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Dry(er) area and hugelkultur/soil question

Posts: 1
Location: North Idaho
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My area receives less than average rainfall, so it can get really dry by late summer. However, we do get a decent amount of snow, and I've noticed the water pools for days once it melts. The soil is very rocky, and about 8 inches down it's a layer of clay. I have started a small hugelkultur row for my berry plants, but now I'm concerned about it being a waste of time. I'm zone 6, North Idaho. New to land ownership and trying to do as much as I can manage, but do it well. Any tips are appreciated.
Posts: 82
Location: Elk Grove, CA
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Hi Catherine,

Well hugelkultur is a technique to compost large pieces of wood into rich soil for much cheaper than buying it. It sounds like that is exactly what your rocky clay area needs to help transform it into rich fertile food producing soil that holds onto water. Once you make enough soil, and get some worms and roots added in, you are going to be a happy camper or gardener/farmer.

Dry areas can benefit from water retention techniques like swales, berms, and ponds (direct and hold water). Clay is really good for holding water in ponds. Geoff Lawton is one of the masters at many of these methods. If a desert can be greened, so to can north Idaho. I highly recommend learning all about those methods to see if any of them can help your land. I will add this little bit of advice... A swale is a very labor intensive solution to a problem and demands proper design and spacing. Don’t make one unless you need it to solve a real problem. I’ve seen a lot of people go swale crazy and put them all over just because they really wanted swales but didn’t understand them. Needless to say, they all had to be removed.

You are not wasting your time with hugelkultur, but you really need to go big or should I say “regular size” which happens to be bigger than most expect. Sometimes size really does matter and when it comes to hugelkultur, I think that surface area on those big tall mounds is fairly important. Much like regular compost piles, going too small can deliver lackluster results that take far longer to compost/mature. The core logs in a hugelkultur mound should be above ground level, with enough airflow and humidity to optimize rotting and fungal consumption. Burying wood below grade impedes air and compost loves air (not a good idea). So when I hear some people say they made a small hugelkultur mound, or buried the wood to hugelkultur it, or did some tweak that compost piles don’t like, I kinda cringe a little.

The nice thing about a hugelkultur mound is that you don’t have to let all that surface area on the mound just sit there and produce nothing. You can grow plants on them and that too can shade the mound and accelerate the decomp happening inside. Once the wood pile rots enough and becomes spongy, it will help hold onto water and benefit the plants growing on top of the mound and help speed up the easy going soil making machine that it is.

A lot of folks get the idea that hugelkultur is a garden bed and can let them dry farm veggies, and that’s not what they are. Yes, you can grow on them, and not waste that space, but a garden bed they are not. In a dry climate a hugelkultur mound may also need to be watered if you are growing on it, plants still need water and will die without it. Hopefully it will eventually hold enough water to not require watering, but that too depends on climate, location, rainfall, etc.

If you have easy access to a bunch of wood and need lots of carbon rich soil, build a bunch of large hugelkultur mounds. Another tip is that those mounds might be massive, but they have very little structural integrity. They should never be used as a berm to hold back water because they will fail and a failed berm can be dangerous.

Here is a video of Geoff Lawton answering a question about swale design...

Another about swales in dry clay climates.

Here is some guy, no idea who he is, but he has a nice hugelkultur mound done right... (and a pretty good scaffolding idea as well).

And here is a good article about a common hugelkultur/swale mistake, well worth reading.

Good Luck!
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