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3 year old huglekultur beds are failures, what am I doing wrong?

 
Cris Bessette
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Background: built 4 beds three years ago on old garden site with depleted soil.
Every year cover them with leaves / rotted wood / humus from the surrounding forest.
I have no access to manure or any nitrogen rich materials like that.

Anything I grow in these beds end up spindly and sad looking, and soon die.  It appears to be fertility problems, but I've resisted buying bagged manure from big box stores or fertilizers (I'm doggedly trying to keep from bringing in outside materials, because this is permaculture dangit!)

I finally gave in and bought a gas lawnmower with a clipping catcher bag the end of last sujmmer, so there is a potential green manure source for next year, but what else can I do short of
"breaking the rules' to get the fertility up?



 
Tj Jefferson
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Location: Virginia USDA 7a/b
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The very first thing I planted on my hugels was nitrogen fixation. I used blue lupine and threw some vetch I found as well, and I'm in a similar climate. My suspicion is that the decomposition is real quick and can make it hard to get enough N to allow much on top. So far so good, everything is looking sexy. Other contributor might be poor micorrhyzal culture. I haven't used a commercial one yet, but I plan to this spring since I haven't got anything to compost/make tea from. Have you done anything similar? Seems like a lot of brown and little green...
 
Cris Bessette
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Tj Jefferson wrote:The very first thing I planted on my hugels was nitrogen fixation. I used blue lupine and threw some vetch I found as well, and I'm in a similar climate. My suspicion is that the decomposition is real quick and can make it hard to get enough N to allow much on top. So far so good, everything is looking sexy. Other contributor might be poor micorrhyzal culture. I haven't used a commercial one yet, but I plan to this spring since I haven't got anything to compost/make tea from. Have you done anything similar? Seems like a lot of brown and little green...


I grew peas / soybeans on a couple of the beds for a few years in hopes of fixing some nitrogen, but even they seemed stunted.

You may be right about not enough green, I definitely plan to put lots of grass clippings on these beds the coming growing season,
maybe that will be enough to balance it out.

 
Tobias Ber
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would using your pee be an option?
 
Tj Jefferson
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Location: Virginia USDA 7a/b
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Yeah actually we all do that too come to think about it..
 
John Elliott
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There's plenty of mycorrhiza in Georgia, as evidenced by the quick decomposition of material.  My chief suspects would be lack of nitrogen, and things on top of the hugel drying out.  I get my best results, not in the mid-summer heat, but in the spring and fall.  And also not on the top of the hugel, but down toward the base.  The beans that have grown on top of the hugel are nothing to write home about, but onions on the south-facing base, and celery on the north-facing side, they did quite well.  Collards seem to do well wherever I plant them, so maybe they have the right root system to take advantage of the hugel.

Last year I also had good success with squash and gourds growing on top of decaying wood piles.  I wouldn't exactly call them hugels, as all I did was dump a few inches of dirt in spots with some seeds in it.  I think we have to read the claims of hugelkultur differently in Georgia.  "You won't have to water it for 5 years, natural rainfall will be stored by the rotting wood" --yea, right.  First of all, after 5 years, there's very little left undecomposed, and number 2, the Georgia summer sun is HOT! Much more intense than the puny rays of sun that manage to obliquely hit places like Montana or Switzerland. 

Given our temperatures, decomposition rates, and evapotranspiration, we are trying to do tropical hugelkultur for half the year, and temperate growing season hugelkultur the other half of the year.  Now how can you plan permanent crops on that sort of arrangement??  I'm gradually discarding the idea of a permanent hugelkultur and trading it in for seasonal ones.  I had several loads of wood chips dumped last January, and now, after a year of rotting down, I am pushing that biomass into 2-foot high windrows. Comes spring, the melons, cukes, squash, and other sprawling crops are going to be invited to colonize them.  With the dirt that was under the piles, now that the pile has been cleared off of it, I planted that with some emmer to see if the pile decomposing for a year enriched the thin soil underneath (I have about 8" of dirt before I hit the famous "bright red Georgia clay".  That's an experiment in progress,  but last week it sprouted and looks like it's off to a fine start.

I would urge you to keep tinkering until you find what works for what crops.  Rotting wood does provide lots of essential plant nutrients, and you just have to fine tune it.  Egyptian walking onions seem to be perfectly suited for Georgia hugelkultur.  Every year just top up your onions with more wood chips.
 
Tj Jefferson
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John, I am still learning about the fungal aspect, but my understanding is that mycorrhiza are slow growing, which means just because it is around doesn't mean its right there, and that brassicas solely doing well may actually be a sign that it is not well colonized. See list of non-mycorrizal plants here]. Could be wrong.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Location: Cortes Island, British Columbia. Zone: 8ish Lat: 50; Rainfall: 50" ish; sand and rocks; well water
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How big are your hugel beds? I think that one of the things that might lead to hugelkultur 'failures' is making the beds too small, especially in a hot climate. A small bed is going to dry out much faster than a big one, and a small bed will hold much less water than a big one, so it won't be able to make it through the dry season without irrigation.

Above ground hugelkultur seems to need to be quite large in order to work in dry climates, or an area with hot dry summers. If it keeps drying out, all of the inner workings will slow down - it won't break down as fast, mycelium won't grow and thrive, etc. - and it just won't live up to it's full potential. So, if you build above ground, try building big!

I opted for buried wood beds, as we do often have summers with months of no rain, and I am working toward zero-irrigation growing. I think that in most areas, if you are using hugelkultur in order to cut down on watering, you may need to either build large above ground mounds, or dig down and bury the wood.

Cheers
Tracy
 
Cris Bessette
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John Elliott wrote:

Last year I also had good success with squash and gourds growing on top of decaying wood piles.  I wouldn't exactly call them hugels, as all I did was dump a few inches of dirt in spots with some seeds in it.  I think we have to read the claims of hugelkultur differently in Georgia.  "You won't have to water it for 5 years, natural rainfall will be stored by the rotting wood" --yea, right.  First of all, after 5 years, there's very little left undecomposed, and number 2, the Georgia summer sun is HOT! Much more intense than the puny rays of sun that manage to obliquely hit places like Montana or Switzerland. 



It was especially hot and dry this year! We had forest fires for about a month straight where I live from lack of rain this fall.  My garden is also too far from my house to run a hose to it easily, so it's pretty much rain or nothing. That is one of the main reasons I was hoping for the "rain battery" that huglekultur is supposed to provide.
 
Cris Bessette
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Tracy Wandling wrote:How big are your hugel beds? I think that one of the things that might lead to hugelkultur 'failures' is making the beds too small, especially in a hot climate. A small bed is going to dry out much faster than a big one, and a small bed will hold much less water than a big one, so it won't be able to make it through the dry season without irrigation.

Cheers
Tracy


They are only 9 feet / 3 meters or so long, and half as wide, so you may be right that they are not big enough to do the job given the hot Georgia summers.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Location: Virginia USDA 7a/b
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I have some that are about that size other than the length (mine are 45meters/50 yards in length), and I built them at a 1 degree grade to redirect any excess (mine are partly for erosion control) , and it allows me to measure roughly how much it takes to saturate the thing. Once it is saturated I see seepage out the downhill side and past the end. They do hold a huge amount of water, I'm guessing somewhere around 40 gal/ 160L per 3'/1meter with rapid precipitation. I won't guess with slower rain since it may not show as well. They are only a few months old. If I could have buried the wood I would have preferred to do so, but my tractor bucket couldn't get into the soil to dig down due to the compaction. I suspect our soil composition here and in Georgia is pretty similar i.e. played out iron-bearing clay. Yours has more iron which probably also impairs uptake of other minerals, so that sucks.

I put a couple pictures in here (because everyone likes pictures). One is the hugel with a shovel for scale. Another is the growies. The little star-shaped plants are the lupine and the strawberries are poking out here and there. The sticks are rabbiteye blueberries (I think, I have been getting random plants whenever they are cheap). 
hugel2-2.jpg
[Thumbnail for hugel2-2.jpg]
growies
hugel1-(2).jpg
[Thumbnail for hugel1-(2).jpg]
function over form
 
Cris Bessette
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TJ , that looks very similar to my property, similar trees and such in the background too. Looks good!
My only tractor is me, so my beds are nowhere near as large

 
Tj Jefferson
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I don't know what the rules are on here for sourcing, but I got a bunch of lupine/inoculant from Hancock seeds. I tried trefoil and clover as well, but have had near zero germination from those. The lupine on the other hand has come up massively, after broadcast on intact soil! I'm trying to diversify the flora, and vetch is another good one doing well here (also miserable summer but you do win on that in GA). Vetch seems to be holding ok on the hugels. The soil I used was fill dirt from a nearby project, about 400 cubic yards altogether. The trees however, I skidded out by hand. It took me both weeks of vacation working pretty much dawn to dusk to get it all in. But it is sooooo awesome! All that area was washed out gullies of clay, and I build the hugel on near-contour on the lower part of the washout and filled in the remaining gullies with fill dirt. Every plant growing in there is from this fall, the hugel has massively increased the productivity of that area. But that whole area was dead and is just verdant and awesome. And it is under six months since I started Seppifying.

I got chicory, radish  and a bunch of other deer plot seeds on clearance and those are all over the place on the bare clay. The washout was from the poor runoff from the initial build, and I have built swales to prevent that (future posting, still working on it).  None of that stuff on the hugel mind you, it's going to get mulched this spring after it initially warms. I suspect the nitrogen from all the lupine uphill of the hugel will provide the nitrogen, but we shall see.

What would help to see from this build, because I am still tweaking and would be interested in what has worked in heavy clay.
 
Stephen Layne
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I have had small hugelbeds be sucessful in NE Ga. However, whenever the plants looked nitrogen deficient I watered them with 10:1 urine which made a huge difference. My hugels were mostly constructed with rotten logs and bark so even with logs there will be a huge nitrogen demand due to the quick rate of decay in this climate. I dug down about 1' to get through the almost inpermeable sandy clay layer to reach the clayey sand layer so there would be drainage after a rainy spell, but the hugle would still catch water. I used the excavated clay to make 6" walls along the slopes of the hugle where I could place a pocket of well composted tree chips to give transplants a pocket of rich soil to get started in.
My hugels weren't any larger than the ones pictured, but I did water them sparingly during the long drought.
I think dilute urine and some provision to water during extreme dry spells would fix your problems with the hugels, you have already done the hard part, it would be a shame to give up now.

 
Tj Jefferson
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One more thing maybe people could consider- I have used cedar boughs as mulch (maybe you can see them on the downhill side to reduce evaporative loss. I am considering planting apples and have been converting cedars predominant to holly as winter bird cover. So I have a ton of cedars to deal with. Plus cedars just denude everything near them. So I am using the cedars branches as mulch, they should be long-lasting and they don't seem to be allelopathic with the existing plants. But they are on the downhill side anyhow and whatever is growing there has been dealing with cedars for some time.  It's a bit of a fire hazard but they have to go somewhere. The trunks I traded for stuff.

Cris, that is after removing a couple hundred sweetgums, it was a thicket in there. Now the native bluestem and orchardgrass are coming up! That is the future planting area. I have one more earthwork to go in (another water storage/transfer hugel system) and then I can get my goodies in there. I am planting a living fence back there which has to be doing it's thing before I put deer fodder in there. And I'm throwing deer bones back there, so I haven't see more than one this fall/winter. The prior visitors went into freezer retirement.
 
Cris Bessette
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Stephen Layne wrote:I have had small hugelbeds be sucessful in NE Ga. However, whenever the plants looked nitrogen deficient I watered them with 10:1 urine which made a huge difference. My hugels were mostly constructed with rotten logs and bark so even with logs there will be a huge nitrogen demand due to the quick rate of decay in this climate. I dug down about 1' to get through the almost inpermeable sandy clay layer to reach the clayey sand layer so there would be drainage after a rainy spell, but the hugle would still catch water. I used the excavated clay to make 6" walls along the slopes of the hugle where I could place a pocket of well composted tree chips to give transplants a pocket of rich soil to get started in.
My hugels weren't any larger than the ones pictured, but I did water them sparingly during the long drought.
I think dilute urine and some provision to water during extreme dry spells would fix your problems with the hugels, you have already done the hard part, it would be a shame to give up now.




That's something I haven't considered, I'm a regular urine producer, and it's not being used for anything. Might as well give it a try.
 
Cris Bessette
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Tj Jefferson wrote:One more thing maybe people could consider- I have used cedar boughs as mulch (maybe you can see them on the downhill side to reduce evaporative loss. I am considering planting apples and have been converting cedars predominant to holly as winter bird cover. So I have a ton of cedars to deal with. Plus cedars just denude everything near them. So I am using the cedars branches as mulch, they should be long-lasting and they don't seem to be allelopathic with the existing plants. But they are on the downhill side anyhow and whatever is growing there has been dealing with cedars for some time.  It's a bit of a fire hazard but they have to go somewhere. The trunks I traded for stuff.

Cris, that is after removing a couple hundred sweetgums, it was a thicket in there. Now the native bluestem and orchardgrass are coming up! That is the future planting area. I have one more earthwork to go in (another water storage/transfer hugel system) and then I can get my goodies in there. I am planting a living fence back there which has to be doing it's thing before I put deer fodder in there. And I'm throwing deer bones back there, so I haven't see more than one this fall/winter. The prior visitors went into freezer retirement.


Sounding even more like what I have!
I have lots of red ceder (IE junipers) and small white pines that come up around the edges.  My hugle beds are in an open terraced area on a slope which was apparently used as a garden long before I bought the property. ( I think they sucked all the life out of the soil, so I am basically letting most of it grow wild with grasses and pioneer trees such as staghorn sumac and mimosas and such to let it fix itself somewhat. )
I also started food foresting about five years ago and most of those fruit trees are doing well except right in the are where the old garden was (where my hugle beds are also)
I planted a living fence of poncirus trifoliata (trifoliate orange) behind the garden area on the low end of the slope.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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I don't think that a one time importation of minerals, followed by establishment of a closed loop system, is breaking the rules. I'd get a soil test and add anything missing. For instance, if you are missing boron or zinc or copper, a few imported pounds will make a huge difference. Don't do this without a soil test though, or you might make things worse.

Also, in some soils, adding a lot of high potassium organic matter like sticks and chips can increase an existing potassium imbalance in the soil; this is another thing that a soil test will show you.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Where did you find the poncirus trifoliata at a price worth planting? That is a cool plant! You guys are more high tech than I am. My hugels get undiluted urine. Working on a post...
 
Cris Bessette
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Tj Jefferson wrote:Where did you find the poncirus trifoliata at a price worth planting? That is a cool plant!


Basically they were free except my work and some potting soil.

The majority of the thirty or so poncirus trees I have I started from seed from fruits under a tree I found in the town where I live.  I have a couple that I started about 5 years ago, and these are already producing fruit themselves, the rest are from about three years ago and much smaller from being grown in that low fertility garden area.

One of my favorite plants.  fruit tastes like lemon and gin (or lemon and pine tar sometimes) , I doubt any kind of critter would willingly go through a fence of them per the long nasty thorns.





 
Tj Jefferson
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I am very envious about the poncirus, what a cool looking plant. I have had to plant mimosas. I'm hoping they can be my nurse trees. I got the seeds from one down the road so I don't know how successful I will be. Fortunately the forestry service has black locust and the deer haven't killed the one I have, so I think once i get them going they should be OK. Plus that's my evil plan for fenceposts since I am at war with the junipers. I don't know whether anyone else has tried this, but we don't have a major deer population around. Probably a bit like GA, lots of hunters. There are maybe a total of four regulars left in the 20-30 acres around me. So I am thinking of putting in some sacrificial shrubs (lespedeza bicolor, get them by the 100s for 50$) where they hang out to lure them away from my fence project. I am also going to put in motion sensor solar lights because that is what the neighbors have and it seems to be working. There is enough browse without braving the lighted area.
 
Cris Bessette
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Tj Jefferson wrote:I am very envious about the poncirus, what a cool looking plant. I have had to plant mimosas. I'm hoping they can be my nurse trees. I got the seeds from one down the road so I don't know how successful I will be. 


Yeah, I'm into "exotic" landscaping, having citrus trees covered with fruit in North Georgia is pretty bizarre, and I like that. The seeds for these can be found online, and from what I've found they are pretty precocious and mature from seedlings within 3-5 years to fruiting stage if taken care of.  They can be dangerous though, the thorns have been said to even puncture tractor tires.

I have to CUT DOWN mimosas because they come up every where, they are somewhat invasive so I try to control them to the areas where I need them.  They do fit into my exotic landscaping scheme with their tropical appearece though.
 
Cristo Balete
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Red cedar, if it isn't completely broken down, often has growth inhibitors.  It's right up there with redwood.  Look under the trees growing in nature, you probably won't even see weeds under them....that's the sign that they have growth inhibitors.  Even pine, if it's full of sap, the sap will cause problems.  If you get the cedar and pine rotted first, until it's unrecognizable, then use it in layers with mowed weeds and straw.  

Nitrogen is crucial, as well as keeping the hugel damp.  It's composting on a slower scale, so all the principles apply.

I often have to deal with drought, and my best hugels were pits, with pee-soaked wood in them.  The soil that is dug out just goes back over it, no extra hauling.   Hugel mounds are up in the air and are more vulnerable to drying out, so an area with not much rain will need more water on those raised hugels.  Maintaining a hugel pit is easy, just layers over the top as usual, and yet the soil underneath has been improved vastly.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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