Trying to plan out my orchard which will be located on the side of a hill. I planted a few trees previously without much planning or earthwork and they are just barely hanging on. I know the water table throughout my hillside farm is quite high - and I'm thinking now after some research that might be part of the reason for lackluster growth (although several wild apples seem to do fine). The previous owners left multiple brush piles throughout and I'm thinking that hugelculture beds / swales might be appropriate. Questions: With standard fruit trees how wide would the bed have to be? Can I plant the trees immediately after forming the beds? Thanks for any thoughts.
The idea of using those wood piles to create hugelbeds is a great one. The way I am doing it on my sun facing hillside is to first dig an on contour ditch, reserving the soil for filling in between the layers of wood. I put the wood into that ditch, spreading the dirt dug out over each layer of wood until I have it to the height I want, after that is done, I dig the up hill swale and use the dirt to cover the hugel wood. after that I get some clovers growing to stabilize the new mound. I am arranging these so they slow the water down enough to prevent anymore erosion from the hill side. Each swale has a "spillway" that leads to the swale below it, these are staggered so the water has to travel the entire length of each swale before it can move downhill to the next swale (the water zig zags down the hillside). I will be planting orchard trees in the spaces between swales, I have about 6 feet between the back side of the up hill swale mound and the up hill edge of the next down hill swale, this will give the orchard trees enough "virgin" soil to establish a good root system for anchoring the trees to the hillside. You can plant trees after forming the beds since you aren't planting on the mound but rather in front of it (or between the mounds if that makes more sense). Once you have the trees planted, you can grow other items, squash, melons, taters, corn, etc. on the mounds, taller growing items should be planted towards the up hill base of the mounds so there is enough stable soil for good anchoring of these plants.
If you follow the practice of mulching the mounds every year, the soil will build up and any settling will be filled in by the new layers of mulch/ compost. The water collected will plume down the hill, each swale adding to the plume, this should keep you from needing to water the orchard trees much of the year.
Thanks so much Bryant. So you wouldn't plant trees on the mound? I was thinking that doing so would raise my trees that much more off the water table. Your between the swale idea makes sense though if I can redirect / redistribute water from uphill. I just got done watching "The Permaculture Orchard" where it talks about it being preferable to dig down 4 ft. without hitting water or saturated soil. I know I couldn't do that and thought that my only option was to go up on a mound. But now you got me thinking
I normally don't plant anything larger than blue berry bushes directly into a growing mound, I have high winds (up to 60 mph.) come up my sun facing hill and don't feel comfortable planting something that might end up blown down.
If you need to plant on a hugel mound you need to really pack the open spaces between the wood during the build process. I use a mix of leaves & soil which I stuff into the spaces, then water the mound so the mix settles in before topping that off. I then add the next layer of wood and repeat the process. Once I have the mound to the height I desire, I start the top cover. I layer that on, soil, leaves, compost, soil, leaves, compost, and I water between layers. I try to take care of as much settling pre-planting that I can. If I am putting berry bushes on the mound I try to have at least a full foot of top cover to plant into. I would go even thicker on the top cover if planting a tree more than one year old. As the mound ages, it will settle. Planting a tree on the mound would require additions of soil stuff to keep the roots covered. I suppose you could bypass that if you wanted to let the tree have exposed roots.
While trees are not recommended for hugelbeds, if you digg swales and create berms on their downhill side from dirt and soil without adding wood, then you have the combination Geoff Lawton consistently describes as a tree growing system.
This situation is an example of how important it is to identify appropriate techniques for a given situation.
Your also might look into key line plowing to decoupage your soil and perhaps get a better distribution of water on your land.