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Hugelkultur really does work...A skeptic converted

 
Lauren Dixon
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Location: Kalispell, Montana
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So, we took a plunge and built hugelkultur beds on our recently purchased property in Northwest Montana. I admit, I was skeptical. "We're going to...plant veggies...on a brushpile?! WHAT?!". But, now, I will never go back. Our beds have turned into a freaking veggie jungle, and our neighbors frequently peer over our fence with longing looks and forlorn eyes, waxing poetic about their inability to grow corn on this rocky mountainside. To be honest, I expected very little in the way of success our first year. I figured that, as brand new gardeners, we would have a large share of disappointments and disasters. So far, it has been smooth sailing, and our friends have become convinced that we are REALLY expert gardeners who claim little knowledge for the sake of humility. I keep trying to explain that the beds are doing most of the work. The proof is in the pudding, so they say. And here it is:

In the beginning, there was brush:
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Eric Markov
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Let's see the picture of your veggies!

Vicarious gardeners want a peek!
 
Lauren Dixon
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And then, there was life. These photos were taken over a week ago. All of the veggies have nearly doubled in size since these were taken. I will take more photos to post tomorrow:
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Mark Harris
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Location: Portugal
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Am I imagining this or can I see ponds or some sort of water very close to these beds ?
 
Lauren Dixon
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Yes, we situated the 'three sisters' (corn, squash/melons, beans) hugel bed along the south facing stone wall of our pond. We figured that the stone wall would retain solar heat to help the corn along, and we wanted the garden to soften the unnatural looking steep rise of the pond retaining wall. An added bonus came when we decided to cut small trenches in four places along the top of the pond wall, allowing a small but steady trickle of water down the rocks and into the garden bed, eliminating the need to lug garden hose to the bed. Since the photos were taken last week, our corn and squash have grown another foot or so, and the squashes and melons have been putting on loads of blossoms. I will share some of those photos tomorrow. Seems we have done something right!
 
Lauren Dixon
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Updated Hugelkultur three sisters bed:
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Lauren Dixon
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Updated veggie hugel beds:
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Jorja Hernandez
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What, you doubted the Mighty Sep? LOL!

Those beds are awesome! Cute doggies too. I love when folks post pictures, it's very inspiring.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Looking good!

 
Rich Dana
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Wow, these look fantastic! I'm building my first HK beds now for fall planting- fingers crossed. Congrats on the success!
 
David Chapman
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Were those old fence posts you buried?
 
Brenda Groth
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really great photos, I plan to build more hugel beds this fall if I have the energy..
 
Mark Harris
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Have you tried cultivating any new beds on your new property that are not hugel beds to compare with these ?
 
Cal Edon
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As I can't imagine that the wood has done much decaying yet, I think it's a bit premature to conclude that your beds work any better than any other raised bed with good drainage.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Looks like the wood is old fence posts and old lumber that would tend to be very absorbent compared to new wood, so would tend to hold more water.

 
Lauren Dixon
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Location: Kalispell, Montana
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Yes, our three sisters bed was built with old untreated lumber and fence posts from a neighboring farm's scrap wood pile. The wood was very punky and squishy, so we figured it would work well. The other mounded veggie beds were made with brush and logs from our woodlot when we did some spring cleaning. Some of it was well rotted wood that had been laying for awhile, and some of it was green douglas fir and maple. We even used a bit of birch bark in the mounds. We essentially gathered all the crap off our property, piled it up, and buried it with a mixture of topsoil and composted steer manure.

We did cultivate a few beds around the house by tilling in the native soil (mostly clay) and amending with worm castings, compost, and mulch, essentially the way our neighbors have done their gardens. The difference is night and day. Nothing in the tilled beds has grown well, except the peas. Of course, peas aren't too picky about soil. The broccoli bolted and went straight to flower, no matter how much I mulched. The sunflowers are stunted and struggling to survive, the lettuce didn't even germinate, and every tomato I planted in the tilled bed began to whither and die, until I couldn't stand to look at them anymore and transplanted them to the hugel bed. Within days of transplanting to the hugel bed, they took off and are now sprouting tomatoes like crazy. I can take some comparison photos if anybody is interested in seeing them. The difference is amazing.
 
Eric Markov
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Matches my experience also. Raised clay beds didn't do well, but hugelkultur beds did very well.
I believe the major advantage is that the wood provides aeration to the roots.
 
Cal Edon
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That's fascinating to hear. I'm glad you have something to serve as a control - I realize you can't conduct a truly extensive experiment, but we really need documented evidence that all these techniques work. We need to be able to convince the rational skeptics and silence the naysayers.
 
paul wheaton
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sepp holzer showing how to really do hugelkultur in style - along with a LOT of examples of great success ...


 
Lauren Dixon
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Location: Kalispell, Montana
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Well, we have passed harvest. The hugel beds have been cover planted, and are now slumbering for the winter. Here is the final tally for the 3 hugelkultur beds:

112 lbs. of tomatoes (!)
35 lbs. of sweet corn
50+ squashes
5 lbs. beans
20 lbs. beets
45 onions
Enough cabbage to make a 4 gallon crock of sauerkraut, enough celery to use constantly all summer, too many salad greens, herbs enough for the year.

These humble little garden beds way outperformed our expectations. We are thrilled with this technique. Thanks, Sepp!
 
Steve Flanagan
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How exciting!
 
Miles Flansburg
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WOW ! So did you say that you had water flowing from your pond into the hugel beds? Does the water soak up into the beds, or drain off ? Could you please talk about that part a little more? Do you think the extra water helped the crops? I have places on my property where the streams flow through the forest and I would like to build hugels there. Beavers had done this for me in several spots but they are gone now.
 
Lauren Dixon
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We had water from the pond flowing into the three sisters bed. The other two beds with tomatoes, greens, etc were hand watered. They required much less watering than a traditional garden bed, and, as a matter of fact, we discovered that we had overwatered a bit and had to cut back when we started to see some powdery mildew. Turned out that once a week watering was best in the hottest part of the summer, and toward fall, it was even less than that.
 
Kris Hoffman
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beautiful gardens-thanks for posting! So after harvest you plant a cover crop going into winter, how will you cultivate the beds in spring to replant annuals. As a novice gardener I am trying to figure out how to keep a hugel in annuals- its not like you can use a rototiller on a 6 ft hill!!
Thanks
Kris in WI
 
Andrew Schreiber
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cool stuff! Nice work, and glad to see you're success with the beds.

For those in the PNW looking for an opportunity to do some hugelkultur work and learn more about gardening like a forest, we're hosting a class the March where we will be doing a large scale (100 feet long) hugel kultur bed (one of several that are planned for a ~10-acre permaculture forest garden).

Learn about hugelkultur and terracing, keyline concepts, transforming an existing forest into a permaculture system, and see all the other stuff we're up to in the process. 50 bucks, and proceeds go towards the non-profit Windward sustainable community education and research center.

here's a recent post for the course:
http://www.permies.com/t/20131/permaculture/Permaculture-Edge-weekend-forest-permaculture

Cheers,
Andrew
 
Lauren Dixon
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Kris,

Sorry about not responding. I didn't see your post until now.

To answer your question about hugelkultur, tilling, and annuals, I will say that:

(1) Hugelkultur is designed to NEVER be tilled...Ever...It is simply unnecessary, as soil compaction doesn't happen with this type of gardening. You never walk on it, and the buried wood provides aeration and seems to attract loads of earthworms that keep the soil nice and fluffy.
(2) We planted a cover crop of white clover, which will be allowed to continue growing throughout the season as a living mulch. Some gardening books tell you that after planting a cover crop, it is necessary to till it under before planting. We are using a different technique, much like Fukuoka's method, of simply allowing the clover to grow and planting our annuals among the clover by digging a little hole in the clover and putting a veggie in. This provides many benefits, like: less weeding, moisture retention, fixing nitrogen, and attracting pollinators. I read a university ag study recently that found an increase in yield of 1.5x with annuals planted with a living mulch of clover. They examined the interactions of the plants and found that clover doesn't just fix nitrogen and benefit the soil when it's dead and tilled in; rather, it actually fixes nitrogen and FEEDS its neighboring plants, actively and continuously, while it is living. Pretty cool! I tried to find the link to this study again to post it, but cannot seem to get back to it.

Hope that answers your questions.


 
David Goodman
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Very cool. I'm on the lookout for a pile of wood... one day I'll do this thing right.
 
Julia Winter
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Chiming in about tilling the garden: although my first hugelkultur bed is less than a year old, I've been gardening on 2 foot tall raised beds for years. The only time I ever tilled was years ago when I was making the pumpkin patch, and that was mostly to even out the soil and incorporate a whole bunch of organic matter into the soil. These days I know that all I need to do is layer the "good stuff" on top and the earthworms will pull it down into the soil for me.

My next door neighbors till every year. They can't really get started until they till, so that delays their garden quite a bit in the spring. I can plant peas as soon as the top inch of soil thaws out, so I get peas (and favas) much sooner. They have started to plant pole beans instead of bush beans after observing my massive yields, so maybe they will give up on tilling sometime, too!

When I am cleaning up a raised garden bed, I cut the stems off at the soil surface, leaving the roots in place wherever possible. Those now dead roots will serve as excellent channels for water to enter deep into the soil. I've never had an issue with clubroot (I think that's what it's called) on my brassicas, but if that disease is active in your area you may have to fully remove those. Basically, the less you disturb the soil's structure, the better.
 
John Polk
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I completely agree about leaving the roots in place (unless they are diseased).

The plant spent its lifetime getting those roots perhaps 18" deep.
That is where they should decompose - not on the surface (or worse yet, on a far away pile).
The deeper that decomposition takes place, the deeper your topsoil becomes.

 
Devon Olsen
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paul wheaton wrote:Sepp Holzer showing how to really do hugelkultur in style - along with a LOT of examples of great success ...




someone should tell Sepp his beds are far too small...:p
looming overhead when standing near the bed is what we require haha

 
Paulo Bessa
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Excellent example of a huegelbed Lauren!

Really cool to see this!

Can't wait to try a huegelbed for first time this spring, when soil thaws
 
Sophie Thomas
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Really impressive!!

We have a huge load of old posts and planks from some old, broken fencing that had to be taken down this last summer and I kept it hoping to find some use for it. It's doesn't have the structural integrity to build anything with it but perhaps it would be ideal for a hugelkultur garden!

Would old fence posts work well for this? I read an article by Paul Wheaton that the type of wood is of some consideration...
 
Lauren Dixon
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Yep, old fence posts are great. We built our three sisters hugelbed mostly with old rotten fence posts, and it worked out really well. The caveat, though, is to make sure that your fence posts haven't been treated with any nasty chemicals. If they are green colored, then they have been treated with arsenic. If they smell like railroad ties, then they have creosote treatment. You don't want these things in your garden! However, if they are just plain old, pithy rotten posts, they will be great, so long as they aren't cedar. I would guess that they are not, if they are good and rotten already.
 
Don Grande
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Ive started ahugel of sorts on 2 old treestumps and part of it i extended off the stumps dug a 6' long 1' deep bed filled with old branches leaves etc to see what happens im optimistic having planted tomatoes, eggplant radishes spinach and pepers hope my reports in the next weeks are good happy growing to all
 
Rosalind Riley
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Hi Lauren

Thank you for this thread - it helped me convince my husband to join me in making a hugel bed. We had a horrible old area where a big tree had been cut down by our predecessors, so it was full of old decaying roots turning into amazing organic matter. Alas it was also full of nettles and brambles but we have just had a fun day digging them out. We have loads of old wood and have piled it in on top.

We are short of spare topsoil but since I want to grow squash we have covered it with a thick layer of dirty straw from the lambing pens (should heat up a bit during decay) which I though would stop the loose topsoil from being too "lost" amongst the wood, while still building the bed well. Then a thick layer of well-rotted horse manure (excellent for squash) and then our rather thin soil layer. We've shored it up with some logs around the edges.

Something about your "sceptic converted" phrase has worked! Hugelkulture does look weird as an idea since we've always composted woody stuff separately on the grounds that it robs nitrogen from regular compost systems, but I am really looking forward to the results.

Thanks and best wishes
 
allen lumley
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The three sisters in a hugelkultur bed talk about the old world and the new !! Bg Al
 
kai weeks
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Wow, that is so beautiful Are those hugels down there?


Azores, Portugal




Europes most Westerly Village "Faja Grande"
 
Ryan A Miller
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kai weeks wrote:Wow, that is so beautiful Are those hugels down there?


Azores, Portugal




Europes most Westerly Village "Faja Grande"


Holy shit, beautiful! Are those swales or hugels?
 
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The stocking stuffer game for all your Permaculture companions
http://www.FoodForestCardGame.com
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