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My first attempt at hugelkultur - Can this project be salvaged?  RSS feed

 
Jean Soarin
Posts: 26
food preservation hugelkultur urban
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I have a medium-sized urban yard.  I understood long after I bought this property that it is poorly laid out.  There is a large stretch of grass west of the house which gets very little sunlight, and a deck on the north side (just above ground level) which gets way too much sun, and so was basically unusable.  The deck isn't very deep- it used to go all the way from the (north-facing) back wall of the house to the fence, the yard's northern border.  As the part of the deck agains the fence was basically useless, I pulled up about two feet wide of deck boards along the fence, built a long narrow raised bed, filled it with logs, branches, and decaying leaves, watered it down, topped it off with some soil, and hoped it would turn into a hugel bed.

Someone who knew something about hugelkultur saw it and commented on the fact that it would lose too much humidity because of the boards all around.  I had't thought of that.  Also, I tried to pile the material up too high.  It was quite steep, and so rain washed away most of the soil.  The plants I put in last year (beans and clover) never amounted to anything. My broth suggested that I add another layer of boards around it, which would hold soil in, but I'm skeptical. 

Was this project a bad idea?  Hugel beds aren't built with boards around them for a reason.  I understand that now.  Can this project be salvaged?

(This might be difficult to imagine.  I'll take and post a picture of my hugel box this weekend.
 
Amit Enventres
Posts: 367
Location: Ohio, USA
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Hi! So, I have cinder block 2' raised beds. Year one I literally built it around straw hay bales. The soil layer was thin and the growth/yield was pathetic. But then, the following year I added about 6" compost and fertilized based on deficiencies. I got a good but an aphid problem late season because that's when the carbon nitrogen ratio flipped to too much nitrogen. As the organic matter decomposes, I have to keep adding more compost to keep it full. I'm getting better at doing this cheaply without sacrificing quality and yeild. So far this year everything looks beautiful. It sounds like you need to adjust some water flow patterns, adjust your soil, but doesn't sound like your out of luck, but I can't see it from here. Good luck !
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Casie Becker
gardener
Posts: 1292
Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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I think there is room for some improvement. I see your profile says CA, and you talk about getting too much sun to use part of your yard, so I'm guessing you're somewhere in sunny southern CA. Most of the successes I hear of from more arid climates involve at least partially burying the hugelbed so that the wood is placed into a pit instead of laid on the surface of the soil. That's how I've done it with mine. My results are finally getting good enough (after nearly three years) that I've been tryign to psych myself up for digging another bed.

Digging a pit also has the advantage of giving you a good source of soil for burying the above ground portions.  You should be able to fit this into the same space you're currently using. Unfortunately, I don't know of any easy way to do this. It would involve moving all your materials out of their current spot, digging the pit, stacking the materials in the pit, and then using the excavated soil to finish covering everything.
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
Posts: 1213
Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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From your description I'd say that you may lack depth of soil.  It is recommended by many to have a really good depth of soil above your woody matrix so that your plant roots are not competing with the wood for nitrogen (so six inches minimum for many plants and probably better to have a foot or two; many plants have feeder roots and water tap roots this deep.  The wood is supposed to get wet (and so should be wetted before burying, and the deeper the soil is above it, the better it is at staying damp) and get fungally dominated, and then the fungi and moisture through the fungi, and capillary action become part of the soil system.  This is how the soil is boosted, both micro-biologically and with a positive water cycle.  You can build a hugulkulture (mound culture) or buried wood bed, but you have to allow time to work on (rot/decompose) the wood, for the soil community to establish in order to have results that show it's true potential.  Huguls can be built in containers, boxed raised beds, or whatever, so that is not necessarily the problem, unless your are dealing with extreme aridity or excessive drainage.  It could be that your location is too dry and hot for above ground hugulkultur, as Cassie wrote, but the other issue is probably soil depth. 
 
Jean Soarin
Posts: 26
food preservation hugelkultur urban
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Thanks to everyone for the encouragement.  I know that my mound isn't deep enough or wide enough.  The box is 15 inches deep and 33 inches wide.  I'd stacked soil (steeply) on top of the mound last year, but there obviously wasn't enough for the plants' roots.  And adding more soil on top won't help, cause it'll be washed away by the first good rain.  I've seen straw used as mulch on hugelkultur, and I'm sure that could retain the soil, but in my yard, mulch would be a slug magnet.  I was considering adding another board to make the bed higher.  I hesitate because of cost and also because I now understand that all this wood lets the water evaporate, so it's somewhat counterproductive.  (I hadn't thought of that when I planned this project.) But another board would allow me to add soil and compost on top.

Someone said that I might remove the materials and dig underneath, but that's not a possibility.  My yard used to be part of industrial land, and so there's concrete under there.  That's why I figured I'd build up.   I am looking at moving a shed that's sitting in the only other sunny area in my yard.  Once/If I can manage that, then I want to build a proper hugelmound in that area-- a mound that will start in a trench so that it's partly buried and retains moisture better. 

So the way I see it, I either need to invest in some more boards in order to add and retain soil, or else I need to remove some of the height ( soil, leaves, and branches) off my mound and add a good layer of compost and soil.  

By the way, I'm in Winnipeg, which is zone 3. 

 
Jean Soarin
Posts: 26
food preservation hugelkultur urban
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Here's a question for Amit:  how do you know that you have too much nitrogen?  I thought you'd need lots of nitrogen in order to decompose those branches.  And is it the excess nitrogen which attracted the aphids?
 
Jean Soarin
Posts: 26
food preservation hugelkultur urban
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And another question...  I was watching a video of a talk by Paul W. about hugelkultur, and he made cedar sound like the worst wood for it.  He was talking about wood for burying.  I knew that cedar wouldn't work because it just wouldn't break down.  And that's why I used (expensive) cedar to make my box/bed:  because I wanted it to last.  But he was saying that plants don't like cedar and simply won't grow against it.  So we can add that to the list of mistakes I've made.   

How much of a problem is this?  Can my hugelkultur cedar box still work reasonably well?  Or should I take it apart now and avoid the heartbreak?
 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
Posts: 1213
Location: Fraser Headwaters, B.C., Zone3, Latitude 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
77
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While cedar resins are a bio-cide to help to naturally preserve their wood in damp environments, this does make them somewhat ideal for certain purposes as rot resistant members.  Plenty of raised beds are built from cedar boxes, but while the cedar is still resinous there may be some harmful interactions, and so this is definitely a possibility.  Tomatoes, in particular, did not like being in the boxes from what I have noticed at a place where I used cedar.  From what I gather, as the cedar gives off it's resins and the wood gets more gray, the problems associated with the resins decrease.  I had no problem growing greens and many flowers in cedar boxes right from the start. 
 
Jean Soarin
Posts: 26
food preservation hugelkultur urban
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Another question for Amit:

But then, the following year I added about 6" compost and fertilized based on deficiencies.


How do you know the deficiencies in your soil?  What signs do you look for?
 
2017 Permaculture Design Course at Wheaton Labs
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