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Hugelpath™

 
pioneer
Posts: 386
Location: Oregon 8b
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Reposted by request from: https://permies.com/t/120/151516/Plant-Grow-Percentage-Total-Calories#1232783

Mathew Trotter wrote:

Robin Katz wrote:Matthew,

I'm intrigued by the hugelpath concept. I can see the water storage aspect but keep thinking that the path would end up with more growth than the area around it due to a higher moisture content. Is your idea that the path would be similar to the old irrigation troughs between rows of crops? I look forward to your results from this year. Our area has the same summer drought and there is no way that I can/will water all the garden beds that I plan to put in place. We've been going the hugel mound route since our soil is rocky as hell and I won't be digging those buggers up.



Hey Robin! I was planning to do a whole post on the Hugelpath once I finished setting it up and had some time to test it out. It's definitely theoretical at this point, but I'm hoping that theory will pan out as I do some testing. Basically, I'm trying to combine and maximize the benefits of a number of different designs will minimizing the negatives for my climate. Namely, it's inspired by hugelkultur, terra preta, ollas, worm towers, deep mulching, and a lot of Elaine Ingham's work (plus probably more techniques that I'm spacing on at the moment.) I think the only thing that's missing here would be to set them up on contour, but that might be excessive. I'll try to break down how the Hugelpath relates to each of these other technologies.

The relation to hugelkultur is probably obvious, even if "Hugelpath" is a bit of a misnomer since it is indeed not a mound. But since "hugel" has pretty much become synonymous with wood, it made sense. The problem with hugelkultur in my climate is that they don't maximize water harvesting; being a mound, in heavy rain events they will shed water in excess of what they can absorb and that water will run off of the property (or hopefully into other water catchment strategies.) By inverting the shape, water will shed INTO the hugel rather off of it. But with 8 or 9 months of nearly non-stop rain, even though I want to capture and hold onto that rain for use during the drought, I don't want it directly in the root zone of my plants where it can cause root rot. Instead, like an olla, this mass of spongey material will wick water into the adjacent beds as the plants use up water and dry out the soil relative to the hugelpath.

It's a little more complex of a mix than your typical hugelkultur, as it aims to mimic the composition of Amazonian terra preta a little more closely. In addition to wood and green material (which would ideally include yard waste, kitchen scraps, etc.) it also contains biochar and fired clay (this is nothing special, just clay that was fired as a result of them burning slash piles on the property, but I would go out of my way to fire clay pellets or tiles if I didn't already have an abundance of fired clay.) In addition to the water holding capacity of biochar, it also provides nutrient holding capacity (so that the nutrients from the rotting organic mater don't leach out) and lots of surface area for microbial life to cling to and proliferate. Fired clay is the part of terra preta that most people miss, thinking that biochar is the only important element. I'd argue that fired clay is at least as important as the charcoal. Unglazed pottery functions as a wick which is why ollas are effective for irrigation, but what's especially cool about pottery is it's ability to wick water up against the pull of gravity. I found a video that demonstrates this perfectly:



That means that the pottery can help pull the water that we've stored upward towards the plant roots as the soil begins to dry.

In a way, the hugelpath will theoretically function like a worm tower. Put all of the organic matter in one spot and then utilize the worms and other soil life to transport it into the adjacent beds. And because the path is dug out below the compaction zone it will allow the free transfer to soil life and organic matter between the zone above and below the compaction. And if Elaine Ingham's work (and the anectdotal work of many before her) holds true, the increased soil life should be able to start breaking down the remaining compaction from all sides. And Dr. Ingham's work has indicated that simply balancing the soil life can massively drought proof a patch of soil (to the point that they almost got fined for watering a lawn during water restrictions... even though they never actually watered it.)

The whole path is then capped with a "deep" mulch of wood chips to keep the weeds at bay. Initally it isn't that deep, maybe only 3 or so inches (though I could certainly dig my trench deeper if I felt that more mulch was warranted.) But the idea is that as the logs rot down the path will sink and more wood chips would be added to keep the apparent level of the path even with the beds (even though the actual soil level is much lower.) In my experience, woods chips soften the soil pretty rapidly, so even if weeds manage to germinate they're relatively painless to remove. I used wood chips around the first batch of fruit trees that I planted, and about a year later I was able to pull out a roughly 2-foot dandelion root with my bare hands and no straining and without breaking the tap root. But ultimately the idea is that anything that germinates won't have the energy to make it through the mulch, and anything that blows in won't be able to get down to soil in order to germinate.

In a way it also functions like a dry land chinampa. The bed is surrounded by water on all sides, but because it's stored in wood you're able to access the bed without boats. I'm not expecting to gain the kind of thermal benefit that chinampas receive by being surrounded by water, but I did see a great example the other day of how even swales can keep soil from freezing or allow it to thaw faster as temperatures increase, which means I might actually gain a thermal benefit as well. And that's just from the water. The biological activity on all sides of my beds may actually create some thermal benefit, just like you get with traditional hot beds.





The idea is that if I were able to take a 3-foot soil core from my bed now, and in 4 to 5 years (or possibly much sooner than that), I would find that the organic mater from the path had infiltrated the bed. I don't know if it'll actually work out that way, but that's the hypothesis I'm working from.

I started working on this path a year ago, and the problem has been that it's had a good 6-12 inches of water in it any time I've actually had time to work on it. Now that I've switched up my strategy and started filling the path from one end, I no longer have water pool in the bottom of my trench. The 10-15 feet of wood, biochar, fired clay, etc. that I've been able to add has been sponging up the excess water and keeping the bottom of the trench relative dry compared to what it was like when it was empty.



And here are some pictures of the first prototype that I'm developing:









 
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Great work. There's every reason this should be successful.

I have had great success using woodchips as infill around excavated and mounded hugelbeets, essentially forming an island of hugelbeet within a sea of woodchips. They supercharge some elements of soil life, creating a soil life bioreactor of sorts. I have heard accounts of wood-decomposing insect population explosions absent a controlling factor, usually chickens.

I especially like the addition of biochar. My future endeavours in the field will include biochar and wood slash/chips for keyline swales, keyline-hugelbeet-swales, if you will.

Please keep documenting your progress as you have. It's really excellent. Keep us posted, and good luck!

-CK
 
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Location: Russia, ~250m altitude, zone 5a, Moscow oblast, in the greater Sergeiv Posad reigon.
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Brilliant idea. Useful for methods that use soil disturbance, like Joseph Lofthouse's rowcropping.
 
gardener
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Interesting.
The historical version of drain tile was a f@ggot drain,  consisting of wood bundles, laid in the bottom of a trench, then covered over.
I have buried a lot of wood in my backyard , with similar aims.
I've also made char directly directly in a trench, quenched it and added wood before burying it.
As for fired clay, it certianly shows its value in hydroponics.
I wonder if high fired clay  would work, toilets are free.
The broken pieces would be sharp, so they should be tumbled, to protect future hands.
 
Mathew Trotter
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Huh. I just realized that the Hugelpath is already working. I went out to pick some kale for breakfast and made the same observation that I've been making, which is that half of my plants are growing maybe 75% faster than the other half. That's the funny thing about taking on huge work loads and having the constant stress of getting things done, you just don't have the time to slow down and make the super obvious observations.

I've only finished the first 10-15 feet of the Hugelpath out of the eventual 50 feet. In my mind, it's not finished yet, and the wood hasn't had time to break down yet, so obviously it's not working yet. What stupid conclusions the human brain comes to when it's left on autopilot.

I think the only reason I finally noticed is because the Hugelpath was already on my mind when I went out to pick the kale. And I realized that it wasn't a random half of my kale plants that were doing better. It wasn't down to one half winning the genetic lottery. It was the half that was adjacent to the Hugelpath that was outperforming the half that wasn't. And by a significant amount.

Nice to see that the hard work, if never ending, is paying dividends.

Of course, I picked the plants clean before I thought to take a picture, so I can't really give a good comparison shot. I'll give the plants a week or so to recover and then nab a picture that shows the difference.

Hopefully in another month or two the craziness will slow down and I'll be able to finish the Hugelpath, or maybe I'll be able to sneak a few smaller work sessions in between the other craziness.

If you haven't been following my work more generally, the pandemic has left me without income for the past 13 months and my state has dropped the ball on unemployment and I'm in a remote area that I can't leave (legally) because my vehicle is no longer insured (and is technically out for repossession, though no one's yet been willing to come out here for it). The pressure is on to grow, forage, hunt, and fish for all of my food, and I'm making pretty good progress on that, but it doesn't leave me a lot of time to engage in actual discussion. I've been trying to make the effort to keep a journal here on Permies to track what I'm working on and the day to day progress, which is where I was originally going to post this update. But since it was a Hugelpath specific update, I figured this was the better place for it. Thank you all for your insights. Looking forward to having an actual conversation when things are less crazy.
 
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I tried a version of this idea over the winter. Last year, I dug deeper trenches to make high rows in one section of my garden. I didn't like these awkward, deep trench paths, but didn't want to redistribute all the soil, so in these trenches, I added table scraps, garden debris, leaves, logs and covered with some upside down sod. I topped it all with straw and now its my slightly mounded hugelpath. My thinking is, it's like hugel trench composting. I didn't add any biochar or clay shards, but I have clay soil, so I hope all of this compostable material will be synergistic with the clay.
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