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Above ground vs below ground huglekulturs...

 
Nick Herzing
Posts: 13
Location: Battle Creek, MI
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I am fairly new to all of this permaculture stuff, but one thing that I have noticed is that huglekulturs are generally made above ground. I have seen it recommended to build them underground (i.e. dig a hole, fill with wood and dirt, then plant on top) if people have problems with the way the mounds look. However, generally speaking it seems that the above ground approach it considered better. I am wondering why this is. In theory, from the little that I know about huglekultur, it seems like there would be very little difference, but I have a feeling I am missing something. Any help?
 
Dan Boone
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Until somebody with practical experience comes along, maybe I can help a little based on my reading.

Aboveground versus buried (wholly or partly) can matter a lot. An aboveground bed intercepts more sunshine than a level/buried one, but it also dries out faster in sun and wind, plus moisture can drain out of it more easily. In wet climates, this can be a good thing; in dry ones, not so much. The conventional wisdom seems to be that if your climate is too hot, too dry, or too windy, you need to bury your beds.

How hot? How dry? How windy? For that, you'll need one of the experts to chime in.

Note this is not an either/or question, but a spectrum. You can dig a shallow hole and bury your woodpile part way, or you can dig a deeper one and bury it completely.
 
Julia Winter
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Another reason some prefer above ground hugelkultur berms is that they are adding texture to the land. This can be helpful in areas where wind is an issue. Also, some crops become easier to harvest when raised up from where the harvester is standing.

That's a couple more off the top of my head.
 
John Polk
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The traditional huglebed is mostly above ground.

sepp holzer, in his recipe for building one recommends digging a 1 metre (about 3 feet) deep trench to begin with. He also specifies that it should be tall enough that nobody can walk on it. These specs ensure that it wont get compacted, and there will be a substantial mass of large wood to decompose over many years, as well as a basin for water to collect.

In arid & semi arid regions, most people have found that, while the deep trench is best for acting as a catchment/storage area for the scarce water, the higher mounds are not as beneficial - they do tend to dry out quicker, and often in these climates, we don't need to worry about heating our beds.

While Sepp did not invent the huglemound, he is certainly the one who brought it to the attention of the rest of us. His system puts about one third of it below ground, and two thirds above ground. That seems to work well for him in his Alpine climate. Like everything in permaculture, there is no "one-size-fits-all". Everything must be designed for the climate and needs of the individual.

 
Nick Herzing
Posts: 13
Location: Battle Creek, MI
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Thanks for the help, that actually makes a lot of sense. As I start to learn more about permaculture I am starting to realize exactly what you have just said- every place is different.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Hi Nick:

Great question. Dan and John are correct about traditional hugelkultur not being great in really hot, arid places (like Phoenix, where I live) for all the points listed above. (Note I've done in-ground "hugel" style beds and they are fine)

However, in Battle Creek, a traditional above ground huglekultur would probably work out really well.

Dan Boone wrote:How hot? How dry? How windy?... Note this is not an either/or question, but a spectrum.


John Polk wrote:Like everything in permaculture, there is no "one-size-fits-all". Everything must be designed for the climate and needs of the individual.



Those two quotes really get at the essence of the situation! Thanks everyone.

Jen
 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 706
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Above ground did not work for me they dried out too fast. As a beginner I would try various methods and not only the huegelculture then you see what really works for you.
 
Lori Crouch
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Location: Amarillo, TX.
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I live in a very dry and windy area. I did an above ground huglekulture my first year here and it did very poorly. This will be the fourth season coming up and I am taking it out. The wind (even though it is protected on two sides by a corner fence) blows off any covering or moisture it receives. The plants struggle and usually end up dead or don't produce any fruit. I did 4 beds last year by burying the huglekulture and it worked very well. In fact, I still had cherry tomatoes going in one bed when I decided to end my season and stop watering. The tomatoes kept producing for a month and a half more with absolutely no rain and my squash leaves were larger than my head when before they were about the size of my hand.

For my area it comes down to one thing. Burying the bed and putting a high border around it keeps the wind off. This is the most important thing I can do. I depends on the area, so you can't say that one way is better than the other. One way just works better than the other given the environment. The best advice I can give from my experience is to try 3 or 4 different styles and see which works best for your given section of land and garden.
 
Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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I have been experimenting the last year with more "polished" hugel beds and have used both above ground and buried. In areas where I want to absorbs more water I add the underground trenches and may do two or three adjoining. This is smaller scale 1/4 acre Site.
We shall see how all this grows this year. It's already solving the wet site problem but I have much more water channeling to do.

Just joined, been lurking a while, love the website and of course you guys.
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John Polk
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Welcome to permies Chris.

That looks similar to what I was thinking for the south (down slope) side of the driveway on a site I am interested in.
Get the water off of the driveway, and into the soil where it will be useful. What better place to push the snow?
I don't want the water/melt-off charging the soil under the driveway, but charging the soils down slope into the vegetation.

Your system looks like it will encourage the feeder roots to spread to their future drip line - right where you want them to go.

 
Keith Smith
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I am trying a semi below and above ground huglekultur. I have a L3500 Kabota with a backhoe attachment. I dug out the top soil, which was about six inches or less and then dug a foot or more of pure red clay out of a space 5X12 feet. In this I placed branches, dry leaves, grass and lots of compost from a landscaper. The landscaper wanted to give me what he pulls out because I will use it. Otherwise he had to pay to get rid of it.
Win, win for both of us. So far over the past 6 to 8 months, I have a pile six feet high. I can't wait for spring to plant in the mound.
 
To Ma
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nice looking beds chris!
I've only had experience with in-ground huglekultur, hand dug in heavy clay!
In hindsight it would have been much better to just build them on top instead of digging them in as there was problems with drainage in
our wet winters.

It probably depends on the soil make-up.
 
Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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Thanks John and Ma. Sounds like the Waltons. Lol.

John, I have a similar problem on the drive side of the house. Just started building the swales and Hugelkultur mounds. By watching the water on this side over several storms, I realized this is just a sinkhole taking runoff from the house, the drive, and the adjacent property. Need to think about a solution here as there is no where to channel the water. My initial thoughts were that a substantial mound would absorb most of it, and now I think substantial will turn into huge... Sponge action.

Any suggestions on how to treat a low spot on property would be appreciated. I will upload a couple pics. Thanks.
 
John Polk
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Hmm. Excess water + low spot. Sounds like a good spot for a pond to me.

 
Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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Pics of drainage issue. Using both above and below ground hugel beds on a terrace to absorb as much water as possible. I think I have to go huge on this mound and swale. Huge is the first syllable of Hugelkultur so that makes sense.

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Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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Yeah John, this would be an ideal place for a pond, but the property line is just a couple feet off the ditch. Maybe a small linear pond as an edge. Thanks for pollinating my thoughts on this.
 
Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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Pond?

12 or more inches of standing water after heavy rain.
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mike mclellan
Posts: 93
Location: Helena, MT zone 4
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Grettings, Chris! I know I'm about dead opposite of what you have climatically but just in a general sense, are there some species of trees that could fit in this area, not disrupt your management on adjacent places, and not mind their roots in water for stretches of time? Willows? Bald cypress ( probably too large but just thinkin' out loud). If a pond isn't practical, there may be some species of plant that would fit the parameters of the site i.e. flooding. I offer this only as food for thought. I like the practical and aesthetic appearance of your hugelbeets around the trees. Good luck with your projects.
 
Julia Winter
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A waterlogged low spot is a great place for a rain garden. Basically, getting perennial plants with deep roots, that can tolerate being immersed after rain events will greatly increase the infiltration of that water.
 
Chris Smaglick
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Location: Amory, MS
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Mike and Julia, thanks for the verification of what I need to look at next. There are several water loving varieties that I look at for seasonal rains like this. I am pretty new here and picked up most knowledge so far from just watching. Don't have all the Permaculture books, but burned a lot of youtube hours learning. Next step plants. Thanks again.
 
Chris Smaglick
Posts: 26
Location: Amory, MS
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I looked up many water loving trees and perennials and passed that on to the client. Here's an updated photo on how the water is charging back from the ditch as I build deeper buried hugel beds. Now I just need to let it dry out a bit and dig the big swirly ditch. Secret to success, hd shovel head welded to 1-1/4" thick walled galvanized pipe. Cuts, shaves, and digs deep if you can take the weight.

Thanks for this Site. I continually find myself enthralled and learning so much from your experience and knowledge. One shovel at a time...
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James Colbert
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I have been thinking about this topic a lot as I live in a dry Mediterranean climate. There are so many benefits to an actual mound that I have thought hard on how to perserve this benefit while avoiding the negatives associated with a tall mound in a dry climate. What I have come up with is sunken hugelkulture mounds.

A trench dug 4.5 feet deep, 15 feet wide, and the length of the desired bed would accommodate one 4.5 foot tall bed with the ditch walls angled 45 to 70 degrees acting as additional vertical growing space. This way the edge and increased surface area are perserved but as the top of the mound is just at surface level you get far less drying. My only concern is flooding but perhaps a ditch leading to a pond will solve that problem.
 
Julie Ashmore
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Location: Near Molson, North Central WA State, Zone 5a
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This is a fascinating topic and a great example of how every situation calls for its own experimentation and observation, to determine what works best. I live in a semi-arid climate in the Okanogan, in North-Central WA State. Given how little rain we get, hugelkultur is a perfect fit for growing food here. My first year with hugelkultur, I had several above ground beds, with no trenching at all. Most of them did extremely well (see http://woodforfood.blogspot.com/2014/02/first-hugelkultur-bed-2012.html and http://woodforfood.blogspot.com/2014/02/above-ground-hugelkultur-cluster-2012.html). The few that produced less were only 1.5 feet tall and I think they mainly lacked mass; plus the manure I used in those small beds was too fresh and had adverse effects. Since my garden was not yet deer-fenced, I put fabric fences around individual beds to keep animals out, using linens/sheets from thrift stores and garage sales. In retrospect, looking through the above posts, I wonder if the fabric fences helped to keep moisture in by protecting against wind (which we get a lot of). The fabric walls may have helped foster a moister microclimate; either way, I didn't have an issue with the beds drying out. I also used drip irrigation since the hugelkultur wouldn't be optimally functioning in the first year, and I'm sure that was a good solution for keeping the beds moist.

Lori Evans, I am curious, did you irrigate your above-ground beds that did poorly? Were there other factors that may have caused problems (such as my manure issue), or were the plants obviously thirsty?

Back to my comparison: The following year, my husband and I began the process of digging out our entire garden area to an average depth of 5 feet, one section at a time, and building below-ground hugelkultur beds in each pit. See http://woodforfood.blogspot.com/2014/02/hugelkultur-goes-underground.html and other posts for details. So far I am very pleased with the results. In our climate, intuitively, it does make sense to have the beds at least partly underground to avoid moisture loss.

The main thing I miss having the underground beds is the ability to create microclimates based on how the above-ground beds were oriented and grouped. It only makes sense to grow lettuces on the north side of a tall, steep, above-ground hugel bed, and tomatoes and peppers on the south-facing side. The wind protection in between beds is also a major advantage to above-ground beds, especially where we live. I feel that the underground beds will continue to work great for my asparagus, blueberries, strawberries, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, garlic, onion, and other plants that don't have a strong preference for either cool or hot temperatures. However, for tomatoes, peppers, and salad greens, I plan to build some above-ground beds again to maximize the benefits of exposure.

All in all, just like anything in life, it seems there are pros and cons to the various techniques. Having worked with both, my conclusion so far is that it's good to avoid having "all your eggs in one basket," and be willing to try different approaches for different reasons. I'm still early in the process, but those are my thoughts at this point!

If you visit my blog, it would be great to hear your thoughts on what you see. Please feel free to leave comments -- it encourages me to keep the story going online, sharing ideas and experiences that may be helpful to others in their food-growing journey. There is also a place to enter your email if you wish to subscribe. Thanks!
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