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Wanted - dry climate hugelkultur experiments!

 
Tyler Ludens
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Is anyone practicing hugelkultur in a dry climate? Preferably a hot dry climate, even desert. Claims continue to be made about how hugelkultur will retain moisture even in dry conditions. I have done some small failed hugelkultur experiments. They dried out and plants failed to grow. I suspect my hugelkultur was not large enough. I have had good success with below grade buried wood - my entire vegetable garden is done this way (one large buried wood bed) but it still needs to be irrigated during the Summer to grow annual vegetables.

I'd like to see if anyone is doing dry climate, high evaporation, desert hugelkultur, and how these experiments are turning out.

Thanks!
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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One of the places I take care of out in the desert has mats of fallen conifer leaves a foot thick. They just sit there with little decomposition because there isn't enough rain falling on them for biological processes to be very active. Fallen trees can sit there for decades without obvious decay occurring. Carcasses of dead animals don't decay, they mummify. Even during rainy weather, I can go out into a riparian corridor and see fallen trees everywhere, too thick and jumbled to attempt to walk through them. There is little evidence to convince me that there is enough water in them to be enticing to mushrooms. I suppose that there is a point where the wood removes more moisture from the environment than it can contribute to a garden. I don't know where that point is, but it seems to me that hugelkultur is not the right strategy for me in my desert. Wooden check-dams across the bottom of flash-flooded ravines might be a good strategy to hold onto a little bit of water a little longer. Or burying wood under the bottom of swales might provide more soil moisture for a longer time. But the traditional mound of wood seems like exactly the opposite of what aught to be happening in the desert.
 
Dale Hodgins
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When I saw the topic, I thought of your sunken hugelkultur. Too bad about that.

Sunken beds with a large catchment area, could gather lots of water. They would flood in your area. Perhaps some temporary wood bottom ponds could be cultivated along the slope, and only the most flood tolerant plants would grow at the bottom. Mulches would be redistributed with each flood. This sort of depression could be set to the side of natural drainage channels. We don't want a seasonal river to wash everything down stream.
 
Samantha Langlois
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Here is a short video done by Michael Pilarski about his hugelkultur in Hot Springs, Montana - hot, dry, evaporative.

 
bonnie bright
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So far, above ground doesn't work where I am at in central Oklahoma. Our drought recently ended (and keeps trying to come back). The drought is when I began to build hugel beds. The micro climate, the type of soil, the type of wood and other ingredients seem to make a difference. I have not a controlled study on these, so I cannot provide solid details as to a solution. I can say that they all must be buried. My present above-ground hugel bed is getting dry. I know for a fact it wasn't built properly because I was in a hurry. Yet, when I put them below ground and completely sealed off from our Oklahoma winds, they always do very well - even in drought. There was one time I watered a hugel bed because I had shallow-rooted plants in it.

I am not certain what it is about rotted materials that makes the hugel bed work best. They do. Spoiled hay, for example seems to hold moisture better than unspoiled hay. It is extremely important to place very well-rotted wood within the hugel bed. It is equally important to adequately saturate that old rotted wood as much as possible. I go to the lengths to place them in my rain barrels or stand there and water it all with the hose for several HOURS ensuring a good soak. Placing them in the rain barrel is best.

When the rotted wood is completely saturated with water it must be sealed off from the environment entirely. The only way I know to do this is to bury them... and often bury as deep as possible. Even if parts of the hugel are dry, I find the deep-rooted plants will seek out the wet logs and wet materials. If I build that hugel bed in the middle of summer which is our most arid and windy time, I must be quick about it.

We are not in a desert, but it gets extremely dry here. An acquaintance and master gardener friend of mine who lives in Southern Oklahoma admit that watering occasionally is necessary when growing annuals or when rain has not fallen, but that hugel beds offer the most drought-proof means of a garden bed than any other method.

Hugels become such a harbor for creatures that I wonder if they do not play a roll in sapping the moisture from the wood. If I were a thirsty cricket, I'd suck on a wet log.

Thus, I wonder if bigger is better for hugels in dry climates.

I'd be remiss if I did not add that I go to extreme lengths to ensure soil inoculation with native fungus and such. I, literally, pull hands-ful of soil from beneath every species of tree, every corner of the garden that has decades-old leaf litter and much more. I throw it all into the hugel bed. I do not know why, but this makes a huge difference in my beds. Perhaps these microorganisms are the catalyst to a moist environment. Still, I don't really know for sure why. I'm only guessing. I notice that Lawton used drip irrigation in the desert atop his huge mounds that rested behind giant swales. Sometimes, it's necessary I guess.

Don't give up. I'm certain you'll find a great solution to gardening in your arid environment and will be able to provide a wealth of information for others.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Samantha Langlois wrote:Here is a short video done by Michael Pilarski about his hugelkultur in Hot Springs, Montana - hot, dry, evaporative.


It looks extremely green there, and I seem to see some irrigation pipes. The grass beyond the fence is also rather lush and green for a dry location. Montana is quite far north, so not especially evaporative compared to, for instance, my latitude.


We discuss the latitude issue in this thread: http://www.permies.com/t/12150/hugelkultur/hugelkultur-hot-arid-climate

Hot Springs Montana Latitude 47.6089° N

Dijon France latitude 47.2906° N

Sisterdale Texas latitude 29.9731° N

Cairo Egypt latitude 30.0500° N
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thank you for sharing your experiences, bonnie. I am totally sold on the buried wood beds, and expect they would not need irrigation except to establish deep-rooted crops, but I'm using mine to grow mostly annual vegetables at this point. I hope more people will experiment with regular hugelkultur in dry locations, and see how it works out. If I had the means to move a lot of wood and soil I would try a very large hugelkultur experiment.
 
J K Johnson
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I'm working on something like this. In order to try to create microclimates and a smooth flow around our front yard, I'm using a combination of planters, hugelmounds and paths around four trees we have. Hopefully the image helps show what I'm doing.

The middle are trees, which are all already planted. Two are mature pecans, the other two young mulberries. Around each of them (leaving 2' diameter for trees), I'm putting in planters done sort of like what's been mentioned. I dug down about three feet (except around mature trees, obviously), then sheet mulched on my way up, with logs at the bottom. We spread woodchips on top liberally. So, it's sort of like a sunken hugelculture/sheet-mulch hybrid I guess. We call it a Sonoran planter. I have a few of them, in various shapes, that I've already built. They do nicely here in the hot Arizona climate.

The planters are 2' wide (to make access easy), then a path of wood chips is around each one. The next rings are six foot wide hugelmounds that I'm still working on. They'll likely have a buried french drain or similar material so I can water deeply if needed. We'll see how that goes, but it's easier to bury it in as I build than do something later. And it's an experiment i want to try out to see how it goes.

Since we get most of our rains during monsoons, with almost all the rest coming in mid to late winter, I'd like to get at least one built so it can get a good soaking. It's slow going though, so I'm not holding my breath. Getting more wood is required and I'm having a hard time getting enough woodchips. Eventually, I'm hoping to have the entire project covered in as deep of woodchips as I can get here. Funds are pretty limited too, so I can't go as fast as I'd like. Most of it is grunt work, but not enough for me to just forge ahead.

So far, trees are planted, three of the inner planters are installed (finished one yesterday) and two of the path-rings are set up with woodchips. I'm working on the third one right now and should get it completed tomorrow. Then I'll try to make more of the paths to help define things and provide my boundaries.

So, no, I can't say that these hugelmounds will work well. But I'm putting a lot into assuring that they do. Hopefully by this time next year I'll have some reasonable feedback.
Front yard.png
[Thumbnail for Front yard.png]
 
Gilbert Fritz
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I'm watching! Thanks for starting this Tyler.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I suppose that there are different definitions of dry...

When I read the term drylands, I think of the sort of environments in the following photos:

Hugels, Where's the wood coming from?


Mulch? Where's the organic matter coming from?


Approaching the end of the rainy season: The summer dry spell is nigh.

 
bonnie bright
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Yes. There are different definitions of dry. Clearly, Tyler has access to wood. Is there a point to your comment? Are you saying you're willing to haul in some wood and give this a whirl? Because it's definitely something I would follow.
 
Scott Strough
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Not working too well for me either Bonnie, and like you I am in Central Oklahoma, and we had an exceptionally wet spring. I did notice that guy from Montana had an irrigation line in. Probably the difference. Some died like strawberries and a couple peppers, some almost died but recovered like 1 pepper, some sun and heat tolerant flowers and a couple basil plants. All of them probably would have lived planted at grade, if they survived the floods.

That's year 1 though. I haven't given up on it.

PS my buried hugelkultur always had excellent results year 1 and even better year 2 etc...
 
Tyler Ludens
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
I suppose that there are different definitions of dry...


Yes, when people talk about hugelkultur working in the desert, I think of places like those in your photos. Getting sufficient wood seems like the biggest challenge. But in desert areas with oases, wood might be available.
 
Rick Hatch
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I've never built one, but wanted to say two things:
1) regarding Montana being further north and therefore not as evaporative as a southern desert, probably true, but I live in the Okanagan Valley in BC, farther north than Montana, and we get 12" approximate moisture per year and evaporation is higher than precipitation, Especially during the growing season. this is the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert system and during the summer it is Hot and Dry. In the lower areas near watercourses it can be somewhat lush but other than that we're talking sagebrush and Ponderosa Pines.
2) from what I learned from Javan Bernakevitch who worked extensively with sepp holzer, Hugel mounds should be built around 6' high and perpendicular to the prevailing wind. They should be build in groups So that the first one gets hit with the dry desiccating winds and acts as a windbreak for the rest. Maybe even making the first one extra high somewhere where dry wind is a problem?
Cheers
Rick
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'd love to see some hugelkultur experiments from your region, Rick!

 
Gilbert Fritz
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Looks like anyone presenting a dryland hugel should include their evaporation rate (If they can find it; it is rather difficult). That would probably help us to avoid comparing apples and oranges. So many things play into it; latitude, temperature, wind, amount of sun, etc. Also, seasonality of precipitation is important. Some climates on the west coast get 60 inches of rain in five months, and then nothing for the rest of the year. Others get 15 inches spread around the year. I would suspect hugels would be much more successful in the first climate then in the second.

I can't find evaporation rates for Denver, strangely, but for Fort. Collins it is 41 inches. And that is not evapo-transpiration, just pan evaporation.

Does anybody know of a site where one can find evaporation rates for different areas?
 
J K Johnson
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We have good info available for our area - http://www.azwater.gov/AzDWR/StatewidePlanning/WaterAtlas/SEArizona/Climate/Safford.htm

Depending on which source, it looks like our rate is between 60 and 98 inches. Rainfall in our valley is right around 10 inches, give or take depending on who you ask. Most of this falls in Monsoon season, between July and Oct. We usually get good gentle late winter rains too though.
 
Samantha Langlois
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Tyler Ludens wrote:

It looks extremely green there, and I seem to see some irrigation pipes. The grass beyond the fence is also rather lush and green for a dry location. Montana is quite far north, so not especially evaporative compared to, for instance, my latitude.


We discuss the latitude issue in this thread: http://www.permies.com/t/12150/hugelkultur/hugelkultur-hot-arid-climate

Hot Springs Montana Latitude 47.6089° N

Dijon France latitude 47.2906° N

Sisterdale Texas latitude 29.9731° N

Cairo Egypt latitude 30.0500° N


Hot Springs, MT generally experiences about 10-14 inches of rain a year. Other than in June, the summer months average less than an inch of rain per month - and often much less than an inch. At almost 3,000 ft it feels like mountain desert with large temperature swings between day and night. Michael's hugelkultur is irrigated - he uses an overhead sprinkler every couple of weeks - but really relies on techniques that encourage plants roots to grow deeply in the soil searching for water. He is a very knowledgeable permaculturalist with lots of experience growing in dry climates. What are the conditions where you live? Good luck in your endeavors.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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J. K. Johnson, those will really be some dry climate hugels! Looks like you have a "missing" 50 to 80 inches of rain, as opposed to my "missing" 25.

Tyler, since this is your thread I don't want to hijack it, but what do you think about the comment above about a landscape of strategically placed hugels being very different from an individual hugel? I think this might be a big part of it.

 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm hoping this thread won't veer off too much into theory or discussion about what other people are doing; I had hoped it would be people posting about their own dry climate hugelkultur experiments.

Gilbert - I agree a landscape of hugelkultur or hugelkultur fitted into the landscape may be more effective than a lone hugel. I'd like to see some experiments of that sort done in dry locations.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Here's the closest thing to a hugel experiment that I have done in a dry climate... A fence was built across a ravine. During the first flash flood (after 5 years), the water washed a dead pinion pine against the fence which promptly got buried by sediment. The sediment also buried the lower branches of a living juniper which also got incorporated into the hugel. Other organic debris from the flood got captured by the tree branches and the fencing and got incorporated into the sediments. The collected sediments were about 6 feet deep.



Here's the same hugel from a different angle... The area circled in green is new sediments about 6 feet deep that had plants growing on them. They stayed greener longer than the rest of the environment. I'm not claiming that's from the wood, it might be due merely to being at the lowest point in the ravine.



After the first flash flood, I threw more branches on top of the sediments. They are lodged against low places in the flow, and against parts of the buried tree branches that are sticking up. Waiting for the next flash flood.

While building fire-breaks, I drag the cut off lower branches to the ravine and throw them in. If I have a piece of wire or a stake handy, and the bedrock allows, I attempt to attach the branches to each other, or to the ground. They might not stay where I placed them, but they'll lodge against something somewhere and slow the flow of water, and perhaps get buried and form a hugel. Waiting for the next flood before evaluating how successful it was.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Looks great, Joseph! That's what we've started doing in our ravine: http://www.permies.com/t/51421/earthworks/Creek-repair-brush-dams
 
J K Johnson
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:J. K. Johnson, those will really be some dry climate hugels! Looks like you have a "missing" 50 to 80 inches of rain, as opposed to my "missing" 25.


Yep, it's an experiment. We'll see how it goes. Since it's a series of rings, with internal planters and the liberal spreading of woodchips around the outside, I'm hoping the microclimates I establish will prove productive. While I'm hoping to get these four main mounds done this winter, I'm not sure I'll make it.
 
Tyler Ludens
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JK, do you plan to irrigate?

 
J K Johnson
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We're considering irrigation as an option. I'm on about 1/3 acre, so it's enough to develop into a pretty productive mini-farm. Of course, doing so would give the hugelmounds a nice advantage in this arid climate. The canal along the west side is available to us, for a fee. Right now it's not serviced, so we'd have to pay the entire charge for this particular canal, unless we could find others to share the costs. Still, it would probably be cheaper than municipal water.

Ideologically, I'd like to avoid it and see what I can do. It's cost-prohibitive to try to use municipal water. I think we might use the canal to establish and mature a system that could then be weaned off the canal and rely almost exclusively on the infrastructure and rainwater harvesting. That may be an ideal we simply can't realize in this sort of climate though. And if the property is actually generating some income, then I would consider the canal a worthwhile concession. It would be rewarding to be self-sufficient though. Here's to trying!
 
Andrew Schreiber
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We live in a cold temperate climate that is also significantly arid. We have 6 months with high temps and no rain. traditional hugelkultur are only sort of effective in this climate. The soil still dries out because of evapotranspiration from plants and sunshine/wind.

My sense is that the mounds have more surface area, therefore allowing moisture to leave the bed more quickly. However, we have a lot of biomass to work with, so it is no big deal for us to come up with the materials. My sense is that biomass is scarce in most sub-tropical deserts, thus making hugelkultur practically impossible.

Sunken wood beds like are described by some, are more effective.

Also, as Mollison has pointed out on multiple occasions, the prime directive in dry lands is to lower the evaporative stress on the system. dappled-Shade trees, effectively placed windbreaks, and increasing soil carbon are the three primary ways to accomplish this.

A hugel on it's own, without these other tactics, is not liable to be successful. Get your nitrogen fixing pioneer trees up! such Prosopis, Acacia, Leucaena, Tagasaste.

Use swales to stop and divert any moisture into the growing system, soak it into the soil, give the understory plants significant shade, and get out from the desiccating wind. These are perhaps more effective strategies in dry lands than incorporating wood into the soil.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Andrew Schreiber wrote:
A hugel on it's own, without these other tactics, is not liable to be successful.


I agree, but as long as people keep promoting hugelkultur as a method to grow a garden without irrigation even in a desert, I will continue to ask for examples of it.

"grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization
has been demonstrated to work in deserts as well as backyards"

http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
 
J K Johnson
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I agree, but as long as people keep promoting hugelkultur as a method to grow a garden without irrigation even in a desert, I will continue to ask for examples of it.

"grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization
has been demonstrated to work in deserts as well as backyards"

http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

That's really what we'd like to accomplish. And, as can be seen in my drawing (which is a small part of our property), we're not attempting hugelculture alone. As for irrigation? I'm not sure what'll happen. We wrestle with it often. I'm kinda wondering if jumpstarting everything with irrigation once I have the structure in place would be wise, then weaning it off as it matures. I think we really need to get a cover crop on the mounds for it to work, regardless. Lots of work to do yet...
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I don't think it is "cheating" to irrigate for a season, but I would hope "grow a typical garden without irrigation" would not require irrigation beyond the first season or two. Season, not year!
 
J K Johnson
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I don't either. OTH, our canal only runs for a couple of seasons a year. We get two rainy seasons, the monsoons (about July - Oct) and the gentler winter rains (Dec-Apr). Mid-April through mid-July are tough though. If enough water can be harvested in tanks to get from the monsoon through the winter rains to get through the dry season, it would be nice. We don't have such structure in place though. Ideally our structure will hold enough moisture in the soil to get through, but that's a tall order. It's hot, dry and windy that time of year.
Side note - I'm not above closing the gate on the canal to grab what I can when it rains, and would consider that harvesting rather than irrigating/cheating.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Remember the cheapest place to store water is in the soil - not in tanks! The second cheapest place to store water is in growing plants, primarily perennials. But if you rely on annual plants for your food, as most of us do, it is a challenge to time your planting to coincide with the availability of water, as most annuals won't wait around for the water to appear.

 
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