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Hulgelkultur Container Gardening?

 
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I started an experiment this weekend by preparing two identical containers, put old logs (small) into the bottom of one, filled them up with identical potting soil/compost, and planted in them.

Has anyone tried Hugelkultur container gardening before?

What works? What doesn't work?

 
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This somewhat reminds me of sub-irrigated planters. Here's a link explaining them:

http://www.insideurbangreen.org/diy-sub-irrigation/

Maybe you can try a third, with a sub-irrigation reservoir, and with some logs/sticks sticking up into the soil for wicking action. In any case, looking forward to seeing how it works out!
 
Gerald Benard
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Rob,
I looked at the SIP site and learned something new. I hadn't see this approach before. I have an extra pot so I'll try it.

Thanks for the suggestion!
 
pollinator
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Maybe that's what the previous owners of my house were trying to do! They had wooden containers -- wooden on the sides and bottoms -- full of marigolds stationed various places around the house. As part of buying the house, we had to have a routine termite inspection which turned up termites in the planters, and because they were next to the house we were required by local ordinance to poison the whole foundation of the house, with the result that we now can't grow anything edible around the foundation. This experience has left me concerned about any hugelkultur experiments that might lead to termites getting established near a house.

But without insect help, won't the wood take an awfully long time to break down -- like years? How long will that plastic pot last? What will you use for nitrogen to balance the carbon? There's little room for N-fixing cover crops in that pot.

Good luck, and let us know how it turns out!
 
Gerald Benard
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Ben,
The thought also occured to me that a Hugelkultur bed will last 10 years while this container garden will last maybe 2-3 seasons. I think it may make more sense to find completely rotten wood and put it at the bottom of the pot. The wood I used was old but not completely rotten.

I'll keep this thread posted on my progress and let you know at the end of the season if it rotted and if it helped my plants grow.

I did make an SIP (Self-Irrigated Planter) last weekend to compare results.

Sorry to hear about your termite problem. This government requirement to poison your yard is rediculous.

Thanks,
-Gerald
 
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that's interesting, my experience with container gardening of vegetables is that I hate it -- i wouldn't do it again unless forced.
I tried plastic and terra cotta. i have a bunch I should sell.
so, sorry to hear about the forced poisoning.
 
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A little off topic here but .... Talking of experiments. Paul W. said I think on one of the Podcasts that hugelkultur is a relatively new idea. I think he said in 2005 only a few websites used the word at all. Now of course there must be hundreds of thousands. I haven't spent hours researching this but there seem to lots of people putting up messages showing they have have recently set up a bed, or they are about to. But I can't seem to find any messages showing the results many years later.
 
Gerald Benard
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Mark,
I have noticed the same thing. Jack Spirko has posted YouTube videos where he created Hugel Swales and Hulgelkultur raised beds and have shown them months later. There is some stuff out there showing it much later but I can't remember where I have seen it. There will be a flood of long term pictures in the years to come...
-Gerald
 
Mark Harris
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Hi Gerald. I can understand how the wood in a container could act as a sponge, and possibly also slowly release nutrients too. But the use of hugelculture outside of containers I don't fully understand. In conventional gardening, raised beds = better drainage, and drier soil. So burying the wood in the ground to act like a sponge makes sense to me. But creating a raised bed above that I don't get. Maybe in Austria, in a cool climate, where a hugel swale would catch rain flowing down a hillside, it makes sense. But in a hot climate on the flat I am not so sure.

Maybe that explains why so many people get so excited about it, but are not so keen to show off the results a few years later ?
 
Mark Harris
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Well I went through the first nine pages of the hugelculture thread that started in 2005. By 2011 (page 9) I could only find one person who had posted pics showing areas of hugel versus non hugel areas. The plant growth looked good on the hugel beds, but it was still being irrigated in the summer. Paul's rich soil article still shows artists impression photos, not real ones. I am not convinced by the idea of raised hugel beds on the flat. A raised hugel swale that catches water and then soaks it up makes sense maybe.
 
Gerald Benard
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Mark,
I like your skepticism about this. You'll believe it when you see it. I got started in permaculture after hearing about two books by Brad Lancaster at about the time he published them. His material is some of the best I've read, even with so much new stuff coming out. He is very much into capturing water in drylands. The focus of his books is not Hugelkultur but on earthworks in general. He cites an example in book 2 about a fire scorched landscape where the local people took the dead trees, placed them on contour (Lama, NM, The Lama Foundation, Page 82 of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Book 2), buried them in hay, and saved the scorched landscape by controlling and capturing rainwater run-off. He also writes about buried paper/junk mail and mounded wood chip swales with pictures. This adds to the references but not proof.

Are you specifically skeptical that the system holds water or that it won't get enough water on a flat surface and will require more frequent manual irrigation? I live in a place with long dry summers and know that I have to irrigate some in my garden beds. If I can space out these irrigations to once a month instead of 3 times a week, it seems like this would be a big win.
 
pollinator
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i think that amount of wood wont do anything for you. i would rather just fill it with good soil.
 
Mark Harris
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Hi Gerald

we live in an area that is hot and very dry in the summer months. What you describe in that book makes perfect sense to me, and would be very helpful here. When the rain comes it can be very heavy and tends to flow across the land rather than sinking in. Traditionally the Portuguese have tried to encourage the flow of water to move towards large wells or deep ponds, then try and retrieve it in the summer months from these storage points. It doesn't seem sensible to me.

What I am sceptical about is the idea that on flat areas that having a raised hugel bed makes sense. The idea of burying wood in flat area to act as a water resevoir, I understand. But to me it would make more logical sense to dig a hole, put the wood in, and put the soil back so that it is level or even better maybe slightly lower than the surrounding areas.

What I see is people putting incredible amounts of effort and resources into creating raised beds, without any evidence from others on this forum that it actually works. I was waiting for the backlash from people after my first post on this thread pointing me towards the evidence of it working, but it hasn't happened. Why not ?

I don't get alot of time to look here through hours and hours of material. But in six years of posts on the hugel thread I saw alot of making beds, and virtually no positive feed back later on. I wonder if people are assuming they did it wrong, or used the wrong sort of wood, or just don't want to say that this might not work (say that the emperor has no clothes).

What I do have time for is for Paul's podcasts. I must have listened to around 50 now. Its very easy to do so while I do my normal farm work on a MP3 player. Paul seems to suggest when it comes to hugel beds the taller the better. He seems to suggest that hugel beds totally eliminate the need for watering, and has said that hugelkultur is one of the most important things Permies people should be spreading the message about. I am still looking for the evidence to support that.

I suspect that this all stems from the idea that everything Mr Holzer does has good like genius stamped all over it. I would be more impressed if he actually was making a living selling food, rather than a selling tickets to a tour of a permaculture theme park.
 
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I have thought of this for containers as well but never tried it.  Has anyone had any experience in it since this post was made?
 
pollinator
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Arliss Wirtanen wrote:I have thought of this for containers as well but never tried it.  Has anyone had any experience in it since this post was made?


I now routinely put wood in the bottom of my pots, though I can't yet say whether it's helping or not.  Once I decide, I will report!
 
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One year when I had a lot of starts that I wanted to put into gallon pots before I sold them, I made potting mix of my own. I included sticks and sunflower, stems, and so forth. My plants in those pots were extremely healthy and had very good color. One of the other things I did was include material to provide fungal inoculation. Just ground up pieces of rotten wood so that the fungal organism would have something to grow on. Another thing I did was add active compost to my potting mix. The rest of the potting mix was garden soil- pretty poor, alkaline, just typical yard dirt in that region.  Potting mix that I dumped out of old pots possibly, some wood chips. As I said, the plants in this mix were extremely robust. At the farmers market people wanted my plants as opposed to those plants grown in the commercial potting soil. But the other thing that gave my plants an advantage is mine were the only ones that were moved onto gallons. The other plants were , also for sale at the farmers market, were those poor spindly things in 2 inch pots and a foot of stem because they didn’t have enough bright light. So I can’t really say that it was my potting mix. Certainly the unconventional potting mix did not kill the plants.
 
pollinator
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First, sort of a disclaimer. I'm in FL and the heat and humidity accelerate any decomposition big time, so your mileage may vary.

I mix my own potting soil which is majority pine bark fines, and use those same fines as is as growing media in my dutch bucket hydroponics setup.

The spent hydro pine bark gets mixed in with used potting soil I have stored.
I never toss potting soil, just add more pine bark fines...the microorganisms and worms in the old saved potting soil seems to be a big plus.

The pine bark is needed because even the pine bark already in the potting mix is considerably decomposed at the 2 - 3 year point, which makes me think your experiment will work because the bark resists breakdown way longer than the wood.

Pine bark is getting way expensive lately so the compost and potting soil bulk suppliers locally are adding shredded pine wood to the mix instead of bark. as one option

it works OK, but just OK because the wood chips decompose a LOT in one season.
As in drop the level in the pot by half.
Most nurseries don't hold things that long (they hope) and their customers plant quickly so it works fine for many in the  the nursery trade and does keep the cost way down.

A long term example of...sort of a Hugel...since we're wondering what happens long term.

I've been here 13 years and piled up some giant oak stumps when I first set the place up.
They have a lot of fine roots so they had plenty of sand piled in with them.

They were red oak, which decomposes faster than white and those trees had to go because the red oaks live 40 - 60 years here and they were at the end of their life and beginning to rot internally.
They were 50 - 60 feet high to give another indicator as to size of the stumps.

Just in the last year or two the stump wood seems to be completely broken down, leaving a mound of sand, hence the sort of Hugel.

These were HUGE stumps, requiring a bulldozer to pile them at the time, and they decomposed by about 3/4 of original volume.

I dug into the pile out of curiosity and it just seems to be sand now, nothing much organic looking, but anything growing on or near it is doing noticeably better than their neighbors.

My guess is that 12 - 13 years is the time line for a Hugel to finish up here in the heat and humidity.
As fast as organic matter burns up here in the heat, similar climates may be looking at replacing Hugels at the 10 - 15 year point.



 
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You can find lots of examples of this in self-watering containers and self-wicking containers.   The rectangular 18-gallon totes, storage containers made from No. 5 plastic (safe) have one small hole drilled 2" up at each end, and that holds water in the bottom of the container with the wood and the soil.  Filled up 2/3 with soil mixture, then another layer of pithy wood that the new roots of the plants can get into quickly work well about 3 inches under the top layer of soil.

These totes help avoid gophers, and I started using them because they save a lot of water.   I paint the top edges and down the sides about 6" to protect from the sun.







HugelSelfWater.jpg
Drilled tote with bottom layer of wood, soil, pithy wood, top off with soil.
Drilled tote with bottom layer of wood, soil, pithy wood, top off with soil.
 
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I wonder if it would be a bad idea to soak the wood for a while before burying them into a pot? Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
 
Thekla McDaniels
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I think soaking the wood would be a good idea. Living in an arid climate, I think it would take a long time to hydrate the dry wood if I didn’t soak it first. And if there was no other way to inoculate the soil, I would soak the wood in actively aerated compost tea to start a soil community in the container, or bury the wood in active compost, and leave it a couple weeks.
 
Lif Strand
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Cristo Balete wrote: I paint the top edges and down the sides about 6" to protect from the sun.


What kind of paint do you use?  The sun eats everything plastic here in NM and so I tend to avoid plastic.
 
Lif Strand
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:I think soaking the wood would be a good idea. Living in an arid climate, I think it would take a long time to hydrate the dry wood if I didn’t soak it first. And if there was no other way to inoculate the soil, I would soak the wood in actively aerated compost tea to start a soil community in the container, or bury the wood in active compost, and leave it a couple weeks.


Soaking the wood is a good idea!  I'm going to start doing that.
 
Saana Jalimauchi
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Thank you, Thekla!

Rainy evening here, so I have some wood now soaking in buckets and some just laid out on the ground enjoying the rain.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Lid, interesting question, appropriate protection from the New Mexico sun.  I’ve spent years living on the Colorado plateau, and it can certainly be brutal.

I’m going to think what I would do!
 
Cristo Balete
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Definitely soak the wood, preferably in pee if you dare.  You can soak the wood in the reservoir in the bottom of the tote or container overnight, then start filling it.  Pithy wood crumbled over the top as mulch at least an inch deep is good, too.  Then it's like a Back To Eden mini garden.

Lif, acrylic paint works well.  Just lightly sand the top 6" inside and out, wipe clean.  Some paints say they are for plastic, but those are usually spray cans.  They recycle spray cans where I am, but they may not everywhere.  The plastic needs some prep to make it stick.  I've had my totes for 5 years and none of them have cracked.  

I don't intend to keep buying and replacing totes, but they are so great against gophers, and so great at not needing as much water, and the plants are up higher so less bending over.  Protecting them has worked so far.

Just be sure to get the right kind of recycle number on the bottom, food safe, No. 5, which a lot of storage totes in the chain stores are No. 5.

You can make fabric "capes" for them from old tarps that have fallen apart, old painters' tarps, heavy fabric.   If not in use cover them entirely with heavy fabric, old tarps, etc.

My containers are in a greenhouse so the whole exterior sides are not exposed to the sun.  

If used outside, then paint the whole side and ends that get morning and evening sun. or put them touching each other to shade the ends.

I've got clay soil, which sometimes over the winter dries out if I don't plant in them (inside a greenhouse,) so the clay soil pulls away from the edges.  But it's important to remember that the clay will expand when wet, so I wet the soil thoroughly and wait a day (overnight) and it will expand to fill the tote again.  If I add soil to the pulled-away sides it will overfill the container and make it bulge, possibly causing it to crack.  It's better to stir it up at that point, when wet, and add compost and rotted manure at about the halfway down point, and take the stress off the sides.



 
Cristo Balete
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If you really don't want to do plastic containers, there are the silver galvanized livestock troughs that are long oval shapes, circles, various sizes that can have one small hole drilled in each end to create a reservoir, line the bottom with  branches that will fill the bottom two-inch depth, then fill in with soil, compost and manure.  

It's the reservoir and the wood/limbs that makes all the difference in these containers.  You aren't really trying to get them to drain fast, so only two holes and small, like a shish kebab spear size.

They are pricey, but should last a lifetime.  Even if the galvanization oxidizes and gets into the soil, the molecules are too big for a plant root to suck it up as it sucks up water, so it won't cause any problems in that regard.  Unless these days they are lining them with something else, I don't know, but they don't look like it.

The silver ought to reflect the heat, but it might not hurt to shade the side that's exposed to the sun in the hottest part of the year.

Lots of people use these as raised beds, but they drill holes in the bottom, which loses the whole extra benefit of these troughs.
 
Lif Strand
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Cristo Balete wrote:If you really don't want to do plastic containers, there are the silver galvanized livestock troughs that are long oval shapes, circles, various sizes that can have one small hole drilled in each end to create a reservoir, line the bottom with  branches that will fill the bottom two-inch depth, then fill in with soil, compost and manure.  


I collect unwanted/discarded galvanized livestock troughs that are beyond repair.  The bottoms do rust out eventually but even so, they work better for me here in NM than planting directly in the ground or building raised beds.  I started using them before I learned about hugelkultur so there isn't any wood at the bottom of any of the older ones, but even so a rusty old trough planter has kept my moisture-loving asparagus alive, if not prolifically producing (because I have to hand water), for nearly 15 years now.  This year a pocket gopher found its way through the rusted bottom and I thought my asparagus was done for, but it's still there!
Asparagus-in-trough-planter.png
[Thumbnail for Asparagus-in-trough-planter.png]
 
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Arliss Wirtanen wrote:I have thought of this for containers as well but never tried it.  Has anyone had any experience in it since this post was made?


I have been doing this forever, in large volume flower pots and my tomato half-barrels. Mostly it's "punky" wood, used to reduce the weight of the pots and the amount of soil required. While it helps with drainage, I think it also helps with moisture regulation, sort of as a buffer. It's mostly below the level of the roots so there's little direct interaction. It certainly does no harm.

The only possible downside is that ants might move in and set up housekeeping in the wood. This has happened once or twice, and my plants suffered noticeable damage. But it's very rare.
 
Cristo Balete
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Lif, I rely on asparagus to stop the gophers.   I flank perennials on either side with Jersey Giant, along with elephant garlic.   They haven't touched any of it...ever.  *knock on wood"  (I'm a gardener, don't I know not to say "ever"???)  Ha!

Nice to know there are used troughs out there.  

Douglas, yes, I have that same problem in the hugel tote containers in the greenhouse.  If the soil isn't kept thoroughly wet, unbelievable amounts of ants settle in, then when I start watering they all try escaping on all the edges, out the drain holes, I can almost hear their thousands of feet marching.  Tomatoes have been utterly stressed by their presence.  

Some folks say to disrupt their tunnels by stirring the soil with a metal shish kebab stake.  I've upped the elephant garlic in each container, and soaked the soil with water that has 15 drops of peppermint oil per gallon, or soak oregano plants in a 5 gallon bucket, pour the tea into the soil, slowly so it saturates.  There are a few other teas made from herbs that might work as well.  

Mostly keeping the soil very wet keeps them away....or they move to the next container!!  Smart but annoying!
 
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