Just like in Hugelkultur, layer by layer we build community at Sterling.  Layer by layer we learn new things and grow our culture.  And layer by layer we impact our natural and built environments by the decisions we make — a notion that Forestry and Draft Horse faculty Rick Thomas understands well through sustainable logging and cultivation of the land.

I was able to catch up with Rick last week on a rainy day at The Landing on the Virginia Russell Woodlot, where his Holistic Forest Management class had just finished hand-hewing logs for the day.  The slow, hard hand work helped to instill the sense of dedication and reduced pace often required and desired in small-scale farming and homestead operations.  The students walked away weary, but appreciative.  Out of everyone, Rick still had energy, and we chatted for a while about the aims of his class, and how important it is to recognize the implications of our actions to the surrounding natural and human communities when we alter a functioning forest.

Just the day before, the Holistic Forest Management class spent the whole day learning about Hugelkultur, and installed a sizable new Hugelkultur mound at Sterling that extends the reach of the Edible Forest Garden on campus.  When speaking of Hugelkultur, Rick poetically emphasized that when we implement that particular system we are accelerating the accruement of forest soils, even though we aren’t in the forest.  He sees it as an opportunity to do right by our changes to the forest when we build healthy soil from the leftovers of logging operations.  Rick described to the class that the best application of Hugelkultur is in building soil and contributing to the localized soil scene.  And that by implementing Hugelkultur where they did that day, the class essentially inoculated previously cultivated soil with an opportunity to transition to a slower, healthier, perennial-type agriculture.

So what is Hugelkultur?  Hugelkultur is a traditional permaculture concept that has been practiced in parts of Europe for hundreds of years.  Roughly translated, the word means “mound culture” in German, which describes in simple terms the concept of building soil and fungal communities through a slow decomposition process.  In a Hugelkultur garden bed, layers of plant material of different types are placed on top of one another and covered with soil, forming a mound, to allow carbon-dense material to be utilized alternatively in creating a hospitable environment for soil microbes and fungal communities.  Over time, the layers of plant material underneath the soil cover will decompose and settle, and the rotting material will behave as a sponge, wicking water from nearby root zones, and dispensing it in times of low precipitation and drier soil surfaces.  The mound’s capacity to retain water is what makes Hugelkultur a serious value to any agricultural operation, especially if water is a limiting factor.

Rick’s disturbance to existing healthy forest communities is part of a long-term vision for the continued health and growth of the stands where he works at Sterling, but he recognizes that he is essentially decreasing the forest’s capacity to sequester carbon each time he removes a tree.  The way he sees it, he has a few options for remediating his impact: he can let felled logs do their thing and decompose as they will; he can mill the logs for use in building; or he can actively sequester the carbon himself, by burying the felled logs in Hugelkultur systems that allow for the continued transformation of that carbon into fertile forest soils.

As it turns out, Rick does a little bit of each, but his favorite transformation of those felled logs is in their use for Hugelkultur, where he deems them arguably the most useful.  Rick was generous to share his Hugelkultur “recipe” with us, in hopes that you’ll agree.

Layer 1: Dense Woody Material

Students add dense woody material to Layer 1. In this Hugelkultur bed we used debris logs from forestry classes; some were split prior to layering, some not.

Students add dense woody material to Layer 1. Here, they’re adding pruned branches from the apple trees in our Edible Forest Garden.

Layer 2: Dried Leaves

Here, students add green, nitrogen-rich grass to Layer 2, in lieu of dried leaves. Dry material is recommended, but this is what we had on hand.

Layer 3: Compost Feedstock (horse manure + shavings + a bit of hay)

This should be easy enough to obtain just by asking a local farmer, or even offering to help them muck their barn. Hardwood shavings are preferred, but Pine shavings are most commonly used on farms. Don’t go too heavy with this, use just a little. This layer need only be 4″ or so thick.

Layer 4: Compost

The compost for Layer 4 should be nearly finished “cooking”, and just about ready to go into the curing pile.

Layer 5: Bring your soil layers back in

It’s not necessary, but often building Hugelkultur beds involves removing soil from the planned site of the new bed so that the mound starts off a bit lower. In the case of starting with a broad “ditch”, in Layer 5 you should begin bringing your soil layers back into the picture. Bonus points if you can keep them separated and bring them back in the correct order.

Layer 6: Nearly-Finished Compost

This compost layer is similar to Layer 4, and it would be totally acceptable to use the same compost for both layers 4 and 6.

Layer 7: Finished Compost

Totally cured compost is really ideal for the final layer. It’s also a lot of fun, because you can plant right into this layer! Ready to start some perennials? Get them in the ground! In this picture you see students spreading grass around the edges of the final Hugelkultur bed. That is just so that we can fold in additional nitrogen-rich “compost” as the grass dries.


We hope you can see the benefits of Hugelkultur and the importance of building healthy soil, as we do.  All-in-all, Hugelkultur is a fun, safe process.  Don’t be daunted by all the layers — follow Rick’s recipe and you’re sure to succeed.

Filed Under: Alumni Blog Ecology School of the New American Farmstead Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems