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Drum/Barrel Hugelkultur-like Raised Bed

 
Logan Byrd
Posts: 48
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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Hello everyone! I am planning to start some taller raised beds drawing inspiration from hugelkultur. The land that I live on is not mine, but I got a small patch (20ft x 70ft?) with excellent southern sun that I can do with as I wish.
I am hoping to get my own place in the next year or two, but I would like to leave behind an easy to use garden for the owners. They don't apply any pesticides to the area (aside from the occasional Roundup on poison ivy, but that is far away from my area) and most of the lawn is grass that they cut regularly but do not apply any chemicals or fertilizers to.

The soil is a hard clay, and seems rather inhospitable for the most part. Dandelions do well as a weed, and thistle seems to love some parts of the land but not others.

The area I got is a mix of bare soil and moss, along with some stumps from bushes that were growing there. The area was used as a junk heap for pallets, old machinery, and so forth - but other than the weird bits of blue plastic in the first 6in of clay, I think I can work with it.

Given the short time period and the small amount of land I can work with, my plan is to do the following:
1. Remove the bush stumps to create a flatter area, and mulch the entire area with wood chips to make it walkable while also offering a long-term amendment to the soil.
2. Set up 55 gallon barrels, with both the top and bottom removed, to use as raised beds. (I can get washed drums that only had food-safe plastic urethane in them for free)
I'm not sure how many I can get or have the time to set up, but I am hoping to get at least six and place them three feet apart from each other.
3. Start filling the drums - initially with a 1in-2in layer of food scraps (including meat), followed by some decomposing logs (which won't rob nitrogen if they're already decomposing? they're lightweight when dry), and leading upwards with sticks and twigs alongside more food scraps.
I'll be using the native clay to fill the gaps in between the wood and scraps, but for the top 12in of the barrels, I am planning to use an organic potting soil so that I have something to work with as soon as the beds are ready.
4. Once the drums are filled, and the top layer of potting soil is added - then I'll mulch it with wood chips.
5. I'll let them rest for about a month (I have to wait for things to warm up anyway) before I plant, which I believe will help things start to decompose and hopefully encourage worms and other beneficial creatures to move in.

The only monetary expense I'll have is the potting soil, as the barrels are repurposed instead of being thrown out by the company I'm getting them from, the woodchips are from Chipdrop, and the logs are from the woods nearby.

Does anyone see any issues with my plan or have any suggestions for how I could improve it? My main criteria is just something that I can get up and running quickly (preferably without chemicals) and something that's high enough where it won't cause back pain for the owners after I leave the garden to them.
I am hoping to plant different types of edible plants (currently only planning swiss chard and ground cherries) to harvest later on.
 
s. lowe
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I'll be very curious to see how those play out. I don't know that I've ever seen such a tall, narrow raised bed. The only issue that pops out to me is to make sure that all the woody layers are packed well with clay/food scraps filling in major air holes. I could imagine settling/decomposition of the wood causing some serious internal collapse mid season if there's not a good amount of support that wont be decomposing.

I also wonder about air availability in such a tall bed. Is there a risk of anaerobic conditions arising? Could you cut little "pockets" along the height to  tuck  some soil and small plants in? Something like this https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fi.pinimg.com%2Foriginals%2Fa4%2Ff2%2Fe7%2Fa4f2e7ba13bc0ff2c1aad5ac7eee237a.jpg&imgrefurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2Fpin%2F731694270687499757%2F&docid=BTY-OJk-wCljGM&tbnid=GiHzUGPMYjrphM&vet=1&source=sh%2Fx%2Fim
?
 
Logan Byrd
Posts: 48
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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I'll try to pack it as best as I can - the logs that I am planning to use have been sitting out in the rain (and other weather) on bare ground for 5-7 years, so I'm hoping that they'll stay sturdy enough.

Do you think it would be better to mix some fresh logs into there or use just fresh logs?

Regarding air availability, I'm not sure. I believe that the worms attracted to the scraps will do a good job at aerating the soil for me, but the drums are made out of some type of carbon steel or stainless steel, and unfortunately I don't think I could convince the company I'm getting them from to drill those - they normally remove just the top, but they were also willing to remove the bottom as long as I sent them pictures of the finished garden.

The idea of logs and sticks and such in a tall raised bed should work though, since I've seen other people do it, like in this video:
 
s. lowe
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Ah ya if they're some kind of metal it probably isn't worth the hassle of cutting more holes. The worms and other soil life should do the work. I don't think some fresher wood would hurt but as long as you pack it well so that the settling is more gradual I don't see any real major problems. It sounds like it will make a great garden for people that don't do well with bending over. Definitely try to share some pictures,  I'd love to see the process and how they turn out
 
Logan Byrd
Posts: 48
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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I would be happy to share my progress! I'm still at step 0 (moving the junk) but I will be sure to update this thread with pictures and comments.
 
Natasha Abrahams
Posts: 89
Location: Cape Town
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I use drums as wormfarms and they work really great. I put wood at the bottom, then a layer of twigs and small branches up to about half. Then fill with dry grass, sand, green grass, household waste, a handful of horse manure, and top with a layer of good soil and plant in it. The twig layer provides areation because the worm castings can pack solid otherwise. Plus the worms really seem to like nibbling at them when nicely rotted.  The level will sink as the worms eat so you have to top up regularly with dry grass or leaf mulch and maybe more small twigs. It is amazing to plant not only in the top, but also around the parameter of the drums. It is an ideal place to get trees or shrubs off to a good  start, or simply more vegetables. If not, be sure to mulch deeply around the drums because you will get lots of plats wanting to grow there.  For my climate it serves the purpose of using the same water three times, but does of course require consistent care.

I empty mine out and refill about once a year because I need the castings. Would be curious to see how this works as a permanent system.

Very jealous of your free supply of drums :) If I had that my whole garden would look like this:
drumwormfarm.jpg
[Thumbnail for drumwormfarm.jpg]
 
Logan Byrd
Posts: 48
Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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It's inspiring to hear that you've had success with a similar model!

Have you tried reaching out to local (or distant if you can get a bunch at once) manufacturing and machining companies to ask about it? I was originally calling around and looking for pallet collars (which seem useful for making raised beds at your choice of height) when a company brought up that they had drums they recycled/scrapped all the time.

At least in my area, it seems like there are a lot of companies that have them to give away, but I had to make a few calls before I found one that didn't have something toxic in it before.
 
Natasha Abrahams
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Location: Cape Town
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You are welcome Logan! I look forward to seeing your progress. Thanks for the advice, I sure will.
 
Jay Angler
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I've done something similar, but different.

I get the plastic barrels, because that's what's available - I try to get the black ones because roots and worms like it dark.

I cut them in half around the middle, so I end up with two beds from a barrel, each about 17" high. I make sure the bungs are in tight, so they don't leak out of the bottom, and then about 2" up I drill 4 holes for drainage giving me a small reservoir at the bottom. I put lots of punky wood at the bottom, but I don't worry about it taking nitrogen from the plants because I use good homemade compost at the top with amendments like homemade biochar, eggshells, etc. The punky wood acts as a sponge so I only have to water every 3-4 days during our summer drought.

Because the plastic barrels have been getting wimpier, I get free bike rims from a local bicycle shop and cut them to fit the top of the planter to keep them round and easier to move if I need to. I have to admit that as I've gotten older, I rather wish I'd put them up on salvaged breeze blocks or similar for a bit more height. I've used these in spots where it wouldn't have been easy to build a regular garden, but there's sun, which is in short supply on my land.

I've since gotten access to a different area for gardening, and am building 30" high raised beds out of over-sized pallets. They're a *lot* more work and probably won't last as long, but I've made two with the planting area 4'x4', and two more 4'x 6 1/2'.
 
William Bronson
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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I grow a lot of things in barrels, but I've never used them without the bottoms.
This sounds fantastic.
I may barrel grown plants overflow their containers quite a bit, so much so that a 3' space  between containers might shrink to a 1' space between plants.
 
Logan Byrd
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Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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After 6 or so hours, I finally got all of the junk cleared out and the bush stumps torn out. The one stump had a root with a two inch diameter!

I think I will be cleaning off the stumps and burying them upside down at the bottom of my barrels in addition to the logs.

Next steps: moving the stumps out of the way, and mulching the area. Also, I still need to get the barrels.
 
Logan Byrd
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The hardest part is done! I borrowed a tractor to move the woodchips, and since I was using a tractor anyway, I tried to flatten or level out the ground, with a slight slope so that water runs away from the building.
The landowners stopped by and gave me permission to expand the area a little bit!

One entire Chipdrop delivery as mulch later, and I am pretty happy with the result.

The yellow barrel is a batch of Dave's fetid swamp water homemade/organic liquid fertilizer (in progress) and the small shelf is something that a local had set by the road as trash.
a3lkvk.jpg
Area after mulching
Area after mulching
 
Logan Byrd
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I picked up three 55 gallon barrels from car washes, they each previously contained one half of a biodegradable soap solution. I'm still planning to get the original barrels, but there have been some delays on the company's side so I wasn't able to get them as soon as I wanted.

I removed the top and bottom from all three barrels and rinsed them out. I started filling one of them up with the following layers:
1. Raw meat scraps covered with a light layer of woodchips.
2. Expired breakfast bars. One was moldy.
3. Kitchen scraps (lettuce, egg shells, potato peels, etc)
4. Sun-dried tree roots and a stump (upside-down)
5. Mud from the native soil.
6. Decomposing logs. (with signs of fungal activity)
7. Slop from liquid fertilizer / anaerobic compost barrel.
8. Leaves and misc. plant trimmings from a raked area.
9. More decomposing logs.
10. More kitchen scraps.

I took a picture of each layer (except the first) in case anyone wants to see any layer in particular or see the way I built it up.

I'm going to leave it as-is for today, but soon I will dig up more native soil and water it in to fill the gaps between the different materials. I might add some more kitchen scraps as well.
 
Jay Angler
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That sounds good Logan! I will mention with kitchen scraps, just as how your compost "shrinks" a lot while decomposing, the same will happen with the contents of your barrel. I just topped up a raised bed I made last year, which had sunk 6 to 8 inches out of 26 inches from decomposition and settling.
 
Logan Byrd
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Location: Michigan - Zone 6a
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Jay Angler wrote:That sounds good Logan! I will mention with kitchen scraps, just as how your compost "shrinks" a lot while decomposing, the same will happen with the contents of your barrel. I just topped up a raised bed I made last year, which had sunk 6 to 8 inches out of 26 inches from decomposition and settling.

I am definitely expecting it to shrink down, but I am going to stay optimistic and hope that most of that happens over the winter
 
Jay Angler
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Logan Byrd wrote:

I am definitely expecting it to shrink down, but I am going to stay optimistic and hope that most of that happens over the winter  

I expect it will happen gradually - if anything, composts are more active in the warmer months. This is not a bad thing - you're building healthy soil. I don't know what you're planning to plant in it, but I would plant something like a tomato that will grow and tumble over the edge and if its base is lower than the barrel edge, it won't be so shaded it won't grow. Similarly some medium height beans. In fact, most plants will grow towards the light, it's just that something like butter lettuce may be encouraged to bolt if it has to grow tall rather than wide.
I mentioned it mostly because having some compost/dirt mix ready for early next spring to top up the barrel would be a helpful thing from my experience.
 
Logan Byrd
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One thing that I definitely want to try in one of these barrels is a ground cherry plant. I had one indoors and the plant became 2' tall and roughly 2' round, despite the lack of light and the lack of nutrients. I'm eager to see what one could do with proper soil and light.
 
Logan Byrd
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The first barrel is ready to go! I've started working on the second, but it is still a bit too cold here to direct sow.
7x56ri.jpg
[Thumbnail for 7x56ri.jpg]
 
Logan Byrd
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The second barrel is done, and the third is in progress!
i5hro2.jpg
Third barrel
Third barrel
 
Logan Byrd
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The third barrel is done, and I planted in the first barrel! I placed ground cherry seeds in the middle, self-harvested Tom Thumb Pea seeds in a circle around that, and self-harvested French Marigold seeds in the outer edge.
I covered the seeds with a very light amount of woodchips (maybe half an inch?) just to keep moisture in. I figured that if weeds can grow through a few inches of woodchips, then the seeds I plant should be able to grow through a small amount (or at least enough for me to notice and move the mulch away).

I am hoping to direct sow as much as I can, although I may pick up some seedlings from a local family-owned nursery just to support them.
photo_2021-05-10_19-07-47.jpg
Barrel #1
Barrel #1
 
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