twigs can be filled with leaves or straw or any other brown material that would be used for composting; you can also add mulching material. This would later become the growing medium for plants or crops you would grow on this bed. As the large wooden logs slowly disintegrate, they become sponges, helps the growing bed absorb and hold water. From these sponges, the roots can absorb the required water and other vitals required for the plant growth. During the process of disintegration of the wood, heat is generated. Plant roots like this warmth and accelerates the plant growth. The decomposition of leaves, followed by the twigs and small branches and then the large logs takes several years. During this slow process, the plants get the required fertilizers from the decomposing matter in the bed.     


The process of decomposition in composting is basically by bacteria, whereas here it is by primarily by fungi. Later the bacteria and fungi together form a biosphere breaking down the medium. This later becomes food for earthworms, which enrich the medium best for the crops or plants in it. To make the bed a complete nutritious bed, we can add the green matter as we would do in composting, so that the bed becomes rich in nitrogen too. You can also add a little of compost or dung manure if available to enhance the process of decomposition and nutrients. When you want to plant the crops immediately, make sure the last layers are more of compost and soil so as to support the plant.

There are three ways to make a hugelkultur bed. The first way is dig quite a deep trench, as much as 6ft, in which we can fill in the logs, followed by the other stuff. The second way is to dig a shallow trench, in which the logs will be partially below ground and remaining above the ground. The third way is a no-dig, just place the logs above ground. In this case, the whole pile is above ground and you will need soil to cover up the pile as required. In the first two ways, you will have the soil dug out from the trench to back fill the bed, whereas in the third, the soil has to sourced from some other place.    

Pros and cons of the above methods:

The first method, can be used when your farm is in a dry area. Because, as described earlier, the wooden logs act as sponge and retains water. The roots absorb the required water and nutrients from the spongy decomposing wooden log. This is one of the best solutions to manage water scarcity. A bed of wooden debris that can hold water could workout to be cheaper than sourcing water in a drought area. With minimum water this method ensures good water management for the farm. The challenge in this method is that one would need a good manpower or machinery to dig a deep trench. The third method is suitable in water logged areas. In these areas, the wooden sponges drain the excess water thus saving the plant from root rot caused by water log.  This method can be adopted in areas where water log is the main issue. While creating a hugelkultur bed, there should be no gaps, otherwise, the gaps can become home for rodents. All the possible gaps should be properly filled. When the bed is elevated, a mesh can be used to cover the bed so that rodents cannot enter the bed. An elevated bed provides more space for cultivation in a given area as we can plant on both face of the mound. The limitation of an elevated hugelkultur bed is that large trees cannot be planted in it. Also, as the bed decomposes, the bed starts shrinking. In such cases, the bed has to filled up as and when required.  



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