Practical Permaculture – Summer Reflections – Mint and Hugelkultur


“The Brain on Gardening” – Hamnett Place Park and Ride – Wilkinsburg, PA – An onion flowering under a Serviceberry…

A permaculture garden should be thought of as a laboratory, we perform experiments with our plants and record the data for the future. Through careful observation, we determine what changes we need to make in our gardens and lives to better serve the land as a whole. Although permaculture is nothing new, many of the techniques are considered the cutting-edge of agricultural science. Given the new-nature of these techniques, there is still much to be learned.

Permaculture and science do not always get along, controlled experiments in laboratory settings regularly show no evidence of real benefits (of any kind) in even the most storied of companion plants. Sometimes, an individual must make a faith-based decision on what they think will work. Skeptics tend to only look for information that proves their skepticism, therefore they look past all of the opposing information. Optimists tend to do the exact same thing except in a positive direction, the difference is the optimist will only find evidence of the system working and typically… The system will therefore work…

Occasionally, something that seems like a good idea on paper… Fails miserably in the field… Here are a couple of tidbits I picked up this summer…


“Telephone Pole Garden” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Pineapple mint growing at the base of a local telephone pole garden I created a few years ago…

Mint and the Fruit Tree Guild

After a summer of observation, I have come to the conclusion that mint has no place in a dwarf fruit tree guild, it simply grows too fast to properly maintain to a height conducive to the health of the trees. The first course of branches on a dwarf fruit tree can be as low as one foot off the ground, and many mints will stretch to 4′ tall when in flower. One of the most important aspects to a trees health that is often forgotten in permaculture is air circulation, it is absolutely required for the health of the tree and production of fruit.

Many pests will search for the weakest target in their foraging territory, a tree trunk that is covered by competing weeds is a favorite of many boring insects. In nature, a fruit trees canopy hoards water and sunlight from the plants growing beneath it effectively keeping trunk contact to a minimum. This effect can be demonstrated by planting a sun loving perennial next to the trunk of a large shade tree, although it may survive, it will always seem like it is trying to migrate away from the trunk and into the sun.

The plants that you plant in a tree guild need to benefit the tree, anything that grows quickly or aggressively is most likely robbing the target of your guild from nutrients. A mint patch that is several years old becomes a tangled mess of rooted stems, this mat is impenetrable by all but the hardest rains. Mint can outcompete many weeds, it is safe to assume it will outcompete your tree, and garden as long as you leave it in the game.

Although mint can be a troublemaker in the garden, it is important to remember all plants have a place. Beginners often have no clue that the plants purchased in tiny nursery pots will one day grow into massive clonal colonies, no matter how many times they are told they still make this common mistake. Mint should be grown in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden, if you will not be harvesting it regularly it can be run over with a lawnmower a few times a year in an attempt to keep it regulated… plus it’s like a breath mint for your lawnmower…


“Burnt Sienna” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – What remains of a large log left to rot on the ground… A few short years ago this log was a formidable obstacle… Now it is nothing more than a smear of red on the forest floor…

Old Man Hugel and the Mystery of the Disappearing Mound

As the story goes, old man Hugel was a miner who liked to collect wood. He spent his days working in the mine, but his nights were spent searching for his prized native lumbers… He eventually collected so much wood that it filled the house to the point that he could fit no more, growing increasingly frustrated he began to pile it in his backyard, and then the front.

Old man Hugel died in an accident later that year, his piles of precious wood left to rot in the wind and rain. The community toiled over who was going to clean this mess up, given the nature of government, this took some time and as a result, the piles of wood were left out exposed to the elements for quite some time.

Two years passed before the community was ready to clean up the mess, the money had finally materialized and the red tape had been cut. Much to the surprise of the group the piles were now apparently gone, a result of the effects of nature and time. You see, nature has no red tape. Rain, snow and wind do not argue. The elements are very unforgiving of the things we create, and are constantly fighting them. Some things we create are intended to be destroyed, as is the case with the hugelkultur mound.

Sorry… Not quite sure where that came from…

hugelkultur is a style of gardening in which wood, organic material and soil are stacked into mounds, these mounds are planted in and left alone to slowly break down. There is a lot of confusion and misconceptions pertaining to the use of  these types of mounds. The confusion arises from the belief that a hugelkultur mound is a permanent landscape feature, when in fact it is nothing more than a glorified compost heap.

Huglekultur, when done correctly can effectively eliminate a large amount of wood. When built properly, the wood inside of the mound slowly breaks down providing nutrients for the plants growing above. Individuals intending to create a permanent feature in their yard using the hugelkultur technique will ultimately be disappointed, this disappointment is only further materialized with the realization that doing everything right is what caused the failure.

Wood is not an impervious material, it is intended to break down into soil over time. A large tree that has fallen in the forest will not exist indefinitely, as it is exposed to the elements and weather, it will eventually break down into a tiny fraction of its original size. For this reason the amount of wood put into a hugelkultur mound directly affects the long-term size of the pile. The wood contained within the mound is meant to break down, in ideal conditions it is safe to assume your mound will disappear in a few short years.

I receive an alarming amount of emails asking questions about previously installed hugelkultur mounds… I want to stress, that I sincerely believe this is a product of misinformation as opposed to deceit. Complaints of hugelkultur mounds disappearing over time are in fact, a testament to how effective they can be at the conversion of wood into organic material. This common misconception is the reason for this post, I am essentially tired of answering questions relating to the subject.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – Or you can contact me directly at for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Practical Permaculture – Hugelkultur Modified for Urban Gardens


This was originally a fire pit, it was filled with rusty nails. When I started working on this bed there was a mass of sumac trees growing out of it. As I dug out the trees I realized the soil was junk, I moved most of it to an out of the way location. I then filled the hole in with wood, garden waste and soil. This was before I knew what hugelkultur was, I called it creative disposal back then…

Hugelkultur is a german term that basically translates to “mound culture”, it has been practiced in Eastern Europe for centuries. Hugelkultur is a sheet composting method that involves burying wood debris and organic matter under a mound of earth, the wood adds nutrients as it decomposes and helps retain moisture.

Ok… Allow me to speak openly about something… This is nothing new… People have been doing this for a very long time… It is a great way to get rid of a pile of wood… But… And I know this is going to break hearts… Hugelkultur is not a maintenance free garden that will never need food or weeding… Many of the people who get into permaculture get into it because they falsely believe that permaculture is an excuse for not maintaining their yard… Or they believe that they will just fill their entire yard with trees and food and never have to pull a weed or touch a shovel again… This is simply not the case…


This is a perfect example of hugelkultur integrated into a slope, this would be perfect in an urban landscape. The framework was made with the larger logs, then backfilled with smaller materials and soil…

So… As I’m writing this I am picturing the neighborhood I grew up in… Nice houses… Green… Perfectly maintained lawns and shrubs… Now I am picturing one of those homeowners erecting a massive hugelkultur mound in their front yard… When the neighbors complain… The excuse will be “It’s hugelkultur – Food not lawns”. Guess what people… There are more people who don’t want to maintain a front yard food forest than there are people who do… I’m just saying… Perspective…

With that said… Hugelkultur does not have to be intrusive… And it does not have to be unsightly. Mulch volcanoes are a common sight in suburbia, essentially too much mulch piled up around the base of a tree. If we take that already accepted landscape look and tweak it a little bit, we could easily create a beautiful and functional permaculture guild smack dab in the middle os suburbia.


This is the same bed as pictured above after completion, 3 service berries on a perfectly mulched mound… Beneficial plants will be added this spring and summer.

Pick a suitable location in your yard to plant a fruit tree, proper sunlight and space to grow are essential. Once you have chosen your location, cover the ground with cardboard in whatever shape you want your final bed to be. Begin stacking wood and organic matter in a circle, leaving the center open to accept your tree when you are ready to plant . As you place your wood, add soil or compost intermittently throughout the pile. If your neighborhood has some existing mulch volcanoes, base your size and shape off of them. When you have a nice pile, plant the tree in the hole you left in the pile… Do not plant the tree at ground level, the tree should be planted in the top of the pile.

Info on planting fruit trees –

The idea of this method is to slowly integrate permaculture into your neighborhood without waging a “shock and awe” campaign on your neighbors, this is almost always met with resistance and ultimately makes us look bad. Once your tree has been growing for a few weeks, then add a few beneficial perennials or a blueberry bush, just do it in moderation.

I recently got my hands on a really nice sized pile of dimensional, untreated black locust lumber. This wood had been stored on an organic farm for a long time and was well into the decomposition process. I will be using some for hugelkultur beds in a guerilla orchard I am building this summer, but I have been breaking it up and adding it to the soil all throughout my gardens as a beneficial mulch.


Apple and blueberry guild, this garden eats wood. I recently put these old semi-rotted boards down, the Sedum will grow over it in a month. I have been doing this for three years, I toss a lot of garden waste in this bed and it just disappears.

So this got me thinking, living in a very urban environment all of the soil around me is lifeless clay fill. To simply dig a hole in the earth and fill it with scrap wood and dead fall timber, Organic yard waste and compostable material… Add some dirt… And plant in the top… Well that my friends is essentially hugelkultur.

A common sight in the abandoned yards around my neighborhood are large piles of dead fall branches, simply pile leaves and dirt on top of one of these piles and plant something in them… The pile will usually disappear within a year or two… They also make great opportunities to guerilla garden pumpkin and squash, which seem to thrive in the nutrient rich piles. This is a technique I commonly use in abandoned yards where clean up time is not important, even fresh-cut piles of limbs can be stacked and planted in relatively short time.

Many of the suburban houses that are built today are built on some type of fill, to think that digging in your soil will disrupt the layers that took thousands of years to create is simply a joke. Instead of doing mound culture, dig a big hole and fill it with organic material. Think of it as reverse hugelkultur adapted for the city, this way no one knows you are practicing hippy gardening techniques…


This log will feed the surrounding plants for years, the hard part is fitting it in your urban garden.

I cringe when I go on facespace or twinterest and see these magnificent photos of meticulously maintained front yard farms, typically with a headline of “urban farmer grows 6 tons of food in his 1/16 acre front yard with absolutely no work or prior experience”. I’m calling voodoo… I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, this stuff is a lot of work. When you see a photo or video of one of these urban farms, you are only seeing it at one point… And that one point is always early in the season before the garden itch has worn off… That is when reality sets in…

Permaculture is really about resource management, collecting and storing energy for future use. Urban permaculture interests me because it adds a level of difficulty that typical gardening does not have, but it does not make it impossible. Permaculture requires creativity, this article is only intended to spark that creativity…

I would love to hear examples people have of creatively disposing of waste on your small urban lot… If you have any please share them in the comments section below…

peace – chriscondello

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.