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Big hugel dreams!

 
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Hey everyone!

For the past several years I’ve dreamt of putting what I had been reading into practice. I finally made that possible when I purchased 5 acres, most of it being pine and oak forest. As apart of the overall big picture of cleaning the property, reducing fire hazard, and improving water retention, I’ve begun to pile up lots of rotting logs and branches from around the property. So far I have approximately 80 feet laid out, with another 80 feet or so to go. This mound will follow the fence line, and eventually I’ll plant fruit trees along it. What I’ve done so far is lay down big rotten logs, followed by smaller ones, with a light layer of horse manure, some leaves, now some more branches. After that I’ll cover with more leaves since I’ve managed to collect nearly 300 bags this year from around the city. I’m still unsure where I’ll get the dirt to cover it, but I’ll likely end up doing that in spring as the snow is coming soon.
I’ll keep updating this post as I make progress, I try to do a load with my trailer every couple of weeks!
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pollinator
Posts: 410
Location: Beavercreek, OR
118
dog bike woodworking
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It is good to dream!  Great to make progress on it!

A few comments that might help you achieve an awesome hugel:
1) I'm a little concerned about the leaf pile.  Certainly add leaves, but sprinkle them... otherwise they can mat up and stay that way for a long time.  There are concerns about nitrogen uptake , and the leaves aren't going to help that.  Consider adding a nitrogen source (such as your horse manure) to the inside of the hugel ... I add coffee grounds (because I can).
2)  You're thinking big!  I'd encourage you to think wide before long.  A wide & tall  hugel (as much as 15' at the base) has a greater capacity to store moisture and the height creates more interesting "edge" opportunities.  Judging from those trees you're in a place that is dry (not humid) in the summers and the soils are quickly stripped of moisture.  A big hugel can hold enough moisture to get those plants through the summer, a small one will just provide an extended season.
3) You don't mention contours ... if you don't know, be very careful about placing your hugel across a water flow.  Hugels ain't dams or swales.
4) pack that dirt!  You've got a loose assembly of woody bits.  Get dirt in there - you don't want air gaps in the hugel (great rodent habitat, increases later compaction - hard on root systems, increases resistance to water movement)

In terms of "where do I get the dirt???" I'm with you there.  Its relatively easy to find the logs and wood material, dirt takes more work (this has been the big hold-back for me.  I finally have some ideas/acceptance of where to remove dirt so I've finally got a path forward).  Paul Wheaton advocates using an excavator to dig a trench on either side of the hugel and to pile that dirt on top of the logs.  You might feel like you've got a fort and need some gators for that moat, but it a) is the most efficient way of putting dirt on the hugel and b) also provides a way to handle water and c) increases the surface area/edge space of the hugel.
 
Ashton Soete
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Eliot Mason wrote:It is good to dream!  Great to make progress on it!

A few comments that might help you achieve an awesome hugel:
1) I'm a little concerned about the leaf pile.  Certainly add leaves, but sprinkle them... otherwise they can mat up and stay that way for a long time.  There are concerns about nitrogen uptake , and the leaves aren't going to help that.  Consider adding a nitrogen source (such as your horse manure) to the inside of the hugel ... I add coffee grounds (because I can).
2)  You're thinking big!  I'd encourage you to think wide before long.  A wide & tall  hugel (as much as 15' at the base) has a greater capacity to store moisture and the height creates more interesting "edge" opportunities.  Judging from those trees you're in a place that is dry (not humid) in the summers and the soils are quickly stripped of moisture.  A big hugel can hold enough moisture to get those plants through the summer, a small one will just provide an extended season.
3) You don't mention contours ... if you don't know, be very careful about placing your hugel across a water flow.  Hugels ain't dams or swales.
4) pack that dirt!  You've got a loose assembly of woody bits.  Get dirt in there - you don't want air gaps in the hugel (great rodent habitat, increases later compaction - hard on root systems, increases resistance to water movement)

In terms of "where do I get the dirt???" I'm with you there.  Its relatively easy to find the logs and wood material, dirt takes more work (this has been the big hold-back for me.  I finally have some ideas/acceptance of where to remove dirt so I've finally got a path forward).  Paul Wheaton advocates using an excavator to dig a trench on either side of the hugel and to pile that dirt on top of the logs.  You might feel like you've got a fort and need some gators for that moat, but it a) is the most efficient way of putting dirt on the hugel and b) also provides a way to handle water and c) increases the surface area/edge space of the hugel.




Hey Eliot! Thanks for the feedback.


I have lots of leaves, so I intend on using them. A little matting doesn’t bother me, I’ve got a lot of garden space so if I can’t use this mound for 2-3 years it’s not a big deal! Eventually the leaves will break down. They aren’t as matted as they look- it’s actually only about 1 bag every 6 feet or so.
I’m still trying to find a nitrogen source. We have a horse but I can’t trust the manure. We live in an agriculture community and unfortunately it’s all commercial/ “big ag” full of chemicals, it is impossible to find organic. I did a light layer of manure on the mound pretty deep down in hopes by the time roots find it, the pesticides will have broken down. There is a coffee stand who told me they’d save grounds for me, and they go through about 10 pounds a day so I could gather quite a bit in a short time, I just haven’t bit the bullet and set up the arrangement!

As far as the size- right now it’s roughly 5 feet wide, with quite a bit of work to go. The goal is roughly 7-8 feet wide, and at least 5 feet tall but higher if i can find the dirt. I’d like to have a minimum of 12” of fill dirt, followed by 6” of compost, and another 6” or more of mulch. I have plenty of woody material and trying to get it cleared before fire season, so right now I’m laying the “foundation” of the completed bed that will extend around 120-150ft. It is very dry around here, I think 12-18inches/year is average so you are correct it’s dry as a bone in the summer! I should be ok with Contours- the bed is sort of a reverse horse shoe turned away from the slope. If it was flipped around I think it could become a problem but with the way it’s set up, should be ok. Only time will tell! Until I get it fully buried I do have some rodent concerns, we have tons of ground squirrels and I built them in a nice little home. The good news is my dog does an excellent job of keeping rodents off the property.

I wish I could get an excavator in here, but as of right now it’s not a feasible option, just to expensive. The ground is so hard there was no chance I’d dig by hand either. I met someone local to me that I’m working on arranging some bartering with, hoping in the spring I’ll get him out with his excavator to dig me some ponds and move boulders. If I haven’t made much progress maybe I’ll have him dig the paths out for me next to the hugel mound. So far this is all done by hand, and a little help from a utility trailer. I wheel the debris to the trailer, drive the trailer to the garden, then wheel it roughly 100 feet to the work area. A lot of work for one guy but I’ve made some good progress. The dirt will be a lot heavier and many more loads than I did with the wood though, I have my work cut out for me. Definitely going to buy a different wheelbarrow, this one is a Frankenstein of two broken wheelbarrows pieced together. I have to keep the tire flat because of clearance between the tire and the tub, if it’s inflated the tire is firmly stuck! So my wheelbarrow in itself is a work out haha. Once I save up some cash im going to get a nice one, with more than one wheel, and those wheels can be inflated 😂
 
gardener & hugelmaster
Posts: 2091
Location: mountains of Tennessee
837
cattle hugelkultur cat dog trees hunting chicken bee homestead ungarbage
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Looks great Ashton. Welcome to permies.

Unless you get a torrential rain it looks like it will work fine. I have similar arrangements. They're basically on contour with a small trench on the uphill side. With a very slight slope so it can run off if water becomes excessive. Nothing noticeable has washed away yet. I think there's a lot of food waiting to happen on yours! Good luck with it.
 
Eliot Mason
pollinator
Posts: 410
Location: Beavercreek, OR
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Thanks for sharing more of your plans - its great to know that you are thinking about this in ways that should lead to success!

Dirt ... yeah.  Whatever happened to "dirt cheap?"  In my instance digging ponds is going to be a major source of dirt and soil - and if the friendly neighborhood excavator can at least break up the soil and make piles for you then you'll be way ahead of banging away with a shovel.  I'm past the age and energy where I could consider loading a wheel barrow and moving it - but you'll be in great shape and have tremendous pride.  I find that even my small loader quickly runs out of room to drive around on top of the hugel, so I may be looking at some barrow work myself in the future.

I think there's probably a post to be had on the best barrow design for this task...
 
Ashton Soete
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Eliot Mason wrote:Thanks for sharing more of your plans - its great to know that you are thinking about this in ways that should lead to success!

Dirt ... yeah.  Whatever happened to "dirt cheap?"  In my instance digging ponds is going to be a major source of dirt and soil - and if the friendly neighborhood excavator can at least break up the soil and make piles for you then you'll be way ahead of banging away with a shovel.  I'm past the age and energy where I could consider loading a wheel barrow and moving it - but you'll be in great shape and have tremendous pride.  I find that even my small loader quickly runs out of room to drive around on top of the hugel, so I may be looking at some barrow work myself in the future.

I think there's probably a post to be had on the best barrow design for this task...



Shoot, I hope some day I have a big enough mound to push a wheelbarrow around on top. That would be incredible!! Someday perhaps. I’m currently eyeing a cart style wheelbarrow, like the Gorilla brand with a dump feature. Would be so nice to have four inflated wheels, I could really get some stuff moved around.

I guess I didn’t think about the digging of the pond creating dirt as well, that’s a great idea and will certainly help. The ducks really need a pond so that will be high on the list in the spring.

I do have a ton of dirt on the back of my property. I believe the dirt is from when a pond nearby was dug, way before the lots were subdivided. When the area was cattle land. I thought about using this dirt for the mounds but I’m a little reluctant- it’s been so long, upwards of 30-40 years, these piles of dirt are part of the landscape and “natural” at this point so I don’t know if I want to cause that much disturbance digging it all up.
On the other hand, I’ve been studying the water harvesting book and would like to someday explore implementing swales or just basic rock dams, and to do that properly I’d have to rearrange the landscape / dirt piles. If I can work out some bartering maybe the earth works won’t be as far into the future as I think. If I do make it happen, there’s got to be 30+ yards of dirt on the back of the property and that would really help bury this long mound!


What’s everyone think about ash? I’ve never done a soil test, I can only assume my soil is fairly alkaline due to the very heavy clay content. So I don’t really want to make it more alkaline. However I have about a yard of ash that I need to do something with. I’m moving my fire pit and before I can do that, I need to a
shovel out all the ash. think i should sprinkle it on the mound?
 
Mike Barkley
gardener & hugelmaster
Posts: 2091
Location: mountains of Tennessee
837
cattle hugelkultur cat dog trees hunting chicken bee homestead ungarbage
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It looks like you have pine trees growing there. Pines typically prefer acidic soils. So I don't think there's a problem with adding a moderate amount of ash each year. Besides decreasing the acidity it will add a lot of micronutrients to the soil. I used it in TX where I had very alkaline soil. I use even more of it here in TN where the soil is more acidic.

Some light reading that might be helpful ... Dr. Redhawk's excellent soil series.
 
Ashton Soete
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I initially thought it would be acidic too, given all the pine needle mulch and pine trees etc.... only thing that leads me to believe it’s alkaline is a coworker who lives about an hour away in similar (though a bit more wet) area has alkaline soil. I think my best bet would be to just get a soil test... I think they have a place in the city I work so I’ll add that to my list of projects!
 
Eliot Mason
pollinator
Posts: 410
Location: Beavercreek, OR
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dog bike woodworking
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Ah!  Disturbing old earthworks ... it it past wisdom you're seeing or past folly?  Hard to know ... this is definitely one of those "observe before action" moments.  At least you don't have an excavator there crying out to be used for something, anything!

Earthworks are tricky things - on one hand its just a bunch of dirt that can get moved around, on the other hand it is the foundation of systems that can take a long time to build/grow and you don't want to willy nilly destroy foundations.  Good earthworks are multi-generational features

On a third hand, hugels are in some ways just big organic matter banks with a limited life.  If you build these and then need to put a pond/swale/outbuilding THERE you can rip it apart, move the organic matter around.  Sure its a pain, but in the meantime you've built soil, harvested carbon, etc.

One thing to consider is layering the hugels - taking an existing small hugel, pulling off major plants and then adding more wood and dirt.  I haven't seen discussion of this, but I intend to do it on two of early & small hugels.  So you can do what you can now, and make it better later.

In terms of wood ash ... I collect the ash from a bakery with a wood oven and spread it.  I've got acidic soil that's low in potassium so I don't worry and just spread it - and add it into the hugel as I go.  The source of the wood ash matters - specides differ in their mineral content - but its generally not super potent.  Oregon State says apply a pound for every 100 square feet, and to be careful if you already have base and/or potassium rich soils.  Adding it to an organic rich hugel seems materially different than spreading it on a garden, and I'd think all the trace minerals are more important - so sprinkle away!

 
Ashton Soete
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I definitely don’t plan on getting into major earthworks without some “expert” consultation. I’d rather make sure my investment goes as far as it can. It will be many years in the making.

I made some progress today! Using a bunch of rounds I told a neighbor I’d take. They are 5+ years old and rotten, most already water logged. I took Eliots advice and decided to go bigger. I realized I have quite a bit more material, and onto around 60 feet of the bed to extend. So I started making it a little wider and taller. The extension is about the same height as the previous work, but I haven’t added the additional layers yet. I have a busy month so I doubt I’ll make much progress in the next few weeks. The snow should be moving in too, might not see a clear day to work for a couple months!

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