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Cristo Balete

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since May 23, 2015
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Long-time Permaculturist
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In the woods, West Coast USA
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Recent posts by Cristo Balete

Morfydd St. Clair wrote:  I’ve been thinking about replacing a non edible hedge that came with the house we’re in between us and the busy street. I’m in western Washington, zone 8b, was thinking about using a mix of the following.

- silverberry,  eleagnus x ebbingei, and even a couple of those.  


Yes, I second the Elaeagnus.  It's tough as nails, is evergreen but drops enough leaves to create really great mulch.  There's a bit of dust that forms on the Silverberry that can get loose in the air at late summer pruning times, a mask helps if that causes issues.   2-year-old or more growth has thorns, but spring/summer growth that gets trimmed does not have thorns.  It's excellent for chop and drop as well.  Gophers haven't touched it, at least for me.  I've had a Silverberry hedge for 30 years and haven't had a single issue.

Elaeagnus Goumiberry multiflora has small red berries and has survived frost well in my mild-winter climate (the ground doesn't freeze, frost is gone by 9 AM)  The berries are kind of seedy, but no worse than blackberries.
Matt, your Seaberry looks like a great support plant for any new fruit tree or shrub you want to plant on either side of it.  It can be chopped and dropped, contributes to thick mulch, and fixes nitrogen at the same time, and confuses pests, disease free.  Seems almost perfect.  Have you checked out Syntropic Agroforest planting patterns?   Denser plantings than you might normally do with support plants in between food-bearing trees and shrubs, ankle-high rough chop and drop mulch.  

Very excellent system.
3 days ago
Nancy, it's just amazing what you've done.  I get exhausted just looking at the piles of saturated clay.  How did you shovel all that?? while you probably had 5 pounds on each boot, and some stuck to the shovel?  

But the results look great.  Congrats.

For what it's worth, cattails are a real pain.  They multiply faster than anything, will dominate a planting, and are a real struggle to stay up with.  If the water  and soil doesn't freeze then you'll be the only thing that knocks them back.  I have hours every year of trying to keep them somewhat under control, they always race out ahead of me in the spring.  

I even put some in containers making a grey-water reed filter bed, they grew like crazy, almost burst the containers.  Then I stopped using a couple of the containers, needed the water for hugel trenches, everything looked dead, dry as toast in there, it started raining again, and some still came up!  Very difficult to stop them, it takes a lot of work.

But they are a good plant with lots of uses.  Even the fluff that comes out of the seed head can be used like down fill in a jacket, although I'd take care not to breathe in the little bits while handling it.  12 cattail heads to fill a medium jacket. But that fluff also is dispersed in the wind, and those things will show up wherever there's water, relentless.  
6 months ago
A point to consider about hugel mounds, if your soil freezes in the winter, the mounds  need to be really wide and not all that high in order to not freeze through.  Not sure exactly what that would be since the ground doesn't freeze where I am, but seeing pictures of Sepp Holzer's mounds in the Alps, made by a bulldozer, they look to be 16 feet (4 meters) wide and 8 feet (2.5 meters) high.  He uses them as windbreaks as well.  He plants fruit trees on them, so the soil must not freeze, but he's also got huge ponds above them that allow not-freezing air to descend onto the mounds.

I think there's a ratio of width to height that works best.  If my guesstimate is right about Holzer, it's 2:1.  Maybe somebody on these forums knows.

I've seen some kind of bizarre pictures of hugel mounds on the internet, almost upside down V shapes just a few feet wide (3 meters) and chest high, and I just don't think that narrow and high a mound could create the kind of bacteria/fungal environment that's needed.  Erosion on those would be just awful.

That's why the trenches take all the guess work out of it.  Ma Nature takes care of what's underground, and we don't have to learn by mistake.  The first hugel mounds I made 20 years ago were exhausting to do, even for a younger me, and they weren't small, but the rodents just won that battle!  As they almost always do!  And in a Mediterranean climate like mine, they dried out constantly, which defeats the whole process.
6 months ago
Darren, not sure where you are, or if you are going to do hugel mounds or hugel trenches.  

I had trouble with rodents making air tunnels in the mounds, so I switched to trenches which have been excellent.  Everything stays damp, no erosion off the slopes, the soil critters thrive.  Remember, Sepp Holzer had a bulldozer, and that will tell you size of the piles that he was working with.  They are a LOT of work otherwise, and have issues.

Just make sure to fill in air gaps around all the wood.  Manure is also a good addition in a few layers as you go.  Nitrogen from the manure breaks down the carbon of the wood and creates a great environment  for soil critters.

1.  Fresh pine with sap dripping out of it, it's going to take longer than dead pine, so put it the lowest in the pile and spread it thinly.  I would say don't do more than 1/3 of the pile in green pine.  Dead pine is best, soaked in water, or pee if you are a Hugel Warrior :-)

2. and 3.   Grass clippings compost heap, absolutely.  And freshly cut grass, weeds, any brown or green shrub cuttings.  If that's a shrub that will yearly supply you with material, it's a win-win.  You're not just trimming it, you're harvesting it.

4. If you've got disease issues on wood, it needs to be buried deeply so the soil critters and fungi and bacteria can work on it.  Put it on the bottom so it stays wet and covered with manure/soil/leaf, grass cuttings.

5.  Maple chips on top, Back to Eden style, as thickly as you can put them (minimum 2 inches), hide the soil and maintain it at that depth.

Good luck!
6 months ago
Living in a Mediterranian climate, no rain for 7+ months in the summer, hugel trenches have worked extremely well for me.  They are a long-term setup that is well worth the effort, especially when the wood absorbs moisture and holds it there during a drought.

I first tried mounds, but the rodents moved in and dried out the mounds impossibly, made new openings and wind tunnels.  The mounds were really difficult to build, even with the excitement of trying something new.   There's no really effective way to put drip lines on a mound with steep sides.  Heavy rain often causes erosion.   And unless you can climb a mound to pull weeds, care for plants, you have to lean in with your feet kept out at the widest point, not really an ergonomic position for the sake of long-term back care.    

Sepp Holzer has a bulldozer, lucky guy, and the mounds are so big they don't seem to have the problems of smaller garden mounds.  I am not sure what Holzer says about rodents.  Maybe planting poisonous plants, which he recommends, keeps them at bay.  

I have learned that even lining the trenches tightly with branches on the bottom, the rodents get past that, so the trenches are not rodent proof.  I still plant the edges of the trenches with asparagus and elephant garlic, narcissus and daffodil bulbs, and a few native weeds that the gophers leave alone.

Where I am all the soil is dry by summer, so any watering brings the gophers/voles running.  But the growing environment of a hugel trench is by far the most productive.
6 months ago
Lif, I rely on asparagus to stop the gophers.   I flank perennials on either side with Jersey Giant, along with elephant garlic.   They haven't touched any of it...ever.  *knock on wood"  (I'm a gardener, don't I know not to say "ever"???)  Ha!

Nice to know there are used troughs out there.  

Douglas, yes, I have that same problem in the hugel tote containers in the greenhouse.  If the soil isn't kept thoroughly wet, unbelievable amounts of ants settle in, then when I start watering they all try escaping on all the edges, out the drain holes, I can almost hear their thousands of feet marching.  Tomatoes have been utterly stressed by their presence.  

Some folks say to disrupt their tunnels by stirring the soil with a metal shish kebab stake.  I've upped the elephant garlic in each container, and soaked the soil with water that has 15 drops of peppermint oil per gallon, or soak oregano plants in a 5 gallon bucket, pour the tea into the soil, slowly so it saturates.  There are a few other teas made from herbs that might work as well.  

Mostly keeping the soil very wet keeps them away....or they move to the next container!!  Smart but annoying!
6 months ago
Having just been through some of the worst fires ever on the West Coast of the US, wind is in control of the smoke.   I can't imagine what could help with smoke.  It's Ma Nature's thing, and you can't mess with Ma Nature :-)

The wind brings the smoke to somewhere and it takes it away.  Large fires create their own wind.   The smoke was so thick and horrible at one point in 2020 it turned the whole sky orange, believe it or not, for miles and miles.   It was impossible to breathe outside, all vents to the basement were covered, put tape over unused electrical outlets, towels crammed under doors.   The smoke in general, not always orange, was around for 25+ days coming from neighboring states and Canada.  We just stayed inside with a filter on the box fan, shut the curtains, and binged on DVDs.  It was only the wind that cleared that smoke away.

They are saying right now in May of 2023 that the smoke from the British Columbia fires could fill coastal towns all the way down to Central California, that's in the neighborhood of 1,000 miles.

The folks who were most worried about the long-term effects of that awful smoke were the vineyards and what it would do to their wine.  It was the end of August, most of September, so most other fruit was finished by then.

Native plants stand the best chance of surviving.  It's a little misleading when they say that plants are fire resistant.  They shouldn't say plants are "fire proof," that's just really misleading.  What they mean is that the plants will burn, but the odds are good they will come back.   Plants that are native to fire-prone areas have survived fires for millennia.  Plenty of the redwood trees on the West Coast have been burned to columns of black char, and they are now sprouting out all along their trunks...well, 25%-40% of them, anyway.  It's stunning, and amazing.  But they still burned at the time.

One fella got his house burned early on in his homeowner history, then built a home out of cinderblocks, and a big, hot fire burned that to the ground.  

Being prepared for fire is the most important thing, 100+ feet of clearance around buildings, trimmed trees and bushes, thousands of gallons of stored water, and tanks protected at all costs,  water that will have to be moved by a gas-powered water pump and lines that won't burn (because the power goes out, no electricity to run the well pump.)  High water pressure created by the water pump will get the water onto the roof or into sprinklers that will shoot far enough to help.

Fires and smoke are inconvenient when they are somewhere else.  Fires are a nightmare when they turn your life upside down, and that's really what is important to be prepared for.  :-)

6 months ago
If you really don't want to do plastic containers, there are the silver galvanized livestock troughs that are long oval shapes, circles, various sizes that can have one small hole drilled in each end to create a reservoir, line the bottom with  branches that will fill the bottom two-inch depth, then fill in with soil, compost and manure.  

It's the reservoir and the wood/limbs that makes all the difference in these containers.  You aren't really trying to get them to drain fast, so only two holes and small, like a shish kebab spear size.

They are pricey, but should last a lifetime.  Even if the galvanization oxidizes and gets into the soil, the molecules are too big for a plant root to suck it up as it sucks up water, so it won't cause any problems in that regard.  Unless these days they are lining them with something else, I don't know, but they don't look like it.

The silver ought to reflect the heat, but it might not hurt to shade the side that's exposed to the sun in the hottest part of the year.

Lots of people use these as raised beds, but they drill holes in the bottom, which loses the whole extra benefit of these troughs.
6 months ago
Definitely soak the wood, preferably in pee if you dare.  You can soak the wood in the reservoir in the bottom of the tote or container overnight, then start filling it.  Pithy wood crumbled over the top as mulch at least an inch deep is good, too.  Then it's like a Back To Eden mini garden.

Lif, acrylic paint works well.  Just lightly sand the top 6" inside and out, wipe clean.  Some paints say they are for plastic, but those are usually spray cans.  They recycle spray cans where I am, but they may not everywhere.  The plastic needs some prep to make it stick.  I've had my totes for 5 years and none of them have cracked.  

I don't intend to keep buying and replacing totes, but they are so great against gophers, and so great at not needing as much water, and the plants are up higher so less bending over.  Protecting them has worked so far.

Just be sure to get the right kind of recycle number on the bottom, food safe, No. 5, which a lot of storage totes in the chain stores are No. 5.

You can make fabric "capes" for them from old tarps that have fallen apart, old painters' tarps, heavy fabric.   If not in use cover them entirely with heavy fabric, old tarps, etc.

My containers are in a greenhouse so the whole exterior sides are not exposed to the sun.  

If used outside, then paint the whole side and ends that get morning and evening sun. or put them touching each other to shade the ends.

I've got clay soil, which sometimes over the winter dries out if I don't plant in them (inside a greenhouse,) so the clay soil pulls away from the edges.  But it's important to remember that the clay will expand when wet, so I wet the soil thoroughly and wait a day (overnight) and it will expand to fill the tote again.  If I add soil to the pulled-away sides it will overfill the container and make it bulge, possibly causing it to crack.  It's better to stir it up at that point, when wet, and add compost and rotted manure at about the halfway down point, and take the stress off the sides.

6 months ago