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Hugel Questions

 
Brandon Greer
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Location: 1 Hour Northeast Of Dallas
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I'm pretty much set on putting in some hugelbeds, but I'm still working out the details. After doing some research it makes sense to me to put the hugel beds on contour. But would it also make sense to put a small swale on the uphill side of the mound? My main concern with swales on my land is the fact that my soil is terrible at absorbing water. The water just sits there for several days at a time so I'm not sure if it would be a good idea for me. But perhaps the soil will be improved on the swale over time and uptake water better?

I'm also interested in creating a lasagna style bed on top of the mound. After setting up lasagna style corn mounds, I compare that to my potato patch and have determined that the lasagna method is much more suitable for me. Are there any considerations for lasagna gardening on top of a hugel bed?

Another question I have is depth. Obviously the deeper the mound, the more wood is needed. I read that 3 ft to 4 ft high is optimal. I do intend to put in several hundred linear feet of beds and I'm sure I can get a decent amount of suitable wood, but not sure I can get THAT much. What is the long-term benefit of having deep beds?

This will be a permanent fixture for my land and will require considerable man hours, so I want to get it right! Any feedback is greatly appreciated!
 
John Elliott
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Brandon Greer wrote: What is the long-term benefit of having deep beds?


The more wood you put in now, the longer the eventual fertility of the bed. However, since you say these are going to be permanent fixtures, you will be adding more material to the mounds. It doesn't sound like you intend to plant trees and forget about it. As the wood in the mounds decays and the rain beats down on it, it does shrink. So you will be adding stuff to it over the years. In the summer it may be grass clippings, in the fall it may be leaves, at other times you may score a load of manure or compost and add that on. As you can see, keeping the height built up is almost going to require you to treat it like a lasagna garden by adding more layers.

If you have a swale of other catchment on the upside of the hugelbed, that is all the better. I think you will find that the water will drain faster (all that sponge underground to soak it up), and yet the water will still be there for the plants when they need it.
 
Brandon Greer
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Location: 1 Hour Northeast Of Dallas
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I do intend to have some hugels filled with fruit and nut trees in my plan. But right now the majority of my plans center around annuals (corn, potatoes, etc.) because that's what I eat in my everyday life and I want to grow things that I'm used to eating now. I do really like the lasagna bed concept which is why I want to integrate it in my plans. The main thing for me is that it is as closed looped as possible and I think I can generate the materials to add to my beds on my land. The hugel beds will be used primarily for necessity. We get good rainfall but not evenly throughout the year. So I want to capture the rain when it's there and store it for use in the dry seasons, which I hope the hugel beds will do for me.

But your reply does bring a question to mind that I hadn't considered before: Are hugels suitable for annual type crops or are they better used for trees and other perennials?
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Brandon Greer wrote: it makes sense to me to put the hugel beds on contour.

would it make sense to put a swale uphill of the mound? My main concern with swales on my land is the fact that my soil is terrible at absorbing water. But perhaps the soil will be improved on the swale over time and uptake water better?

I'm also interested in creating a lasagna style bed on top of the mound. . Are there any considerations for lasagna gardening on top of a hugel bed?

Another question I have is depth. What is the long-term benefit of having deep beds?


It may make sense to put your beds on contour (if your land is on the flattish side), but many recommend against it, including sepp holzer, particularly on a slope. The reason is that in a major rain event a lot of water can build up behind the hugul which in this instance is serving as a dam. This hugul dam however is not built as a dam-with a core keyed into the ground and packed in incremental layers for stability; it is a jumble of materials that is full of air pockets, and is not terribly stable to the task of holding back water.

Swales are going to be a big help to you. The loosening of the soil in the trenches and mound create water absorbing systems that will aid your land's ability to infiltrate water. All the land down slope will benefit from the swale, because the groundwater will be charged. Planting your swales with tap rooted plants like comfrey or chicory will help with the infiltration process and provide chop and drop mulch for your swales or huguls.

In addition to having your fertility lasting longer, as John mentioned, deep beds will also hold more water. The more wood you have, the more long term sponge effect you create. Since you live in an area that can be quite dry, If you have access to water while building the mounds, I would recommend that you ensure these things:
1.)the ground is saturated before you build your mound.
2.)build the bed with woody material packed tighter than what you see in most hugul photos(this eliminates air pockets and keeps the wood wetter).
3.)get some fungal inoculants and add these to your woody matter (the fungi help break down the wood, hold water, and trap nutrients).
4.)layer and pack in soil amongst your woody material (this holds the moisture against your wood so it rots, and eliminates air pockets).
5.)saturate the soil and logs in the mound as you build it (ensures that there is no drying inside the mound).
6.)add your soil layers on the top as you want without saturation (this will ensure that you have aerobic activity and normal plant conditions).
7.)Water the bed when it's complete, and keep the soil at optimum dampness for your plants for the first year (this is generally recommended and is especially important in a dry hot climate to ensure the breakdown of the material).

Most tall huguls are not gardened on top of, but on their sides. If you can reach the top of your mounds comfortably then go for it. It's always a good idea to mulch on the huguls, especially in a dry area. There is no reason why you shouldn't lasagna garden on the huguls in whatever way you think will be helpful.

In a dry climate with periodic rains, it may be in your interest to consider (particularly if there is a machine available) putting some of your hugul material below grade. This will allow your beds to be lower, it will help water infiltrate, it will give you more material for your beds, it will keep the moisture in your beds longer.


I would recommend you search out Emilia Hazelip's methods featured on this site. Her video is available on youtube.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Brandon Greer wrote:I do intend to have some hugels filled with fruit and nut trees in my plan. But right now the majority of my plans center around annuals

But your reply does bring a question to mind that I hadn't considered before: Are hugels suitable for annual type crops or are they better used for trees and other perennials?


Planting huguls with trees is not really recommended as the mounds are not stable, and they shrink over time. If you want to plant trees plant them on the side, at the base or on the ground level downslope from the mound. They will benefit from the mound's moisture and probably put roots over to it, but will not topple over as they eat the ground from under themselves.

The mound itself is a perennial system, but it lends itself well to annuals. The issue is that with steep sides, mulching is essential. The more plant cover (perennial or otherwise) that is on the mound, the less erosion potential. Perennials add to the stability of the mound, produce more stable ecological systems, but also tend to be a bit more fungal in their soil profile rather than the bacterial needs of many annuals. But don't let that concern you too much. Plant them with everything. The more you polyculture your plants the better your soil communities will be.
 
Spencer Davis
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I planted my trees at the base of my Hugel/swale on the downhill side. They are dwarf fruit trees that I intend to keep below 8' tall. The only downside might be that they will shade the mound some but hopefully not too much since they will be small. I have a YouTube link to my video below in my post "finally my first Hugel/swale is built". I also plan on putting both annuals and perennials in the bed.
 
John Thames
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Location: Montana
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I've built about 1300' of recessed hugel beds to be a food forest and break wind. My wife would have nothing of the true 5-6' high beds so I dug about 3' down and then filled in the beds and covered with additional dirt. I'm planting about 450 bare root trees into the downhill sides (not up on top) of the beds this weekend. My question is I've had (non-permies) folks (mainly my wife's grandfather who is a traditional hay farmer) who have been watching what I've been doing and mentioned that as it rains the mound will "settle" uncovering the roots of my young and vulnerable tress. I know that the bed is supposed to shrink over time as the wood decays but has anyone experienced having the dirt settle such that the roots become exposed putting the trees at risk? I think I would have heard about this on the forums or in one of Paul's podcasts before had this been an issue, but I just wanted to make sure I hadn't missed a step or something. I should also mention that I'll also be mulching with wood chips and straw on the hugel beds with drip irrigation for the first year to get them established and that I live in Helena, MT which gets only about 13" of rain per annum so I'm not expecting torrential down pours either.
 
Brandon Greer
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:
Brandon Greer wrote:I do intend to have some hugels filled with fruit and nut trees in my plan. But right now the majority of my plans center around annuals

But your reply does bring a question to mind that I hadn't considered before: Are hugels suitable for annual type crops or are they better used for trees and other perennials?


Planting huguls with trees is not really recommended as the mounds are not stable, and they shrink over time. If you want to plant trees plant them on the side, at the base or on the ground level downslope from the mound. They will benefit from the mound's moisture and probably put roots over to it, but will not topple over as they eat the ground from under themselves.

The mound itself is a perennial system, but it lends itself well to annuals. The issue is that with steep sides, mulching is essential. The more plant cover (perennial or otherwise) that is on the mound, the less erosion potential. Perennials add to the stability of the mound, produce more stable ecological systems, but also tend to be a bit more fungal in their soil profile rather than the bacterial needs of many annuals. But don't let that concern you too much. Plant them with everything. The more you polyculture your plants the better your soil communities will be.


Thanks for all the helpful info. What do you mean putting the hugel below grade? Do you mean all the woody fill is below grade? I thought that this is how it always is done. I thought that you remove let's say 3 ft of soil fill the hole with wood material then everything above grade is the backfill dirt. Do I understand correctly?
 
Roberto pokachinni
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From what I understand, a hugulkultur bed does not have to be below grade at all. Putting it below grade aids in water penetration and gives you more material to cover the wood. Putting it all below grade gives you a small raised bed of soil above grade. Some folks like this because it is less obtrusive, and if they chose, they can till it and treat it like a conventional raised bed, just with more water retention because of the wood underneath. If you look into sourcing out some hugulkultur photos then you will see that that a lot of the wood in most of them is above grade. The soil covering it then has to come from somewhere else because there is not enough to cover the increased surface area of a tall mound to the depth required, unless you bare a lot of earth around the bed (which is what many do). I think that sepp holzer's hugul beds have the majority of the woody material above grade.
 
Brandon Greer
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I just assumed that all hugels had the wood below grade. Anyway, I prefer to have my wood below grade at least so I don't have to bring in dirt to cover the mounds.

If all the wood is below grade, will building the hugel on contour be less of a problem? It was mentioned above that hugel mounds aren't good dams because of the loose material, but if only the dirt is acting as a dam instead of the loose wood material, will it be more stable?
 
Peter Ellis
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Brandon, a couple of thoughts. One, by not putting wood above grade, you will miss out on some of the benefits of hugelkultur. For example, if you still build a peaked bed, then most of your bed is far removed from the buried wood, and won't benefit nearly as much from the water retention. For another, if you do not build a peaked bed, then you miss out on the benefits of having the sloped beds - things like higher insolation and microclimate effects.

On the dam question, a loose dirt dam is not a dam, it is a slide waiting to happen. It is not just the inclusion of wood that makes the tall hugelbeets poor dams. It is that they are not built to be dams.

Put them a little bit off contour, but plan for where the water from behind them will go, and avoid having them act like bad dams, holding enough water to make them fail.

I am just planting hugelbeet so this year, and they are tiny little things, so 99 percent of what I say is based on reading other people's experience. I can tell you that if you just bury some wood under an otherwise conventional garden bed, it can have good effects. That was one of my first efforts last year, and the melon patch that grew on that bed was really gratifying. I have sand, not soil, terrible stuff that holds nothing and has no nutrient, so when I get vines spreading out across a twenty foot wide area, I can be pretty sure something worked!
 
Michael Vormwald
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First let me express that I'm not a hugelkultur expert and my only experience thus far is the mini-hugel I documented here. However I have studied and given some thought to it. I think the best hugel involves some slight excavation yielding soil for the cover (unless you plan to import all your soil, stripping it from some other area). I think a foot to 18" or so is sufficient. The overall height can be variable, bearing in mind that to some degree the height will dictate the base since you're shooting for an approximate 45 degree angle.
I'm thinking that for an approx. 4 foot height, you need at least a 6 foot (or more) base. The base could spill outside the trench as the heap is built.
Actually a mound with a gradual slope can be better as it will see less erosion following the initial build. It should also be considered that as the wood decays, it will settle in varying degrees. for this reason I would not plant trees on the mound but rather in front or behind it. As for annuals or perennials, both work fine, just be sure to plant into the soil beneath any mulch. Some seem to feel that the hugelkultur effectiveness is determinate relative to the nutrients the wood brings to the party. I think this is a misnomer. The wood serves more as a sponge for both water and nutrients and as such can last forever...so long as there are inputs from above. By this I mean that if you will grow food and remove nutrients, they must be replenished (lest we commit the same 'crime' as conventional farming). This can be done by compost, mulch, and/or organic fertilizers and rock dust.
I think your idea of adding organic matter on top of the wood (e.g. lasagna) is fine. I think adding wood chips within and over the wood has merit as it provides an even more solid wood base that will decompose to create the desired sponge effect. Above this could be compost, manures, grass clippings, leaves, etc. Use caution when importing materials though as I have concern these days regarding persistent herbicides. (Personally, I have decided not to use external materials as it's just not worth the risk).
Living in the north, I would run the bed east/west. A contour is optional, perhaps a slight 'C' with the cup facing north. Trenching (swale) on the up hill side is optional I think as the bed itself creates a bit of a dam. I think I would hold off as this could be dug later and could complicate planting and harvesting the bed.
Finally, be sure to plant immediately after constructing the bed and providing a cover of some mulch to prevent erosion until plants are established. Keep the bed watered to ensure seed germination. I would consider a low growing (nitrogen fixing) ground cover like white clover initially and planting through it.
Good luck!... and keep posting here with photos.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Brandon,

About the swale acting as a dam and being unstable, this would partly depend on how tall your beds are. I think that if you are basically building a raised bed, with wood below it, and having the bed sort of act like a swale, then I would definitely either:
1.) make some gaps in shorter beds with dead level sills between them to avoid too much water dammed or build up behind your bed.
2.) make a swale trench on the uphill side, and make the same type of gaps.

You could stagger the gaps for the next downhill hugulbed row so that they catch the run-off that comes over the sill above.

Many people do not like the idea of the "hugul-swale", and think that the two ideas are not really compatible. I disagree, but only if there is inclusion of ways to deal with excess water.


 
Brandon Greer
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Thanks everyone for the detailed replies. So since all of the woody material is above ground, then I am guessing that hugels work best on fairly flat ground. I can't image a woody mound being very stable on a slope. Is this correct?

If I decided to build mini hugels (which would be due to limited materials), will this reduce the water retention properties? Just based on the amount of woody debris I've seen lying around in my forest, I'm thinking maybe a 3 foot high mound would be suitable for me.

As for orientation of the beds, they can be in straight lines placed wherever is convenient correct? I had just began to wrap my head around the whole contour idea so now I'm having to reevaluate everything. Is there anything that should be considered to maximize the amount of water that enters the beds?
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Brandon Greer wrote: So since all of the woody material is above ground, then I am guessing that hugels work best on fairly flat ground. I can't image a woody mound being very stable on a slope. Is this correct?


All of the woody material doesn't have to be above the ground. I believe what I had said is that it doesn't have to be below grade. It can be below grade, partially or fully, but the essence of it is that it is buried wood. If you are digging down you can fill with wood. Hugels work on fairly steep ground, but they have to be designed such that you are basically making a terrace and putting wood on it and mounding the terrace excavation material on it, or digging a terrace and digging a trench, filling it with wood with a mound over the wood filled trench. Many people build hugulkulturs on slopes. The problems come when the huguls on slopes are also on contour and a large rain event causes excess water to build up on the uphill side of the bed causing a failure.

If I decided to build mini hugels (which would be due to limited materials), will this reduce the water retention properties?


Yes. The wood, as it rots, becomes a sponge. But do what you can with what you have, unless you have some other source of easy access wood nearby besides your place.

As for orientation of the beds, they can be in straight lines placed wherever is convenient correct? I had just began to wrap my head around the whole contour idea so now I'm having to reevaluate everything. Is there anything that should be considered to maximize the amount of water that enters the beds?


I'm assuming from what you said of puddling that you do not have an excess of steep slope. So the problem of excess water build up is probably a non-point in your case. You can catch water. Try doing it on a small scale with just some dirt and a garden hose and see what happens.

There is no set linear pattern for a hugul bed. It can be a bunch of piles of wood covered with dirt. They can be three feet high or ten feet high. They can be in squiggly lines or straight, or in a single curve or in a bunch of broken crescents. It really doesn't matter so long as you basically follow the cardinal rules of not catching too much water so that it doesn't create a failure on a slope, you don't catch frost, you don't have wood exposed to the surface, you plant it heavily right away, you use old dead wood that does not sprout up shoots of new growth, you don't use wood that retards growth (like cedar), you consider your the characteristics of your terrain and climate when you configure your beds.

Above all... use your imagination. Imagine what it will be doing sitting there. What will the rain do to it? What will the sun do to it? What will a really big rain do to it? You live in Texas, which is dry, but can have really big monsoon events. Make some catch water, but guide the excess away so that it doesn't get too much in the bed if it's on a slope. You can hack into it and make adjustments. Don't worry too much. Use your intuition. Ask the land to show you. You'll figure it out. Trust yourself.
 
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