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Hügelkultur wood height and soil / compost layer

 
Rob Irish
Posts: 223
Location: Estonia, Zone 5/6
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We are giving hügelkultur a go here in Estonia but have a few questions I haven't been able to find simple answers to, although I'm sure it is probably staring me in the face.

So far we have a pile of wood (spruce logs about 5 years old, and birch logs about the same age) about 4' high, 4' wide, 30' long. We're looking to go for the ideal height of 6'. Carrying all this by hand, my wife and I have found a replacement for our gym memberships for when we were previously living in the city. Neither of us thought it was as much work as it looks in the photos

We are building this on a fairly wet site where water pools in rainy periods. The location is a field which was the dumping area of all the clay and soot which was dug up when the previous owner about 10 years ago decided to build a couple of massive ponds. All this clay was dumped on this area of about 2 acres, and then for whatever reason, smoothed out. We figure the hugel will help with adding soil to this field and absorb this excess water, as well as adding some interesting landscape.

What we're unsure about is how much wood, and how much soil to then add on top. e.g. 5' of logs, and 1' of soil? Or is it 4' of logs, 1' of soil, and 1' of sticks and leaf?

In an article I read written by I think Paul Wheaton he says for waterless growing, aim for 6' high hugels. Is that for a specific climate with not too much rainfall, or for a hotter climate, or for all climates?

Finally, sepp holzer says to plant something straight away as soon as the soil is added to take advantage of the looseness of the soil. We are at least a month or two away from planting time here. Should we just let our pile of logs sit there with the mulch layer on top for a couple months, or add the dirt just before planting time? On one hand I imagine the soil on top now might give the chance for the wood and soil to start to form their symbiosis.

Thank you for taking the time to think about this and add any pointers.

Rob
 
John Elliott
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The height of the wood, and from there the height of the whole assembly, is really dictated by how much water you need to store. In your soggy climate, water is not really a problem. When 20% of the country is bogs, you know that the water table is not far below your feet. For you, the main benefit of the hugelkultur is not the water storage aspect, but the nutrients from the rotting vegetation. The more wood you have buried, the longer that mound will remain fertile.

How much soil to top it off with depends on what you intend to grow. To get nice root vegetables, you want a light soil tilth, and you don't want to have them bumping into a spruce log that hasn't decomposed yet or trying to push into clay strata. With a foot of soil, you should be able to grow nice carrots, beets and turnips. With leafy green vegetables, they can make do with less soil and their roots can find the crevices in the wood, so you can probably get away with 4" of soil.

Yes, Sepp says to plant it right away, but as you well note, it's the middle of winter right now and nothing is going to grow anyway. The worst that can happen with nothing planted is that your hard work piling soil on top will get washed away in a heavy rain. However, if you top it with an inch of leaf litter or mulch, it should be protected from that possibility.
 
Dale Hodgins
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You'll probably find that many warm weather plants will do well in the hotter and drier soil of the mounds. The wet clay beneath will be too cold at a point in spring when the upper mound is sufficiently warm. Hugelkultur can offer protection from both soggy cold and hot dry. We don't usually think of it keeping roots adequately dry, since for many, water shortage is the problem. In your case, I'll bet that the ability to get early starts off the cold wet clay will be the single greatest benefit in using this technique.
 
A.J. Gentry
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Rob,

Hello from the state of Ohio. I have been gathering info on hugels too, for a zone 5/6. The article is extremely helpful showcasing the various types. But I still struggle with getting the sides as steep as Sepp recommends. It is most certainly a workout. I am particularly interested in the hugel bed's ability to hold water and the low maintenance that goes with them.

I've been making my way through Paul's podcasts and I took a lot of great notes from podcasts #172 Hugelkultur and Reading the Land. If you get a chance check it out and let me know if it helps at all.

Good luck.
A.J.
 
James Colbert
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In Sepps book he describes a typical hugelkulture as being build by first digging a trench about 1m wide and 30cm deep, then back fill with wood until 1m high and then add the soil back on top until you reach a height of about 1.5m or 4 1/2 feet . If you do not have enough soil to cover the bed he recommends digging trenches on either side of the bed to acquire more soil and to retain additional moisture. Of course there are variations on these rules but that is the basic way he recommends creating a hugelkulture. Also any hugelkulture of significant height should probably be built with machinery otherwise I keep hand built beds to 1 m and under. I have built my fair share of 5+ foot beds by hand and I don't think it is worth the effort. With machines that is another story.
 
Rob Irish
Posts: 223
Location: Estonia, Zone 5/6
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John Elliot wrote:
The height of the wood, and from there the height of the whole assembly, is really dictated by how much water you need to store. In your soggy climate, water is not really a problem. When 20% of the country is bogs, you know that the water table is not far below your feet. For you, the main benefit of the hugelkultur is not the water storage aspect, but the nutrients from the rotting vegetation. The more wood you have buried, the longer that mound will remain fertile.

How much soil to top it off with depends on what you intend to grow. To get nice root vegetables, you want a light soil tilth, and you don't want to have them bumping into a spruce log that hasn't decomposed yet or trying to push into clay strata. With a foot of soil, you should be able to grow nice carrots, beets and turnips. With leafy green vegetables, they can make do with less soil and their roots can find the crevices in the wood, so you can probably get away with 4" of soil.


Thank you for clarifying this. In a wet and cold climate like ours, the benefit isn't so much the water retention as it is the nutrients the hugel provides.

With the spruce we put it on the bottom of the pile with the birch wood on top. Hopefully this avoids the problems with using spruce.


Dale Hodgins wrote:
You'll probably find that many warm weather plants will do well in the hotter and drier soil of the mounds. The wet clay beneath will be too cold at a point in spring when the upper mound is sufficiently warm. Hugelkultur can offer protection from both soggy cold and hot dry. We don't usually think of it keeping roots adequately dry, since for many, water shortage is the problem. In your case, I'll bet that the ability to get early starts off the cold wet clay will be the single greatest benefit in using this technique.


This is the other main reason we want to try hugel. To hopefully get a longer growing season, and the ability to grow things that might like a warmer climate.

What I am also wondering is, a bigger pile of wood equals more water retention, but does it also equal more warmth? e.g. Does a 3' hugel produce less warmth than a 5' mound? We are going to start our next hugel pile now that might be half the size of our current one so that we can compare this.

A.J. Gentry wrote:
Rob,

Hello from the state of Ohio. I have been gathering info on hugels too, for a zone 5/6. The article is extremely helpful showcasing the various types. But I still struggle with getting the sides as steep as Sepp recommends. It is most certainly a workout. I am particularly interested in the hugel bed's ability to hold water and the low maintenance that goes with them.

I've been making my way through Paul's podcasts and I took a lot of great notes from podcasts #172 Hugelkultur and Reading the Land. If you get a chance check it out and let me know if it helps at all.

Good luck.
A.J.

Hi all the way to Ohio A.J. Thanks for this - I listened to the podcast, and gained some ideas about growing dryer liking plants at the top and more water loving plants down below. Very helpful.

James Colbert wrote:In Sepps book he describes a typical hugelkulture as being build by first digging a trench about 1m wide and 30cm deep, then back fill with wood until 1m high and then add the soil back on top until you reach a height of about 1.5m or 4 1/2 feet . If you do not have enough soil to cover the bed he recommends digging trenches on either side of the bed to acquire more soil and to retain additional moisture. Of course there are variations on these rules but that is the basic way he recommends creating a hugelkulture. Also any hugelkulture of significant height should probably be built with machinery otherwise I keep hand built beds to 1 m and under. I have built my fair share of 5+ foot beds by hand and I don't think it is worth the effort. With machines that is another story.


Thank you for this. I am wishing we did have a machine for the digging right about now. Perhaps one gains proper appreciation of using the machines after doing it the good old fashioned way first!
 
Jen Shrock
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Posts: 363
Location: NW Pennsylvania Zone 5B bordering on Zone 6
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When I attended a sepp holzer seminar in the spring of last year, Zach, from the HolzerAgroecology group told me that one way of determining the dimensions of a hugel bed that will work for you is determined by standing straight up, put your arm out to the side and connect the tip of your fingers to your foot. That will give you a basic height and angle that will make it comfortable for you to work/harvest on the hugel bed.
 
Rob Irish
Posts: 223
Location: Estonia, Zone 5/6
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Jen Shrock wrote:When I attended a Sepp Holzer seminar in the spring of last year, Zach, from the HolzerAgroecology group told me that one way of determining the dimensions of a hugel bed that will work for you is determined by standing straight up, put your arm out to the side and connect the tip of your fingers to your foot. That will give you a basic height and angle that will make it comfortable for you to work/harvest on the hugel bed.


That makes sense. It would seem at an angle less than that would mean more strange bending over to try and get to the stuff nearer the top. Thanks!
 
Karen Fettig
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I am making hugel beds here in Wyoming. We are zone 3-4. It got to -38 here this winter a few mornings. On what side would you plant zone 5 fruit trees by the hugelkultur bed? It is on contour so runs east to west then wraps around to the south then back to the east..or will be that way when we get it done Why I ask is: will the warmth of the south or east protected side, encourage the tree to break dormancy early and then get frosted? Or will the decomposition of the wood help that?

New to permaculture and all of this stuff but wow it rocks!

I will be doing a hands on class the end of April on it to introduce others to it.
Thanks everyone!
 
Mike Jasper
Posts: 4
Location: Central Indiana
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I am a Newby here. So I will apologize in advance for asking things that have probably been answered were I to have dug deeper before posting.

As I look at Hugelkultur I am going to try it in my back yard. While I will have trimmings from trees and could get larger logs from my property in Eastern Indiana I am also thinking I would use a more plentiful urban resource (card board). I also plan to pile in leaves so I guess I may end up with something more like a lasagna compost bed but I aspire to getting something that will soak up the spring plenty of water that comes to this creekside location and hold it through the gradual drying out of summer. I also want to figure out ways to not bend over and to share less of the "crop" with the bunnies or whatever seems to be sharing the harvest without sharing the work.

With the larger amount of non wood material should I expect the hump to "deflate" as rotting takes place and if so, was thinking I could just pile more on over time. Since I currently have a willow problem on the dam of the pond in Milton I am thinking I need to see it as a waddle shortage at home and there if I can get beds started and make fencing to hold them together at the base.

I also want to apply it out on part of property in Eastern Indiana someday.

Thanks for input. Being hard headed I will probably try it my way no matter what is said, but there is always a first time for me to actually listen to the answers I get. I figure if I am not dead yet there is still hope.

Mike
 
Miles Flansburg
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Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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Howdy Karen, welcome to permies!

What part of Wyoming are you in? I have a place over by Saratoga.

How big/tall will the hugels be? Taller beds can act as windbreaks, if rocks are added heatsinks, and water retention beds.

South facing , out of the wind would be best. Not sure if they would break dormancy earlier or not. Do you have access to fruit with lower zone numbers?

So you will be having folks over to see what you have done and teach them about it?

What other sorts of things are you doing?
 
Miles Flansburg
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Posts: 3669
Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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bee books forest garden fungi greening the desert hugelkultur
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Welcome to permies Mike!

Sounds like you are on the right track. Over time the bed should settle.
 
Karen Fettig
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Hi Mike. We are northern WY close to Worland. I do have access to some cold hardy but wanted to try and test my luck with peaches etc.. I do lots of things ..I guess.. we farm. I do massage, ozone therapy, garden, Medicinal plants of the Big Horn Basin field trips etc...Jill of all trades and master at some. It is really pretty down in your end of the state!
 
Karen Fettig
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Oh and thanks Mike I need to add some rocks good idea!
 
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