I am new to forums, so not sure if this is the right place to post my queries on Hugelkultur.
I watched Paul's recent interview with Stacey Murphy on the Garden Hacks summit. Hugelkultur looks like a great idea, but I have a couple of questions:
1. In the short video segment showing people building a HK mound, the soil (or ‘dirt’?) used to cover the tree trunks looked reasonably soft, diggable and potentially fertile. But what if you have hard, dry, compacted, stony clay/shale ground that has very little topsoil and only grows poor-quality grass & weeds? Could you start with that type of soil and make a successful HK mound? (I live in rural Australia on land that was previously used for grazing cattle, in a climate you might call ‘subtropical’ – hot summers & mild winters)
2. Paul described building a mound 3 feet up and digging 3 feet down below ground level. What happens to the pit you have dug? – does it become a moat when you have heavy rain?
There are lots of different ways of using the hugelkultur technique to build beds. I live on an island that is mostly sand, and have hot dry summers and wet mild winters, so I opted for digging trenches and filling with wood and debris so it is just above ground level. I think that unless you are building a HUGE hugelkultur, digging trenches and burying the wood will yield the best results in a hot dry climate. In the winter, the water flows into the trench and the wood soaks up the water which will help to keep the beds hydrated in the hot summer. I think that the beds really hit their stride in the third year, when the wood has become soaked with water, and is breaking down and releasing nutrients to the plants. I don't think you need to worry about the trench becoming a moat. The water will soak into the wood, and also begin to soak in and soften the surrounding soil, as well as begin to bring it back to life.
My beds are only in their first year, but are performing beautifully. As for your question about using crappy soil, well, we don't have any soil at all. So my beds are built using not only logs and sticks, but also wood chips, and year-old grass/leaves/weeds, compost, and some sand. There is no soil in my beds at all, except what went in with the transplants. So, I think that no matter how crappy your soil is, if you are also adding in a variety of greens as well as carbon in the form of wood, sticks or wood chips, it will work well. I think they work best if you build them and let them go through a wet season to soak up water, but we finished ours in June this year, and I planted right into them.
I haven't seen the video you referred to, but I have been studying the subject for the last couple of years, so when I built my beds I used what I had available, and it's worked out great so far. I have added some amendments to the beds, to compensate for the lack of soil - some minerals in the form of rock dust, seaweed, lime and other goodies to help create a good growing medium for my plants. And they are very happy. You will probably want to do a soil test to see what your soil might need in the form of amendments.
I'm sure others will join the conversation with more examples and ideas; I wanted to share what has worked for me, and to let you know that I think this technique leaves a lot of room for people to use the resources they have available, and not follow a strict 'recipe'. If you find that you are unable to dig deep trenches, even wood buried in shallow ditches will help. And if you can't dig trenches at all, then make sure your hugel piles are large enough to hold a good deal of water, and you soak them really well, or they will dry out quickly in a dry summer. You'd have to water the heck out of them. But if they are quite wide and tall, they will hold much more water.
I was going to put a post of my own on hugelkultur but maybe my observations will help clarify for you, Jay Wall.
I started building hugel beds a year ago: a trench filled with a layer of wood, followed by as much manure, compost and other decomposed or easily decomposable matter as possible. I recently put some new plants in the first bed - with great difficulty.
After weeks of no rain, my soil was bone dry and almost impossible to get the plants into. When I finally managed to make a hole for the kale, I discovered that, apart from the wood, all the organic matter had gone. It was as though it had vaporised, although I am sure it will have added nutrients.
The wood still hasn't really started decomposing, so I can't give any feedback on that but I would say that you need to keep adding a layer of composted material or mulch of some kind either in or on top of the bed to improve the soil in the short term.
I'm intrigued to see what my own beds do in the long term. Each one has been made slightly differently, principally with more or less wood and different amounts, but it's too early to give any feedback on that aspect of hugelkultur.
Thanks for your feedback -- it's really helpful to get different views on what works & what doesn't work (or doesn't SEEM to be working, but may sort itself out in time). I hope you have some good rain soon.