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Hugelkultur on the Brazos

 
Frank Turrentine
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My buddy Chris brought an excavator he borrowed from a friend over today, and we made a good start on the first part of the Hugel I'm putting around the first garden lot.













I love my dirt



I started out using the old firewood from the house, but that wasn't going to be nearly enough.





The unfinished keyhole garden.







 
Frank Turrentine
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So we started hauling up fallen trees from down on the river lot













This thing is pretty brutal. I love it. But Chris could tie my shoes with it. He's got a good touch.







He's a charmer, ladies.







This is the remains of the old apricot tree that fell over year before last. The fire and the drought just got to it, I guess. Chris pulled up behind the trailer and grabbed the front of this pile with his bucket, and I pulled away. In a second that trailer was clear of brush. I like working that way.







after a long day. Otis was beat. There's a lot more work to do tomorrow.
 
Frank Turrentine
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Frank Turrentine
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Today I will shovel and haul donkey poop, compost, wood chips, leaves and anything else I can think of before we cover the trench. My arms and hands are so sore from yesterday I can barely do anything. This will be fun.
 
Adrien Lapointe
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Awesome posts Frank. Please post some later to show the evolution when things start growing.
 
Frank Turrentine
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covered up the Hugel today. I still need to pile some more topsoil and organic material on top, I think, but I'm happy to make this much progress on it in a weekend. Chris had to take the excavator back this morning. We threw a bunch of leaves and wood chips in on top of the timber. I figure I can put some compost cages along the top when it's done, and that'll give it a steady feeding of compost tea year round.



















 
Frank Turrentine
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Billy Nelson
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Fantastic pictures, Frank. The excavator operator does work with surgical precision, fer sure. In that one picture he looks like he's testing the wind direction with his middle finger. Now there's a real pro ha ha.

I like the faithful hound was well. He looks like he enjoys snacking on the odd intruder now and then, just to spice up his diet some.

Holy cow ! That is a lot of timber going in that hole. Your hugel ought to be productive for at least a decade with that volume of water-storing wood material.

All told, great job. All these pictures of machinery saving man-hours gives me inspiration to hop on my 'dozer and go hawg wild again.
 
Frank Turrentine
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I think dad believes this is all ridiculous hippie-shit, but he indulges me. He thinks I'm planting the trees in front of the house way too close together, but he's acquiesced about that as well.

I'd like to run a Hugel all down the south boundary of the property, as I think it would provide at least some protection against fire coming from that direction. For that matter, I'd like to take that excavator and dig a freakin moat around the place for the same reason. I'd call it a canal, and it'd be like my own Retiro there in Parker County.

I'm wondering if it'd be helpful for me to perhaps plant some nitrogen-fixing tree here and there along the Hugels to help with the sink effect early on. I also wonder if I should bother piling any more organic material on top of the existing mound or just move forward with the compost cages and start planting and mulching stuff on it right away. I had envisioned earthworks more akin to what i've seen in the vid from MT going all around the farm, but I'll take what I can get at this point. I don't want to go purchase straw as a mulch, because I'm never sure what's in it, and I object to paying $8/bale for it. I hesitate to use grass from the pasture because I don't want to end up with a Hugel covered with Bermuda and Johnson grass in three months. I could, however, seed it in clover pretty soon, or buckwheat perhaps, as a living mulch and plant a ton of veggies along it as well as a couple of trees on this particular Hugel. I have a little time in any case to study more and see what I come up with. And I have a lot more room to tinker with these things around the place.

The dog, btw, is absolutely harmless. He may look frightening, but he's a big baby and a chowhound. He spends all day chasing my donkey around wearing himself out.
 
Frank Turrentine
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Reckon how tall I can pile dirt and organic material on top of this before I begin to negate the moisture-harvesting properties of the underlying timber? I initially had visions of a Holzer-style mound reaching four or five feet up in the air when this started. We packed it in so well and buried it so effectively that I ended up with a Hugel-speedbump.
 
S Bengi
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If you live in fire country, I encourage you to get a moat around the house.
Your own private island in a pond.
You would have water to put out your house fire.
A pond for fish, duck and edible plants.
A relaxing scenery. You could swim in it. maybe even get a little kayak for the little cousins that visits or kids.
So many more reasons to get one.
 
Erica Wisner
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Frank Turrentine wrote:Reckon how tall I can pile dirt and organic material on top of this before I begin to negate the moisture-harvesting properties of the underlying timber? I initially had visions of a Holzer-style mound reaching four or five feet up in the air when this started. We packed it in so well and buried it so effectively that I ended up with a Hugel-speedbump.


nice visual.

I came on here with the same question - how deep does this stuff need to be? I suspect the answer is buried in the main thread. hugelkultur or in Paul's article (linked from the first entry on that thread).

I didn't do as big a ditch as you, just used the pathway between last year's potato beds and scraped some of the topsoil aside with a shovel (I'm doing this outside 'work hours' for exercise, so it's all manual and wheelbarrow labor for me).
I want to keep piling wood on there until it will do some good. Right now I have about 10 wheelbarrow-loads of wood, most of it dead and down from the property and some of it already soggy, and it looks like it all adds up to less biomass than one 20-foot log of decent size. all of Paul's pictures and the beds I've seen working were massive - like, half a dozen big logs plus dirt and mulch.

Also they were in climates with humid summers (Midwest, Maritime Canada). We are in Western drylands at 3800 feet, so once the snow is gone, it gets dry fast. Summer is already getting hot outside even before the snow berms have melted from the winter - we have very little spring to speak of, and limited rain in the rainshadow of the Cascade mountains.

My understanding is that lots of organic matter will help the soil itself retain moisture.
If you still have the excavator around, you could do a sandwich of sheet mulch and more soil from one of your 'moat' ditches. Maybe a 6" layer of wood chip or something, that would be relatively weed-free and spray-free, then a bunch of hot green stuff like manure, then some more dirt, then more mulch on top. Think about the root depth of whatever you're planting. Shrubs, trees, and taproots will reach farther down than annuals. The wood should also provide some moisture benefit through cappillary action up through some of the soil - my gut is that if the roots can get within a foot of the actual logs, they'll benefit as long as the logs are damp. though of course rooting into the waterlogged depths will be even better in the worst of the dry season. But above a certain height, the 'raised' aspect of the bed tends to encourage drainage and drying rather than moisture retention. Thick mulch is gonna be critical.

I'm gonna PM a couple people I know with successful hugelkultur beds, and see if they'll chime in with what depth of soil they used over what depth of logs. Different climate, but better than nothing.

Susanna and Darcy, care to share some statistics?

Thanks,
Erica W



 
Erica Wisner
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p.s. I just re-read Paul's article here: raised garden beds.
He suggests making beds about 6 feet tall, with the top foot or two so being topsoil. If you dug down 18" to 2", then your 'speed bump' might need building up to another 3' or 4' tall. Good news is that Paul says many people have gradually built up the bed height year after year. You can layer on some more wood, as long as you can find more dirt to go on top of that.

Hope that helps,
Erica
 
neil bertrando
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Erica messaged me, so this is an attempt to respond to her questions and comments on this general thread.

Prelim bias filter: take all my statements with grains of salt. I have my own opinions and thoughts on this subject which may be wild hairs and in contrast to others. just add them to your pile and I hope they help build a happy hugel experience. you can just let them settle and compost if you prefer.

so...I built a few 'hugelkultur's near Reno, NV a semi-arid high alt. desert summer dry-winter wet. built before the class with Sepp, would do it differently now, but am happy with the results and continue to use them. they are now only 1 year old though. I irrigate mine with drip irrigation on an as needed basis, we will see if as needed changes over time. built with logs, manures, branches, woodchips, compost, worms and stuff in the middle, piled soil on top with a mini-excavator.

I think hugel beds are actually defined by the grade and architecture of the bed. attached is a generalized diagram.
This architecture proves easy access to the bed for harvesting, dramatic increase in surface area for planting over the original grade surface area, shunting of wind, improved solar aspect in winter months, a larger wet-dry soil moisture gradient (which may even create a higher pressure differential for wicking and capillary action) and more. That said, I think hugel beds can be any size as long as they retain this architecture

I am not certain that they must be filled with logs. we built some in Minnesota that are filled with reed canary grass because that is the major material we had on hand.
What is clear to me is that there exist layers which function like a series of russian dolls. the inner core is optimally undecomposed organic matter (like sod forming grasses you want to exclude from the landscape), but could be subsoil if that's what you have, then you build the following layers to mimic a natural soil profile from subsoil to topsoil to organic horizon (best soil on top) to litter and mulch layers. before applying the litter/mulch layer, seed and plant (very soon after the earthworks. in areas with heavy winds and rains, and in general for stability we have usually built brush mattresses on the hugels to provide insulation, retain mulch, and prevent soil erosion and mulch matting. see various pics. This brush mattress protects from wind too and holds the mulch on in windy areas.

if possible make the bed in a meandering form. a significant wiggle worm to the bed will provide you with a growing area that has all possible sun aspects in a small-ish area. quite impressive i think.

I think the bigger beds give you a better bang for your buck if you have the proper equipment and area to build them. a limit gets set on height based on access, build them to match the users. so above about 6' in height, you need to build a terrace walkway wide enough for easy access (3-5') based on the tools you plan to use and crops you grow.

From my observations, when Sepp builds hugelbeds, particularly in drylands, they are connected eco-systemically to a water source (a 'saturated earth-body'). in Dayton we built a giant chinampa with a hugelbed system in between two channels. Thus it is the whole system which makes the 'magic', not an isolated bed, which is still likely to be a dramatic improvement over flat compacted soil. in general in permaculture i advocate against the haphazard application of techniques and for developing interconnected ecosystems made up of many techniques synergizing.

Air in the bed is key. not necessarily huge area gaps (i.e. crunch the logs together with the excavator bucket), but lots and lots of micropores. in some discussions in Dayton, many of us agreed that many of Holzer's techniques and strategies highly oxygenate systems of soil and water. I would strive to minimize compaction on any hugelbed. usually an access path on the top is necessary though.

In a true desert, you may decide to bury the logs 1-3' deep. the excavation of dirt to bury logs only gives a little mound if any (basically equivalent to the volume of logs you bury), as you experienced Frank. to build the rest of the mounds, you must collect soil from the surrounding area (can be done with excavator, bulldozer, front loader, or skid steer) and pile it on top (best done with an excavator or large front loader to keep soil loose and get a nice steep mound). I'm not really certain though how deep to bury the logs as I have always just laid them on the soil surface after scraping away any vegetation which might mat and from an glee layer then covered.

in general plant more moisture needy plants near the base and more drought tolerant plants at the top.

i think that covers the general idea as i understand it. also you can make any variations you can reason out through a logical understanding of biophysical processes, practical use needs, and creative inspiration. experimentation and creative rational thought drive innovation.

I hope i addressed all you questions Erica. if not, you can follow up on this thread or a PM, whichever you like.

if you want to see other pics let me know, I also think some are available on some of my other permies.com posts which you should be able to find by clicking my username or searching.
hugelbed grading option v1.jpg
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Montana 5-2012 123.jpg
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Frank Turrentine
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Thanks a ton!

I'm still carting manure from my donkey paddock and dumping it on top. I'll throw some topsoil onto that when I'm done and then mulch it pretty well. This is an ongoing thing, and I have no deadline. I reckon it's gonna be there for years, so if I miss some good planting time as my schedule permits, I won't worry overmuch about it.
 
Susanna de Villareal-Quintela
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Erica asked me to share my experiences with the water holding capacity of my HK's. I'll be happy to. However, unlike most people on the forums, the primary reason I build HKs is to help control seasonal flood waters. My secondary intention was to use the HKs as a permie habitat and cropping system. I will talk most about my first HK because this will be it's third season in "production." The second is a variation that was installed this past fall.

The shift in primary purpose caused me to choose woody inputs that are different than most HKs. My goal was to increase the surface area of the wood in hopes of *really* getting the most water retention for my efforts. In my first HK, I have some very nice fungal logs as the very base but they make-up maybe 20% of the total woody mass. The remainder of the wood is well-aged ground pine bedding (200+ yards) that I recycled from horse farms . I topped this off with grass clippings from untreated lawns, leaf mold, 100 yards of finished compost (homemade), 8 -12 inches of topsoil and wood chips. The size was 4.5 feet tall 6 feet wide. The HK settled to 3.5 feet tall. I forget the exact length but it is roughly 350 feet long. This was build on-grade vs. dug-in. In the past 2 years, flooding withing 40 feet of the HK has been minimal (if any).

I do not have any good moisture sample statistics to provide but, I have not watered any of the plants in my HK (aside from an initial dowsing of transplants) and have not had any production problems. The pine layer does not appear to have had a negative effect on any of the crops I've planted (melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, broccoli, tomatillos, garlic, scallions, etc) or in any native weeds that have emerged. I've pulled a few tap-roots and found them to be more than 24 inches long (so they are in the pine). Last year we had a record heat wave and drought in Michigan. Despite that, my HK was vibrantly green and no plant showed the slightest sign of wilt. I have some voles and mice in the pile and I've noticed many more Garters and Blue Racers are joining the party, too. Nasty, crop-eating bugs have been few.

My second HK, I wanted to test the retention capacity of mixed woodchips provided by local landscapers. The HK is 220 feet long, is dug in 2 feet into the ground, 3 feet wide and 3 feet above grade. There are fungal logs at the bottom, then woodchips for the next 3 feet then 18 inches of finished compost and, finally, 4 inches of additional woodchips on top. NO topsoil because I didn't have any to spare. Since this is just a "baby" I'll have to let you know how it performs.

As I type this message we are receiving a massive amount of rain from a storm system that is not slated for departure until another 36 hours have passed. I believe my first HK is, already, at saturation point because the water on it's southern face (my neighbors side) is already 2-4 inches deep and their barn (another 50 feet south) is 8 inches underwater. My side of the pile, the north face, is starting to shed water from beneath (slow percolation) but is only 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. My water retention pond is full and my spillway and southern pastures are under 4-8 inches of water (an area encompassing 1 acre+/-). I expect some amazing pictures will be forthcoming.

Joy to all,

Susanna





 
Frank Turrentine
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I planted seven persimmons and two mayhaw trees along the west side of the Hugel last week. That's the first real planting I've done along the thing since we made it. Events carried me away from it til now. I'll sow some greens and peas and such on the mound itself in the next week or so, if I get around to it.
 
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