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Need help planning my hugel-type vegetable garden!

 
Bethany Dutch
Posts: 160
Location: Colville, WA Zone 5b
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Hello Permies!

I need some help, hopefully someone a little more experienced than I.

I'm putting in my vegetable garden, finally. My plan was to make four curved hugel type beds in a sort of RSS pattern. I want 4 foot-ish walkways (big enough to get a 4-wheeler between). I initially laid out my beds 4 feet wide also, but now that I've begun outlining my first two with logs I realized a problem.

Ultimately when these are built they will be a couple feet high and 4 feet wide. I don't have tons of logs to do as much as I want with, so my plan is to make the beds and since I will be planting annuals, each fall I'll add another layer of branches, compost and mulch on top, and eventually over years they will be built up quite a bit higher (even though decomposition will help settle the beds, I'll be adding a lot of material each year). To start with, I'll have a single layer of rotting logs and then a bunch of branches and compost on top, then topsoil and mulch.

All of this is fine and dandy with most of my plants, but I realize today that when I grow tomatoes, the 4 foot beds might make it more difficult to get to them in order to harvest because of the height. I think tomatoes will be the tallest veggie that I'll grow, but since I'll be doing crop rotation every year I don't want to dedicate an area (and a shorter bed!) to tomatoes. I need to make all of the beds tomato-able, if that makes sense. I don't want to have to carry around a stepladder to harvest!

So, is this a problem? If I, for instance, plant two tomatoes (one on each side of the bed), I don't know if I'll be able to harvest the inside fruit without stepping up into the hugel and I'm not entirely sure that it would be a good idea or even practical to plan on doing that. At the same time, I am not certain I want to make the beds narrower, because then I wouldn't be able to build up quite as much organic matter and it seems like there would be a lot of wasted space because I do want the wide walkways. At some point in my future I'll be getting an ATV to help with farm tasks so I want to plan ahead for that.

I did think about perhaps doing two narrower beds running parallel to each other with a walking path space in between and then the wide walkways between each set of narrow beds, but again, it seems like I wouldn't be able to put in as much organic matter as what I want to do. Also seems like I'd be wasting growing space. I will initially be using a tractor to backfill them once I get the logs laid out, and so that's also one reason why it would be hard to do the narrower beds, just in the sense that all my compost and topsoil won't stay in the 2 foot confines.

Is there a way to do this?

Also - key things to know is that I'm a single mom of three littles and so while I have plenty of space to eventually grow into, my time that I can work on this is pretty limited and so it is slow going! So I gotta be efficient (which brings me back to not wanting to waste growing space if I can help it). I also don't have money to hire equipment, though I do have a tractor at my disposal.
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Adriaan van Roosmalen
Posts: 20
Location: Netherlands (moderate maritime climate)
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The lower part of a Hugel bed will have the most moisture available. The upper part of the bed will be much drier.

As tomatoes need quite a lot of moisture, you only should plant them in the lower 1/3rd of the bed.. Restricting them to that area will automatically solve your "harvesting height" problem
 
Shane McClellan
Posts: 7
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We plant in between the hugel mounds as well as on top. This is only our third year with the mounds in place but we have learned a lot. The mounds seam to do best with plants that require little to no watering so fall and early spring planting do best. I would widen those logs out and put an ATV path in between giving you more like 12-16ft between mounds. Also if you dig the top soil up first then put the logs in you get the topsoil up top and it doesn't get buried, if that makes sense. Also we would recommend sticking some kind of char, burnt organic matter in the very bottom before the logs and such. I don't know what your drainage is like but the more water our mounds can collect on the up hill side. We are so excited to see so many people diving into hugelkulture!!
 
Donald Kenning
Posts: 78
Location: Tri-Cities, Washington
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fungi hugelkultur trees
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Ms. Dutch.

I too am from Eastern Washington, a little south of you in the Tri-cities. I read some of your blog and I am probably your newest "like" on your facebook page (Uncle Dutch Farms). I looked at before and after pics of the property you wish to place the hugel beds and I have a few questions. From the looks of it, your farm is located just north or just north east of Colville on those forested slopes. What is the face of the slope your property is on (North, South, so on)? I saw pictures of the tractoring of the base of the house you built. Did the soil all of the sudden turn white, or did you add something? Are the blue tarped things in the middle of the picture the inoculated stumps? How gentle or steep is the slope leading down to the hugel beds?

You see, 35 years ago, Mt. St. Helen's erupted and sent ash to Eastern Washington and all over the world. I remember places like Ritzville getting about 2 feet of ash. I have a sneaking suspicion that you dug into some of that ash when you built your house. That should also mean that the soil below your hugel beds would also have some if that ash. So, I would not make the piles taller, but dig down deeper. I would dig with the tractor a trench "on contour" where you plan to have the beds. Dig down until it turns white. Now dig that white soil out but put it in a special pile. When many people begin to cover their hugel piles they put a lot of amendments into the pile of wood or into the soil. I found a Forest Service study (here is the pdfForest Service Analysis Mt. St. Helen's ash) that analysed the ash from Mt. St. Helen's and it contains many of the things people try to amend hugel piles with. High in Cu, Ca, S, P, K and so on. I would also guess the soils around there are a bit acidic, this ash may help bring the pH up. I would not make the trench more that 5 feet wide but I would keep digging down until I ran out of white stuff. Then simply fill the hole with the rotting wood. Put about 2/3 of the pile of white stuff directly onto the wood so that it filters in. With the rest of the white stuff, mix it in to the soil going on top of the pile. I would put enough wood into the pile so that the resulting mount (when finished) is 3 to 4 feet tall. Therefore, I would pile the wood about 2 feet above the level of the top of the hole. Then cover that with about 1 to 2 feet of dirt (soil).

Over the next 3 to 5 years, this mound will become almost flat ground. I would then pile more wood on and cover with more dirt. Then maybe after 5 to 7 years, make the walking paths the beds and the beds the walking paths.

In the Colville area, you average about 17 inches of rainfall (about 2 times more than us in the tri-cities). You should be able to make hugel beds work there.

Now, about that white stuff. This may prove to your advantage with the nutrients it adds to the soil. This stuff may also be a natural bed liner if you decide to build a pond on your property. Very interesting situation to be in.
 
Bethany Dutch
Posts: 160
Location: Colville, WA Zone 5b
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Hi Donald - interesting point! My property slopes to the southwest and there is also a very distinct "bench" with a slight cliffside to the east, so if I removed trees I'd have a pretty awesome view of the east. The white stuff in soil from the house excavation is actually white clay - which is a phenomenal resource in and of itself! It was quite a ways underground - at least three feet under surface. This land hasn't been touched before us (aside from being selectively logged) in over 100 years. I had NO idea we'd have clay and wasn't prepared for it... I didn't get a chance this time around but next time when I do the addition I will be collecting a whole bunch of it, since I'll be excavating even deeper for the addition. Lots and lots of uses for beautiful white clay like that.

And yes - the blue tarped things are my inoculated stumps. Mostly Phoenix Oyster with one Chicken of the Woods. The slope, well, I don't really know how to tell you how steep it is! It isn't steep, but I think a pretty ideal slope. Gentle, but still definitely sloped enough that I should be able to catch runoff. The way the driveway is situated also, to the north of the garden beds, the water running off the driveway above the garden will also collect in the hugels. I may end up doing some french drain type trenches across the driveway to "guide" the runoff into the hugels but the way it's situated I think it will do that naturally. Hard to tell from the photos, and I don't really know until they are built, but I stood out there in a downpour once watching the runoff so I think it will work!

Digging down, I think, is not an option. I don't have machinery that would do that, can't afford to rent it (plus I'm already placing logs!) and it's just me with a shovel! I really need to get these done by the end of the season, I think. I've decided to just keep them at the current width and see how it goes. I'm planning on expanding them as I'm able to next year so if there are things that don't work this time I'll be able to at least modify those. One thing I'd read here in the forums is that a lot of people plant their companion plants (the ones that don't necessarily get harvested) in the center ridge which makes a lot of sense!

So hopefully in a month or two I'll have the center two finished. I keep having to scale back my plans, which sucks, but that's life... I have a business to run and children to raise, with no help, so I sometimes have to remind myself that my plans are greater than my abilities or time I really wanted to be planting this year but at this point I think I'd rather wait, take my time to build them RIGHT, and plan on being able to put in my fall crops but that's probably it.
 
Dave Dahlsrud
Posts: 446
Location: North-Central Idaho
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If you're worried about being able to reach the upper and middle parts of the hugels you could strategically place some large-ish flat stones or wood rounds on the surface for stepping stones. That way you could just step on those specific areas and not compact the rest of the berm. If you use stone it would act as a kind of heat sink as well, evening out temperature swings, etc. A really large stone mostly buried with a flat side exposed would probably really moderate temperature, condense moisture, give you a nice place to step/sit, and I bet you could attract some reptile helpers to the garden that way as well. Just a thought... you don't have to dedicate the entire bed to growing area, especially if this would allow you access to more of what you have growing.
 
Bethany Dutch
Posts: 160
Location: Colville, WA Zone 5b
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Dave Dahlsrud wrote:If you're worried about being able to reach the upper and middle parts of the hugels you could strategically place some large-ish flat stones or wood rounds on the surface for stepping stones. That way you could just step on those specific areas and not compact the rest of the berm. If you use stone it would act as a kind of heat sink as well, evening out temperature swings, etc. A really large stone mostly buried with a flat side exposed would probably really moderate temperature, condense moisture, give you a nice place to step/sit, and I bet you could attract some reptile helpers to the garden that way as well. Just a thought... you don't have to dedicate the entire bed to growing area, especially if this would allow you access to more of what you have growing.


Also a great idea! I thought about using a stepping stone type thing but didn't even think about other potential benefits. I may have to just build them and see what happens. I do want to try to attract toads to the garden so maybe I'll try and do some combo thing.
 
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