Hugelkultur Bed Help

I am a novice to permaculture and gardening in general. I hired a so called consultant to help me plan these hugelkultur beds but it has been a very long process and not sure if I am really doing things properly. Here's the scenario:

I live in tropical Panama in the highlands -daily temperature is 70-75 degrees all day; nights it doesn't go below 68. Rich black volcanic soil in most places. Sun every morning for 6 hours and then rain in the afternoon for a couple of hours. Things are known to grow very easily and quick..

We dug 2'deep trenches and filled with old wood. He said we are to put 4 bags of guava or mango leaves, 1 layer of soil enough to cover the leaves, 2 more bags of leaves, soil of almost 2 feet high, 2 bags of leaves, 4 bags of gallinaza (chicken poop) or cow manure, 2 bags of leaves, 4 bags of gallinaza (chicken poop) or cow manure. Cover with black bag and make sure it gets wet daily and wait to decompose before adding seeds. Its been 4 weeks and it hasn't decomposed. He tells me we have to continue to wait to decompose in order to have the best living soil as the bacteria life grows. I asked him why can't we do the layers and have the top soil on top to plant the seeds. He said if I did that I would be planting on poor living soil. I just want to make sure this is worth the time and effort or is there a better way? Any comments or suggestions are appreciated.



  • marjstratton
    marjstratton Posts: 1,132 ✭✭✭✭

    Wow, it sound like he is making it so much harder than it needs to be. We build some Hugelkulture beds in a wild-crafting herbal class. We went out to the woods and observed how nature does it, by laying down layers of organic material to develop a deep rich soil. The whole process kind of takes care of itself. We laid down some rotting wood, and then layered it up with soil and compost (leaves and branches as well as already composted material). Top layer was soil. Then we planted directly in it. Once planted, we mulched with leaves. We watched it over several months, and it worked on its own. A few plants didn't survive, but most grew robustly. We built the beds directly on top of her lawn, no digging. As we were building the beds, we water in each layer. Other than that, really not much work. Actually, there are several deep rooted that you can plant to help anchor and dig into the soil.

  • greyfurball
    greyfurball Posts: 591 ✭✭✭✭

    I agree, this type of farming/gardening is always a work in progress. There is no waiting around unless you do not have enough materials to start your layers to begin with.

    As long as you have your base in, keep adding your layers and then finish off the top (I added my top layer as 8 inches of good planting soil and fresh compost mixed) then you are ready to go for now. I always make sure whatever seed I plant the first couple of years has a short to medium root depth since I want to keep the plants within the top layer.

    Maybe this person is saying that because yes, you will find with time the bed itself will keep lowering and lowering but that is because the stuff on the bottom layers is decomposing. As it decomposes, the entire bed will "collapse" down. I just make sure I always have some good planting soil/compost ready and when I remove one crop and replant that bed I always top off the bed with some more good soil. It refreshes the nutrients in the soil and at the same time raises to soil level again.

    As the bottom layers are decomposing, with time you will notice the bed does not settle very much anymore but you still need to add fresh compost each planting schedule because you want to make sure you are always adding fresh nutrients.

    Sure this person is giving you the ideal but for those of us with smaller areas, we can't wait around for several years waiting for every bed to fully decompose. Nature works in stages... your garden can also.

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,505 admin

    @natasha874 Hello from Canada! Our days are getting shorter & colder. We almost got frost a couple nights back. Fall is here.

    It does sound like it is an overly complicated bed. You should have soil on top of everything.

    I would like to build a bed, and only to take care of some possible invasives, I would be planting a special cover crop on top for the first year.

    With so much manure on top, it sounds like it would possibly be too "hot" and would just kill plants put into it.

    I would be tempted to put soil over it all (removing the plastic first, of course). Being volcanic soil, it would be rich. We have none of that on our prairies!

    Any questions that you have as you move forward will most likely have an answer here. We have many active & knowledgable members.

    Welcome to the TGN forum. 🙂

  • Melissa Swartz
    Melissa Swartz Posts: 270 ✭✭✭

    @natasha874 I am in the "soil on top" camp with @LaurieLovesLearning . I've read a couple of books on hugelkulture and one of them said that a mistake many people make is not having deep enough soil as the top layer. But those guys were in Austria, so maybe things are different in the tropics.

  • Brueck.iris
    Brueck.iris Posts: 142 ✭✭✭

    I have done both: Simple, fast Hugelbeets, which gave good results. The more effort I put in, the better the results were. So there is no right or wrong answer. The most elaborate beds I made had the most soil life, the best crops and lasted the longest.

  • Hassena
    Hassena Posts: 345 ✭✭✭

    It's hard to say, it really all depends. Perhaps there is a reason why he's advising to wait. Did you ask him why?

    There's a lot of nitrogen in that bed. I imagine a thick layer of soil on top would be safe to plant in.

    It does seem the larger the bed the better it is. The mound is like a giant sponge. Maybe there aren't many carbon choices where you live? Like large logs or tree limbs.

  • Sharie
    Sharie Posts: 276 ✭✭✭

    I think it just takes time. I live in a similar climate except my soil is quite poor quality (working on that!). I pruned a lot of overgrown "fencing" type of tree. It's a soft wood that I was told would "melt" in about 2 years if placed sideways and we throw scraps of leaves and cut Chilean grass on it. I love the concept of hugelculture and this one is in an area of extra or useless-for-anything-else area. My regular household compost pile takes 6-12 months to break down without any chickens or turning it over so I figure the hugel will take about 2 years without plastic or interference, just rain part of the year. I guess that doesn't help you right now but 4 weeks seems a little unreasonable to expect it to be ready for planting in this climate. There's something to be said for frost and defrosting but ultimately we're in a good spot to grow year round. Good luck with it!

  • Granny Marie
    Granny Marie Posts: 53 ✭✭✭

    I'm not sure about the black bag. Sunlight will speed decomposition. I agree with the others, take off the plastic, put a good layer of dirt on top, and plant. Then the hard for me part. Take some notes as to what you did. Add to them later the results. This will get you to what works for you.

  • Acequiamadre
    Acequiamadre Posts: 269 ✭✭✭

    Has anyone done desert huglekulture? Because of the dryness, we do not have the decomposition rate many other areas do. I tend to use a big compost pile, then just use the finished compost as soil. I have wondered about trying to build these beds directly in the soil, but hesitate due to climate. Any other desert folks try this?

  • Angel
    Angel Posts: 61 ✭✭✭

    It sounds really complicated to me, too. My hugelkultur bed has logs and branches, covered by soil. The first year is not the best, although it did grow food pretty well. The second year was much better in that the garden needed little watering (only in very hot, dry weather). This is my third year with it, and I don't water it, but it is supporting sunflowers, pumpkins, and beans.

    I know some people say you shouldn't do a bunch of layers with a hugelkultur, but I'm not sure why, since lasagna-style gardening works pretty well.

  • Kelley
    Kelley Posts: 140 ✭✭✭

    We always planted on top of the bed letting the decomposing logs and leaves to themselves.

    Since you already have rich, black soil I would think you'd be fine. Even if your first crop off the bed isn't extraordinary, it should still be pretty awesome.

  • Elizabeth Voss
    Elizabeth Voss Posts: 57 ✭✭✭

    My PDC course said the hugelkultures attracted mice to nest - does anyone have any ideas on how to detract that - we are in the suburbs so a little to close to the house.