Permaculture Hugelkultur & More Creative Gardening Methods

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Permaculture Hugelkultur Creative Gardening

If you’re a gardening enthusiast you may know about some of the old methods of gardening. I’ve used some of these methods, but once I started researching permaculture I was amazed at how much more information I discovered on methods I had never tried.

So this year at my new farm I’m starting out right (or at least what I think is right). I’m employing permaculture methods along with using some of the old ways.

The Three Sisters

One of the best known methods of farming comes from the Native Americans. They used a method called The Three Sisters. It involves planting three types of plants together, usually corn (maize), beans and squash. The corn provides a support for the beans to run up on, the beans provide much needed nitrogen for the soil, and the squash leaves shade the soil, reducing moisture loss. The leaves and vines of the squash have prickly hairs on them that help keep the bugs away. Depending on the area, dead fish were placed in the hole made for planting to improve the nutrient content in the soil.

Hills, not rows

Planting in hills rather than rows goes back to neolithic times, perhaps further. The idea of hills is that plants can be planted together and there is more air circulation around the plants.

This is helpful for plants like tomatoes, which are susceptible to disease if planted too close together. And plants like squash can get powdery mildew, a fungus made worse by over crowding. It’s also easier to keep track of sprawling plants like squash and cucumbers if they are in hills.


Hugelkultur is a centuries-old method of gardening. It involves digging out a trench, filling it with wood, covering it with soil and waiting. Once the wood starts to decompose, it retains moisture and nutrients. It’s often referred to as a “no till” method since all you need to do once it’s established is plant and harvest. You may need to water in the beginning, but after a while it becomes unnecessary. You can read more about hugelkultur here.


Permaculture is a combinations of two terms: permanent agriculture. Some aspects of permaculture are simple. Plant perennial food-bearing plants for use in the coming years. Raspberries, blackberries and apple trees are common examples.

But more than that is living in harmony with nature. Use what you have and disturb little. This year I’m not plowing my herb bed. I’m simply digging holes where the herbs are going, and leaving the rest.  But what about the weeds, you say? They are allowed to stay, though they’ll be cut to a manageable level. The reason for this is that tilling can break up the biological balance in the soil. Also, soil that is tilled is more likely to run off, be eroded or flooded. Leave the weeds and the wind can’t blow the soil away, the soil can’t be eroded by heavy rains, and flooding is less likely due to roots soaking up the water. There’s much more to permaculture than this, but it’s a start.


Like hydroponics, aquaponics relies on water for the growing medium. Chemical fertilizers aren’t necessary because the water used comes from tanks or ponds where fish are living. The fish produce waste which contains vital plant nutrients. The plants use it and clean water is returned to the fish, providing aeration.

Plants grown in aquaponics grow twice as fast, sometimes even faster. The plants are usually smaller sized, but provide a large amount of leaves or fruit. Lettuce, tomatoes and even beets can be grown this way.

I tried this method with a very simple 10 gallon fish tank with a piece of foam floating in the top. I used discarded plastic cups from my single cup coffee maker (although any plastic cup can be used) with holes cut or drilled into the bottom and sides. I stuffed them with cotton fiberfill from a craft store. I then drilled holes in the foam that were a bit smaller than the top of the cups. Cups were placed in the holes and wet the fiberfill well.  I added a few lettuce seeds to each one and secured a light above. In a few days the lettuce was sprouting and salads were possible within a few weeks.


Most of us aren’t cursed with large tracts of water that cover the land we want to grow things on. This provides a unique challenge. During ancient times, a solution was found that allowed planting on the sides of waterways and even on top of the water itself. Chinampas are floating mats of dense vegetation, sometimes bamboo poles bound together. The mat is then covered with mud. They are planted with seeds right on top of the mud and moved from area to area. This allows farming to happen even in the rainy season or in areas with more water than land.


Of course, I have to mention biochar. It’s been used for centuries and evidence of it used thousands of years ago still exists today. Biochar involves charring and smoldering wood, but not burning it completely. When charred, it form millions of tiny holes that bacteria and nutrients can reside in. It also sequesters carbon in the soil and holds it for a very long time.

When using biochar, you’ll need to develop a culture in it, such as bacteria from compost. It’s as easy as that – adding compost to a bucket of biochar and leaving it with moisture for a week or so. Once the biochar is inoculated, it’s ready to use. Add it to your soil when planting and you’ll notice that you have to use much less fertilizer. I don’t use any commercial fertilizers, I just use compost and compost tea. This, along with biochar, provides what my plants need to thrive. You can read more about biochar here.

Have you used an old method of gardening? Tell us about it!


About Debra Maslowski

Debra is a master gardener, a certified herbalist, a natural living instructor, and more. She taught Matt and Betsy how to make soap so they decided to bring her on as a staff writer! Debra recently started an organic herb farm in the mountains of Western North Carolina. You can even purchase her handmade products on Amazon!

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  1. Linda Adsit says

    I live in a mobile home park. I have raised beds along the south side of my house. I grew potatoes last year using a variation of Ruth Stout’s mulch method. In early May, I mounded soil in six close hills, in a 30×36 inch space. Close, I know. Then I pushed six old, sprouted whole potatoes, one into each hill, sprouts facing up. I layered cushed egg shells over it all and poured some fish fertilizer on each hill. Then I threw on my grass clippings every week. I strung an irrigation hose through the box and turned it on four an hour each night as needed. That’s it. No digging, no howing, no fertilizers to buy. I just let God do it.

    Just after Labor Day, I harvested 16 pounds of potatoes with very little digging. And this occurred in a small space alongside a mobile home.

    The other raised bed is a permanent strawberry patch which I replant continuously with organic supermarket berries that get old or crushed.

    I love to garden and the ideas in your article are very inspiring. I shall try the ones I can do without annoying the management.

    • Anne Thompson says

      So, Linda, you just stick strawberries in the ground and they grow? Only in the spring? All summer? Can you add them anytime and they know when to come up? What an amazingly simple idea!
      And I love your potato project. I’m going to try that with sweet potatoes this summer.

      • Linda Adsit says

        Anne, strawberries are odd little plants. I remember picking a lot of wild strawberries as a kid. They can grow on their own, and just about anywhere. The ones I planted 6 years ago I assume are dead, as a plant only last 4 to 5 years. First year plants don’t produce berries; only in their second year. But since I never really stop planting new ones, the crop is continuous. They self propogate with runners so it’s easy to have a nice size patch. And yes, somehow they know when to come up. They start getting green leaves in late April and by June the berries form and then they turn red for a few weeks. Nice harvest. I’ve gotten up to 7 pounds in a good year. And all I do is throw them on the ground and toss dirt over them.

        As for sweet potatoes, I tried those and got just 3 tubers. Problem is their growing season is 9 months and they need very warm temps, like over 80. In upstate New York where I live, that doesn’t happen. Unless you have long summers where you live, the only way I figure you can grow sweet potatoes is by starting them indoors under hot lamps or buy them started at a nursery. You must let me know if you grow any. I’ll be here unless I’m up in the Vegetable Garden in the Sky by then. God bless.

        • Linda Adsit says

          Another little oddity about strawberries is that their harvest is in June, from the 5th through the 15th. This is their time and they don’t vary. No real exceptions of note. Bamboo is like that, too. Every 11 years, bamboo blooms all over the planet. On the same day. Truly Weird.

        • Anne Thompson says

          Thanks, Linda! I’m going to take it one day at a time this year. Don’t know what we’ll grow yet. I’m new to having the time and space to garden and I have very big plans and 3 children. We’ll enjoy whatever parts of it we can this summer and grow from there. I so love to hear about others’ experiences. Thank you and my best to you!

  2. Isis- Little Mountain Haven says

    We’re building some hugelkultur beds this year, and some lasagna/sheet mulched beds.
    We’ve grown the 3 sisters guild twice now, but living in a northern climate poses challenges to growing it. I wrote about our experiences with it all here:

    Some of these I’ve never heard of like the Chinampas!
    I’m intrigued by the biochar, I must look into that more 🙂

    • Debra Maslowski says

      Thanks Isis! I’m going to look into that right now. And I love boichar. I’m producing most every day here and have not found an end to using it. I don’t have a pond yet, although I may try to rig something up at the mouth of the creek near the river that I live on. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  3. Anne Thompson says

    I looked at the hegelkultur link and see that placing the wood straight on the ground is a good idea. I’ll do that and build it up pretty high. I just had a tree fall in my yard!
    What about using kitchen scraps or green yard waste to add nitrogen? I thought about putting a good dose of this waste on top of the logs or maybe mix it in with the compost before adding soil on top, instead of using bone meal for nitrogen.

    • Debra Maslowski says

      You can do hugelkultur either on top of the ground or set down in it, Do whatever works best for you. I use compost that’s done to inoculate the wood with the right kinds of bacteria, but there’s no reason that you can’t put your kitchen scraps in it too. This would indeed provide a good source of nitrogen. I would bury them inside though, to keep animals from digging in my veggies. The bone meal is for phosphorus for good root growth.

  4. Anne Thompson says

    Thank you, Debra! I’d love to hear more about using compost for fertilizer. I first thought that I could add compost to all plantings to support them. Then a naturalist told me that it’s best to leave the soil as it is and add compost only if the plants need it. I’d love to know when you add compost?
    Regarding the hills, do you mean to say that creating small planting hills is helpful, or to plant on a slope. I’ve read about placing wood on the ground and piling soil on top of it as in the hegelkultur method. I am planning to garden on my sloping yard this spring, so I’d love some ideas. I thought I would just remove grass from small areas and stick the seeds in the ground for starters.
    Have you written a book or do you have one to recommend? My questions are plentiful!!
    I LOVE learning about sustainable backyard agriculture, so keep it coming! Thank you! Thank you!!

    • Debra Maslowski says

      Thanks so much, Anne! I use compost when I plant new plants or before I sow seeds, when I prepare the soil. I use a mix of 1/3 native soil, 1/3 compost and 1/3 pine bark mulch. Depending on your area you may need to adjust that, but that’s basically my mix for my garden soil. The naturalist you talked to is probably referring to the permaculture style. I’m just starting doing that this year and so far it seems to be going well. I left all the surrounding dirt, plants and weeds and dug holes only where the plants I was planting are. I am modifying it a bit by mowing down the weeds to a manageable level so they can be walked on. Since I’m doing mainly herbs, this will allow easier harvesting. As far as the hills, I should have said mound up a small amount of dirt into a hill and plant in this. Of course, as in hugelkultur, you would want to plant on a slope. So either one may work here. I have not written any books, though I’ve been asked to, so you never know. I read a lot of articles online, Mother Earth News and I still refer back to the Foxfire books a lot. I was raised on those and though I was born and raised in Minnesota, I’ve come to live where both of those publications originated. Hmmmm….

  5. Zendelle says

    Would love to read a post with more in depth info on your aquaculture experiment. I have used an Aerogarden – basically the same idea but with fertilizer tablets and without the fish. I’d like to learn how to reuse it with some kind of sustainable fertilizer.

    • Debra Maslowski says

      Hi Zendelle! I’m working on setting up my aquaponics “lab” as we speak. I’ll be doing a more in depth article on it very soon. I want to be sure I’ve hit on all the problems and triumphs before I sit down to write about it. I’ve seen the Aerogarden and the concept is similar, just much larger.