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Paul Wheaton's hugelkultur article thread  RSS feed

 
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Westley Wu wrote:Paul, first of all thank you for all your Hugelkultur content on richsoil.com and here on permies!  I’ve been doing weeks of reading to build our garden here in Northern California.  In short I’ve spent the weekends this summer building a 25ft. long terraced / raised bed veggie garden (to defend against the multitude of rodents everywhere around us) along the contour of a pretty steep slope.  Now it’s time to fill it Hugelkultur style and I’m running into issues - can you help?

We live right in the redwood forest, which is beautiful but all the recommended wood for Hugelkultur are in scarce supply naturally for acres in each direction.  And the local firewood companies only sell Oak, Almond, Walnut, and Eucalyptus.  The same goes for the litter/branches/twigs layer - most tree company cuttings are California Pepperwood, Oak, Bay Laurel, or some sort of coniferous tree.  All of the above are highly allelopathic, which is the challenge I’m facing.

So far I’ve managed to find a few dead Maple limbs but that’s all, and logs on the forest floor that are well decomposed so I collected them thinking they’d be OK, I think most of them are Oak.  I’ve resorted to putting freshly felled Oak logs on the bottom, then the decomposing maple and oak logs.  Am wondering if that will produce fertile soil for vegetables?  or will the Oak stunt all our plant growth?  And what should I use for litter?  I have a truckload of woodchips from a local tree company that’s been decomposing for 1-2 years, it was “green” (with leaves) which they said was a mix of oak and other trees.  Nothing grows out of the pile though...but I do see strands of white fungus mycelium growing to a depth of ~6” and the twigs deep down have moisture and easily break in my hands vs. “snapping” or being sharp like fresh woodchips.  Would this be a good next layer for the Hugel bed?

Or can I use the overly abundant redwood litter?  We have a 2 year old compost pile (about a cubic yard) but the brown matter has largely been redwood litter (we were not aware of allelopathy until this summer, and besides we don’t have any other brown matter around).  Is it a good idea to add this compost on top of the wood and litter layers?  I would remediate 50/50 w the clay soil I dug up from the postholes and then use purchased topsoil.

Would greatly appreciate your expert thoughts and ideas!  Anyone else who’s on the forum, we’d also welcome your feedback!



Westley, I think that your compost would be a great addition (there must be lots of redwood and evergreen digesting microbes), along with any local soil (no matter how clayey. In my experience in the land of redwoods the speed of arriving at good veggie soil is closely tied to the ammount of imported hummus and looser topsoil. What you have going on sounds like it will be working great after a few years of trying and irrigating. Compost and manure will help. I would love to see pictures over the next few seasons, good luck!
 
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allelopathy is a huge problem while the plant is alive.   I am not sure how much of a problem it is after the plant has died.   I think it depends greatly on the type of allelopathy and a greater picture of the biological gobbledygook of the plant.  Unfortunately, the desire for hugelkultur is relatively new, so there are some bits and bobs we have not yet figured out.

But!  The good news is:  for all of these species, you will notice that they are not piled up 200 feet tall all over the place.   So somehow they are rotting!   And since juglones is not on the periodic table of the elements, there is a good chance that it will break down when exposed to the right fungi and/or bacteria. 

 
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Location: Northern California (Marin); Zone 9b/10a
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Paul and Stephen, THANK YOU!!!  🙏🏻💜💕

Will give it a go.  Gonna layer our rotting woodchips followed by our compost mixed 50/50 w the clay soil, and finally topsoil.  Will post the results.  Thank you again.
 
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Location: Utah
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OK, after all this excited commentary I have a question. Please let me know if this needs its own thread.

I tried hugelkultur at one point, on a very small scale. I dug down about a foot, layered small logs with brush and leaves, and covered it over with soil. I kept it well watered all summer (or so I thought) but when I went back and dug into it a year or so later there was no sign of rot or decomposition. Everything was just as it was when I buried it except that the logs were covered with fungus hyphae. No fruiting bodies, but the hyphae, and the soil around the logs was bone dry. The logs had moisture in them, but weren't giving anything back. It appears that they were just sucking in all the moisture they got and holding it.

I concluded that this works in areas where there is a great deal of water. Did I do something wrong, or am I right in determining that this isn't a good option for an arid climate? Most of the people I know who do hugelkultur in this area actually have sprinklers or drip lines on the mounds, which I think negates the purpose.
 
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Lauren, my Hügelbeets will be of an age comparable to yours, and although I saw many good effects, I also an increased drought problem on the Hügels. Even one that had sank quite low became bone dry.

Main advantages to my Hügelbeets, as I see them:
• bringing more oxygen in my compacted clay soil, so plant's roots can develop better;
• root weeds become extractable, as they have a less strong foothold in the loose material that makes up a Hügelbeet;
• a less suitable environment for those nasty deep rooted weeds to develop in the first place;
• the ability to absorb excess water during wet periods;
• my clay soil gradually becomes more loose and workable;
• increase of soil life - breaking down organic matter and increasing soil fertility;
• it's a great way to deal with of lying around wood and organic waste.

My downsides:
• steep sides - soil comes tumbling down anytime you're doing something;
• it's a bit hard to predict how much they'll sink in over time, and re-building has consequences for perennials already there;
• increased drought during dry periods.

The drought problem should be a temporary one. I'm guessing my Hügelbeets are still too airy on the inside. I didn't pack them tightly, there will be huge gaps inside which won't hold on to water. I'm hoping, as the beds sink in and the organic matter continues to decompose, the ability to hold on to water and keep it available for plants increases.
Also some young fruit trees and bushes I planted should provide some shade over time.

I'm puzzled about the amount of stories that say; 'Look, I built a Hügel, and now my watering can is in retirement.' Your experience doesn't surprise me at all, Lauren. All this dryness won't help the Hügel breaking down quickly. Assuming you'll continue working with it, try to keep it tight on the inside and grow broad-leaved things on top if you can, like pumpkins and rhubarb, of which the leaves will provide shade.  
 
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Lauren Ritz wrote:
Did I do something wrong, or am I right in determining that this isn't a good option for an arid climate?



My experience with hugelkultur in a dry environment has been that it does not work on a small scale.  I made a few small mounds, which dried out.  My conclusion, based on the success demonstrated at wheaton labs, is that the mounds need to be very large - much larger than most people could build without earth-moving equipment.  I have had much better success with buried wood beds, which, while they did not eliminate the need for irrigation, significantly reduced it.  https://permies.com/t/52077/Buried-Wood-Beds

 
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I agree with you Tyler. We must bear in mind that hugelkulturs were evolved in a very different climate and require some adaptation to succeed in other situations. I too have found that sunken hugels (I understand that the technical term is grubel kultur but am pretty sure that nobody would understand what I meant) are much more successful.  Here we can go for six months without meaningful rain in summer. So I dig knee deep trenches, fill them with wood appropriately layered, and plant nitrogen fixing cover crops for the first year in time to catch the winter rains. It works beautifully and reduces irrigation for vegetables from once a week to once a month. My old roses survived the drought last year in this way without a drop of irrigation and this in their first summer before they could be thought to have established themselves.

I notice that fruit trees will survive a drought in a buried wood bed but if you want them to bear well they should also have at least a monthly irrigation in a dry climate.
 
Lauren Ritz
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My understanding (maybe wrong) is that they originally developed in areas with excessive groundwater (not to mention excess wood), as a sort of raised garden to keep the roots out of the muck.
 
paul wheaton
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For full size (7 feet tall) hugelkultur....

You will need to irrigate like you normally do the first year.  Irrigate less the second year, and no irrigation is needed the third year.

 
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Location: Central Indiana
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So for things that grow on the top of the Hugel is it ok to just climb to the top and pick them?  Or in the case of something like sunchokes just climb up, turn the soil to get the tubers then pat it back into place?  Obviously, if i have one central path up to minimize trampling might be better or some form of scaffolding?
 
paul wheaton
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Jonathan Ward wrote:So for things that grow on the top of the Hugel is it ok to just climb to the top and pick them?  Or in the case of something like sunchokes just climb up, turn the soil to get the tubers then pat it back into place?  Obviously, if i have one central path up to minimize trampling might be better or some form of scaffolding?



If your hugelkultur is built to be 7 feet tall, after one year it will probably be six feet tall and all the stuff at the top will be pretty easy to reach while standing on the ground.
 
Westley Wu
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Location: Northern California (Marin); Zone 9b/10a
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“Ziplining” two cubic yards of compost down to the hugel.  It’s 80 5 gallon buckets, and would’ve been more than climbing up and down the old world trade ctr, carrying heavy buckets.  So I built this rig, had to keep the line high enough to stay above the ground all the way down, w the weight of four buckets at a time.  You can see 3 green and orange buckets down at bottom, I’m sending the fourth here.  This might come in handy for moving other objects in the future so I think I’ll keep it.  Have three wine barrels I got for rainwater storage that need to go down there.
BD38A576-0799-4848-B4BE-DFD57FFF21C2.png
[Thumbnail for BD38A576-0799-4848-B4BE-DFD57FFF21C2.png]
 
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Just wanted to share my experience with hugelkultur.

Ligustrum lucidum (tree privet) has been deemed one of the worst economic pests in the world. The seeds are easily dispersed by birds, the plants are hardy and fast growing, it will germinate in shade and sun, and on rich and poor soils. It's rapid growth in disturbed areas sees it close out the canopy taking light from competition and destroying entire ecosystems around the globe. Methods to control this tree include dynamite, roundup, diesel and fire, extensive digging, and more. All of these typically fail and the privet comes back from shoot growth off submerged roots to create a thicket that is far harder to remove.

I have killed and successfully converted several large L. lucidum specimens to hugelkultur beds, and am in the process of killing more. I use no poisons, no explosives, and no scorched earth.

Cut your privet tree so that 1 foot of it is protruding from the ground. Wait a couple of months and new shoots form. Remove them. Repeat. Two years later the tree is dead. If you leave nothing protruding the tree will grow off the root system and create a far worse problem. Landscaping practise is to level the stumps, this is problematic. If you are steward of a property, you should be present. removing shoots takes minutes per tree total over the two years period, for total success. Upon cutting the privet down immediately plant with trees you'd prefer. Let the new plants feed off and compete with the privet's dying root systems.

The cut down materials are used for hugelkultur. I called them 'tree graves' but as you now have an official term for this, I cede the name. I lay these out at the base of the original tree as I want visitors to see the dead privet stump besides the prolific abundance growing out of the beds they created.

I believe most woody weed pests can be killed using the methods as described above. If you are not present on the land, leave it alone till you are ready to take responsibility for it. A privet forest is better than scorched earth.

 
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In my yard I already had 8 trees cut down with 2 more to come down.   I had multiple ~5 black walnuts on 3 sides of property S, E, and W.  I set up my garden in the N ~away from the house.  I know I can plant beans where the black walnut was, but not peas or nightshades.  I know what I can and cannot plant in the walnut zone pretty much.  Generally trying to stay away from it.   I cannot say I am using hugelkultur since I have no soil on top of all this wood.

Nice idea, dig down a foot into soil, hold this soil, then lay down the wood, then pile soil on wood.  I was burning wood/paper 4 days in this week. :(  Maybe I can go to work start digging then dump all the wood chips in the hole and cover with the soil.

 
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paul wheaton wrote:Over the last five years this seems to be the thing that I am having the hardest time describing to people. 

Please build your hugelkultur beds in layers.  Some wood, then some soil, then some wood, then some soil, etc. 

Please do no make a pile of wood and then heap dirt on top of that.




If I might be so bold, possibly someone could change the pictures in the Richsoil article?  That is where I first learned about hugelkultur, and the pictures there on how to build them look to me exactly like the pictures here that show how not to build them.  That may be contributing to the confusion.
 
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