Fallen Limbs and Fighting Drought: Using Hugelkultur in the Garden

Rotting logs and fallen limbs can be used to fight drought.

Rotting logs and fallen limbs can be used to fight drought.

It reached over ninety degrees this week and it looks like the summer drought season will soon be here. If you’re a gardener and/or enjoy local food and flowers, you know how quickly a drought can wither a previously prolific garden. We can’t increase the rainfall, but there are several low-cost, environmentally sound ways we can stave off the some of the drought’s most destructive aspects.

So much of so-called “green” forms of growing or green living aren’t really new ideas, but rather a resurgence of very old ways of doing things that were the norm for previous generations. There’s a lot of marketing around certain green products, and certainly it’s important to choose gardening aids that aren’t loaded with harmful chemicals. Take Roundup, for example. Yes, it kills weeds and addresses a short-term problem. But it’s also very harmful to the soil, gets into our food and water supply, and can lead to human and animal illness. But much of green gardening isn’t about buying anything at all. It’s about creatively using what’s already around us and thinking about long-term solutions. For that reason I prefer to employ the somewhat humorous phrase “grandma-inspired living.”

Last year I went to visit several Little Rock community gardens to see how they were dealing with drought. At the Victory Garden in the Stifft Station neighborhood they were using an older European technique called Hugelkultur. The name may sound complex, but the idea is really simple. Basically it’s a garden bed with a base of logs, limbs, and other fallen tree matter.  On top of that you add soil and compost. The wood adds nutrients to the soil and acts as a sponge to hold water deep below the surface.  Gardens utilizing this technique need less water and retain moisture longer. It’s also a great way to reuse tree limbs from your own property.

You can dig a trench for the wood, which results in a garden bed closer to the surface or you can build up the soil on top of it and create a raised bed. Certain types of wood like Poplar and Willow can release chemicals into the soil that may inhibit the growth of plants, but most species work well and don’t cause this problem. At the Victory Garden in Little Rock there were two beds side by side, one using Hugelkultur and one without. Even in the heat of August the squash growing in the Hugelkultur bed was much more abundant and perkier. All of the wood for that bed had been gathered on site during a yearly trimming of the trees. All it took to create the bed was a little upfront labor and pre planning. In the long haul this allowed for decreased water usage, saved the garden a great deal money, and kept the plants healthy through the toughest of droughts. Think of how many tree limbs we haul off each year. Here’s a great way to make use of them on site.

More in building Hugelkultur beds:

“Use Wood Mulch to Build Great Garden Soil,” in Mother Earth News 

“Hugelkultur: The Ultimate Raised Bed,” via Mother Nature Network

“The Art and Science of Transforming Woody Debris Into a Garden Resource” by The Permaculture Research Institue 

“Hugelkultur: The Composting Raised Bed,” via A Growing Culture.Org

A great series of images documenting how to make a Hugelkultur bed via Flickr. 

Here’s a past radio piece profiling the Victory Garden and a few other area community gardens, including information about Hugelkultur.

What are some ways you or older generations creatively use resources in the garden? We’d love to hear about it and possibly include the information in future columns and in the Garden Book we’re working on via the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action. Stay tuned for an upcoming column about ways to incorporate rain barrels into your garden! Thanks so much for reading.


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.