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Death of a hugelkulture

 
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I built my hugelkulture in August of 2019. My son dug the hole with the bobcat, but I did everything else by myself by hand.  It was a ton of work. I was so excited, and proud. I could wait to plant it and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Unfortunately it never worked for me. I could grow just about anything on it, but had to water just like all my other gardens. Watering was a challenge because the water just wanted to roll down hill.  I lot track of how many times my chickens wreaked havoc on it. Even fencing it only worked if I always remembered to close the gate, which I would occasionally forget. It was like they had radar, because they never missed an opportunity.
This year I had a plan to flatten the top and make a wood border, then half way down flatten a shelf and surround it with wood, and again on the bottom. Making steps, or terrace effect.  My thoughts were the flat spots would be easier to water. The water would go into the hugel and finally become a functioning hugelkulture.  As I explaining my idea to my son, who wanted to just remove it, a gopher is munching on weeds in the hugel.  Then it disappears into the hugel.
This is the point where I realized I'm beat.  I hate to give up. So much time and effort. Build, rebuild, plant, weed, water.
My son waisted no time and leveled it. He was probably afraid I would change my mind.  I will admit I was a little teary eyed when it was gone.
The plan is to build a short raised bed with hardwire cloth on the bottom over the place where the logs are in the ground so it can be used like a hugel beet, which works very well for me.  My son thought I would use the soil/wood that was removed from the top of the hugel in the raised beds.  I want to, but it's loaded with weeds.  Then it came to me. I had him dump it in the chicken yard. They will enjoy digging through it. Eating and killing all growing things. I can remove the wood as it shows up, and harvest the amazing soil as they process it for me. I will still grow veggies in that area in a hugel style.
I'm glad I built it. I wish it would have worked for me. Maybe I did something wrong, maybe it's just to hot and dry, I don't know.  I gave it my best shot. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat, and move on.
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Chickens enjoying the hugel one last time
Chickens enjoying the hugel one last time
 
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Well, shoot!? Ok I guess if you need that particular space for your other plan then at least it was a natural death (unlike destroying something with modern chemical based building materials, which makes a nasty mess) The beauty of simple earthen based everything!

 
pollinator
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Hugels are really just compost piles we can grow on. I wouldn’t feel too bad about it, as Sepp Holzer apparently does this after 15yrs or so as well.
 
master gardener
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Where a item/design/plan might work for some folks in their particular location, it may not work for others.

I wouldn't frame this as a defeat to beat yourself up over, but rather an experiment that has concluded. Like all good scientists, now it is time to move onto the next experiment!

Those chickens do look pleased haha.
 
pollinator
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You've listed all the possible reasons why a huegel bed won't work (or is always at very high risk of failing): it dries out too fast, hence requires watering; watering is ineffective, as it runs off too fast; it attracts unwanted wildlife (gophers, voles, rats).

To me, huegelkultur only makes sense as a dump of organic matter +/- soil, where you plant something and forget about it, never nurturing any hopes for a harvest. If you do reap a harvest, it will be a bonus, a nice surprise. It worked like that for me - but I've never believed in using huegel beds for serious veg gardening.

Note: chickens have no blame in your case - at least during the growing season, they should be kept away from any type of vegetable garden, period. Especially if you have permanent beds.
 
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Timothy Norton wrote:Where a item/design/plan might work for some folks in their particular location, it may not work for others.

I wouldn't frame this as a defeat to beat yourself up over, but rather an experiment that has concluded. Like all good scientists, now it is time to move onto the next experiment!

Those chickens do look pleased haha.



Agreed! You probably learned a lot from this experiment! Your "new Hugel garden soil" is probably super fertile with nutrients. I bet it grows you a bunch now!

I commiserate with family not understanding our permie thoughts, experiments, trials and triumphs. My family thinks I'm a bit bonkers because I'm not conventional. We gotta stick together! Lol
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Thanks for your support everyone.
I'm not "beating" myself up really. I'm just bummed. It's just one of those things that I learned of, and I thought yes this is for me, exactly what I need, but it wasn't.  Researching hugelkulture is what introduced me to Permies, so in a very real sense enhanced and changed not only gardening, but many other aspects of my life.  I wish it would have worked the way I hoped, but I don't regret building it.
As far as the chickens go, believe me I know they have to be kept out of all active growing spaces.  It just took me a while to make it so they can only get out when I let them. Not only can chickens fly, some better than others, but they are resourceful.
Thanks 😊
 
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I've made 3 hugelkulture beds over the last 4 years. I'm less than impressed with all 3 of them. Weeds don't seem to want to spread to them much which is nice and I can grow some stuff in them, but nothing grows fast and vigorous. Ever since I started using meshed plastic weed tarp to plant in everything grows way faster and requires less water. I had been propagating my rosemary plant into more plants because they were all growing so slow, now I have 4 super quick growing rosemary bushes in the weed tarp and 1 lame duck rosemary plant in a hugelkulture bed. All my wood is used as surface mulch or converted into bio char going forward, I tried it and found it to not be satisfying for myself.
 
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Similarly, hugel was what led me to Permies and I built a few in 2019 which, in retrospect,  I made many mistakes building. Well the hardwood logs break down much slower than I thought. And the optimism of fertility and drought resistance comes with buried wood made me to neglect caring for those beds as with other growing areas. Now I reserve the spots for wildflowers since they are the only things survived.

Here I dug up one oak log from the 2019 hugel bed. It's only rotting on part of the surface after five years.

Your big heap of soil looks quite dark and fertile. Are the logs rotton down very well too?
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Unearthing buried oak log after five years
Unearthing buried oak log after five years
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Limited decomposition in compacted subsoil
Limited decomposition in compacted subsoil
 
Tina Wolf
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May Lotito wrote:Similarly, hugel was what led me to Permies and I built a few in 2019 which, in retrospect,  I made many mistakes building. Well the hardwood logs break down much slower than I thought. And the optimism of fertility and drought resistance comes with buried wood made me to neglect caring for those beds as with other growing areas. Now I reserve the spots for wildflowers since they are the only things survived.

Here I dug up one oak log from the 2019 hugel bed. It's only rotting on part of the surface after five years.

Your big heap of soil looks quite dark and fertile. Are the logs rotton down very well too?



That oak could take decades to decompose underground. As it decomposes, it "very slowly" adds nutrients to your soil. Your soil will continue to have nutrients from the rotting wood for years. Maybe just heap some of the soil on top so things have more soil to grow in as it decomposes.
 
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Jen Fulkerson wrote:

My son thought I would use the soil/wood that was removed from the top of the hugel in the raised beds.  I want to, but it's loaded with weeds.  Then it came to me. I had him dump it in the chicken yard. They will enjoy digging through it. Eating and killing all growing things. I can remove the wood as it shows up, and harvest the amazing soil as they process it for me. ... Not only can chickens fly, some better than others, but they are resourceful.  

And sneaky. And they know what they like, which is to dig for bugs and treats in dirt.

I think the biggest mistake I have made with trying hugels, is to recognize that Sepp Holzer is making them with big machines on big fields or mountains, and the miniature version that is all I can manage, just doesn't work the same way.

The second biggest mistake (OK they can't both be biggest, but the reader gets to choose) is that I've got *lots* of punky wood and I'm short on dirt. My finished compost is just that - it's compost, ie organic matter, it's *not* dirt. So my hugels have both struggled from too low a dirt to wood ratio, and what dirt there was, kept sliding down into cracks.

Let's go for the third biggest which is as Jen found, is critters. I didn't have to worry about chickens, but even wild birds will make a big mess if you don't have enough soil to really hold the plants well. Rats will definitely build winter homes and do damage, and I think that is more noticeable when working at a smaller scale.

However, in both situations, I'm starting to see some *really* good soil resulting from the remains. I think Jen's response of sending that soil through the chicken run is brilliant!

My final solution looking at my particular situation is to build 30" high raised beds out of rescued pallet wood. They are 4 ft wide by about 6 1/2 ft long and they have lots of punky wood at the bottom. I've still had some rat problems, and if I finish building another one, I'm inclined to put hardware cloth at the bottom to discourage diggers. They also do sink a lot for the first few years, and have too much compost (which is light and easy for me to shovel) and not enough "dirt" which is heavy and more like concrete thanks to the last ice age.  Yes, I still *have* to water, but I'm more watering once or at most twice a week, rather than daily which most people do in this area. I read recently an accusation that people in my province (BC) waste more water than anywhere else in the world. Once a week watering food I eat, doesn't seem like it qualifies as "waste" compared to the number of green lawns I see, so I feel I'm doing my share.

Permaculture solutions don't work for every situation. Some don't scale up. Some don't scale down. Some simply have ecosystems they work in, and ecosystems where they're so-so, or a downright failure.  But even our failures aren't necessarily a loss. I'm betting the soil under Jen's ex-hugel has a better variety of microorganisms than under many a neighbour's garden! And she's getting free chicken feed this week, followed by some weed-seed reduced soil to work with eventually.

Excellent post Jen - thank you so much for sharing!
 
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Hi Jen,

I have had almost the exact same experience although I admit my hugels are not "to spec" as far as size. More like 4 feet high than 7... I had to water them on just about the same schedule as all my other beds and just didn't see any benefit to them other than it was a good way to get rid of slash and create nice looking berms.

I think it has to do with how long they sit dry from our NorCal weather. Even though the rotted wood holds water it is still being pulled down by gravity and wicked up and away by wind. My experience is more and more pointing me to, "nothing raised, ever" as a growing method.
 
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Jay Angler wrote:
Permaculture solutions don't work for every situation. Some don't scale up. Some don't scale down. Some simply have ecosystems they work in, and ecosystems where they're so-so, or a downright failure.


Amen, amen!
Every place, every time is its own case. We're constantly experimenting.
I feel like every year I keep on learning. You and I both seem to have a few frustrations with things that seem very easy and wonderful in other areas but that just do.not.work where we live (#9b problems).
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Dan I really like my raised bed hugel beets.  They have been working quite well for me. Maybe because most aren't raised very high, and they have all the good stuff in the ground???  That being said I'm going to add a bunch of ollas, and PVC pipe next to my more thirsty plants.  The ollas to keep consistent water. Last year I used a PVC pipe for a stake for my zucchini. Since it was there I filled it when I watered. I have never had a healthier more productive zucchini. So I'm going to try it with my tomatoes, and experimente with a few others.  It's a catch 22. I hate to use plastic in my garden. At the same time I work full time, have chickens, dogs, cats and other interests. So even though I love my garden, and actually enjoy watering, spending hours after work everyday in the summer can be a bit much, so it may be worth a compromise.
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Every bed you see is a hugel beet, or filled hugel style, except the one with the sorrel in the middle.
Every bed you see is a hugel beet, or filled hugel style, except the one with the sorrel in the middle.
 
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Hugel Beet is a new term for me.  But that is exactly what I set up for my wife last year.  I used 2"x12" lumber and build a hugel beet 2 feet tall and 6 feet long.  filled 2/3 with punky firewood and larger sticks and stems from the compost pile, then topped it off with screened compost from the pile using a 2" x 4" frame with 1/4" hardware cloth for the screen.  There was already some dirt and sand mixed in the compost so we just left it at that.  After an initial watering, the compost stayed wet almost all summer long with only a few extra waterings.  Seemed moist compost was always just a few inches beneath the surface.  Beans, tomato, cucumber, peppers, lettuce.  All grew exceptionally well and were even more pleased that we didn't have to bend over hardly at all to enjoy any of it.

Planning on building 5 more this year.  Maybe bigger, like 2 1/2 x 8.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I worry I'm using the wrong terminology. My understanding is a hugel beet is a raised bed hugelkulture.  Dig a hole 2 to 3 feet deep, and fill the hole the same way you would build a hugelkulture. The main difference is you stop with a flat surface that looks like most garden beds. It's probably smaller in size as well.
It's a fungal dominated soil that is full of soil life and becomes amazing soil.  I don't know if I have to water less, but the veggies, fruit, herbs, and flowers grow and produce better than any other system I have ever tried.  I'm not saying there's never any problems, mother nature loves to give me a challenge now and then to keep me humble.  Over all everything grows better, taste better.  
If I'm using the wrong terminology please let me know.  I share this method all the time. It would be quite embarrassing to find out I'm mistaken, but I'd rather know.  Thanks
 
Jay Angler
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"The nice thing about standards, is that there are so many to choose from." The same is true of foreign words that get adopted into English, then re-imagined.

What we call a "hugelkulture" vs a "hugelbeet" vs a "hugelbed" seems to be related to scale and ecosystem. Some people are *very* wary of putting wood below grade. In the wrong place, they've got good reasons to be wary. However on my land, the last Ice Age buried a lot of wood under, then compacted, glacial till and the trees are happy to harvest the moisture and nutrients that wood represents.  There are places, particularly down slope of a swale, where planting wood seems like a bad idea, and there is at least one report of a catastrophic result.

I worry that some of the language purists, will only consider it a true "hugelkulture" if it's large enough and tall enough to not need any irrigation. I think that's part of where terms like hugelbeet and hugelbed may have arose.

Rebecca Norman wrote:

Jen Fulkerson wrote:Maybe because I have to keep rebuilding it, maybe because we get so little rain, what ever the reason my hugel is just another garden bed for me. I have to water it just as often as all my other gardens, and being short, makes maintaining it a challenge. It's my least favorite garden bed to be honest.  I much prefer the raised bed hugel beet. They are super productive, and easy to maintain. It's easier to water as well.



What is the difference between your hugel and your raised bed hugel beet? (According to hugel things I've seen hugel is just short for Hugelbeet or something, and hugel bed is the English for Hugelbeet, and the original Hugelbeets are raised, but some people have innovated sunken hugel beds for dry climates. But I actually have no practical experience, have only read and watched.)

from https://permies.com/t/184385/Venting-hugels

These people built a bunch of about 4 ft high hugels, and they call them hugelbeets:
https://livingmydreamlifeonthefarm.com/2011/03/20/hugelbeet-part-one/

I build 30" raised beds with wood borders which I put lots of punky wood in the bottom of. To me it hardly qualifies as the giant "hugelkulture" I see in permaculture, so I just call them hugel beds to signal to people that I have punky wood in the bottom. Yes, they need watering in my ecosystem. No, not nearly as often as my friends water their annual beds.

I'm actually not convinced that hugelbeets and hugelkultures aren't simply the same word for a variety of permaculture tool, but the former word is easier for North Americans to type!
 
Levente Andras
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Jay Angler wrote:"

I worry that some of the language purists, will only consider it a true "hugelkulture" if it's large enough and tall enough to not need any irrigation. I think that's part of where terms like hugelbeet and hugelbed may have arose.



As a language purist and hair splitter, I would insist on Hügelkultur / Hügelbeet (or Huegelkultur / Huegelbeet) - in both spelling AND pronunciation :-)

In German, Hügel = mound; Beet = bed; Kultur = culture

It also needs to be said here that sometimes, labelling a thing (an earthen mound, for instance) with a foreign word makes that thing sound more special than it is... :-)
 
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Hi, Jen.

When I learned about hugelkultures, it was clear that I was going to need to irrigate like a lot, and given that I have little spare water I tried a different approach. I built a sunken hugel bed. It's 90 cm deep, with several layers of branches, dirt and some manure, and the top layer is still 15 cm under ground level. It's hard to work there, though.

As far as water retention I have a divided opinion. For instance, it seems to catch water properly, but I've noticed that the soil is excessively fluffy, so it also drains faster than I like. I should have added more dirt and less branches. A few veggies are still growing, but I'm planning on adding more dirt once they are harvested.
 
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Jen Fulkerson wrote:Last year I used a PVC pipe for a stake for my zucchini. Since it was there I filled it when I watered. I have never had a healthier more productive zucchini.



Whoa! Do tell! Super curious about staking zucchini and also how the stake helped with watering :)
 
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Jen Fulkerson wrote:Dan I really like my raised bed hugel beets.  They have been working quite well for me. Maybe because most aren't raised very high, and they have all the good stuff in the ground???  That being said I'm going to add a bunch of ollas, and PVC pipe next to my more thirsty plants.  The ollas to keep consistent water. Last year I used a PVC pipe for a stake for my zucchini. Since it was there I filled it when I watered. I have never had a healthier more productive zucchini. So I'm going to try it with my tomatoes, and experimente with a few others.  It's a catch 22. I hate to use plastic in my garden. At the same time I work full time, have chickens, dogs, cats and other interests. So even though I love my garden, and actually enjoy watering, spending hours after work everyday in the summer can be a bit much, so it may be worth a compromise.



I like that idea.  Trying to get water to the bottom of a big squash plant can be hard if you don't have a drip system (more plastic).  AND our city is already talking watering schedules and water rationing for this summer...  I can imagine planting a PVC "stake" near each of my squash plants as I plant them and using that for their watering.  A shorter metal pipe that is shaded by the plant could work also I bet but you would to make sure it doesn't get hot enough to scorch/fry your plants.  
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I could swear I made a post about this, and was going to share it, but I'll be darned if I can find it.

A few years ago a person on a Permies post told me about pruning and staking zucchini.  ( I'm so sorry I don't remember who. If it was you. Thank you so much).   When you plant zucchini put a stake next to the plant, or where it will come up if you planted seeds.  As it grows remove all the leaves under the zucchini. This leaves a trunk , if you will. Secure the trunk to the Post. You just keep removing leaves and attaching it to the stake.  This makes it easier to find the zucchini. Reduces fungal issues, and frees up space under the zucchini to plant a shade loving plant.  I try to do this method. Though I confess I'm not as consistent as I should be. Sometimes I go a while between pruning.
Last year I was planting zucchini. I happen to have a piece of PVC pipe handy and used it as my stake.  Like I said before when I would water I would fill the pipe. That zucchini went nuts.  It wes the best zucchini plant in looks and production I have experienced.  It made me want to try it with other plants like tomatoes.  The awesome thing is my son's are in the pump business. I was asking my youngest where a piece of PVC I bought for a different project was, and he bought me several pieces of pipe that were perfect for me .  It's a win win reuse pipe that otherwise probably would have ended up at the dump, and no cost for me.  The picture aren't that great. I will try to do better this year and make a post specifically on this subject.
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California and other summer-dry climates with huge populations of burrowing rodents are pretty much the opposite of Sepp Holtzer's conditions of high rainfall and low temperatures. I'd be surprised if the same solution worked both places.

What has worked well for us is slightly sunken beds, which retain any water they receive. This was a technique used by Southwestern native farmers to concentrate and hold on to water. In the Southwest, that water would come from rainstorms. In California, it comes from irrigation in summer.

I think it's also worth keeping in mind that native peoples here did not make gardens or farms in our sense of the word. They definitely manipulated the environment to optimize the wild species that were most useful. This was a form of land management more sophisticated and large-scale than what we know as farming. But farms and gardens of many introduced crop plants in a small intensive space have never been a part of the Pacific coast landscape until they were introduced by European settlers and subsidized by pumped water.

Even in the Mediterranean parts of Europe, the most important crop plants, like wheat, fava beans, and chick peas, were grown primarily during the wet winter season, not in summer. In Spain and Portugal, for example, the agricultural year revolved around wheat and greens in the winter, with cork oaks and wild grasses providing forage for livestock. The summer gardens we know--tomatoes, squash, etc, were developed in the summer-rain climates of Eastern and Southern North America. In California, such gardens depend to some extent on us recreating that climate.

Thanks to Jen and all who have tried the hugel approach here. In exploration, documenting obstacles and dead ends is more important in some ways than finding the successful route.
 
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Agreed with many comments here: a dry-summer climate like California isn't suitable for raised hugel beds.  I've not seen any examples of that working well here.  In contrast, sunken hugels seem to work well, if you have the machinery to dig a deep trench and then throw the wood in and put the soil back on.  Or potentially even better, if you have piles of brush and wood to burn anyway to reduce fire hazard, using charcoal mixed with compost for an even longer-lasting and also immediately useful water-retention bed - but again, probably better not as a raised bed.  

Raised beds in general in a dry summer climate will be harder to keep moist.  I find the plants that do best in my garden are growing in the path from underneath the raised bed.

Hugels are probably great where the summers are wet, as it keeps the plants up off the saturated ground so they don't get flooded, and also the logs rot much faster.
 
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I second the hugel trench approach, especially in a Mediterranean climate with little or no summer rain.  It keeps the wood damp, gophers actually help it in that situation, and you don't even have to think about it for 5+ years if the wood is big enough.   The soil under that mound ought to be pretty easily dug.  You won't regret it.  :-)
 
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