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A hugel in Missoula

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I am new to gardening and fairly new to Missoula.  I think I want to build a hugel.

My rural property extends east-west across a small canyon running north-south(ish).  There is a perennial creek running down the canyon floor surrounded by trees and heavy brush.  The remainder of the canyon floor is meadow with scattered conifers.  Previously the meadow was a used as a pasture but for the past 40 or 50 years it has not been grazed or worked; the grasses grow about 3-4 ft high each year.  This hillsides are wooded with mature conifers.

I think my primary constraint is sun exposure.  No part of my property gets direct sun for the first or last few hours of the day (it's blocked by the hillsides forming the canyon), and most of my property is shaded much of the rest of the day because of the abundance of mature conifers.  I've also noticed that the short Missoula growing season starts several weeks earlier in sunny locations than it does in shadier locations.  I've found that a narrow strip running east-west across the canyon floor along the south edge of my gravel driveway gets the most sun; partly because it is about midway between the hills forming the sides of the canyon, and partly because the driveway cuts a gap through the trees.

My plan is to build a "long & narrow" hugel running east-west and use the south face of the mound as my primary growing area.  The north face of the mound would face the driveway, which is raised 2 or 3 feet above the adjacent meadow, so that face would be significantly shorter than the south face.  The location is close enough to the creek to be irrigated from that with a small solar powered pump, I would think, so that isn't my primary motivation for a hugel.  Rather, I am hoping that by forming a mound the growing area will warm up in the spring earlier than would an on-grade growing area.  And I'm fixated on using only the dirt in place, I guess because that seems to be the most sustainable strategy with the least collateral impact.  Burying logs and branches, which I have on hand, will allow for the formation of a mound without bringing in additional dirt.

Most of the native dirt on the property is rocky clay which is good for building gravel driveways.  In fact I'm pretty sure the material used to build up the driveway was removed from the hillside.  It is also good for growing knapweed.  I suspect that the canyon floor, where the grasses have been growing & decaying in place for 40 years, is probably among the best topsoil on the property.  My plan is to excavate down to at least the bottom of the "good" topsoil, and place that soil on the top of the hugel.  Other excavated dirt will be used to infill around the wood.  I will want a path along the south side of the hugel, so I could excavate topsoil from there to add that also to the top of the hugel.  I imagine the path area will then get backfilled with rocks and stones sifted from the dirt that goes into the hugel; I always end up with extra rocks whenever I dig around here.  If not I have wood chips or pine straw for backfill.  This will probably mean that pretty much all of the dirt will get moved twice.

The only "mulch" generated by the property in any significant quantity are pine needles, which I think I want to not put into a hugel.  I have only a small lawn and I don't usually bag the clippings except when I need them for something such as covering grass seed.  I suppose I could cut some of the meadow grasses to have straw.  I do have large piles of noxious weeds that have been pulled over the past 3 years.  Can I put that in the hugel?  I have 3 neighbors with horses, and 3 neighbors with a few chickens each.  Would they likely have wastes that would benefit the hugel?

Depending on how things go with another project I may start work on the hugel in October or so.  Otherwise it would be next spring.

Any suggestions?
gardener & hugelmaster
Posts: 2088
Location: mountains of Tennessee
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I suggest thoroughly composting the noxious weeds to eliminate any seeds. Fresh chicken manure is a bit too "hot" for many plants so I suggest composting that first too. Horse manure can safely be used immediately IF the owner isn't treating the horses with some sort of dewormer. I would probably mix the manure 50/50 with the soil excavated for the hugel.

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