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Why I don't do hugelkultur anymore

 
Angelika Maier
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Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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I do not want to tell that huegelculture is not working, but for me it did not work - and I tried several approaches.
First our land is extreme, we have landfill (only stones, excavation etc.) over an old swamp, so the topsoil is no more than 5 cm and
the drainage is non existent. Then in Australia it can be very dry but it can be very wet too.
What I did is doing a huegelkulture without digging a ditch (simply because it is next to impossible without a machine).
What I learned:
1. If the hill is on the top of the soil, the hill dries out in no time at all.
2. When you do your hill on the top of the soil, you will have a problem getting enough soil to backfill.
3. It is very awkward to work on that hill, much more difficult than with a normal bed.
4. Everything tends downwards, soil water fertilizer, it is difficult to stick the stuff on the hill.
5. Trees don't like the hill.
6. The top of the hill is always dry and infertile.

What I do now - I haven't decided yet - either I go for the very normal sheetmulch beds or I do a different kind of huegel, that is get a machine
dig trenches but refill the whole site that it is more or less level.
Both has it's disadvantages, the sheetmulch that it is difficult to get so much material and you will still have the problem of drying out, but less so.
The trenches, well you need a machine and I don't really like having machines in the garden.
Everybody here seems to do huegelbeds.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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I guess all I can say is if you do hugelkulture "wrong" it will not work, if you do it properly it will. I think in your extreme biome you are going to find any system a challenge, be it hugelkulture or something else.
 
Su Ba
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Angelina, I can understand you having problems. A piece of land that I use for seed production has poor conditions too. Quite dry. Very exposed to daily tradewinds. No soil, just lava chunks. An above ground level, traditional hugel bed wouldn't work there either. It would dry out due to the winds and the constant sun would sterilize the soil.

But i have built a modified bed that is currently growing sweet potatoes. I laid down several layers of cardboard atop the lava,well wetting each layer before applying the next. I then applied 6-10 inches grass clippings and coarse chopped weeds. Next I lightly threw around some shovelfuls of soil and compost, to inoculate the material. Next I layered stemmy, woody weeds, cut up brush, twigs, and small branches, laying them down and packing them to avoid air spaces. I made this layer about a foot thick. I watered it well, then spread shovelfuls of soil, compost, and some manure to inoculate the layer. Next I laid down whatever logs, tree branches, and rotted wood that I could find. This layer ended up about about two foot thick. I took manure and soil and filled in any holes and gaps as I went along. I watered it in, then topped it with another foot thick layer of small branches, twigs, coarse weeds. Again, shovelfuls of compost, soil, manure, and watered in well. Yes, it takes a lot if water! Now I started the cap layer. For months I gathered weeds, leaves, whatever. Waste fruit, organic waste of any kind. I'd throw these on top, always keeping in mind to add a shovel of soil or compost, add some water, and throw a tarp over it to keep the sun off. Keeping the sun off I found was important. The tarp conserved moisture, blocked the wind, and kept the sun from killing the micro organisms. When I was able to hand dig down 6-8 inches into this cap layer, I pulled off the tarp and planted sweet potatoes. To prevent the sun from hitting the soil, I applied 2-3 inches of mulch using whatever I had, grass, weeds, leaves, and in some places, newspaper. This bed right now is a bit more than 3 foot high. After the sweet potatoes are harvested, I plan to add more material to the top layer then plant sweet potatoes again.

The wind and sun are brutal on this piece of land. I quickly discovered that the windward side of this hugel needed better protection, so I put a single layer of cardboard covered with several inches of coarse mulch. Since cardboard blocks rain, I watered the bed well first and keep a close eye on the moisture condition. The mulch atop the cardboard dries out acting as insulation while the cardboard blocks both sun and wind. This is only the first year for this hugel, so it will need more development as time goes by. But it has given me the foundations for a good sweet potato bed in an area that otherwise could grow no food crops.

Raised beds are totally the wrong answer for a dry windy area unless steps are taken to tackle those problems. I've made raised growing boxes at this location that must be lined in plastic (or some other impermeable material) and topped with deep mulch in order to avoid drying out. Traditional raised beds would be failures. This location would be ideal for trench hugel beds, but like you, I cannot dig a hole or trench without a backhoe and hammer.
 
Josef Theisen
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Location: SE Wisconsin, USA zone 5b
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Su, that is really interesting and something I have not heard of before, sounds like a hugelbed on top of sheetmulch. A lot of work, but also a great solution for such tough conditions.

Angelika, I am sorry to hear that your mounds did not work out. That is a large investment of labor to not get much out of it. A good lesson in keeping new techniques small until tested. I am guessing that having a barrier of stone and concrete seperating your garden form the earth would block a lot of traffic both ways. Water will have a difficult time wicking up, worms and such will have a tougher time moving around. Roots will have a difficult time going down. And so much more.

I think I would focus on bringing in organic matter and building up, rather than digging down. I would also plant a lot of deep taprooted "soil busters" such as daikon radish that are able to make a path down and then rot, leaving pathways of organic material that allow things like moisture, bacteria, insects, and fungus to migrate where they need to.

Also perhaps some swales or other water management features could help quite a bit with collecting and storing water where you need it.
 
Amanda Wheaton
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Walter Jeffries
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Location: Mountains of Vermont, USDA Zone 3
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Angelika Maier wrote:the topsoil is no more than 5 cm


You're lucky to have such deep soils. We live on thin, poor, acidic mountain ledge. I've been terracing it since the 1980's which has worked well here. I got my inspiration from the Central American and Asian terraces I had seen in photos. We have steep land but this gives us some flat areas.

Angelika Maier wrote:What I did is doing a huegelkulture without digging a ditch (simply because it is next to impossible without a machine).


Machines are nice but I have another trick. I double fence along the contours and then graze livestock. The sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese and weather push the soil downhill to the fence line. There it accumulates between the double fences where I plant trees and such. This gives slow terracing but more than I can do by hand or afford by machine.
 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 709
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Our terrain is level, I doubt even pigs could plough this land and butchering a pig is difficult.

We did one huegelculture project which worked quite well but I don't recommend it because it was an insane amount of work.
It produces all our vegetables, but I want to expand a bit more into the staples.
We got a machine in and excavated the whole site around 75 cm. In came all the prunings were the beds would be, but I cut them into short pieces.Backfilled
the soil were the beds are we even removed the stones and we brought lawn clippings in, cow manure and mushroom compost. It is a great bed now approx.
9x9 meters fully enclosed with chicken wire. The beds are level as usual and you don't see anything like a huegelbed.
In the area were the land slopes a bit I want to terrace a bit, simply laying stronger wood at the outer sides of the terrace and filling the whole stuff slowly.
Su what you did is actually a raised bed, but a slower one and you composted the bed a fair bit before planting. Or a huegelbed, but you did not put the timber on the bottom. What I find so great about the huegelbed method is that prunings is the only organic matter that you can get as much as you want, phone 3 gardeners and they chuck you as much at the front door that you cannot manage that anymore. We pay for woodchips. I got grass clippings before, but now the mowing companies round here have mower mulchers.
Su if you have dry winds you need urgently a windbreak and a lot of trees. I don't know your climate but clumping bamboos make good windbreaks.
But bear in mind if it's close to the house pine and anything with a smell burns awfully good.
 
Su Ba
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Angelika, we think along the same lines about windbreaks! I planted a quick growing, drought resistant shrubby "trees" around the perimeter to help break the wind. I've also planted rows of sugar cane as windbreaks. These things help for sure! I've also planted some citrus trees and mangos but it will be years before they help.

The reason I did not lay logs directly atop the lava is that I wanted organic material between the lava and logs that eventually would breakdown and fill in any gaps. My attempt is to prevent air pockets, which would add a drying effect to the bed. Within a year the organic material should be degraded enough that the logs will have settled to ground level. Though I have no proof, I suspect that air pockets in the hugel could be causing problems for some people.

My first attempt at a hugel type bed was disassembled in order to put in a circular driveway. As the excavator tore the pile apart, I saw numerous gaps around the logs. Organic material had decomposed, making big air pockets. So now I take care to avoid them.
 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 709
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Forgot to look that you are in Hawaii, awesome climate, we lived in Brisbane and had mangoes too. In this climate you could use canna edulis or QLD arrowroot as a temporary windbreak. I don't really know how drought resistant it is though but it grows about 3 meters in a matter of 3 months.
I used to grow it to produce organic matter, not to eat the roots they tasted terrible, but it might have been the way I tried to prepare them.
Lemongrass would work too.
I tried the clumping bamboo here - the fastest growing plant of the world. Looks nice so far but in our climate it is not even two meters high after two years..
we grow apples and pears here.
 
Dusko Bojic
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Location: Sweden
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I just bought a small farm and am thinking about what to do in my garden. Since I too have strong winds im leaning towards wood chip gardening aka Back To Eden gardening. No-dig permanent beds. Wind cant blow away wood chips.

I do have one small field surrounded by trees there I might start one hugelkultur bed.
 
dj niels
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Location: CO; semi-arid: 10-12"; 6000 ft
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As in all things Permaculture, much depends on climate, soil conditions, and other factors; each garden, and each gardener, has different challenges and limitations.

Here in my high desert location in Colorado, I have been trying lots of different methods I've learned about in books or youtube, or here at permies, etc.

I too have a very harsh climate: short growing season (about 3 months), hot summer days with cool nights, long frigid winters that can be -20 F. or below, warm spells in late winter followed by more cold, so blossoms freeze, harsh winds over the surrounding desert, very dry air that sucks moisture out of the ground almost as soon as any rain falls, snow that evaporates rather than melting into the ground, etc.

I have a 2 acre plot with very sandy soil--actually has no top soil at all, when I dig a hole it is the same pale brown sand all the way down. But the sand actually compacts below the surface, so when we dug out several sunken woody beds, we actually had to use a pick to break up the soil. Then we discovered by accident that if we dig right after a rain, the compaction disappears, so now if we want to dig, we run a sprinkler for awhile first.

Anyway, what I have done here, is to dig out sunken beds--actually removing the sand, about 2 feet deep, in wide beds, and lining the bottom with cardboard to slow down water loss, then filling the bed with woody debris, branches broken in storms, old rotten firewood and lumber, etc, with leaves, straw, hay, compost, or whatever other organic matter I can collect, as a top layer. The beds are working, but I have to keep adding organic matter on top, because a lot of my mulch and compost etc disappears into the sticks below, or just blows away.

Last year we were able to bring in several loads of woodchips in my small pickup, which we spread on paths around my garden, which help immensely to keep sand from blowing into the beds.

I did plant a windbreak, putting in gogi berries along the west side of the property 2 years ago, and more conservation shrubs last year; the little shrubs have survived, and are now 2-4 feet tall, and starting to fill in. I collected rocks to mulch around the bushes, and laid down woodchips around that, to help keep the shrubs from drying out so fast, and they seem to be thriving. I even got to pick a handful of berries this year. But everything grows very slowly in this climate.

I also have built a couple of low hugelbeds: branches on the ground, on contour lines, with smaller brush I break up into pieces that are 6" to 2' long, on top, to make piles about 2 feet high and 3 to 6 feet wide. I cover that with clay soil, compost, hay, and other organic matter, until I have it thick enough to make a planting bed. A lot of the material falls or washes into the spaces between the sticks, but I managed to get enough to stick that I was able to grow a nice cover crop of buckwheat and white clover this summer, and my beds were covered with volunteer wild sunflowers, and volunteer wild amaranth. Now, with the recent frosts, all those plants are gone, and I have been adding compost and manure and wood chips, to continue building up the soil on the beds.

I do have to water all these beds (including a wood-chip covered Back 2 Eden bed I put in last year), but not as often as those who do "regular, flat-land" gardens, which is sometimes 2 or 3 times a day in this dry climate and harsh, high-elevation sun. Most of the time, I only need to water my beds and hedgerows, etc, once or twice a week, with the deep mulches I have been using.

This fall I added a new B2E bed, with a deep sheet mulch over newspaper, covered with a layer of woodchips, and also a "ruth stout"type, deep hay mulch garden over the residues from a small corn patch, to see how they will do next summer, and am also extending my windbreak hedge. So I keep adding and trying new ideas, to see what will work in this high desert garden.



 
Peter Ingot
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I have been doing hugelkultur for a few years. It has worked pretty well for me, but from a practical point of view I think it is better suited to establishing trees and other perennials than annual gardens. The reason is that if perennial weeds invade a hugel bed, eradicating them can be pretty difficult, short of covering the whole bed in black plastic. Bindweed loves my hugelkultur beds. This is the kind of thing you only notice after a few years
 
Tyler Ludens
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I deconstructed a failed hugel over the past couple of days. We've been though a little dry spell, and only the wood below grade was moist; the rest of the pile was quite dry, though rotten.

 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/cards
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