Disclaimer: Before I begin this post I just want to say I am not criticizing hugelkultur or saying it should not be done. If you are doing hugelkultur or want to do it I encourage you to do it as it is a good practice. This post is just explaining why I personally do not do it.
What is hugelkultur?
Hugelkultur is a German word for hill or mound culture. The practice is popular in permaculture, the method is to form a hill using decaying logs, sticks, branches, and other woody material for soil improvement and then grow plants on the hill. As far as I can tell there 2 methods of hugelkultur:
Method 1 – Digging and Burying
The first method is the most widely used method. It involves digging a ditch or hole after which the logs and woody debris are placed in it. The soil that was dug out is then placed on top of the logs essentially burying them, causing the end result to have a raised bed or hill.
Method 2 – Placing and Covering
The second method involves not digging anything, but instead simply placing the logs on top of the soil after which all the logs are then covered with extra soil resulting in the finished mound.
Why I do not do hugelkultur
As a natural farmer following the Fukuoka method I first always ask myself how I can accomplish something with the least amount of effort. One difference between permaculture and natural farming is that natural farming puts more importance on the effort to benefit ratio. If similar benefits can be done for less effort then that is the path that should be taken which is usually also the same path nature takes, thus doing what nature does. While permaculture sometimes goes along this line of thinking more often it supports more work and effort for higher benefits.
The difference in this way of thinking between permaculture and natural farming can be seen in an interview made by Larry Korn (Student of Masanobu) with Bill Mollison (Founder of Permaculture) and Masanobu Fukuoka when asked for their life purpose:
MOLLISON: “I’m a very simple person. All I want to do is re-green the earth. That’s what I work on all the time.”
FUKUOKA: “Part of my purpose is to create a society where no one has to do anything.”
When Masanobu first tried to improve the degraded soil on his land he actually did practice a form of hugelkultur where he would dig holes and bury logs in it and then plant trees on top.
However, he quickly realized that carrying heavy logs and digging holes was too much work and not worth the effort of breaking a back over. This would be especially true if one has to do this on an area of multiple hectares. After a while, he abandoned the practice and instead grew a mixture of groundcovers with chop and drop while placing logs near trees to grow mushrooms on them.
So one reason I do not do the first method of digging and burying is simply that it takes too much effort. I do not have the time to keep digging deep holes in tropical heat with an intense full sun above me. Not only that, but my soil is hard clay, sometimes it feels like digging rocks where I literally need a pickaxe to break through the soil.
As for the second method, it is much easier than the first, but then the question comes: Where does the extra soil come from that is placed on top? Either it is dug up and moved from somewhere else which would still involve digging and the moving of soil resulting in even more work. Or it is bought externally from a store which involves high costs (soil is expensive.)
The way I do it is as it is done in nature. Trees, branches, and sticks fall to the ground and decompose on top of the soil. These are also known as nurse logs. As the trees fall to the ground insects will perforate the wood full of holes, tunnels, and chambers through burrowing. Next mushrooms will grow throughout the wood to slowly decompose it. Next small plants, mosses, and lichens will grow on the log using the insect-made tunnels as a way for the roots. Critters such as snakes, mice, rats, and birds make their nests inside or next to the log and use it for protection. As the log decomposes it gives nutrients to nearby trees and plants while improving the soil. A nurse log is almost like a miniature ecosystem in itself allowing many varieties of life to thrive. When a log is buried that access of wood to many life forms is limited.
So all that I do is simply throw my woody debris around trees on small piles, sometimes I may also cover the piles with mulch if it is available.
It is as simple and basic as that.