I have a small forest near where I live and I wanted to harvest some rotten wood to make a hugel bed in my garden. I have done that in the past but it looks a bit dodgy to passerbys when I load up rotten logs into my vehicle from the city-owned parks. Plus it is a lot of effort to haul stuff to my small surburban lot. That’s when I decided to find a clearing and make my own private oasis and have a secret garden I can tend to within walking distance of my home. There is a wooded area filled with birdsong and only lightly used by people. And a plethora of rotting logs and topsoil to make my own garden. So far so good..
Part of my desire to set up a forest garden was that allow me to grow a crop of runner beans in isolation. Apparently runner beans are highly promiscuous and need about half a mile from other scarlet runners. I grow lots of different pole beans and wanted to grow Purple Aerostar Runner beans I purchased from an amateur Welsh enthusiast who bred them himself. He kindly sold me a handful and in order for me to save the seeds I needed to grow them in isolation as my neighbors both sides of me like growing runner beans too. So it might seem like a lot of work for little reward to spend a few days making an almost six foot tall hugel bed but I have high hopes of getting a crop. As you can see by the photo below I grow a bunch of different kinds and flower colours.
I didn’t know runner brand were promiscuous but then I doubt my neighbours grow such things.
Anyway, I am interested to know how people using hugelculture find it. I have build a fair number of beds and am disappointed. The wood simply doesn’t rot but maybe there is something I could do it improve the situation.
Thanks Helen. May I ask how do you know that the wood is not rotting? You shouldn’t see it unless you are growing root crops and uncovering the soil layer as you harvest. If you use freshly cut green wood then we are talking years as opposed to wood that has lain decomposing on the forest floor among the forest duff. The more contact with soil life and fungi and decomposers the greater the decomposition. My old house I demolished a hugel bed when we sold the house as the real estate agent recommended we covert the lot to grass lawn. That felt so wrong but I could see the economic benefit that I relented and followed her advice. What had been layers of rotten logs stacked on top of one another to over four feet was indistinguishable from soil in less than three years. From memory there might have been a couple of hunks of wood that were recognizable but I was really surprised. That meant it was no longer storing water so I would recommend the very bottom layer should have those green logs or stumps if you don’t want to irrigate.
There is a downside in that they always seem to attract rodents. I like to fill holes with huge bags of coffee grounds liberated from Starbucks. I assume that they find spent grounds quite repellant as the smell is pretty pungent. I ram the grounds in with a stick like I’m loading a musket adding dandelion leaves and other green matter then place a rock over the entrance hole. First step before that is to introduce the garden hose and soak the newly excavated home and make a swimming pool. Rats and mice may have a purpose in the grand scheme of things but on a surburban lot they can do a lot of damage and in my opinion should be discouraged from setting up home. So that treatment works for me you just have to be vigilant and search for any openings. Hugel beds are great for lowering your latitude of growing (in the northern hemisphere). They heat up earlier and stay warmer at both ends of the growing season. Important if you live in the frozen north. Use a steep slope and watch the difference in germination and growth rates! The plan is not to irritate so hugel beds are one terrific answer to providing a receptive growing medium for plants during our long dry summers here in zone 8 near Vancouver. I realize that this is not quite the frozen North but it is if you live in the tropics. Hope that makes sense.
The reason I know the wood hasn’t started rotting is because last weekend my neighbour had a fence put in along that side of my garden, which led to this particular hugel bed getting partially unearthed. (Goodness knows what she and the builder made of the contents!)
Anyway, when clearing up last night, I noticed that some of the flimsier wood was just starting to decompose, so perhaps I was a bit hasty in my assessment. I’ve been using several varieties of wood and most is pretty much on the green side, which would explain the slow decomposition rate.
A shame you had to convert your garden to lawn but if I were to sell my property, I realise most people would be horrified by a working garden. Like you, as well as wood I stuff my hugel beds with nitrogen-heavy materials. In this case, it is the contents of my bokashi bin and compost heap.
Hi Helen. Neighbors and fences ha ha! May I be so bold as to ask if you were invited to share in the fence building or was it just placed there as a surprise? I like my two neighbors in my new home but that wasn’t always the case. I created a straw bale garden running the length of the three foot picket boundary and planted in it all in pole beans obstensively to make a 10 foot high obstruction so that I wouldn’t have to interact with my rather unpleasant neighbor at my old place. It worked although created a lot of shade in the afternoon sun. Maybe the message was too subtle. Anyway it amused me no end. I only like straw bale gardening if you know for sure you are buying organically grown straw. Otherwise it is not worth the risk. I wish I knew where the photos were. I was so sad to leave that garden. Friends of friends just list their land to lava and all the trees they planted and nurtured. Now that would be painful so everything is relative...
hau Helen, if you want to get that "green" wood rotting away quicker than what nature will do you can add mushroom slurries to the hugel bed.
To make mushroom slurries all you need are a blender, mushrooms (any kind) and water.
When I make a slurry I make one blender full then transfer that to a gallon milk jug, fill to lip with water, put the cap on and shake as I head to where I am going to use the slurry.
I try to spread out this gallon of slurry to get as much coverage as I can, the mushroom spores will sink into the soil, find that wood and the spores will start growing, eating the wood fibers, this is how nature rots trees in forests.
The more times you make and add a mushroom slurry, the better the fungi will work, doing what they do.
Well, Cameron, my neighbour was considerate about the fence. It’s actually on my land, is a replacement for something which was both useless and an eyesore, and she paid for it!
Nonetheless, it was a surprise to find they had needed to dig out some of my crops and so I came home to a bit of a mess: rubble strewn by the new fence and apples which had got knocked off etc. I’ve also lost my morning sun on half the garden.
However, I only get sun in summer because of another neighbour’s leylandii. In the summer, we’ve got 18 hours plus of sunlight (I guess you must have that or more if you are in Vancouver?), so to lose 6-8 hours down half the garden isn’t the end of the world.
And the problem being the solution, I am giving up on annuals as they don’t grow in my sandloam with as little as 18 inches of rainfall p.a., hugelbeds notwithstanding. Instead, I’m extending the forest garden and building a pond
I like your story of the straw bales and beans. Sounds like you’ve got a better situation now, even if you’re starting from scratch.
Thanks for the tip about mushrooms. In the autumn, one of my hugel beds has had mushrooms growing in it. Why only the one, I couldn’t say, but I’ll see if I can inoculate the others with mushroom spores
Thanks Helen for sharing your story. You have a very accommodating attitude. That is not a lot of rain you have compared to here and I like your idea of building a pond. I tried to make one with free pottery clay off Craigslist but it never amounted to very much. I could not get it to hold water but in the end the flowers loved growing in it. I too am veering away from annual vegetables into more of a food forest idea in my backyard. My little nitrogen fixing shrubs are growing more slowly than I thought but the seed was cheap and it is all an adventure. A big thank you for starting off my thread because how exciting to have Dr RedHawk himself add something to it. It’s like being visited by royalty! I am so excited to try this mushroom soup mix incoculate. He really is a treasure trove of great advice and knowledge. Thanks again to you both.
I guess pottery clay might not be strong enough without being fired in a kiln. Anyway, good to use Craigslist - I am hopeful of getting some pond liner off our equivalent, Freegle. I’ve already got rocks for decorating the pond via that means.
I was just trying to lay down a thick layer of unfired clay and tamping it down to make a seal. I guess the water just slowly leaked through like osmosis. I mean I had buckets and buckets worth and the pond was only two metres wide in diameter. A pondlet. I didn’t spend too much time on it but I can see the attraction of liner. I know purists object and I can understand why but we can’t all be Sepp Holzer. I am wondering if frost heave forcing fresh stones to the surface is something to consider? Makes you want to ensure that the underlay is sufficiently thick to prevent punctures. It’s expensive stuff that liner so I hope you can get it free or inexpensive at least. I grew autumn olives two years ago with great germination and Pygmy caragana Siberian peashrub. Only one out of ten seeds made it and it is two years old and 16 Inches high. I hope it will eventually set seed and I can grow some more. Black goumi and sea buckthorn I bought this Spring from richters herbs. They look marginal and I hope they pull through. I am trying to nurse them along with comfrey mulch and watering them regularly. I tried tree lupines but the shrub failed and I suspect previous owners used roundup in the garden and it is supposedly susceptible to residue in the soil. Why is Monsanto still a thing? So many crazy things happening on the planet that I feel compelled to focus on the beauty in nature. I want to start honey locusts from seed but I wonder how happy they are being kept pruned to a small tree size? I should look on the forum.
I’ve not heard of the perennial shrubs you mention. I wonder if they would grow in NE England? Not sure how much space I’ll have left in my rather small garden after I put in the latest apple tree, hazels and a yew (I just love yews and they are a native tree).
Anyway, your pond sounds quite big. Mine might be roughly that size but I know tree roots will eventually grow into it, so I’m going to have to think of a long term solution. However, as I can’t visualise how it will look without living with it, I hope I can find some secondhand pond liner to tide me over.
Always lots of research to do as well as look after the garden, eh?
Hi Helen. There is always lots to do and ponder. I thought it rained more in the north east. I lived in Kent and Norfolk each for a year and England is really a giant garden. Such a rich heritage of having beautiful horticultural endeavours. I agree that the yew is a pretty special tree and it makes sense to support natives. I see super tall cherry and walnut trees in peoples’ yards here that dominate the whole front or back section and I am wary of losing growing space. The fig is nicely placed though in the far back corner and happily bears one crop a year. Thanks to the owner who planted it in the fifties. I would like someone decades later to send me silent thanks for having great foresight in my plantings.
Good job. Why stop with just one location? I have them spread all over the map. One "trick" near urban areas is to grow things that most people won't easily recognize.
Just noticed the pond building comment. With a good hugel bed going & a few strategically placed rocks to channel & temporarily pool the water after rains pond's aren't necessary for guerilla veggies. A few rocks &/or sticks are less obvious than ponds.
Argue for your limitations and they are yours forever.
I like your description of England - and you didn’t live the prettiest parts (well, in my opinion!). The NE is much drier than the NW because of the Pennine hills in the middle of the country sending the rain clouds from the Atlantic too high for precipitation. In general, the east is dry, the west is wet. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your time over here.
I love walnut trees but my garden is far too small for one of those - and here is perhaps just a bit too far north to get any nuts.
Both cherry and walnut are native here - as is hazel, which fortunately I can keep small with coppicing. I’ve only ever seen smallish fig trees but surprisingly (considering the walnut which is native doesn’t) they produce the fruit here.
Yes, it will be nice if in the future people appreciate our trees rather than cut them down!
Hi Helen thanks for the photo. It is a pretty tree and of course I had to look up if yew berries were edible! I will try and take some photos tonight of my fig tree. It is weird how hardy figs but they need heat to ripen.
A lot cooler today after hitting 30 degrees the past few days which is all we get as a maximum. It feels hot enough for most people. I wish it would rain but nothing in the forecast. The beans love the partial shade and the support. I can hear the hummingbirds pollinating secure from predators. They are living here year round now apparently which is interesting. Before they used to only migrate.
Your figs look great - I hope it stays nice and warm so that they ripen. Thirty degrees is higher than we generally get - winter is often almost as warm as summer here (except this summer at approx 25 degrees).
Anyway, good to hear the beans are doing well. Do they get much light in the forest? I guess there might be more moisture for them there than in the open?
We’ve also got birds which used to migrate and now don’t - or are seen further north. They don’t ‘hum’, though.
Thanks the beans look a little thirsty and light starved and the mosquito population in the forest is merciless. I am too scared to go in during the week as dusk settles for being attacked. I may have to bring them emergency water tonight. It may be a huge fail but I will know more in a month.
https://miss604.com/2017/02/hummingbirds-in-winter-in-vancouver.html Here is a link to the local hummingbirds who are so cute but a devil to photograph as they are so small and fast. They come right up close like a foot away if you are still. Beautiful little things that work so hard to keep alive. If you thought squirrels were industrious! Must take some updated photos this weekend to show progress. Failures can makegreat teachers. That is a cool summer indeed you have in Yorkshire
Hi Helen, I took some more photos of the forest garden and only got a few bites for my troubles. Saw no one on the trail which was good as i was carrying a five gallon bucket of water with a lid on it, back and forth, which would seem somewhat odd to a passing stranger. There is a natural water source at the trail head that is deep enough for a bucket and presumably breeding mosquitoes and saves me from going all the way home but it is a struggle making too many trips through the forest carrying water. The hugels were looking a little thirsty, especially the little one, which was smaller and hastily erected. Still, I had the time but it did rather feel like cheating. Part of me wanted to let them suffer just to see if it were possible to raise beans without added input, but I only have so many seeds and am greedy for actual success. I watched the UK movie 'The Survivalist' which was rather grim and haunting. A post-apocolyptic solitary man tending a pathetic little garden while slowly starving to death. It really is haunting and makes you wonder if you could do any better? Definitely lodged in my subconscious and was probably what spurred me on to this little endeavour. I would have starved to death waiting for my beans to ripen no doubt. There is the odd dwarf bean ready in the larger bed but only flowers on a few of the runners. Thankfully, I have enough funds for food and my own garden to supplement such meagre results. Maybe next year it will leap into action with something more suitable. Anyways these photos may or may not show more.
Maybe there was a better photo. This software is amazingly easy to post photos and links into. It really feels like the way the internet should be run. Full of only nice, friendly people, easy to navigate and search, super helpful and informative and welcoming. My hats off to everyone on the Permies staff who work so tirelessly to make this such a wonderful place to hang out and explore and learn. Imagine if school was like this? How much we could learn and grow together. Thank you Helen for spurring me on and coaxing me out of my shell. I overcame my apprehensions and now feel part of the community. It’s a nice feeling and I implore others to jump in and post their adventures and ask questions. It’s not as scary as it may look!
Cameron Whyte wrote:Thank you Helen for spurring me on and coaxing me out of my shell. I overcame my apprehensions and now feel part of the community.
You’re welcome, Cameron!
Sounds like you did a lot of heavy work yesterday, watering the hugel beds. If anyone had stopped you to enquire into your activities, you might have been able to broaden their mind (without giving them a free pass to your beans) - or ended up with a willing helper.
I understand that hugelbeds do need watering to start with. I guess even rotten wood will dry out eventually - of course, my beds aren’t a good example as they are green wood and we have low rainfall, but I’d have thought that vegetation taking the moisture out of the beds would deplete them, all things being equal.
Not heard of ‘The Survivalist’ but it sounds depressing. I am sure there are lots of foods to forage for in that forest of yours, so if the shops ran out and your own plantings all failed, you could still eat. But it sounds like you’re getting somewhere with your experiment 😊.
You can’t really see the ones on the hugel bed behind the sweetcorn and beans, which are doing okay (my soil is so thin I can only build very low hugel beds and the soil collapses into the wood very quickly). The beans with the sweetcorn are struggling, no doubt for a number of reasons.
In order to help seal your "pondlet" you might try Bentonite Clay. It's an organic clay that is mixed with the soil at the bottom and sides of your pond and when it gets wet it expands and seals. I am able to purchase a 50 lb. bag from a local farm supply store for less than $10 US and that should be more than enough to seal something as small as you were describing.
Hi Helen and Eric
Thanks for the response and thank you Eric for the info. I had no idea bentonite was so cheap. I feel like a dummy for not trying that. That would have made a world of difference I am sure. I will be sure to remember that. Thanks for the photo of your garden Helen. You should be pleased getting those ears of corn. I love how good fresh corn is when it’s home grown! What are those tall thin plants in the background? Soil building takes time and incorporating organic matter into the soil is key. I am loathe to start digging cover crops into my garden again. It’s looking really weedy and messy but I want to explore growing food amidst the weeds and see how that goes. I used to follow Steve Solomon’s advice to the letter and not allow weeds to compete with the vegetables. After listening to others talk about allowing nature to decide how best to cover the precious soil I am willing to try a more hands-off approach.
You make a good point about being less worried about being secretive with my first garden. I remember taking up leaves in a park into a giant sack to form leaf litter compost/mulch and this guy approaching me and striking up a conversation. He admitted too that he did that as he had a large property and could see the benefit of this bounteous resource. I could afford to be a little more optimistic about people’s motives and curiosity. I wouldn’t watch that movie if I were you. It was not uplifting but if the purpose of a film is to make you think and ponder the messages we’ll after you leave the theatre then yea it was a powerful film in its raw gritty realism.
Since you set the ball rolling with your garden photo I thought I’d be brave and show some of my backyard.
I probably should have fruit thinned a bit more. Maybe it’s not too late. I have let an existing espalier Apple tree just do its thing. The jug on the right is a mixture of apple cider and molasses to try and catch apple maggot fly. There were once chickens in the aviary behind the apple tree but I had to give up that notion as I couldn’t bare to keep them confined as our yard is not fenced. I agree with Paul that they deserve more space to roam. As much as I liked the eggs and tried to improve their diet it distressed me.
Your garden looks a lot fuller than mine. I wish I had sown more sweetcorn now but I had no idea the weather was going to be so good for this and so bad for the vetch I did sow.
Anyway, I like weeds - well, the ones I know what to do with like nettles and plantain (Plantago major). It was actually the latter which spurred me on to post about soil building, as plantain is a sign of poor soil. I have a feeling, though, to really soil build could take lots of money, as I can’t seem to produce enough biomass for all my garden needs (I make it into compost rather than digging it in).
I hadn’t heard of Steve Solomon but I did learn on a Citizen Science course last year that weeds are good for helping to conserve water in the soil, amongst other things. So under my biggest patch of plantain, it is should be lovely and moist (I wish). The nettles I dug out to get a squash plant in are coming back, though, no doubt spurred on by the water meant for the said squash. That’s probably for the best, as I will definitely have a crop of something rather than an empty tummy.
The tall, thin plants you see in the photo are Jerusalem artichokes. For better or worse, I have been growing them to eat but they do also produce some biomass.
Nice to see you’ve got borage. The drought here seems to have killed mine off.
I didn’t know plantain was an indicator of poor soils. I am glad I only have a little bit. Here on the west coast there is a real coffee culture and you can harvest enormous bags of coffee grounds for free. I either supplement my vermocompost bins or lay piles of used coffee grounds on the surface of the garden or if necessary shallowly dig it in. All worms seem to go crazy for this and the resulting castings are basically free fertilizer. The soil darkens and holds more water over time. They quickly get consumed and it certainly has helped my garden’s productivity.
I like borage too but maybe it has taken over. I don’t have the heart to thin out the borage self seeding so I just leave them for the bees. It’s an easy herb to thin out though if it gets out of control which is nice. Steve Solomon is an amazing guy and now lives in Tasmania after years of living in Oregon and elsewhere. He has written many gardening books that make for great reading. I think I would enjoy chatting to him.
Yes, you are definitely doing your bit to help the bees. Do you eat the flowers? They are supposed to taste like cucumber, though I’ve not found that. I like them in salads, all the same.
Perhaps I should get myself round the cafes as it would free fertiliser... I’ve been trying to operate a closed loop in my garden, whereby I only use what I can create, but this doesn’t seem to be enough.
Hi Helen. Sorry for the delay in replying. Things got busy. Yes I sometimes eat the borage flowers but I avoid the black stamen part as it is bitter. I should probably make more herbal teas but it doesn’t cross my mind very often. I spend too much of the summer just watering to keep things alive. I really need to make more hugel beds and maybe think about building a pond.
It seems a worthy goal not to want to bring in outside resources and keep a closed loop. Lower your risk of outside contamination from undesirables. However, I do see a huge leap in the health and vigour of hungry heavy feeders like squash, corn etc when I add complete organic fertilizer. Steve Solomon talks about how humans entered into a partnership with vegetables that meant we had to pamper and nurture them more than flowers or weeds in exchange for the higher nutrients that vegetables provide us. Think of the huge swollen tap root of the carrot compared to queens Anne lace. Which is more hardy and less finicky about its growing conditions? I’m paraphrasing from memory but it made sense to me. That’s why I’m fascinated by Joseph Lofthouse and his marvellous threads here on permies. He is growing without inputs other than his carefully selected seed lines. I want to emulate this but on a surburban scale but there is not as much wriggle room for experimenting. I am letting things go to seed and see what the seeds I select can achieve.Maybe I need to reduce the weed bank of seeds waiting for the right conditions to overrun the place? Plus my neighbours need to be placated. I love reading about Luther Burbank and all he achieved. Really incredible what he helped bring to horticulture from a keen eye and talking with plants. They attempted to emulate his methods but he was a little secretive. Makes me want to visit Santa Rosa one day.
I have never grown sweet yellow clover before and it looks well established. That seems to shade out any competing weeds and will improve the soil. I am excited for it and to see how tall it can get in sandy soil low in organic matter. I too am growing sunchokes in a few areas of the yard and am a little nervous that they will take over. They do make a great deal of biomass.
0.16 of an acre so minus the house it is two areas one in front once in back probably 3000 square feet all up. The orientation is not ideal so parts get shade from buildings but the fig gets full sun all day.
0.16 acre sounds like there’s wiggle room to me, Cameron. So far, the only seeds I never buy are for garlic, poppies and phacelia (plus Jerusalem artichoke tubers) but I guess these are starting to adapt to my conditions.
As for placating neighbours, I think mine are okay generally. They ‘help’ me out occasionally by putting weedkiller on my dandelions and there has been consternation over the lasagne gardening to get rid of the front lawn but I realise it could be worse.
Mmm, sunchokes and taking over go hand in hand. As I want the space for a hazel, mine are moving to a pot this winter. I’m reluctant to do container gardening due to its water needs but digging tubers out round tree roots and watching them suck the life out of vegetation isn’t ideal, either.
Another thing that is taking over is ground elder, which I got from a friend with her gift of wild garlic. As you mention, not bringing in from outside saves some degree of heartache but I really wanted wild garlic. So, I’ll try to get that out as soon as we’ve had enough rain to soften the soil. At least it’s not in a hugel bed!
Do you find that your hugel beds hold water over the summer then?
Hi Helen. Yes you are right about enough land to do some experimenting. I have no excuses. Another 31 degree day and the hugel beds are holding up although the topsoil layer is almost dust it’s so dry. Probably should have added more mulch. It’s still looking good as far as most things clinging on. The hairy vetch looks good without showing tremendous growth. I want to see how planting rye in the fall will do as the leaves will fall and there will more light and rainfall. However there is a development as I saw either two little mice or baby rats foraging around in the leaf litter near the large hugel bed. My concern is they could decimate a bed planted in germinating rye seed if they set up home. Otherwise it’s holding up with no rain at all. Maybe some rain forecast in a week. I hope so! Met a dog walker as I was carrying a bucket of water and he asked after it so I told him and he said ‘neat’. So that was a posiitive interaction. I felt encouraged anyway by the state of the transplant bocking 14 comfrey. It looks like it will make it and the sunchokes are five foot tall and holding in there. And the first of the runner beans looking a little wizened from not enough water. I should have started them further down toward the base as it is drier up top. My other thought is to dig a pond beside the hugel in winter and have it store water for summer. I can try the bentonite method then.
Good to hear your hugel beds are bearing up in the heat, Cameron. It looks from the photos as though there is a reasonable amount of light on them.
Hopefully, the mice will move on and you’ll be able to grow the rye okay. I think I’ve got mice digging up the sweetcorn seeds I sowed the other day after our first rain in a couple of months. Fingers crossed you get some soon.
Ok, back from some weeks wwoofing on a nearby island. Fantastic experience with a host that lives permaculture and restorative agriculture with a great vision. I can’t really say any more because it’s not my place to talk about it but I had a great experience. My first woofing experience and I wish I had done it sooner! Oh well, you live and learn.
It’s been almost three weeks of dry heat and very little rain and I was pleasantly surprised that my beans I planted have survived and hopefully will produce viable seed for next year.
https://aeronvale-allotments.org.uk/purplerunnerbeans/ Here is a link to these amazing beans. I picked some from my backyard garden and can’t wait to taste them. There are some viable seeds for sure as I let them dry off so I will have a supply to replant regardless. I just wanted to challenge the ones in the forest to really produce a hardy strain that takes no prisoners. Here are a few photos in case anyone is curious.