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

 
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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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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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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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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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.
 
Jonathan Rivera
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I've found for myself (climate and soil) raised hugel beds are terrible for water storage. Your soil will dry out faster this way. If you used green wood, and you have poor soil, you probably won't see any benefit for at least 5 years. After my hugel beds just dried out and eroded with my sandy soil, I buried already half rotted wood 2 feet down with much better results.

Going along with others in this post, you probably have low micorrhyzal in your soil. I see a lot of pine, pine and beech species utilize a different type of mycorrhizae that most plants don't: Ectomycorrhizae. You need endomycorryzae for most of your vegetables.

Also, If your plants don't respond to urine, than it's not a nitrogen problem. Watch this talk, if you have the time, it changed my perspective quite a bit. 
 
Tj Jefferson
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I made hugels last summer when it was still hot from sweetgum. Slash on the bottom and then weighed down with the big logs. I would have done it more like the diagrams on richsoil but it would have required chipping or HOURS of lopping/machete. Due to the presence of either hard pan or tree roots I was unable to bury any wood.

I just planted stuff on them yesterday and I am surprised by just how wet they are, just damp and awesome. I was able to plant things down 6" with a little bulb trowel.

I think the secret is to have lots of organics in the mix. The other critical part is mulch! I mulched this one with pine needles and it is light-years ahead of the one I never got around to mulching. In fact I am going back and mulching the other one because it is rock hard on top and I can't plant in it! So that may be why your experience has been poor. The idea that it will significantly delay soil rewarming is to be considered but this is primarily water storage for me, not a microclimate creation. I have an eventual 10-15' overstory planted in the hugel (highbush blueberry and serviceberry)  and that should be good summer shade, and I have two different kinds of runner strawberries and vetch as ground level shade.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Cristo Balete wrote:
Nitrogen is crucial, as well as keeping the hugel damp.


I thought the main idea of hugelkultur is that it keeps itself damp.  That it is a means to grow food without irrigation.

"grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization"

https://richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

 
Jonathan Rivera
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Tyler Ludens wrote:

I thought the main idea of hugelkultur is that it keeps itself damp.  That it is a means to grow food without irrigation.

"grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization"

https://richsoil.com/hugelkultur/



The problem is two fold. 1, wood does not hold or dissipate much water until thoroughly rotted. In fact, it will direct water down into the soil beneath. 1, unless you have soil that can wick water well, it's not going to affective. So sandy soil + green wood = dry soil that erodes from the steep angle. With clay soil, it will actually help, because clay has issues draining, the wood will drain help drainage the first years and eventually rot into the spongey goodness everyone wants. I don't see how hardwood, which will take at least 5 + years to rot would provide much moisture retention the first years. In my opinion, huglekultur is the most misunderstood method in the permaculture world. It's a way of dealing with low quality, and brush wood, and building soil long term.  I've discovered It's great to use as fill material in raised and permanent beds, as long as it's buried beneath soil level. It's a long term investment that will help store moisture and build immense organic matter.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Jonathan Rivera wrote:In my opinion, huglekultur is the most misunderstood method in the permaculture world. It's a way of dealing with low quality, and brush wood, and building soil long term.


Do you feel those who promote it as a means to grow food without irrigation are misunderstanding the method?

"If you build your hugelkultur raised garden beds tall enough, you won't have to irrigate. At all (after the second year). No hoses. No drip system. Anything shorter won't require as much irrigation - so there is still some benefit. Imagine going on vacation in the summer without having to hire somebody to kill water your garden! As a further bonus, the flavor of everything you grow will be far better!"

https://richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
 
Jonathan Rivera
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Do you feel those who promote it as a means to grow food without irrigation are misunderstanding the method?


Not necessarily, I think like so much in permaculture/ecology/agriculture, it depends on the climate, soil, flora, and micro floral in your situation. It's only misrepresented on the basis that it won't work for everyone, in every situation, as presented. Long term soil building makes it worth it, but if you're using high value hardwood timber, financially and ecologically, it's a wash. Another thing to consider is the soil's fungi/bacteria ratio. Once you drop a ton of woody matter, you tip the balance to fungi. So vegetables won't be as comfortable as they would be in a 1/1 balance, and some may just do terrible (I'm looking at you brassicas!).

If your prime concern is water storage, assess the steep hill, the raised soil exposed more directly to drying winds, and the time it'll take to break down large logs. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think burying the wood at soil level, and using softwood and twig wood that break down readily is your best option for water storage. If you have a problem with drainage, I think standard huglekultur will offer more benefit.

For me, I found detrimental consequences for step high hugelbeds. My soil was mostly sand, so the top dried so quick, the minute rain came, all the top soil went down the hill with it. And that was with 6 inches of straw. Maybe for others there was massive benefits, but I ended up getting rid of the two 30 x 5 beds and burying the wood. Also, after 3 years the hardwoods were barely rotted. Maybe it works better in other climates and soils, but in sandy, cold, zone 5 MI, it's not the best option.
 
Tj Jefferson
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My soil is mostly clay and I can imagine it would be a totally different experience with sand. If you have a source of nitrogen like chicken manure you might be able to speed up the process quite a bit. I wasn't planning on planting anuals this year because I didn't believe the hype, but actually I am building one this week just for planting this spring with potatoes beans and other impulse buys.

How much difference the soil makes!
 
Daron Williams
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I think what others have said about micorrhyzal and nitrogen is likely correct. I just finished a 136 feet long, 5 feet across and 5-6 feet deep (2-3ft below ground, 2-3ft above ground) hugelkultur bed along a dirt road to create a hedgerow for privacy and for other purposes. The area was used as a parking lot by the previous owners (used to have 10-12 cars parked in the area) and the soil was just hard compacted gravel with clay under that - I had to dig the bed down in order to break through this compacted material. Due to this after finishing building the bed I purchased some packs of beneficial fungi and bacteria to try to inoculate the soil since I was fairly sure it was lacking in soil life. I have also been taking earthworms as I find them from other areas of my property and moving them to the hugelkultur bed - the rest of my property has tons of earthworms. Eventually, the soil life would move in on its own but I wanted to give it a jump start and the packs were only about $7 each and I put a little bit in each hole as I planted my plants. For nitrogen I had a load of soil brought in that included cow manure - this soil was placed on top of the bed so the plants would have good soil to get started in for the first year or so. I'm only planting perennials (shrubs and smaller - no trees since trees might not handle the bed settling overtime) in this bed so overtime I'm hoping the soil will improve and provide nutrients as the plants grow and become established but the soil I had brought in will help for the first year or so. I have also planted a large amount of nitrogen fixing shrubs (seaberry) to help keep nitrogen levels up and I will be planting some lupin to also help fix nitrogen - I will be inoculating the lupin as I plant them and the seaberries were from a friend and already had nitrogen fixing nodes on their roots.

For your bed I would recommend adding some sort of nitrogen fixing plants that you can easily chop and drop - for mine I will be chopping the male seaberries back each year and the female plants will be cut as needed to keep them from spreading out into the dirt road. Other sources of nitrogen that other people have already talked about are also great and should be helpful. I would also recommend adding a pack of beneficial bacteria and fungi to help speed things along. I was reading a book about the forests in my area that made a comment that researchers are now able to look at a sample of soil from a site and without knowing anything about the site they can tell you what state the land is in (old growth, just logged, degraded, etc.), how much light it gets, how much water, etc. just by looking at the soil life. Your hugelkultur bed is likely a very different environment than the surrounding land and there could easily be a lack of microbes that would live best in that environment. If you don't want to purchase an inoculate pack of bacteria and fungi you could also make compost to spread on top or using worm castings to help establish the soil life. Another option is to collect some soil from a rich and thriving area that shows lots of signs of a healthy soil community and spread that on your bed - but you risk introducing seeds you may not want. In my case I just moved to my land last September and I have not had a chance to setup a worm bin or a large enough compost system to help so I just purchased some inoculate packs from a local co-op.

My bed is very new so I will be tracking my results to see how it does overtime - the shrubs I planted which were a mix of bareroots and live-stakes are all leafing out and seem good at this early stage. The plants have been in for less than a month and the beds are not much older. I still have a lot more plants to add to it to complete the system. Later I plan on setting up smaller hugelkultur beds in a different area closer to my house for my annual garden. For these I plan on growing one or more nitrogen fixing tree/shrub that I can coppice (keep small but bushy to keep it from shading other beds) near (uphill side) each bed that I can easily chop and drop on a yearly basis to release nitrogen in the soil and provide a nitrogen rich mulch - the leaves of a lot of nitrogen fixing plants are very high in nitrogen and release that when they decompose. I will add another layer of mulch from a carbon rich source on top of the nitrogen heavy mulch to help keep the nitrogen in the soil instead of escaping into the atmosphere. This mulching will be done each fall to give it sometime to breakdown over winter. I will also be planting a nitrogen fixing cover crop on each of the beds for the first year in order to help prepare the bed for my vegetable crops and then use a rotation system to help the beds stay productive.

I think that a key for success in the long run is to have a large amount of nitrogen fixing plants that are there to support the other plants. Perennial nitrogen fixing plants can be grown near annual beds to serve as a long term source of nitrogen and a rotation system using cover crops that fix nitrogen can also help. I'm making sure all my hugelkultur beds and other beds have some nitrogen fixing plants mixed in. Also, I don't mind adding soil, etc. from off site to get my beds established as long as I'm not planning on continuing doing so beyond the first year or two. Eventually, I want to produce all my own inputs on site but that will take time so in the short run I will use off site inputs with the goal of stopping as soon as possible.

I'm still experimenting and I'm sure I will make changes as I go - we are all learning! I'm not sure what nitrogen fixing trees/shrubs will be the best to coppice on an annual basis. At the moment based on some research from the US Forest Service and USDA I'm leaning towards a native tree in my area - red alder. But I may explore other options - I'm looking at another native (big leaf maple) in my area for the carbon rich mulch source. The maple will also be coppiced on a yearly basis. The trees may not live for a long time due to the annual cutting but both species are very easy to grow and if I need to replace them every 5 years or so that would be easy. Lots of experimenting and I'm sure in your area a different mix of nitrogen fixing species would be ideal.

Hope that helps!
 
Angelika Maier
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I don't do huegel anymore I did not have good results. They may be good if your soil allows digging if not and you are building only up then it dries out in no time at all. And the soil fertility was not right either.
One bed with perennial herbs and shrubs does well now but only after dumping lots of manure in there. The advantage for a herb huegel is that there are different conditions in the bed and you can plant more dfferent species.
I start to believe that there's something wrong with the concept in general, because these posts are coming up quite often.
 
Daron Williams
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Angelika Maier wrote:I don't do huegel anymore I did not have good results. They may be good if your soil allows digging if not and you are building only up then it dries out in no time at all. And the soil fertility was not right either.
One bed with perennial herbs and shrubs does well now but only after dumping lots of manure in there. The advantage for a herb huegel is that there are different conditions in the bed and you can plant more dfferent species.
I start to believe that there's something wrong with the concept in general, because these posts are coming up quite often.


I'm curious to see how the ones I have made work out over the summer and next few years. I think an issue could be a lack of soil being added to the beds. If you build a large mound of soil (raised bed) it will warm up faster and may dry out faster than a ground level bed but of course lots of people do raised beds with out any issues. On the other end of the spectrum is a slash pile which in my experience can dry out a lot depending on how old it is and what it's dimensions are. If I was building a fully above ground hugelkultur bed I would be very careful to add a lot of soil or compost throughout the construction of the bed so that all the wood would be surrounded by a fair bit of soil on all sides. This is one reason I have been digging down and making my hugelkultur beds partway underground - I want to reduce how much soil I need to buy or compost I need to produce. But I will be building an above ground hugelkultur bed next year and I figure I will have to have the soil brought it in two big loads as I build the bed - first when the large wood is down and the second when the small branches are in.

If you don't have a lot of soil then I would say you would need to add a lot of organic material throughout the consteuction processes to serve the same purpose as the soil. In this case you would essentially be making a large and long compost pile with a woody core and woody layers. This could work too but you would need to be careful what you planted and when.

I have also always been adding a thick mulch layer on the of my hugelkultur beds. The way I see it is these beds are normal beds but have a woody core that functions as a water holding structure and a slow release fertilizer but that only works if the wood is packed densely and has a fair bit of soil or similar material packed around it. My area is fairly wet but our summers are very dry so I will see how my beds do this year (their first summer) and I will be posting up dates later on - I hope to not water at all but we will see how it goes.
 
Marianne Cicala
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Hey Tj
As a fellow Virginian, this may help.  Where I am, is clay based -  from your pics I see pines, which means you have high acidity as well.  I also noticed pine straw as a mulch.  We have many hugles here with great success; some up to 6 years old, some brand new. Our soil is naturally really high acid, so you don't want to compound that with pine straw.   We also do not add any rotting wood as a topper in following years, only a thick layer of compost. We also do not pull spent plants, we simply cut them off at dirt level and dump the spent plants into our compost pile, letting the roots feed other plants/soil.  
When layering the base of the initial hugle, we add a lot of old leaves as well as soil as we build up the wood.  Our initial planting starts with a full cover of peas (spring) and greens, then beans in the summer, followed by more peas in the fall.  If we have used a lot of heavy clay as we build the hugel, I'll plant potatoes, not for harvest but to "feed" the bed.  By the second year, it's incredibly productive, but we always plant a ton of peas every spring.
I hope this helps and don't give up~
M
hugle.jpg
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Tj Jefferson
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Marianne,

Always good to have input from people contending with the same issues! Ironically the pine mulch is just from the trees about it. I did concentrate it, but probably it is minimal added acidity (I hope). Additionally I limed the field sloping down to the hugel (which is cheating but the pH was 4.9 and clover would not germinate) so the runoff soaks into it! I am sure that is helping the breakdown. I have added zero phosphates but I know the people we bought from probably were using them, so that sucks.

My compost issues are thus: I am very hesitant to bring any carbon onto the property other than wood chips from arborists. I have read too many stories on here about people who have used imported mulch or straw/hay and sterilized their growing areas from persistant herbicides. I am trying to source a hay/straw source that I can verify lack of triazine or other long-duration herbicides but have not been successful. Same with manure. So until I can grow some mulch I pretty much have pine straw and sweetgum leaves, and the leaves I am composting for the garden area and will maybe be enough for that, and I really hate stealing from the forest. So far I have been unable to get any free wood chips. This year I have about 30 comfrey starts and am planting some high producers of biomass (sunn hemp, buckwheat, millet, sunflowers), hopefully they germinate.

So it has been harder to meet my desires vis a vis mulch and compost. I basically have decided the hugel will have acid-tolerant plants. So far they are doing well, it just doesn't seem like a fight I will win.

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