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Part of the joy I take from live here on the land, is looking at the resources that our land and living systems produce and finding ways we can create the valuable, functional goods and services we need to create a life in balance with the land.
As you all may know, I have a vision of Windward of being filled with multi-functional hedgerows that can also act as "living fences" to create pens, paddocks and garden spaces. Hedgerows have ancient applications in most parts of the world, and have been envisioned and implemented in a variety of ways throughout time and across cultures.
This spring I started work on a experiment to utilize some of the resources generated by the goats [branches and manure] to form barriers to pen in the goats, and hopefully to slowly become hugelkulture hedgerow.
As you may have read, we have been limbing and thinning parts of our forest for wild-fire prevention and overall forest health.
Since we (AKA human beings) have been preventing wildfires for almost a century now, there has been an unnatural accumulation of ladder fuel in most of the forest around here.
By taking out the low hanging, often dead, branches in an area, we take away the "ladder" with which a forest fire could climb into the tree canopy. It is most often canopy fires that kill trees and wreak havoc on the forest, so in this way we can ensure a healthful fire when the next time it rolls through this part of the plateau.
Also, since our land was logged approximately 100 years ago, some of our forest is "over stacked", with many trees of approximately the same age in unaturally high densities. This leads to direct competition between trees for light, water, and nutrients. Such competition stresses trees out, makes them far less productive, and much more susceptible to disease and natural predators like bark beetles.
One of the major and often unwieldy by-products of the forest thinning are piles and piles of branches. We worked out a long time ago that any branches that have leave/needles are fed to the sheep and goats, who love them! It is a great way to supplement their feed, and they seem to take great joy in stripping the branches of leaves, buds, lichens, mosses and sometimes of their young bark and cambium. That is one way we utilize animals to convert things we can't eat (like oak leaves) into thing that we can (like milk).
After the sheep and goat have their way with the branches, we can then find ways to use the de-foliated branches. In past years, we have used our chipper to create wood chips that we then use as feed stock for our biomass fuel project (learn more about that at www.biomass2methanol.org), or as animal bedding and mulch to build soil in our burgeoning food forests. These are great ways to use the branches, but sometimes we simply have too much biomass to work with in too short a period of time.
It are these sorts of practical challenges that I dream up solutions for in the Winter. One of the big things that came out of that dreaming and study was a an observation of a very basic principle, that piles of sticks in the forest accumulate lots of much and decompose into nutrient rich piles of humus that many native trees and forbs find favorable to germinate in.
I had also been studying the work of Sepp Holzer and his high alpine achievements with HugelKulture (aka large mounds of wood biomass and soil that are then planted with vegetables and trees. These types of beds utilize the water holding capacity of decayed wood, and the microclimate created by the large mounded structure and the higher soil temperatures associated with the decomposing material inside the bed.)
I had also been looking into very bare-bones agriculture in dryland areas that are more-or-less derived solely from what the land the produces. That means there are no sophisticated resources like metal fence panels, t-post, plastic what-nots, and so on. What I found was a wide range of wooden fences made out of every imaginable material, and constructed in myriad ways.
All of these things we influencing my pursuit of finding ever-more ways to meet our needs from what this land particularly provides, and in the process create low-energy input, hopefully irrigationless systems that operate passively in harmony with the flows of energy, water and nutrients of our land.
Another part of this journey was a large scale hugel kulture bed we made this spring (learn more about this hugelkulture expriment here). --Thank you to the workshop attendees who helped us finish it off!--
That process took a lot of energy all up front in order to create the beds before the beginning of the spring growing season. While it is worth the effort to set up systems which should more-or-less go on indefinitely without much maintenance, I came out of the experience with a sense that we can do better, make more beds, faster, and have them fullfilling more functions in our whole-system besides just growing food.
What I am talking about is my ultimate goal of making a broad-acre hugel kulture hedgerow systems that can act as diverse, productive, drought-proof living fences and windbreaks for animal paddock and garden spaces.
The Dead Hedge, and how it is become a living hedge.
So this spring I took down the fencing in our goats pen and started work on creating a "dead hedge" to form the eastern fenceline. The dead hedge is essentially a very large pile of branches (about 6 feet wide at the base, and 6 feet tall) that have been woven and tied together simply by orientating the branches. Sort of like a large basket, but much rougher.
For the record, the dead hedge I constructed has proven to be a sufficient barrier to keep the goats in, and other creatures (like range cattle) out. All with just a pile of sticks!
Since the goats routinely produce manured bedding, and straw bits left over from feeding, I plan to continue to incorporate the manure into the dead hedge until the whole thing is filled up. The added manure will provide the nitrogen necessary to aid the break down of the wood, and over the next year or two the dead hedge should have nice composted soil in it sufficient to start planting.
In this way the dead hedge will slowly (and with relatively little effort) become a living hugel kulture hedgerow.
I have not yet decided upon what trees, bushes, forbs and what-not will be planted in the hedge, but I know it will be a polycultural mix of perennials. I hope to plant some foul tasting plants along the bottom and inside edge of the hedge to deter the goats from eating and killing the plants. I would like to plant small, tap-rooted suckering trees and shrubs along the heights of the hedge to provide more of a barrier, and also to provide forage and mast for the goats and other animals.
One thing I find very rewarding about this sort of system is that, with a single design element, we can cover a LOT of bases, and provide:
-fencing to keep animals either in or out
-mulch trap to keep leaves and manure from falling downhill and out of the pen
-wind break to shelter the animals and lower growing plants
-forage/mast crops that can be designed for specific animals (like pigs, goats, or chickens who all like different things)
-fodder for bees (lots of support species in ecosystems provide nectar and pollen for bees)
-visual and sound barrier that creates a certain comfortable "feel" in a space.
-habitat for all manner of insect, birds, reptiles and small mammals
To me it is a compact solution that solves most of the issues I see facing us as we move ever closer to producing our own food, fuel, fiber and forage on this classic dryland forest in the rainshadow of the Cascades.
Stay tuned for more updates on how these systems evolve!
Andrew Schreiber wrote:after a few years, the dead hedge is still working well. We are still adding branches to it to some degree, but not very much. It is still keeping the goats in their pen, which is surprising given how much they try and escape.
Could you please post pictures of what your dead hedge looks like now? Just to be able to compare it to your previous posted pictures? I'm curious as to how much it has "settled" in place, since yours is so much larger (comparatively) than mine WILL be.
Our next project is getting ready for goats. We have 3 main purposes for goats: keep down the brush for fire danger mitigation (just south of our area was part of the major wildfires in the Sierra Nevadas last year), provide us with fresh milk for us and other animals and to provide food for our dog. In addition to preparing for 4-footed livestock, there's a couple tons of dead wood all over the property....and that's just what has already either fallen or been cut by prior owners and left to rot. This needs cleared out to seed the ground with pasture seed in between the trees (mostly pine, cedar and oak). We already moved a massive wood pile that was just waiting for snakes in the summer and used it to line the access road, some of those logs were 200-300 pounds each and it was just hubby and myself - no power tools. next step readying for livestock is clearing the dead wood from the ground.
Last night, as I was looking up where to get a large burn pile permit (most isn't usable for firewood), I had the idea to imitate swales by stacking the dead wood along the contour lines of the hillsides. I figure that over time the leaves, soil and everything will build up and create a natural swale, so to speak. I decided to head here to see what information I could find and stumbled upon your post. We're new to building and farming and have yet to build a fence...and not looking forward to it! Now I'm thinking to put the dead hedge on contour and then add more hedge straight up the hillsides for the other paddock borders. We plan on rotational grazing of all our livestock with about 4-5 acres eventually put into silvopasture. The remaining 3-4 acres we'll clean up and maintain through periodic goat grazing and woodlot management practices. Food forest and wildlife fodder will be added to what we're leaving as "wild space". If this plan works, all we'll need to add will be gates from one paddock to the next.
I'll get some pictures up soon, along with some conversation about how it's working out, and what I've observed. You mentioned yours not being very big - My immediate thought is that it NEEDS to be tall, wide and dense to keep goats in/out.
Sounds like you all are approaching your forestry in very similar manner as we are. Since I originally posted this, I have been managing much of the slash from our forestry work (for fire prevention and tree stand density) into contour "windrows" that will long term be planted into hedgerows as the soil becomes conditioned from the decomposing wood. It is so simple, and works so well. I am baffled that it is not talked about more.
It can't be stated enough though, if you are trying to keep goats in or out with a dead hedge like did, the pile need to be large. Ours is about 10 ft wide and 7 ft tall in a pyramidal shape. Very sturdy as to resist the pushing and jumping that the goats do to it frequently.
Thank you for your response. While I don't think I'll be able to pile up that large a border with dead wood at this time, I'm still going to move as much dead stuff and future cuts into windrows as my husband and I can! If we ever need to cut a tree, we'll do our best to get it to fall so it lies across the hillside and then we'll pile brush and cuttings on top of it. I'm thinking we'll probably space them about 50-60 feet apart as we go up the hill.
As for the goats and other livestock...for now they'll get T-post and welded wire mesh fencing and we'll plant some vines to cover it. We'll be staking the goats out into our "wild spaces" with harnesses and dog cables to periodically keep the brush eaten down.
Now I just REALLY need to locate the top border of our property. The other borders are easy since they're along the main road which, fortunately, is two-lane and narrow without much traffic.
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Honestly, It does not look a whole lot different than it did when it was constructed.
There is more leaf material built up around the bottom, and it has settle some over time. More branches were added to it as well, but not for the last year.
We live in a dry climate where sticks and logs don't decompose if they are not buried in the humus of the soil. Dessication happens very quickly. So, I reckon it will be a while before this pile decomposes to the ground.
There appears to be some good soil being built in the bottom, probably conditioned enough to try and plant some hardy pioneering trees. I may do this with some seedling black locusts I have in surplus. If I do it this year I'll post for y'all to see how they do.