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First post, about combination method farming

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Greetings fellow Earthlings! This may be my first post.

I have a 40' round fenced in area that was a horse corral but for last 3 years I've been working it into a garden. Problem is the soil is mostly clay and/or sand...and mucho weeds. I'm tired of playing around with it.

I have this material: very large unusable-for-firewood 18-24" long, 2-4' diameter whole cottonwood logs, old weedless straw bales, wood chips. 1 each 10,000lb skid steer (I call it "Trax"). Old plastic black trash can and black compost barrel...possibly a couple of 5 gallon buckets.

Dig 24-30" downward in any shape. I like round usually... easy with clunky Trax.
Place large logs in bottom with cut services facing up and down (to encourage water absorption and release). Mine are really fat 18-24" tall whole cottonwood logs.
Fill gaps w/wood chips or any other small compostable material.
Water until soaked.
Cover with 6-10" old loose straw.
Cover with up to 1/8" layer of any available paper, cardboard, yard waste, or organic scraps of any kind.
Border area w/straw bales or smaller logs to make a slight water catch/retainer/collar for the finished, slightly concave shape. The bales are helpful because the wood will protrude 6-12" above the rim of the excavated hole, in my case, and I don't think the domed/hill garden is effective in the desert (as is my case), as in wetter climates.
Water until soaked.
Place one or more 5 gallon bucket with numerous 1/2" diameter drilled holes, or other plastic container of your choice (I'm using an old trash can and compost barrel) in the center of the area). This is where my future household composts will go, instead of the ridiculous spinning barrel composter that never worked well for us and is a pain to remove/use.
Add 12" dirt (don't cover compost cans).
Water until soaked.
12" topsoil/sod (face down if sod, don't cover compost cans).
Water until soaked.
Add fertilizer/compost/fresh manure (optional, I have some so why not).
Water until soaked.
6" wood chips.
Water until soaked.
Come spring 2017 I plan on starting my "ginormous", booming garden and never tilling or special feeding it again.

My garden area design is also a rain catch which increases available natural water to all layers. Instead of a hill that sheds the majority of the water across the top and to the sides of the large steep mound. My design also helps retain the soil that is made so it doesn't erode when it does rain.

Also, about 6' slightly uphill from this garden area is a small 6' wide, 12' long, 2' deep pond that is full from gravity fed spring water from April through August. It parallels/borders the top side of my garden. This will keep the soil and decomposing material very moist, feeding the plant roots better and longer. I shouldn't have to water at all after the plants are started. Which is good because my household well water is very high in sodium and it kills plants after a while.

Any ideas, additions, or otherwise? I want this area to flourish for veggies and fruits next year. Thanks!
Posts: 1757
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Brilliant. I think that you will create a tremendously productive space that way --- VERY high in carbon.

With that much bio-mass and the availability of water, moisture should never be a problem. Nitrogen, however, may be. Begin to think about support species that can pump N into all those buried carbon sinks. As all that buried wood breaks down in the decade to come, you may find that N is being tied up, so you'll want to make sure additional N is available for your growing plants.

It takes some time for hugel beds to break down and realize their promise, so the first two years or so, you may not see the production that you anticipate. But if you've got access to manure (an assumption I'm making because you are converting a horse corral to garden space), you can top-dress with plenty of horse apples and your tomatoes will thank you.

If you can find a source for fungal dominated soil, it would be wise to get a couple 5 gallon pales of fungi rich soil to dump in with your buried logs. Look in an established forest or at the base of an old pine tree. The sooner you can establish a fungal network in those beds, the sooner you'll be able to realize the benefit of the symbiotic relationship that fungi will establish with your plants and tree. If you see mushrooms popping up a year from now after a big rain, you've done your job well.

Why not bury your wood all the way under the soil line -- why leave it exposed above grade? You'll save yourself some work from having to pile dirt up on top of it and continually have to re-grade these over the years as the dirt slides off. I agree, that the benefits of raised beds are not as important in desert environments. We usually don't need the soil to heat up early in the spring. Water retention is our #1 concern. So unless you really want that extra surface area created by hugel mounds, just bury it all 12 to 18" under grade, and then mulch heavily (as you've outlined) with your straw and other organic material on top of the soil.

Clay is good stuff -- very fertile (it attracts and holds N, K, and P, among other important minerals), but you only realize that fertility if you add a lot of organic material on top of it and let the worms incorporate it. Carbon is clay's BFF. Sand is nice for drainage, again, improved significantly when there is plenty of carbon mulch on the surface. The combination of clay and sand, however, is a formula for brick-like soil unless . . . you guessed it . . . you add lots and lots of organic material. So mulch like there is no tomorrow. Wood chips, your straw bales, horse poo, and all the other organics you mentioned.

If you get inspired, revisit this thread and post some picture. I'd love to see your progress.

Best of luck.

Christopher Robbins
Posts: 15
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OK that's why I like talking to smart people...makes for much better idea evolution!

So how about I pack horse manure and green grass between, around and a little sprinkled on top of the large wood pieces? Would that boost start supply of the needed N?

So from floor up it would be: Wood w/manure/grass in gaps.
Loose straw.
Cardboard/paper layers.
Clay and dirt mix.
Manure again.
Top soil.
Wood chips.

I would dig deeper than 24" but it turns into firm quick sand usually and eats my trax. It's a craps shoot.

Also I think I'll get faster shrinkage and settling because of the wetness I have for 4-5 months and the midday heat during same time as the water. So I want the top finish grade layer of wood chips to be about 18-24" over the top of the water table on the patch upward of the excavation. I bet I'll get about 10" settling first year so that puts me at least 8" over the undistrubed grade and water source.
Christopher Robbins
Posts: 15
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Attached are 'before' photos from looking down and up hill perspective.

So revised plan is:

Excavate area.
Place wood pieces w/manure/grass packed into gaps. Place tallest logs around perimeter, with shortest in middle, for slight bowl effect.
Place 6" loose straw.
Place 1/8" cardboard/paper layers.
Drill/place black trash can and old compost barrel into center positions to be compost feeders.
10+" clay and dirt mix.
3+" manure.
10+" top soil or sod face-down.
6" wood chips.
Place straw bales, wood logs, and wood chips around perimeter to help retain "bowl" and keep weeds out.
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There is alot of talk of clay and sand making bricks.
Not all sand is the same!
We have porous sand like volcanic sands, and we have cube sands like a sugar cube.
Clay plus sugar cube sand give you bricks because the clay packs between the sand cubes and you get no pore space.
Porous sands have pore space so when fly ash, expanded shale, vermiculite, fired clay, etc. is added at around 20 percent you tend not to get compacted soil.

Now adding the organic matter to the soil surface is like creating a leaf litter layer.
Here is were earth worms and critters come in to play.
As worms take in soil and organic matter to digest bacteria, fungus, etc. they create castings that hold together and have pore space.
The less the soil is disturbed the greater the pore space and be built over time till it reaches its max level.
The organic content will be highest at the surface and decrease as one goes down to the subsoil level.

I have found that inorganic porous material in the subsoil or lower levels combined with organic leaf litter layer tends to give the biggest bang over time in a high clay soil.
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