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Hugelkulture failures

 
pollinator
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Location: Denver, CO
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Hello everyone,

I want to start a thread about hugelkulture failures, so we can all avoid potential pitfalls in the future. Our urban farming group in Denver is currently building a lot of hugelkultures by hand. It is a ton of work, especially since our soil is full of giant rocks. (We can't bring in earth to cover them because we don't have any money, and because there is not really any top soil in Colorado. Any top soil on the market is likely to be expensive wood chips or dark colored sub soil.) I don't want to waste all this work, so replies could help me (and others) out a lot. Details would be great; climate, wood type and age, other materials, height, depth of covering, depth of digging (or not) plantings, and management.

And, of course, it is always fun to talk about mistakes — after the fact.
 
steward
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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I wouldn't call it a 'failure', but I'd say it's one of the most common 'mistakes': not adding a deep enough layer of soil/compost/mulch over the buried wood.
Mine's two seasons old and things really struggled in the first year as there just wasn't enough depth for their roots.
I've been building it up, but I think it could still do with much more.
Another mistake for me: letting nasturtiums go bonkers on the hugel.
They overwhelm everything, stop moisture from getting in and are prolific seeders, extremely keen to do it again.
Great plants, but they now belong in 'the weed patch' with the borage, Swiss chard and other overly-enthusiastic plants
 
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I started building beds 25 months ago. I advertized for some people to move to the land and farm for free while living in my cottage for free. They have done close to nothing. I spent about 5 days in total on a city garden this year and have grown more vegetables than the pair who are supposed to be farming my hugels.

The thistles grew 7 feet high on the mounds this year, so nothing wrong with the concept.

I'm moving to the cottage on a part time basis and it will be available for my kids and their friends and for other visitors to use.
 
Posts: 1947
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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I wouldn't say failure either. I would have made my first ones taller, they shrank a lot. I didn't think about wind enough. I also fell prey to the not-putting-enough-on-top problem which was exacerbated by my failure to water it enough while some of the seeds were germinating. I still got a lot of food, tea, and chicken fodder off of them.

I just put a bunch of rotty log chunks on the windward side of this spiral shaped hugel to start making it taller. Almost immediately some yellow mushrooms I've never seen before popped out the side of one of the logs
20131017_162010.jpg
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yellow mushrooms at center
 
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Hey Gilbert:

First of all, failures are FANTASTIC. I learn so much more from my failures than from my successes because I am forced to try to understand what went wrong and try a new experiment (or in my case, SEVERAL new experiments - I have a LOT of experience failing!)

One thing I noticed right away is that you are in Denver - a semi-arid, continental climate zone (Köppen climate classification BSk). Hugelkultur is probably more suited to climates that are more humid than yours. In an extreme example, where I live (Phoenix, AZ), aboveground hugelkulture is an inappropriate technology - it just doesn't work with our extremely dry air and high temperatures unless you use A LOT of water to keep it moist or build it exceptionally huge. Neither of these things is particularly functional or appropriate for desert use.

Now I HAVE (inadvertently) done some inverted hugelkultur beds. By this I mean that when I originally decided to build some infiltration basins (basically sunken beds to harvest rainwater) on my flat, urban property to help break up my compacted clay soil, I also happened to have just trimmed some of my overstory trees (mesquite, palo verde, Chinese elm) and had some big branches that I was going to have to cut up and stack for our green waste collection as I had no way to mulch them. I saw an opportunity to recycle this large branches into the bottom of the infiltration pits thinking they would add places for both air and soil life to congregate and would probably deteriorate over time (things left on the surface of a desert take AGES to decompose simply because of lack of moisture).

Fast forward - those beds did really well, but they did sink further than I thought they would over time. I planted an urban deciduous orchard in one long basin in early 2008. That bed has sunk about an inch a year since installation. It should be at a stasis soon because I think most of the wood should have decomposed by now. Lesson learned - when doing "in ground" hugelkulture, know that it will sink over time as the wood decays (to the approx. depth of the original wood in the hole) and take steps accordingly.

Another observation was that occasionally one of my fruit trees would show a nitrogen deficiency. I'm not sure if this was due to root contact with the rotting wood in the soil, or just because it's easy to have a nitrogen deficiency in the hot deserts. But it's something I've noticed.

That's my 2 cents as a desert rat.
 
pollinator
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Dale Hodgins wrote:

The thistles grew 7 feet high on the mounds this year, so nothing wrong with the concept.



That's going to have quite the tap root to it!
 
Landon Sunrich
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Matu Collins wrote:

I just put a bunch of rotty log chunks on the windward side of this spiral shaped hugel to start making it taller. Almost immediately some yellow mushrooms I've never seen before popped out the side of one of the logs



A Hypholoma?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypholoma
 
Landon Sunrich
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Gilbert,

My hugle failure started with this idea to extend my property 'bank' and build an earthen wall

https://permies.com/t/26345/hugelkultur/Designing-mushrooms-huglekultur

I failed to get dirt over is. There are several other minor minor things I should have considered.

For one, and if and when I take another crack at it. I will probaley use large firewood sized pieces of wood (including full rounds up to 8 or ten inches in diameter) and leave plenty of fist sized gaps for the soil to fill (where you plant into). That one I nearly have a soil mix for

AS IS I have a very successful pile of oyster mushroom alders growing in direct full summer son. I plan on getting the soil on when I can afford to import (or get the necessary provision to make) good topsoil. I can describe the soil mix I'm making if you like.
 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1947
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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It seems like a really common question-"where do I get soil to cover my hugels?"

I was lucky enough to have access to a lot of leaf mould and compost, but soil is tricky. I'm avoiding digging a hole somewhere to get soil to put on the beds until I know where I want a hole. Even then, the soil dug up well have lots of weed seeds, I imagine.

How do people solve this problem?

As for your rock problem, I wonder if you could just turn it around and be grateful for their abundance. Some people long for rocks and have none!

It seems like the best guard against failure is keeping it smallish and learning as you go along.
 
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Jennifer Wadsworth wrote:.
Another observation was that occasionally one of my fruit trees would show a nitrogen deficiency. I'm not sure if this was due to root contact with the rotting wood in the soil, or just because it's easy to have a nitrogen deficiency in the hot deserts. But it's something I've noticed.



I was just watching a video Paul posted about soil in forestry. The guy had mentioned that overwhelming a compost mixture with carbon (specifically wood chips/wood) would completely shut down the composting activity and end nitrogen production. I don't know the ins and outs of hugelculture and can't help so much at this time. I'm checkin it all out now. I know in my aquaponics setup, I sometimes have to use ammonia to encourage the ammonia/nitrite/nitrate cycle for a little added nitrogen. Maybe you could look into that cycle for tips on your mound material.

Being in the desert, a lack of moisture would also kill the bacteria necessary for the cycle. So, the desert may also be the problem.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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C. Kirkley wrote:
I was just watching a video Paul posted about soil in forestry. The guy had mentioned that overwhelming a compost mixture with carbon (specifically wood chips/wood) would completely shut down the composting activity and end nitrogen production. I don't know the ins and outs of hugelculture and can't help so much at this time. I'm checkin it all out now. I know in my aquaponics setup, I sometimes have to use ammonia to encourage the ammonia/nitrite/nitrate cycle for a little added nitrogen. Maybe you could look into that cycle for tips on your mound material.

Being in the desert, a lack of moisture would also kill the bacteria necessary for the cycle. So, the desert may also be the problem.



Yeah - I've noticed that myself with woody compost in the desert. I added some rather woody compost to my first veggie beds back in 2008 here - what a disaster! All the plants were yellowing and not fruiting well. Once the soil microorganisms processed the carbon a bit though, those beds were great. Took a few seasons for me to get into the swing of things though. What really helped were applications of compost tea. Lots and lots of compost tea poured over the recently-watered bed. I had fantastic production then. But - and I'll say this again - I DON'T build above ground beds - they really are crappy here in the desert. All my stuff is sunken into the ground for protection against the heat and for water harvesting.

Now my compost bins are build into my henyard. And the hens perch is over the compost - free nitrogen drops right in. =)
 
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One mistake that I just witnessed from a friend's property was a mismanagement of the soil horizons as they are excavated. The A horizon soil should be kept separate from the B horizon, and the B horizon soil should always be placed underneath the A. This is a simple yet surprisingly common mistake. There is usually a change of color to indicate when you have hit the B horizon. Not sure what types of soils you are dealing with out there though.

Anyways, best of luck, please let us know how your projects pan out!
 
Dale Hodgins
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Thumbs up to Jennifer Wadsworth for explaining in detail what has worked for her in a similar climate. The big tall beds in many of the diagrams concerning hugelkultur, completely ignore any ill effect that increased surface area has on evaporation rates. One deep, giant pile with a thick mulch layer, will be better at retaining water than many small ones. One big mound would also be easier to water and it would waste less of that water.

For anyone who has plenty of water, a pond that experiences algal bloom can provide a nitrogen boost with every watering.
 
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Location: Helena, MT zone 4
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Failures/mistakes? I made plenty. I chose above ground beds as I live in an area of very high water table. Burying the beds didn't make sense as the rotting wood would very likely have gone anaerobic, creating its own mess, short and long term.
I don't feel the above ground beds were a mistake in spite of our dry summers. I did get some effective microclimates going above ground. Heavy mulch of wood chips helped keep soils from drying out quickly.

I built too many beds at one time to effectively manage them in their first season. Some got a lot more TLC than others. The TLC beds produced far more. TLC included MORE WATER and keeping them weeded. Yes, weeds have their place but I had planted quite a bit of desired vegetation that really didn't need the competition in young, undeveloped soils. Put together only as many beds that you can effectively manage and get started that year.

I didn't water enough to get things going. IF i had to do it over, I would have heavily watered the log core before covering it. I had a "cap" of well rotted horse manure and grass. This all should've been soaked first before I added the soil. I know that one goal of hugelkultur is to reduce or eliminate watering but on the east side of the Rockies, it is dry, like Denver, so water that bed heavily and often the first year. This year didn't need nearly as much. I noticed the soils developing some darker color already.

Plant every square inch with something. Sepp Holzer made it clear when I heard him last year that he seeds his hugelbeets. I didn't plant enough and nature "helped" out. What a weedy mess! Yes, they helped start the soil building, but I could've written a book about all of the weeds that showed up. Again, sweet clover (Melilotus) showed up in abundance this past year (year two) and took the place of many of the first year residents. This year I planted a LOT of flowers for pollinators in areas that didn't get planted to desired species or where perennials didn't survive and many more vegetables. I should've done that right off the bat.

Pay attention to the spacing of your beds. I built a pair too close together. It gets "interesting" when I try to walk between those two in mid-summer when everything is growing into the walking space. Leave at least five feet after the beds are finished. I got lucky on the spacing of the other beds. Better to be lucky than good!

Overall, in spite of my mistakes, I was pleased with the productivity of the hugelbeets this year and expect them to do even better next year. Nature is amazing how it can build mini ecosystems like a hugelbeet can be.
 
gardener & author
Posts: 2006
Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
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trees food preservation solar greening the desert
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Jennifer Wadsworth wrote:
Fast forward - those beds did really well, but they did sink further than I thought they would over time. I planted an urban deciduous orchard in one long basin in early 2008. That bed has sunk about an inch a year since installation. It should be at a stasis soon because I think most of the wood should have decomposed by now. Lesson learned - when doing "in ground" hugelkulture, know that it will sink over time as the wood decays (to the approx. depth of the original wood in the hole) and take steps accordingly.



How do woody perennials such as trees cope with sinking soil like that? Is it a big problem, or not really?
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Rebecca Norman wrote:How do woody perennials such as trees cope with sinking soil like that? Is it a big problem, or not really?



Right now there doesn't seem to be an impact. If I had it to do over again, I would do two things:
--Instead of planting the trees near the bottom of the swale (or in some instances, at the actual bottom/low point) I would plant them slightly up one of the sides of the swale essentially on a little terrace with no wood underneath. I think this would stabilize the trees better.
--I would fill the swale more and not have it so deep knowing the wood would degrade over time and the top area sink accordingly. I left about 8 inches originally to backfill with woodchips. I probably put in about 6" by volume of branches in the bottom of the swale (if they were all packed in tight - which they weren't) So the swales have sunk an additional 5" now (approximately the volume of the wood put in - I'd have to guesstimate this - not an exact science!).

Otherwise I'm pleased with the outcome. Here are a few pics. Unfortunately I didn't think to take pics of the tree trimmings in the hole as they were just a last minute thought to get rid of them. But imagine the lower 1/3rd of the trench filled with branches.
Imported-Photos-00049.JPG
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Swale to capture rainwater runoff from neighbor
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Closeup of french drain gravel and perforated pipe
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Swale backfilled with dirt with placeholder pots where bare root fruit trees will go
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Here's what that swale looks like over time (it was originally dug in 2007)

orchard-042008-w-pipes.JPG
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2008 - I cut the trees to 15" high - you can see the french drain overflow pipes
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2012 - every year I trim the trees to 6-8 ft usually twice
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2013 - looking pretty overgrown - this is mid-summer
 
Rebecca Norman
gardener & author
Posts: 2006
Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
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Thanks! Very pretty!
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Thanks! I get quite a bit of fruit off this fruit hedge or "fedge". Unless the birds get it first! It's hard to take a picture of any more because its gotten quite jungle-y! It really cools that side of my house (south side/sun facing) in the summer - it is noticeably cooler along that area.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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mike mclellan wrote:Failures/mistakes? I made plenty. I chose above ground beds as I live in an area of very high water table. Burying the beds didn't make sense as the rotting wood would very likely have gone anaerobic, creating its own mess, short and long term.
I don't feel the above ground beds were a mistake in spite of our dry summers. I did get some effective microclimates going above ground. Heavy mulch of wood chips helped keep soils from drying out quickly.



Mike - excellent thoughts on the high water table - hadn't even considered that since my water table here is 80 ft down (one of the highest water tables in metro Phoenix because I'm near the bottom of the watershed). I'm finding this discussion really interesting as to what works in other dryland situations. Thanks for responding.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Hello Everyone,

Thanks for your comments. This is becoming a really interesting thread.

Mike Mclellan, your comments made me feel a lot more certain about my own hugelkulture experiments. We have a little more rain then you do, and more of it comes in gully-washers which could deeply soak a hugel bed. We also have a high water table. I am building my beds about five feet high, but I am also digging down about a foot at the base, because we are on a steep slope, and this gives it a terracing effect, which should help to trap water.

So, to summarize, it looks like the mistakes to avoid are: not covering the woody core deep enough (which should be easy to solve later); letting six foot thistles ( or other unwanted plants) go crazy on the hugel; not planning for wind on an exposed site; not thinking about a dry climate, and either building a sunken hugel, mulching it really deep, or a really big hugel, to avoid the mound having more exposed surface area then moist center area; not putting nitrogen sources in to supplement the carbon in the first years; not keeping the top soil ON TOP; biting off more that one can chew and thus not getting it all planted; and putting beds too close together, so as to create an access problem.

Does anybody else have any suggestions to add to the list?
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Wow Gilbert - great summary. Some of these may just do the trick for you!

It might be fun, if you have the space, to try a few different "experiments" - trying things that you think are most likely the issue and some things that you think aren't necessarily the issue and just keep tabs on the beds over the years and see what happens. You will become the GREAT HUGELMEISTER of Denver!

Seriously though - the more arid West needs solutions that WORK. We'll only find solutions when good people are willing to experiment and keep trying even in the face of failure (or what occurs as failure). I really do look forward to following your work as you continue on with your wonderful project.

 
pollinator
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I too would not call mine a failure, but the tall one I put in was difficult to reach the top of and also with our drought I did definately have to add some additional water to it this year, even popped a soaker hose on the top .

had really good lettuce and cabbages on this particular new bed this year but it was really too dry for a lot of other things
 
Leila Rich
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I live in a windy place, and we're having an extra windy spring.
I've noticed that plants are way more exposed on the hugelkultur (even my tiny partially-buried sandy/deserty version)
I'll be investigating tough perennials for each end, since the gales take turns at being Northerly, Southerly or sometimes for a change, a Nor'Southerly...
I'm pretty free with the windbreak cloth, but it's not practical with this bed.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Excellent insight, Leila. Contrary to what many contend, I don't think hugelkultur is the answer in ALL climates or even within favorable climates that are faced with more extremes (high heat, low humidity, high water table, overly wet, overly windy, etc).

I really commend everyone here for experimenting and finding what works and what doesn't and the little tweaks that make all the difference between success and failure.
 
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I've never understood how the massive amount of labour required to build a hugel would be worth it, unless you live in a drought prone area. It certainly would be a waste of time in my neck of the woods (Canadian Maritimes). We usually have far too much water in the summer, especially over the last 5 years.
 
pollinator
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Jim Dickie wrote:I've never understood how the massive amount of labour required to build a hugel would be worth it, unless you live in a drought prone area. It certainly would be a waste of time in my neck of the woods (Canadian Maritimes). We usually have far too much water in the summer, especially over the last 5 years.



In your case, they are a self-watering raised bed with slow-release fertilizer.

But yes, they are a LOT of work--like 5+ years of garden earthwork all wrapped up in the first year.
 
mike mclellan
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Greetings Jim in the maritimes!

In my case, I had a huge amount of wood on site already from a variety of sources. Stacking five piles only took between three and seven hours each. Cutting the wood for them required about three days of paid and/or unpaid self labor. I did the work during the winter when I could do little else to "develop" the gardens. Covering them took longer as I had to haul soil a wheelbarrowful at a time to two of the beds. Where the dump truck could back right up to them, covering the beds was fairly quick. All in all, the work was mostly upfront. Planting the beds is ongoing but it would be in almost any developing system. In our dry, lee side of the Rockies climate, those beds will likely take 20 or more years to fully break down. Then I will have mound full of decayed punky wood, humus and likely hundreds of thousands of miles of mycelia. Perfect for water holding in our climate. The perennial plants I planted once. Those that have made it the first two years will likely continue if I don't screw up too much. Many are suckering and should contribute in the long run to my food wants/needs.

I built two smaller woody cored hugelmounds this summer from numerous branches from tree trimmings ( I didn't want the stink and noise of running the chipper and I don't need the chips). The cores of each took about 90 to 120 miinutes to lay down and the soil covering slightly longer. Woody cores were laid down ( final height about 8-10 inches high) and then stomped on and about four to six inches of soil was added to cover them One bed is 24 feet long ( about 8m) and the other about 20 feet (6.5m). One grew 65 pounds of spuds that weren't even planted until late June. The other went in later and is sitting under winter rye/hairy vetch cover for the winter. To my mind, for the site where I put them, they were far LESS work to set up than trying other techniques to create fertility on highly disturbed soil where I put them. The payoff will last for many years.

In the maritimes, I would guess that keeping plants watered wouldn't be near the issue as it is out west here, both in the US and western Canada. I would think, though, that using rotting wood in a system in your climate would still create many benefits tied to fertility as the woody material decays. I went to school in CA in the redwood country and can testify first hand how downed trees create their own mini ecosystems. Likely it's much the same out your way. It may turn out that you'll find yourself with too many stems, trunks, and branches at some time and creating a woody cored hugelbeet will be the easiest way to utilize them and capture the fertility in them. Anyway, that's my personal take on why I used woody cored hugelbeets. Happy permaculture!
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Jim Dickie wrote:I've never understood how the massive amount of labour required to build a hugel would be worth it, unless you live in a drought prone area. It certainly would be a waste of time in my neck of the woods (Canadian Maritimes). We usually have far too much water in the summer, especially over the last 5 years.



Like Mike said, yours would probably turn into some pretty wonderful self-watering beds that let the plants on them self-regulate how much water they need - keeping excess moisture to the bottom of the beds and not drowning out the plants.

As for the amount of time - while I don't build hugels, I do dig infiltration pits, sunken beds, French drains, swales and the like - they take time and effort to set up initially. Once the work is done - they need only minor adjustments for the most part. Granted, I've made my fair share of mistakes, large and small, and those require a rework. But that's just experience and is bound to happen when you're just going at it with your own knowledge and trying things out. Over time, my systems have proven to be much LESS work - which is great, because I am getting blinder and blinder!
 
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Gilbert wrote: Does anyone else have suggestions?



Gilbert, I am a couple hours south of you and am currently in the process of designing my own site. I am planning to incorporate hugelkultur into my own design. I don't have much hands on experience building them myself at this stage--I've only experimented with one small bed--but I have been researching them lately. The one thought I have for you is about the height of your bed. According to the Sepp/Paul style that they present in the hugelkultur video [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sso4UWObxXg] Paul pushes the 6'-7' height of the bed to achieve a no-irrigation need--and they did this in a climate similar to our own. It sounds like you are shooting for a 5' bed. While obviously there is no perfect formula to achieve a no-irrigation bed (and plants don't watch YouTube videos), it seems like adding on a couple more feet to your plans might be beneficial when it comes to water retention. Good luck and I look forward to hearing how it turns out.
 
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I don't have a success or failure story(yet). I am about to start building beds on my 20 acres in middle Tennessee. I have read Sepp's book cover to cover and then some so I have some basis for the following... ROCKS are a great thermal mass and can be used to your advantage by planting things near them that are susceptible to being damged by frost and cold weather. They will soak up heat during the day and put off heat thru the night. Anyone took advantage of this? Or (since this is a failure thread) possibly planted the wrong thing next to rocks and destroyed it with heat?
 
Matu Collins
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Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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I used some rocks this year and I think it helped with speeding up some slow growing heat loving plants, and giving a little protection from the wind. I was not as observant of the wind pressure until I built my hugelbeets.

I also used rocks to tuck weeds under. I'm spending this off season scoping out nice big rocks to bring home for the garden.
 
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My failure here was trying to seed and transplant things like squash and potatoes and tomatoes and fava beans in unamended hugelkultures, which were made with the very best available onsite resources, which happen to be very poor resources.   All of my would-be calories grow a frail 6-12 inches and then decide; "what's the point, Ima die now in mid July even though I have moist well drained ground and light."  When soil is that poor, "not so good the first year" =  "expect nothing more than the hardy pioneers plants which were already colonizing the soil to grow the first year."  

It seems the "not so good for the first year" doesn't quite impart that even a 2 year old hugelkulture will not grow squash or tomatoes or basil or something very desirable with much success, IF the best materials available to make the hugelkulture with are only fresh cut wood and quite poor soil. I might have like 50%+ compacted red brick clay with maybe <1% organic matter in some places. This is what you get here when you drive a bulldozer over a heavy clay hillside when it's moist, then cut down the trees, and then mow the grass and spray weeds for 30 years.    Nice work you morons.  "TOPSOIL" HA!

It seems a hugel made with unamended poor soil will not be good for anything in the first year other than larger versions of the common not so tasty "weeds" which were already colonizing this poor soil before you used it to make a hugelkulture.   My unamended beds were dominated by, Nipplewort, catsear, and oxe-eye daisy, with less present but still regularly occurring broad and curly leaf dock, english daisy,  thistles, a willowherb, burr chervil, wild carrot, dandelion, crepis, prickly lettuce, himilayan blackberry.   However, if amended with something like a foot depth of mixed planting soil and/or compost, your hugelkulture can be quite productive in the first year.

So, the thing about the "use no inputs to avoid adding toxins and burning petrol" thing is that even though it costs zero dollars and petrol if done by hand, it costs like 5+ years of time when the soil is poor.  A person could be dead by then.  Haha.

It is possible to get compost and planting soil from a business that is honest about their inputs, and the stuff you buy will be almost or as "clean" as the soil on your site.  The persistent herbicide contamination from purchased inputs is a potential, but I do not think it is the norm.  Or at least its not a problem in Lane Forest Products' 'finished mint compost.'   In any case, if a person wants (or needs) to make a significant amount of calories in immediate years and their soil is quite poor, the dumptruck of material seems to be a required input.  Also if gardened well, the carbon footprint of this dump truck of compost can be made up after some years via the calories it produces onsite.

Fail #2, not adding better soil taken from somewhere else to start some desirable hardier perennials in the unamended hugels in the first year.  Said perennials can survive and establish themselves in the first year, despite the rest of the soil they are surrounded with being currently inhospitable.  

Fail #3, was topping the amended hugelkultures with a bunch of dusty mulch I raked up.  Lord have mercy, all I saw was leaves and twig mulch, but it ended up being full of seeds of the plants listed above...and grasses.  Try and mulch to conserve water, then it turns out the desirable plants were going to do well enough to almost completely shade out the ground on their own.  And now I have a bunch of bonus culling to do, if I am going to keep the quack grass and whatnot out of my productive beds.  BY GOD I WILL NOT HAVE A QUACK GRASS SPIRAL!

On the other hand, if the soil is so poor that it won't grow much more than the plants listed above, this is pretty much what you want to seed your first year hugels with.

Fail #4, not getting the grass on lockdown around the amended hugelkultures in year 1.  

Granted the rest of these failures are more general gardening mistakes, but I managed them all in my hugelkultures.  Whoops.



 
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Fret not John. Any covering is a step in the right direction. At least something is growing. Your hugel weeds are N-rich organic matter suitable for composting or chop and drop.

That dump truck of compost might be coming my way too, but it weighs on me that it likely wasn't tested for persistent herbicides, aka killer compost. It's wise to trial before buying in bulk. We risk impurity and poisoned soil to start quickly. Given enough foresight, time, and hard work, anyone can create ideal soil and compost, but therein lies the difficulty of meeting that ideal. I have no experience with poultry but I wonder if a small flock, served intensively grown plants and a steady supply of wood chips, would offer one of the quickest natural paths to something resembling a small scale poison-free compost factory.

I made a haphazard hugelkultur bed that most would consider a hugel fail. Layers: conifer logs (pair of 4x4x4' stacks, 8' total length oriented N-S), fresh cut weeds/grass (~1 cuyd), a few handfuls of compost, soil (~0.5 cuyd), topped with conifer wood chips (~0.75 cuyd). No seed. All above ground. Wood logs and chips were 4 years old. Covering only 1-3" thick, should have been made much thicker, and the ends should be covered. I used the material and time that was available. If nothing else, the covering will shelter wildlife and speed the creation of nurse logs. I went in with no expectations and am surprised by the lush green growth, even if it's volunteer grass and weeds.

East, Jun 2018


North, Jun 2018


North, Jun 2019


South, Jun 2019

 
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Location: South Central Kansas
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Mine hot composted the first year so my first year was almost a failure. Weeds LOVED all that heat.

This year things calmed down and still having a few issues. Probably due to the 12" of rain in 2 weeks last month and very little this month.

Lost 2 plants and replanted them.

Zucchini leaves are bigger than my head! HUGE.
And I harvested one zucchini today. About 8" long and about 3 1/2" wide.

Tomatoes take forever to produce....
 
pollinator
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Ive got one that qualifies for sure.

I put two hugel mounds on grade, parallel, about 6 ft apart in compacted clay soil. In retrospect, Not sure why I thought this was a good idea. Likely was convenience as I used rented equipment and lack flat accessible land.

Predictably, the top mound gets the benefits of the uphill moisture, the lower one tends VERY dry.

So this spring, we dug a trench, 4 inches deep, between the huge mounds and ran it out a bit past the edge of the mound so that some uphill drainage could make it to the lower mound. I filled the inlet of the trench with small rocks to keepbits shape.

Weve had a wet spring, but I like to think the trench helped the water soak into the mound. The dog days of summer will tell test it well soon. But I had to add some trellice to a quickly growing muscadine vine below the lower mound, so I am hopeful.
 
Kai Walker
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J Davis wrote:Ive got one that qualifies for sure.

I put two hugel mounds on grade, parallel, about 6 ft apart in compacted clay soil. In retrospect, Not sure why I thought this was a good idea. Likely was convenience as I used rented equipment and lack flat accessible land.

Predictably, the top mound gets the benefits of the uphill moisture, the lower one tends VERY dry.

So this spring, we dug a trench, 4 inches deep, between the huge mounds and ran it out a bit past the edge of the mound so that some uphill drainage could make it to the lower mound. I filled the inlet of the trench with small rocks to keepbits shape.

Weve had a wet spring, but I like to think the trench helped the water soak into the mound. The dog days of summer will tell test it well soon. But I had to add some trellice to a quickly growing muscadine vine below the lower mound, so I am hopeful.



You could dig one 'hole' in the upper one to allow some water past it to the lower one - OR

Add a swale on the sides of the lower one that extend out to the sides to divert water to the lower one. Go out about 50% of the size of your lower hugel on each side.

Trenches get filled back in too easily.
 
Kai Walker
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C. Kirkley wrote:

Jennifer Wadsworth wrote:.
Another observation was that occasionally one of my fruit trees would show a nitrogen deficiency.  I'm not sure if this was due to root contact with the rotting wood in the soil, or just because it's easy to have a nitrogen deficiency in the hot deserts.  But it's something I've noticed.



I was just watching a video Paul posted about soil in forestry. The guy had mentioned that overwhelming a compost mixture with carbon (specifically wood chips/wood) would completely shut down the composting activity and end nitrogen production. I don't know the ins and outs of hugelculture and can't help so much at this time. I'm checkin it all out now. I know in my aquaponics setup, I sometimes have to use ammonia to encourage the ammonia/nitrite/nitrate cycle for a little added nitrogen. Maybe you could look into that cycle for tips on your mound material.

Being in the desert, a lack of moisture would also kill the bacteria necessary for the cycle. So, the desert may also be the problem.



I anticipated that problem with nitrogen.

First I used the oldest rottenest logs and wood chips I could find.
Layered them with tons of used coffee grounds (literally - about 4 tons worth).
No nitrogen deficiency.

BUT it did hot compost severely that first year.

That was my bonus - sterilizing the soil and not tying up nitrogen.
We poked some 60 holes in my hugelgarden.
To let air and water in faster (oxygen for the roots) and to do a home made soil core test to see how things went after a year.

Soil was terrific!

We did encounter some voids in the garden though. If you step on the top you can see the soil move up and down. One core sample removed you could actually see part of the void.

It will shrink a lot more as time goes on. But that is OK. What remains will be black gold!

Nitrogen deficiency usually occurs when you use wood that is fresh or not aged long enough.

If it is good enough for firewood then that is the minimum age.
If it has things growing out of it then it is aged well enough.

We just picked up a pretty rotten log from a friend's house.

Might make a few holes in it, toss in a little dirt, and plant some flowers!
Much like you might see in a forest.

More on Nitrogen. Yes, wood can tie it up.
BUT that is locally so to speak.
It ties up nitrogen just a few CM from the surface of the wood and not the whole area for one log.

This is why fresh wood chips are ideal for walkways. Blocks sunlight and ties up nitrogen so weeds are mitigated.
Nice to walk on too (with shoes).

Wood won't tie up any nitrogen if there is no water available.
It will sit there taking up space until....








 
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