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what are the benefits of hugelkultur?

 
Nathan Ryan
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Okay so I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around the hugelkultur craze. I understand the benefits in terms of better soil management, but in terms of labor costs the practice is really impractical. I mean its alright for your home garden, but the only way its possible to scale to any degree and still be profitable/possible is with vast amounts of unpaid volunteer labor OR large inputs of fossil fuels (via machinery use). Why is there such a push for these practices rather than simply good soil management practices with perennial species, no-till techniques, livestock integration, and such? Am I missing some key ingredient as to the superiority of hugelkultur?
 
John Elliott
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You've got the key ingredients right, but maybe you are just not connecting all the dots. Suppose it is found that hugelkultur can create a planting bed that stays fertile for decades, requiring no fertilizer inputs. Suppose further that multicropping it makes pests much less of a problem, requiring no pesticide inputs. This is what you need in a world where fossil fuels are used up, but you still have lots of mouths to feed and lots of hands to do the labor.

I sincerely hope that this is not a passing fad, but it becomes standard agricultural practice, similar to how no-till is being adopted. If you look at how strawberries are grown commercially, it's not much of a leap from there to hugelkultur. Biomass still makes up a goodly percentage of what goes into landfills, and it could instead be laid out in windrows on agricultural parcels of land, to be covered with dirt and a cover crop. I think that the small grains will continue to be sewn and harvested on flat land, but I could see where vegetable crops could easily be adapted to fields of parallel mounds. That's pretty much what you do when you hill up potatoes.

A further benefit would be the orientation of these mounds to act as rain catchments. Climate change is not just about temperature but about variance of rainfall -- it's going up. In a world where dry spells are longer and the deluges more intense, the agriculture needs to catch and hold as much of the rain as it can.
 
Josh T-Hansen
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HugelK is trending hard and its a new concept for many people.
Hugel is best for converting areas that are already wooded to high yielding beds, since the wood is already there in the way. I am doing this now and I sort for firewood, easy to chip, medium straight pieces (useful for laying out beds), small/gnarly, and some i just get out of the way.
I think massive 4 ft high beds don't make sense in most cases, and there's some real horror stories around about that. To John: fresh wood may hold water longer than soil but it takes much longer to absorb that water and what it does hold is not as available to plants. It works great sometimes but it is no standard that will work everywhere on any one crop even.
My personal method which seems less risky is to get big wood out of the picture and only use smaller wood without digging it in to make flattish but kinda beastly raised beds.
To summarize: The superiority of hugelkulture rests primarily in the fact that Sep Holzr is a bamf and permaculture messiah scholar.
 
Randy Asher
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Isn't irrigation another main factor? I understand that once they are established, they require no irrigation in most cases.

Note: I have no practical experience but have studied this in Sepp's books and Paul's article/podcasts.
 
J.T. Croteau
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and it is not a "fad".
 
James Colbert
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Nathan Ryan wrote:Okay so I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around the hugelkultur craze. I understand the benefits in terms of better soil management, but in terms of labor costs the practice is really impractical. I mean its alright for your home garden, but the only way its possible to scale to any degree and still be profitable/possible is with vast amounts of unpaid volunteer labor OR large inputs of fossil fuels (via machinery use). Why is there such a push for these practices rather than simply good soil management practices with perennial species, no-till techniques, livestock integration, and such? Am I missing some key ingredient as to the superiority of hugelkultur?


Tell this to sepp holzer. There are a couple examples of people using hugelkultur commercially.
 
Peter Ellis
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Nathan, it seems lik eyou're making a pretty common mistake. You appear to be looking for "the solution" and you don't see hugelkultur as providing it.

In that you are, I believe, quite correct. Hugelkultur is only a solution, rather than the solution. It seems to be the case that there are circumstances in which hugelkultur is quite probably the best solution and other circumstances where it makes no sense at all to use it. This is true of every approach and every technique - there are circumstances where it works and circumstances where it does not, and our task is to determine which of a myriad of techniques is most appropriate to a given situation.

These choices are colored not only by the physical circumstances, but by individual circumstances as well. Is the designer cash strapped? Some options fade that would be available if there were more money. Does the designer have an ethical/philosophical position that pushes choices? (minimal carbon footprint=using manpower not engine power). Is the plan for supporting a family, a community, or for market? Different choices might be made depending upon each of these answers.

I'm experimenting with a hugelkultur in my backyard. It's really small scale, but should be enough for me to learn some things about what the technique offers. My soil is depressingly barren sand with tw, and perhaps only two, positive qualities - it drains well and it is not severely compacted (hard to compact sand). So I'm working with ways to introduce organic matter and try to get some life into this soil.

Hugelkultur makes sense as part of trying to do that, plus in my case I have plenty of wood to use and that being available made the choice to try hugelkultur easy.

It isn't going to be right everywhere. Nothing is going to be right everywhere.

Some approaches catch people's imaginations and they want to experiment with them and try to understand the method so they can apply it. Some approaches catch other people the same way. Just as there is no single solution across the board, people are inclined toward different things based upon a myriad of factors.

I don't think hugelkultur is a fad anymore than permaculture is a fad. Hugelkultur is a tool in the kit.
 
Nathan Ryan
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That's fair. I guess I've just seen a few instances where people try to, in my mind inappropriately, use hugelkultur methods because it offered all these amazing benefits to soil management. It seems often like its spoken of as a universal fix, a snake oil. These same people then neglected the basics of preventing soil erosion leading to a bunch of poorly structured soil on top of some logs. But I suppose as with any tool, the effectiveness stems from its user.
 
Rebecca Norman
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I agree with you in being suspicious of fads. For example, the big health fad now is to avoid gluten, and I bet in 20 years young people won't even have heard of it, the way the health fad of 20 years ago, candida infections, is forgotten without a trace now.
 
S Bengi
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When someone has say 70 acres of land i.e not a backyard orchard they are going to have to use machine to harvest. They are already using fertilizer, some type of irrigation, etc
Now if they can prepay 2 or so years of fertilizer and irrigation money and not have to do it for the next 12-20 years then it is a good investment.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Rebecca Norman wrote:I agree with you in being suspicious of fads. For example, the big health fad now is to avoid gluten, and I bet in 20 years young people won't even have heard of it, the way the health fad of 20 years ago, candida infections, is forgotten without a trace now.


There's a very fat comic named John Pannete who was horrified when his doctor said to give up gluten. In his words - "So I checked it out and made a discovery. Gluten is the substance that makes life worth living"

I have a brother who has gone vegan, gluten free, dairy free, veggie who eats everything but red meat etc. Whatever diet Oprah crows about will eventually come to his attention. When he goes on one of these diets, he religiously attempts to convert the rest of the world to it. All of his diets have been heavy on dietary restrictions but not so concerned with quality of the ingredients.
 
Peter Ellis
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Nathan Ryan wrote:That's fair. I guess I've just seen a few instances where people try to, in my mind inappropriately, use hugelkultur methods because it offered all these amazing benefits to soil management. It seems often like its spoken of as a universal fix, a snake oil. These same people then neglected the basics of preventing soil erosion leading to a bunch of poorly structured soil on top of some logs. But I suppose as with any tool, the effectiveness stems from its user.


Nathan - whatever we do, execution is a huge part of how well it works I can pretty easily imagine ways of doing any approach badly and then complaining about how it does not work. Someone has a post on Permies with just such a link regarding a fellow and his attempt at a food forest.

Scanning youtube for demos of various things is a great way to learn about how many ways there are to do a thing wrong

 
Dale Hodgins
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Peter Ellis wrote:Nathan, it seems lik eyou're making a pretty common mistake. You appear to be looking for "the solution" and you don't see hugelkultur as providing it.

In that you are, I believe, quite correct. Hugelkultur is only a solution, rather than the solution....


Well said Peter. And thumbs up for a complete,no stone unturned answer.

I really think that the availability of woody material is going to be a key factor for many. I live in a wet coastal climate and I have 3/4 mile of road that nature is constantly trying to reclaim. Add to this windfall, path clearing etc. and it adds up to a whole lot of wood that needs to be disposed of. The standard method of accomplishing this on Vancouver Island is to put it in big piles and burn it. Heavy equipment is often used and some care must be taken to keep the material from getting too muddy. Then the material must sit until burn season (the rainy part of the year when nothing wants to burn. This is the only way to prevent the activity from sparking forest fires.)when large quantities of diesel fuel are used to light fires on stuff that wasn't tarped for the rainy season. When I had an excavator clear the roadside of 2 to 6 inch trees, mud was not a problem. After the trees were piled, the stumps were piled on top along with the soil and leaf litter that clogged the ditch. The whole process took less time than the burn method since beds were placed in several spots along the road without having to worry about whether it was a good burn spot.

These beds were produced at probably 5-10 tons per hour,so not bad on the labor front. These glorified slash piles which will be 2 years old in September aren't pretty, but they are breaking down nicely with lush growth on the lower portions. The tenant who was to plant them, hasn't even tried, but the presence of 6 foot thistles tells me that stuff is going to grow well there.
 
Jonathan 'yukkuri' Kame
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In my case hugelkultur is one of those problem-is-the-solution deals.

I've got a ton of limbs and brush from poorly sited trees. I live on the top of a ridge in prime forest fire territory. The neighbors think my carbon storage is a conflagration waiting to happen. They are right. The fire department would fine me if they saw it.

I could chop up most of the smaller stuff and put it in green waste, in which case the city trucks will take it to a dump, shred it, contaminate it with 'biosolids' and give it away to someone who doesn't care to know what's in their mulch.

I could spend $$$ buy a commercial woodchipper and put lots of labor and gasoline into the thing and create fabulous mulch of my own. But I don't have the cash.

A lot of it would make good firewood, but I haven't built a rocket stove yet & fire season is here. I need to disappear this wood ASAP.

Hugelkultur is the quickest & cheapest way to deal with my problem and it should continue to pay dividends for years to come. Appropriate for my situation, don't know about any others.
 
Brenda Groth
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i guess for me it has all been free, and a good use of rotting wood that was going to waste on my property. My smaller beds I did a little at a time. As the crops were finished..i dug out the soil and set it aside..tossed in a lot of rotting wood pieces and branches, chips and bark that was already here, and recovered it with the soil I removed..those were my nearly flat hugel trench beds..the larger bed that I put in was cause we had about 8 or 10 large rotting logs that weren't good for firewood..I had my son strip the sod and about 2' of soil off of a small area (about 6 x 2 and then dump those large logs and some smaller pieces and some big round wood chunks that were too large for firewood..some bark and branches, etc..and then cover back over with the stripped off topsoil..this one is quite large and I have a garden on it this year doing well.

I have an abundance of downed rotting wood that can be buried..generally it is in brushpiles and woodpiles in the woods or just lying rotting for habitat for inhumanity..but the buried stuff is feeding my soil

I also use some on top of the ground around some of my trees and plants to help feed them and hold in moisture
 
Philip Green
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Nathan Ryan wrote:Okay so I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around the hugelkultur craze. I understand the benefits in terms of better soil management, but in terms of labor costs the practice is really impractical. I mean its alright for your home garden, but the only way its possible to scale to any degree and still be profitable/possible is with vast amounts of unpaid volunteer labor OR large inputs of fossil fuels (via machinery use). Why is there such a push for these practices rather than simply good soil management practices with perennial species, no-till techniques, livestock integration, and such? Am I missing some key ingredient as to the superiority of hugelkultur?


I'd guess that given 50-100+ years, good soil management practices in a food forest situation could potentially rival hugelkultur (as long as fallen wood was left in place and allowed to rot). But Hugelkultur speeds the practice up and allows more control over location(s).

As for fossil fuel inputs. I feel too many permaculturist look to eliminate fossil fuels, while throwing out options that simply reduce fossil fuel usage. Perhaps the question should not be: "does this totally eliminate fossil fuel usage"? But instead"does this reduce fossil fuel inputs"? The amount of fossil fuel used in producing and maintaining a huglekultur for 15 years is nothing compared to conventional agricultural practices. I think the vast majority of people practicing permaculture for-profit, would have no issue with using a trackhoe to build massive hugelkultur's. And in my book that is actually more efficient than a hoard of unpaid volunteers (who probably use substantially more fossil fuels in getting to the location(s) to build the hugelkultur and in the production of the food that they consume).
 
Greta Fields
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I am most interested I using mounds of wood to collect humus, to improve soil structure. I make small mounds by hand when I am clearing saplings and weeds. I made seven piles six feet high, all down to three feet high now, and some growing great vegetables: They look like raised beds now.
I want to share food with neighbors who also garden, not feed them. I don't like the idea of people feeding the masses. The masses need to get back to basics themselves. They will, if they have to. When the U.S. quit feeding Cuba, Cuba fed itself. I had an in law living in Cuba , and she described how everybody planted food everywhere, even on top of roofs.
The Vietnamese Montagnard people who relocate to Americas are foraging in our parks and growing their own food at home in their yards. I like seeing that, and I wish the government would let people plant food in the parks more.,
 
Donal Mc Nulty
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Sorry this is a little of subject, I am new to this subject of hugelkultur raised beds, but I read on blog about so much wood being used that it would create so much available potash that it would cause the plants growing in it to be deficient in other necessary nutrients because they would just absorb the potassium, is this true and if so would soil amendments on the surface of the heap make the roots of the plants absorb more of the other nutrients and not just potassium at the lower levels of the soil where all the wood is ? The point to my question is the actual nutritional value of the fruit/ vegetable if only potash is the abundant element !
 
Marianne Cicala
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Hey Nathan
I have a for profit farm. In this area, we have been plagued with summer droughts, which is usually at the peak of the summer growing season. This past winter, we did use a dozer, only for 1 day, but were able to terrace, dig 2' deep ditches on some of the level areas to ease the physical labor of creating hugels. We are trying out several approaches: terraces, 2 upper ponds for future irrigation (which hasn't been needed with this summer's insane rainfall), large swales as well as the 3 fairly large hugels. As has been mentioned, there are a variety of conservation possibilities and given the individual situation there is not 1 single solution. The biggest advantage that we've seen thus far is the heat generated by the breakdown of elements that make up the hugel - seeds propagate much faster & can be sowed earlier because of the warm soil temps vs traditional beds. The lushness of the plants, the ease to companion plant vs traditional beds in notable. As this is new this year, the true soil richness that will become most evident in the years to come will only ramp up our appreciation of this approach. Being heavy clay soil, as we've rotated crops on these hugels, there is already a notable difference in the texture and richness on these beds. That speaks directly to the advantages & profitability of this approach. Another advantage of these large mounds is the ability to take advantage of the east vs west direction of our hugels & sunshine direction/intensity. We have them running north/south. Plants that want some afternoon shade are planted on the east facing side and the tops of the hugels are loaded with plants, whose height gifts mid afternoon relief to the more delicate produce. I should also mention that this area that we are experimenting with in only about 3/4 of an acre, but our produce is beautiful and being certified organic, the normal challenges of pest control is less than normal as companions are literally intertwined with their partners. Guess it goes without saying that so far, I'm a fan of hugels, exaggerated swales etc. Hope this helps.
 
Mark Harris
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James Colbert wrote:
Nathan Ryan wrote:Okay so I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around the hugelkultur craze. I understand the benefits in terms of better soil management, but in terms of labor costs the practice is really impractical. I mean its alright for your home garden, but the only way its possible to scale to any degree and still be profitable/possible is with vast amounts of unpaid volunteer labor OR large inputs of fossil fuels (via machinery use). Why is there such a push for these practices rather than simply good soil management practices with perennial species, no-till techniques, livestock integration, and such? Am I missing some key ingredient as to the superiority of hugelkultur?


Tell this to sepp holzer. There are a couple examples of people using hugelkultur commercially.


Can you tell me who is using hugelbeds commercially ? Are we talking about commercial, in the sense that they make a living selling food at twenty times the normal price ?
 
Sean Banks
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Not sure if someone mentioned this already but the whole hugelkultur concept is meant to mimic the nurse log......nurse logs are fallen trees that have decomposed enough to allow tree seedlings and moss to start growing on it.....the nurse log absorbs water like a sponge while slowly releasing nutrients like a slow release fertilizer....since a nurse log usually takes a long time to form in nature humans have speed up the process by throwing compost/dirt on top of logs.
 
Jamie Jackson
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I almost never have time to get over here, but came over this morning to post something and saw this thread up top. The title got my bur up a little bit. Didn't read all the replies but I'd like to comment to the original poster. We are in the Missouri Ozarks and our soil is clay and rock. The pile of dirt we have from excavation, I could make pottery of it!

We didn't have money for big equipment or lots of amendments which some have when starting out on a permaculture venture. But we do have surface area and piles of rotting wood. We have 5 pretty good sized hugle beds and they are the most fertile beds we have. We've planted just about everything in there we can and they are pretty crowded. This bed needs the least water, least amount of fertilizer and the least amount of attention. We still have a long way to go, but I never build beds now with out some rotting wood on the bottom. Our squash plants look like they came out of jurassic park and if I had planted enough of everything, I could easily be selling at the farmer's market now.

We did buy a dump truck load of dirt for $200 and it's about as dense as you can get. So we layered the wood and dense dirt with grass cuttings, goat poop, straw and whatever else we could get our hands on and let it sit for a season. We are still going to add to it every year as they are all still pretty short compared to some, but all my beds will be built like this from now on.

I'm trying indeterminate tomatoes for the first time this year and planted at the top of the hugle and draping down the sides is working out great. Eventually we'll get perennials in there, but the beds are still far to short to be permanent. So we plant annuals in there for now and using the space, then every fall and winter we build up a little more when do our once a year cutting of parts of the pasture. We rotate areas we cut so that the good bugs will have a few places to over winter, but we also need to harvest as much grass as possible for compost and bed building. We are doing it the slow way, but it's the only way we can afford.
 
Eric Hammond
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When I made my garden this year, I spent an extra 30 minutes burying wood under the soil. 30 minutes of extra work has let me not water my garden all year. Seems worth it to me so far
 
Greta Fields
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Jamie,
Your post shows why I think permaculture would work on stripmines, especially real old ones where no attempt was ever made at reclamation.
I thought the impetus to build hugel beds came from wanting to clean up rotten boards around the farm, not from wanting to mimic the "rotting log". The problem is, people went from scavenging up messy piles of rotten boards around the farm, to cutting down living trees to make hugel beds.
You can also clear land this way. Fukoaka buried logs after cutting trees, but he just buried them where they fell.
I am afraid to pick up wood chips anymore, because the highway dept. uses herbicides on trees. Howevewr, I will pick up branches along my own road to make "humus piles".
 
Dale Hodgins
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I'm one of those who chops down living trees for hugelkultur. When I bought the place 10 years ago, much of it was a clear cut. Now those areas are covered in 50 ft. hardwoods. I've always seen them as a long term cover crop with no intentions to ever let a forest mature on my only flat land.

Ten years ago, I had visions of hot composting the tons of wood from nitrogen rich alder. Two years ago I discoverd hugelkultur and decided to process my trees into that. Some people grow buckwheat or clover to enrich their soil. They plant and till it in.

My native alder trees want to occupy every inch of this land. The only help I provide them is removal of evergreen competition. The trees go on producing fertility year after year, shedding rich leaves. I harvested thousands of them two years ago but my total standing wood volume is higher today.

I can harvest tons of this cover crop at any time of year without creating bare ground, I never have to water it, plant it or protect it from anything. Unlike annual cover crops, I can shelter from the sun or camp under my alder cover crop.
 
Greta Fields
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Dale,
I can only say that I don't know anything about alders. I can't even relate to having them.
We have tons of poplar trees where I live, but they eventually drop and let hardwoods grow. I think it part of natural succession.
I can't view trees as just a cover crop, after reading Jared Diamond's book, Collapse. he traces the collapse of great civilizations to deforestation, always deforestation and grazing.
Also, I know too much about the death of trees to view trees as just a crop. We have lost over a dozen species in Kentucky that I grew up taking for granted! All of our white dogwoods disappeared two years ago, all at once, whereas before, the woods were always white in "Dogwood Winter" in early spring.
I read The Death of the Trees.
I wrote articles about acid rain back in the 1980s. You have to read about this to understand how threatened our trees are. While trees do grow back, they do not get as big as they once did. They die before they mature.
No, you will never see a mature tree on your place, because a mature tree ought to be 500 years old.
I have photos of poplar trees as big as redwoods in eastern Kentucky. Now, the biggest one you will ever see is 3-4 feet in diameter..
 
Dale Hodgins
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I actually have many mature trees. They grow on slopes and some in boggy areas. The big fir in the photo is probably in the 500 year range.

I also have mature alder in the 60 year range. By that time they are hollow and shedding branches.

The cover crop trees are on a few acres of flat land that were cleared as a house and barn site. I chose to allow the site to grow over in desirable species to make the land more fertile. It will soon be at the end of that rotation.

I'm a big fan of Mr. Diamond and have read all of his stuff except his books on kidney function. In one of his YouTube talks, he speaks positively about a rotational system used in the New Guinea highlands where legume trees provide most of the fuel and fertility.

geoff lawton has used luceana trees as a short lived cover crop in his desert projects.

The big fir survived a fire in the late 1800s.

This giant cedar has a dead top. It may still live another century.

This aprox 40 year old alder has started to die. Wood peckers are returning it to the forest floor.

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Greta Fields
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I wasn't sure you were serious about using trees as a cover crop. [I thought you were being sarcastic about just cutting them down.]
I really do not work on the forest much in any way here. it was partly logged before I bought it. I am debating planting a lot of Shellbark Hickory, which is the food of the gods to me. [They have nuts as large as silver dollars.] I am also going to plant some of the new hybrid American Chestnuts, persimmon and mulberry. I never have to cut trees for firewood, so far. Usually 2 or 3 fall down on their own every year, and I cut them up then. I get small hugel piles the same way....just using found logs.
 
Dale Hodgins
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This grove of alder and cotton wood has been thinned twice. The average diameter is around 5 inches with some reaching 10 inches. Total volume more than trippled in two years.

I thin cottonwood to favor alder due to its nitrogen producing ability.

Wildlife benefit from standing dead wood. They've been chewing away at this dead fir since long before I bought the place.
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Greta Fields
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I will look up alders in my tree book. Locusts are also legumes, like alders, and run all over a field and form a locust grove from root runners. Things grow really well around the locust tree stumps too, I have noticed.
 
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