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new to hugelkultur: is it right for soggy soil situation?

 
Posts: 4
Location: Zone 7, north Alabama
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This is my third year of planting a vegetable garden in this location in North AL. The soil is very unusual--it holds onto so much water but crumbles into fine sand if a dry clump is smashed with a trowel. It's not typical red clay--it's very dark and playdoh-like when wet, but whitish when dry.

During spring rains, if I dig a hole, water pours into it from the sides like a well filling up. I dug 3 trenches and bucketed out over 100 gallons this spring before connecting the trenches into a river that drained downhill from the garden. The lawn also stays so boggy in places that it's impossible to mow completely with a riding mower until June.

I've had increasing trouble with production from the veggie plants. They grow slowly and eventually do produce fruit, but it's not abundant. Foliage is there but doesn't seem especially lush. I planted 15 cucumber plants and have had 3 or 4 cucumbers so far this year. One tomato is ripening (it's late July) out of 20+ plants. Even green beans this year, out of probably 8-10 plants, I would get 7 green beans at a time. Potatoes and onions rot in the soil unless I put them just the right place. Everything just seems stagnant.

The garden does not get full sun for the entire day, but does get pretty direct sun from about 10 am till 2 or 3 pm in midsummer and then some tall oaks filter it after that. I might call it partial shade, but it's not like there's a solid house shadow over it, and the tree branches aren't directly over the garden.

The plants that have done okay are zinnias, bell peppers, jalapenos, okra, mint, and basil. I got a few bok choy plants to grow decently this year. Plants that have done poorly are tomatoes (low yield), radishes (they don't expand into radishes), arugula, spinach, green beans, parsley, cilantro, zucchini. I did start most of these from seed myself. Is there any link between what has done badly that would help me pinpoint a problem? I feel like it's probably either lack of sun or soggy soil, but I'm not sure which one to work on.

We have used cinder blocks to make three long, narrow beds in our garden area, so the planting areas are slightly raised. The soil in the beds has been amended somewhat with some bagged garden soil/topsoil, some compost, Black Kow manure, etc. I covered each bed with oak leaves in January last year and dug them all into the beds in March. But still, after the intense rains from Barry this last week or so, there's standing water all through the beds and the paths between the beds are practically solid puddles. One place I stepped on some dirt and water actually squirted out and started running downhill!

Would making a h├╝gelkultur mound in each of my cinder block beds be a way to help mitigate the sogginess without trucking in probably literal tons of topsoil? I'm not anxious to spend hundreds of dollars on what amounts to a hobby garden.  We already had to do that for a fence to keep deer out.

I've been gardening for 10 years now; the 7 years in our other location had typical southeast red clay and my gardens really grew fine there. But here I feel like I've lost my green thumb--is this possible?! ;)
 
gardener
Posts: 6341
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
1084
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Wow Diana, that sounds like almost swamp conditions.  
You might need to raise your beds another two or three blocks high and fill those spaces with soil to be able to get away from wet feet for your plants.
The symptoms you describe are rather indicative of the plants being drowned.
The conditions are almost certain to be anaerobic (hence the potato and onion rot) and you  have to get away from that condition, sadly the only way is to relocate the  gardens or raise the beds high enough to keep the roots up and away from the anaerobic soil.

It is good that you have late afternoon dappled shade so the plants don't have to deal with so much heat stress.

Redhawk
 
Diana Still
Posts: 4
Location: Zone 7, north Alabama
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Bryant RedHawk, I think 'swamp' is a great description! It seems like an odd place to have a swamp, since we are up on one of the higher hills around here. But the dirt sure acts like it.

Anaerobic conditions sounds right too, but I didn't really think of that. There is a definite smell to the dirt sometimes--like the smell you get when you dig down into beach sand and you get a fishy/salty smell.

Thanks for confirming that it's probably the dirt and not the sun. It all seems to add up.

Would it work to do a h├╝gelkultur mound in the beds? Maybe dig out some of the yuck dirt that's there, add wood, and I guess I'd have to get topsoil from somewhere to add to the mound?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 6341
Location: Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
1084
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Generally Hugels are used to store water for the plants.
Living on top of a mountain as I do, they work very well, since most of the rains end up down in the valley except for where my hugels are located.
It might be possible to use wood to build a hammock (raised, dry-ish land found in swamps) but Paul would be better able to address this question than I.

Redhawk

 
pollinator
Posts: 319
Location: Quebec, Canada
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using logs/branches to take space at the bottom of a bed so you need less soil is a good way to go.

You can also use rocks & gravel to take space below your soil.  Use whatever you can find.

 
pollinator
Posts: 409
Location: Huntsville Alabama (North Alabama), Zone 7B
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Diana, I too live in North Alabama and live on a small hill next to a larger hill.  What I am seeing is sometimes an underground stream will show up and take out one of my fruit trees. I live in an area of Karst Topography and you would notice wet spots emitting from the middle of the road or driveway (seems like out of nowhere). Telephone poles are only straight vertical for a few years before they tilt.  
I do raised beds one block high and also try to mound some soil so the tree is a bit high in the hole.  When an underground stream pops up suddenly, I will lose a tree in a few weeks and this seems to work but nature can prove me wrong.  I find that i can use concrete blocks to start a raised bed and after the trees and roots become settled in (3 or 4 years) I can use the blocks elsewhere and start another raised bed.
 
Diana Still
Posts: 4
Location: Zone 7, north Alabama
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Dennis--you may be on to something! So is karst topography where the groundwater actually dissolves stuff away and then the groundwater shows up in places where it didn't used to be? How do I know if this is my area--does it show up on topographical maps? We're in southeast Decatur--lived in north Huntsville for quite awhile and the dirt is pretty different at this house.

Thank you! I will look into this. A local friend has mentioned underground streams too.
 
Dennis Bangham
pollinator
Posts: 409
Location: Huntsville Alabama (North Alabama), Zone 7B
48
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That is the description. Underground streams that dissolve the rock. If you have limestone (aka Limestone County) then you probably have underground streams and radon.  It is more noticeable (I think) if you live next to a mountain. Any arteasian wells in your area?  We used to swim in one (about 55 degrees F brrrrr)

Look at the roads and telephone poles.  That will tell you want you want to know.  Bumpy roads that were once flat and telephone poles that were once straight are now leaning in random directions.  
A websearch might provide information.  
 
Diana Still
Posts: 4
Location: Zone 7, north Alabama
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RedHawk, I guess I was thinking the wood would soak up the water instead of the dirt soaking up the water. But maybe a better solution would be to try to improve drainage in the area. Thanks!

Michelle, I will see what I can do! I don't want to build them too high.

Dennis, thanks! I will be keeping my eye out.
 
Michelle Bisson
pollinator
Posts: 319
Location: Quebec, Canada
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But maybe a better solution would be to try to improve drainage in the area. Thanks!  



This could solve many issues.
 
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