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Questions from a first time Hugelkultur-er  RSS feed

 
Aaron Smith
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Hello everybody!  Not only is this going to be my first hugelkultur, it's also my first bed, my first gardening experience and, last but not least, my first post on Permies.

I'm going to jump straight in and be completely forthright about my incompetence with the hope that you lovely lot will help gently guide my trembling hand through the popping of my proverbial permaculture cherry.

I plan to dig tomorrow. For a bit of context, here's what I plan to do and some general details, please jump in anytime if I'm going to make a huge mistake:
Step 1: Dig a large rectangular hole of no particular dimensions:
- This particular whole is going to be placed next to a concreted area at the end of my garden. The concrete slopes downwards into the new hugel, which in my imagination will improve the irrigation of the area after a rainfail. Is this a good idea?

Step two: Put a load of logs and sticks in said hole:
- Some of the wood is quartered logs, some are long sticks, some are full but short logs.

Step three: Cover whole lot with soil and some bought in compost:
- I planned to dig down maybe a foot and have enough wood to go about 3 foot high.

Step four: Plant stuff
I have a lot of borage seeds which I grew in a family members beds. I want to have some around somewhere. I also have some "black krim" tomato seeds which I thought sounded nice and I hear goes well together with borage. Other random seeds I sourced have been swiss chard, wild rocket, beetroot, wild garlic, a random organic salad mix, coriander, parsley, courgettes and rosemary. I have very little clue of when best to grow them and planned to plant them all in a random manner. I've heard the word polyculture bandied about and have imagined a definition for it to mean "lots of random tosh is good". I'm probably wrong.

I'm in the midlands in the UK and just want to dive in. Input would be marvelous. I will still make glaring amateur mistakes, which excites me, but if I can benefit from your combined millenia of experience and have at least a partial success, I will be a very happy man.

Ta pets
 
Casie Becker
gardener
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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I'm just going to give you a warning that the first couple of years you are unlikely to see great strides in the hugelculture. In fact, if you haven't made great effort to include a lot of nitrogen sources when you bury your wood (preferably mixed with the logs) it might take that much time for the wood to start releasing nitrogen back to the soil. This is probably one of the few times you can use fresh chicken manure with little chance of it burning plants. Be sure to bury even the ends of the wood as each end poking above the surface can act as a wick to draw out moisture to the air.

Mine is just reaching three years old and last year I had plants survive a whole Texas summer without irrigation. This spring I already have nearly full sized spaghetti squash. The whole bed started at five feet and has decomposed and settled to a little more than three feet now. We planted more asparagus as well as some strawberries. It will eventually be our permanant asparagus bed, which we expect to need very little in the way of any future inputs.
 
Daron Williams
pollinator
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Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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Hello and welcome to Permies! It is great that you want to jump into doing hugelkultur for your first garden bed - a lot of people learn about this technique later after they have already gardened for a while (myself included!). Hugelkultur beds are a great way to increase soil fertility and also minimize water needs but there are something to be careful about.

Going off your initial post - how large is the concrete area that will drain into the area you want to put the new hugel? Too much water might cause some issues but it could also be a good source of free irrigation. A little more information on the size of the catchment area that would drain to the hugel would be helpful. Also, your hugel bed should not be used to hold back water - it is fine for water to drain into it but a hugel bed is not a swale and generally can not hold water back (wood floats and you can have blowouts if it has to hold back much water). You don't want standing water building up against your hugel. You might be able to build a mulch basin along the concrete to capture the water and let it filter into the soil. Then next to this basin you could make your hugel bed. A mulch basin is essentially just a depression that is filled with mulch / yard debris that the water can flow into an make a temp pond - a rain garden would be another option or an actual pond or potentially a swale. But if your catchment area is not that big then I don't think you would need to worry too much - as long as there is somewhere for the water to drain to instead of just backing up against the hugel bed during heavy rains.

In regards to constructing the hugel - It is best if you add soil back to the hole as you add the wood. You will want to make sure all the little spaces between the wood is filled with soil. This will greatly aid in water retention, help prevent pest issues and help your plants. Also, the largest pieces of wood should go in the bottom with the smaller pieces towards the top. But keep adding soil throughout the construction process. You might not have enough soil from digging the hole to fully cover the hugel bed. In the short run your new hugel will likely produce better if you can add some extra soil on top to make sure all the wood is completely buried. If you made a mulch basin/pond/rain garden (size would be dependent on your catchment area) you could use the soil you dug out to complete the hugel bed. Otherwise, it might be best to add some extra soil from somewhere else on your place or have it brought in. Also, when digging the hole make sure to save your topsoil to go on top of the hugel bed.

Depending on how fresh the wood is that you are planning on using the hugel will take a little time to get fully going. This is a big reason why adding soil throughout the bed is helpful - it keeps the wood moist and speeds up the decomposition. If you don't cover the wood fully critters such as mice can make homes in it and the bed could also dry out. Also, your plant roots will run into air spaces between the wood making it harder for them to grow if you don't put soil between the wood pieces. If you are good about adding soil around the wood then even in the first year the hugel bed should stay fairly moist and will likely need a lot less watering than a traditional bed.

Some other thoughts - just like a traditional bed adding a mulch layer on top of the soil can be helpful for dealing with weeds and minimizing watering. I used woodchips on my recent hugel bed. I also think it is a good idea to add some nitrogen rich materials to the hugel bed as you are building it - used coffee grounds is one option. Another would be to use animal manure if you have it available. I used some green plant material and cow manure in my recent bed to increase nitrogen levels and I have been planting nitrogen fixing plants (clover, lupin, seaberry, and vetch) to also help with this. If your hugel bed is going to be used as a vegetable bed you could plant peas and beans to help and in the fall there are nitrogen fixing cover crops that could help get ready for the following year.

Hope that helps and I'm sure others will have some good advice to offer too! If you can post some pics of the site and of the concrete area that would also help! Good luck!
 
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