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raised beds or dug in hugelkultur?

 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 643
Location: cool climate
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We have three areas left in our garden a total of maybe 500m2 which I will use for staple crops. We have fill over swamp with luxury 5 cm of topsoil.
Hand digging is next to impossible.
I love the idea of huegelculture because you can use all this woody stuff you neighbours bring to the tip. But I tried several beds for annual crops and some for herbs and other perennial stuff on the top of the existing "soil" and it didn't really work out. Maybe it is the quality of soil what I put on the top but even though I used mushroom compost and manure the perennial beds still seem to be pretty infertile. I find that any mulch tends to slip down and they are hard to plant because it is a hill. The biggest problem is the water runoff. On a flat bed the water simply has more time to soak in.
I either construct raised beds ignoring the crap underneath or I'll get a very small excavator for digging trenches maybe 30cm deep and as long and wide as the beds. I would fill these trenches then with the woody stuff until level and then build a usual raised bed on the top (sheetmulching).
Even with raised beds (the roofing sheet entry) I could throw woody stuff underneath but the difference would be that the wood would not be in the soil.
We have droughts some years and some years torrential rainfalls.
 
Mark Cook
Posts: 2
Location: Windsor, CO
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I've had very good success with raised beds adding a lot of amendments such as mushroom composte and manure and several years ago learned about biochar-adding charcoal to and course sand to the soil. There are numerous websites. The porous charcoal acts as a nursery for beneficial microbes. I mulch heavily with grass clippings and between the earthworms and microbes the clippings are broken down and feed the soil. My neighbors are always annoyed how much larger my plants are than from their traditional roto tilled patch. I dug my heavy clay soil once as an initial breakup and it is easily 24 inches deep now and very crumbly.
I was also pleasantly surprised after a nasty hail storm that turned my squash & cucumber plants into mush the remaining stems put out new leaves and the squash has even produced a new fruit 3 weeks after while the neighbor's same type of plants withered and died.
Drop me a line if you like.
 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 643
Location: cool climate
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Thanks! that means you make the charcoal in an extra site or right away in the hilled bed?
 
Mark Cook
Posts: 2
Location: Windsor, CO
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Offsite, but in my case we had a forest fire close by last year so I was able to collect all I wanted (messy work).
The first year I used this my yields were gi-normous. Two cabbages each weighing 25-30 pounds.
 
Isaac Hill
gardener
Posts: 356
Location: Beaver County, Pennsylvania (~ zone 6)
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I've tried a number of different ways, but I now like just scraping off the sod/topsoil, putting the logs in the depression, putting the scrapings back on and compost on top with plants and as much mulch as I can without it falling off.
 
eric kampel
Posts: 13
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We have built 2 hugelkultur beds 3 feet in the ground and 3 feet above. So from the surface, they look like raised beds, but 3 feet under them is filled with wood and organic material. I am hoping this will retain moisture even more than a hugelbed entirely above ground. I'll let you know how they produce next year. Winter is coming.
 
Michael Jacobsen
Posts: 13
Location: West Virginia, USA
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If water is running off your hugelkulture it sounds like your soil is at least somewhat hydrophobic. Ideally the water should land on it and due to the hugelbed's un-compacted nature, soak right in. Where exactly are you located, if you don't mind me asking? Have you had a soil sample test done to determine the soil characteristics? How much silica is in your soil? Clay content? Things of that nature. The "slipping" sounds like you didn't make the wood "lumpy enough". There should be branches and twigs and whatnot sticking out everywhere before putting the soil on. This helps hold it together. You can do like Sepp does and poke sticks and twigs in at intervals all over the place and use them as braces to hold the mulch in place. Go with a heavier, thicker mulch as well.

As for sunken beds, well, my hugelbed in my backyard is a sunken bed. I have really sandy soil so the wood is basically all that's holding on to nutrients for me. I dug down to check on it before the growing season this year and it's a spongy, pulpy mass down there, last year it was logs and sticks. At this rate I'm going to have to dig it up and put down new wood after next year. Didn't make the wood pile nearly large enough, lesson learned. My trench was just over 1m deep and I filled it about halfway with wood and then piled the sandy topsoil back on to make it a level area. I only watered once this year, at the beginning of the growing season to kick off seed germination. I would have had a ton of growth if it weren't for the family of groundhogs that decided to move in right next door to my garden. They left me one zucchini and one volunteer roma tomato and that's it... Jerks even ate up my slowly growing patch of wild spiderwort. The zucchini was the best I've ever tasted. The tomatoes are just now ripening so we'll see how they taste.
 
Lyn Simmons
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I saw this thread on FB today. I put in my first hugelkultur bed this year and it's been slow going. I expected fantastic results the first year, but now realize it likely takes time during the breakdown stage for things to establish.

Hubby tilled the garden in spring, tilling in a 4" straw mulch that covered the area for nine months. This drastically slowed every growing thing in this garden. The saving factor was 20" of rain in a month. I am thrilled to say that the garden didn't flood, although it would have before this year.

From the tilled area, I rake pulled the soil into several raised beds, leaving permanent paths between, then dug in shallow trenches and laid logs or bricks or native stone as boundaries for the beds. The last section of till, I dug the center down about two to three foot, then added in cottonwood logs from the
neighbor's lot then mounded it with the dirt/straw. For this bed I also dug in the sides for trenches and laid largish logs in the trenches as well. What I realized after the fact was that I should have added more twigs and leaves and such.

I have a raspberry bush and beets and lambsquarters on top of the pile and canteloupe on one end, with poppies across the center and lemon thyme on the sun side. I grew onion sets from seeds on the north side. I had patted down some 'terraces', but they were flat rather than sloped into the hill, so didn't prove effective for water retention or seed retention.

I look forward to seeing how others' projects turn out.

Are there items that do better on the hugel bed?
 
Jose Reymondez
Posts: 137
Location: Galicia, Spain Zone 9
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sepp holzer´s last book talks about this a little bit. He says that in rainer climates (it mentions a project he did in Scotland) he doesn´t dig down at all, just puts the wood on the surface of the soil. It says that the wood rots in rainier climates because it ends up being underwater. I´m guessing it meant anaerobic decomposition by rot?

I get a lot of rainfall where I live but it is winter-concentrated and we still have dry summers so I have Hugulbeds where I buried some wood and Hugul beds where I didn´t. I just built them this season so I will have to wait a year or so to see how they compare. Also, since I put them on a slope, I think that even the beds where I dug down and buried the wood would have good drainage.
 
Zach Weiss
pollinator
Posts: 294
Location: Montana
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One of the big benefits of earthworks is the tremendous de-compaction it does for the earth-body. I'm always amazed by the amazing soil that I dig up in locations that are growing nothing but scrubs. I'm thinking to myself how is such beautiful soil growing such an unproductive, thin cover. In most cases overgrazing, compaction, flattening, and dehydrating of the landscape lead to the growth that we see today. It's amazing the effect that loosening the soil can have, it's definitely one of the big advantages of doing earthworks. It sounds to me like you put down woody debris and then added soil? If this is correct then you didn't really de-compact the earth-body at all, you just added on top of it.

The water runoff issue is a very good point to bring up. There is a bit of a misunderstanding in the US about the role of the hugelculture bed. A hugelbed is only part of a system, the water harvesting is the more important part. To put things in perspective I didn't see a single hugelbed with Sepp at his new farm. Having a way for your hugelbed to get water naturally is the most important part. If the wood in the middle isn't being saturated by rain then it is not really a hugelkultur. This is why when Sepp came to Montana all of the hugelbeds were along a waterway, similar to the traditional chinampas. They are also great to use in areas where you don't have much room because they increase the growing surface area.

It's important that water harvesting is part of the design though. In appropriate climates a hugelbed will do just fine with the natural rainfall. In drier places it's important to have some serious water harvesting incorporated into your hugel. Water is the most important resource we have. In some climates this means on the surface, drier climates dug down, and even drier as part of a water retention system. Care for the water that you can. Feeding roofwater into a hugelbed sounds like a great way to me.

As your digging it's important to look at the layers and use the resources that you have wisely. It's always good to dig a test pit to see the soil profile during the planning stage. Then you really know what you want to do building the earthworks. If you don't know what the soil below is like (at least down 5') then your really just guessing with your design.

I think the word Sepp used for the wood in rainier climates is sour. Which as far as I can tell sometimes means acidic, sometimes anaerobic. I think it's more of an old farmer thing, knowing what good soil smells like and what sour soil smells like.

Here's a picture of a not ideal hugelbed.



In the high alpine desert climate that I'm in covering some wood with some earth isn't going to have the desired effect. In a climate like mine (average 15” precip 30” evaporation) water retention is the most important thing. But the property was sold without any water right. That is a crime against nature, but that's where we're at in the United States. Once it was decided that we couldn't do any water retention then we did the best we could.

This is a better picture of hugelculture from up the hill at Sepp's 2012 project. Notice all of the water surrounding the hugelbeds.


 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 643
Location: cool climate
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This is what I did on the top. Our natural soil is sand and clay but as our site is fill and were I created the beds on the top they actually drove their cars around. Reading this thread I get convinced that I have to go down as well. That means with some sort of machine and I don't know which one dig out "bathtubs" maybe 30 cm deep, fill this with woody material and then backfill the soil leaving out the bad stuff, buy some more soil, cow manure and mushroom compost.
That will be a logistical problem because I cannot get the machine in for each and every bed. There will be strips 1.20m wide and 40cm in between which are the paths. With our main garden we dug out everything and I won't do that again because it is very difficult to fill.
The other way would be create very deep beds with roofing sheets, all on the top fill them half with the woody material and then with bought soil etc.
 
mike mclellan
Posts: 93
Location: Helena, MT zone 4
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I went with raised beds for the simple reason that the water table on my property is about 4-5 feet down (1.5 to 1.75m). The capillary fringe is about 28 inches (70 cm)down so it didn't make sense to dig down and have the woody core virtually sitting where the it would be soaked constantly and go anaerobic. Water infiltration overall hasn't been the problem. If anything, I didn't water some of the raised beds enough last year to really get them soaked and get the decompostion going. This is especially true on three of the five raised beds I built last year. The three with very large diameter rounds have not been as productive as I would have liked. The other two were made largely of much small diameter poles, not rounds originally cut for firewood. The three were covered with a few inches of dried grass and a couple of inches on well composted horse manure before covering the beds with about six inches of soil and topped them with about and inch or so of wood chips. On these three I planted a variety of woody plants, asparagus, a couple of horseradish and a few perennial flowering plants. Very few, except the the asparagus, thrived and I lost far more than I would like to admit. Lessons learned one way or the other I guess. I did not plant nearly enough seeds and didn't provide enough water.

The other two were planted to a mix of pollinator plants intersprersed with various Ribes species. a couple of tomatoes, lots of spinach, a few raspberries on the end of one, and later four comfreys. These two beds were absolutely covered with mushrooms this past spring and the growth of the shrubs and raspberries has been very satisfactory. The pollinator mix apparently included yellow and white sweet clovers and they absolutely exploded this year. They were chopped and dropped twice before the end of June. I mulched all the beds originally with about an inch (2.5 cm) of wood chips. Since then it's been the sweet clover mulch along with the spinach after it bolted and various weeds pulled and dropped in place. Infiltration in these beds is excellent and these two beds have not needed nearly as much water this year as last.

Based on what I've experienced, new beds need plenty of water to get them started rotting. IF rainfall won't get it done, then supplemental watering must take place. We only had about 5 inches (12.5 cm) of rainfall all last year and none of consequence after the end of March. I don't see any way decomplostion could've gotten started without watering the hugelbeds. The three beds with the much larger wood are just now starting to show some mushroom bloom and things are growing more vigorously this year than last year. I do think those beds with the larger wood will take a year or two more before the fertility is fully released.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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