Solutions for Self-Reliance

Maker Monday: Rebuilding rich soil with HugelKultur


Maker Monday is about people pioneering ways to produce locally.  Here’s something I wrote last year, but I wanted to share with all of my new friends on

Reclaiming Dead Soil

We have a problem.  Most of the land we live on (even in rural communities) is barren.  Dead. What does this mean?   It means the soil can’t support life without perpetual and massive injections of imported petro-chemical fertilizer’s, irrigation, and mechanical labor.  Worse, it takes years to reclaim dead soil and turn it into something productive.

A home or community with dead soil, won’t help you survive an economic winter or supply disruptions.  So, here’s a trick that may help out, but you need to start earlier than latter.  Living soil has a lead time.

It’s a technique called Hugelkultur .

It’s from a brilliant German permaculture (a way of designing living ecosystems to eliminate the need for external inputs) engineer called Sepp Holzer, although he started doing this well before the permaculture brand emerged.

What is it?  Simply, it’s soil on top of a bed of rotten wood.  There are lots of very informative and quirky instructional materials on the Web about it (from vids on YouTube to discussion pages).  Also, Sepp has a great book that includes information about HugelKultur and much, much more.

Here’s a picture that provides a nice overview of the technique:


HugelKultur in a Nutshell

The goal here is soil so alive and self sufficient that it doesn’t require fertilizer, mechanical tilling, or much water.  Here are the useful ideas I can extract from the available material in summary form:

  • The rotting of the wood warms the soil (increasing growing times), fertilizes the soil, and keeps the soil moist.  It turns it into living soil.
  • Wood that isn’t that rotten sucks nitrogen during the early rotting phase, so the more rotten the wood the better.
  • Hugelkultur beds require years to mature.  However, they require little maintenance and can last as long as 30 years.
  • You can bury the wood in a trench or build a raised bed.  Doesn’t matter.  Your choice (watch water, sun, wind etc. flows).
  • The buried wood acts as a moisture capture system.  So, it’s great in arid areas, since hugelkultur beds don’t require much watering.
  • There is the potential, if hugelkultur is done at scale (acres), that it could create substantial changes in the micro-climate (moisture, temp, water table, etc.) and turn barren environments into lush, productive landscapes.
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