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Permaculture forum: Hugelkultur beds

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Name: Tee
TN (Zone 7a)
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SongofJoy
Feb 23, 2012 2:59 PM CST
I'd like to hear about people's experiences with this as I am working on my first hugelkultur bed. I've done lasagna gardening/sheet mulching for a long, long time, but I have never constructed a strictly hugelkultur bed.

I understand it lessens or eliminates the need for supplemental irrigation. True?

I have lots of small to medium size limbs that come down and also lots of pinecones every year.

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Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 23, 2012 3:04 PM CST

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It's certainly no surprise that I am a huge fan of hugelkultur.

My Springtime project for this year is a hugelswale system, where I have swales running along my west hillside. These swales will be hugelkultur beds below each one.

The idea of organic matter is an elementary aspect of gardening, and hugelkultur is nothing more than an upgrade for common sheet mulching. Including logs, branches, and twigs into your bed dramatically increases the bulk of organic matter.

Our hugelkultur bed is doing extremely well this year. The wood is at that sweet spot now, spongy and mushy. The greens we are growing this winter are the best tasting and most vibrant plants we've ever grown.
Name: Chris Powell
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milkmood
Feb 23, 2012 5:37 PM CST
Dave...You made yours on top of the ground...I understood them to be buried into the ground then backfilled and planted over. Is yours a typical method, or is the buried method more typical?
Name: Dave Whitinger
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dave
Feb 23, 2012 7:04 PM CST

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Sepp Holzer described it as an extension of sheet mulching. To me, that means "on top of the ground".

I know there are some out there who advocate burying the wood under grade, but I've never done that for the reasons stated above, and I know most people use the "above ground" method.

Hugel means hill, actually. The idea is that you end up with a hill or large mound.

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tropicbreeze
Feb 24, 2012 1:27 AM CST
Because of the large volume of debris I have from trees on my place this has become one of my methods of disposal, forming new gardens over piles of tree branches, palm fronds, leaves, grass, etc. All the materials have different rates of decomposition. The Mango and African Mahogany rot fairly quickly whereas some of the others are slow. Most palm fronds go fairly quickly as well. But as long as it's in the soil it's all good. I also add charcoal and animal bones to the mix. It makes for a good 'brew'.
Name: Tee
TN (Zone 7a)
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SongofJoy
Feb 24, 2012 5:04 AM CST
A lot of digging would be difficult for me so I'm going with above ground, constructed the same way I sheet mulch except with the addition of the wood. I have laid down several large flattened cardboard boxes and am mounding tree limbs, branches and pinecones on that. Then some good compost and soil. Then probably the old banana leaves and more wood (or does all the wood belong at the bottom of the pile?) and layers of soil/compost until I have a mound that is two to three feet high. I mulched things this year with shredded cedar pet bedding I found on sale and will toss that in when I remove it. Does all this sound about right?

Is there any recommended height for a mound to begin with?

What about the addition of dead potted plants and their root balls, etc?

You do or don't add any "green" materials to this like green leaves, prunings, and so forth?

How long do you wait before planting the bed?
Tennessee Native Plant Society
In the garden I tend to drop my thoughts here and there. To the flowers I whisper the secrets I keep and the hopes I breathe. I know they are there to eavesdrop for the angels. ~Dodinsky


Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 24, 2012 7:09 AM CST

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Tee, your description above is pretty much my formula, too. You're doing it right. Smiling

I would avoid the cedar shavings, though. Cedar has some oils that can be bad for some plants and some microbes. Also, it'll never really break down.

Height: as high as it takes. I've heard of hugelkultur beds of 6 feet tall. Mine usually end up about 2 feet tall.

I dump all old potting soil and dead plants into the compost bin where it eventually finds its way to a hugelbed. I don't add them directly but I see no reason why you couldn't (assuming no diseases are present in the potted soil)

Fresh green materials: yes! I add as much of that as I can find. When I built my big mandala shaped hugelbed, I cut quite a bit of grass and immediately raked it up and put it on the bed. The fresh green material is full of nitrogen.

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Plant right away, but be prepared for the plants to struggle during the first season. During the first couple seasons, plant things in the bed that are not heavy nitrogen feeders.
Name: chelle
N.E. Indiana - Zone 5b
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chelle
Feb 24, 2012 7:30 AM CST
I first used this method 4 or 5 years ago. I needed to construct a raised area to turn a troublesome spot into a usable one. It needed something a bit out of the ordinary to keep soil, leaves, compost and plants from washing away in spring run-off.


Thumb of 2012-02-24/chelle/342451

I began by piling logs and branches in the areas that needed to be raised, while leaving an opening for the water to make its way through to the lake. I angled the sides to direct the water flow so that I didn't end up with more pooled water in the yard than I had before.

Then I filled those areas with dirty fill. Inexpensive, even when purchased in large quantities; leaves, hay, twigs, horse manure and more soil to finish the top layer. This project was all done in summer, and by hand with a wheelbarrow since driving a vehicle into this area was out of the question. That autumn we planted tulips and a few divided perennials into the area - ones that were expendable since I had no idea what to expect.

Everything has stayed where I put it; nothing has washed away since constructing these beds, the plants have all grow wonderfully, and this is the last area on our property to receive supplemental late-summer water; it just doesn't seem to need it. Smiling

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Thumb of 2012-02-24/chelle/0d10e6

I add small logs into the beds whenever I add a plant, fallen twigs and leaves gathered from the yard, and stalks of otherwise healthy, frost-killed plants in the fall to keep the organic matter high. I haven't had to do anything further to keep it growing well; not yet, anyway. Big Grin

My beds didn't retain a lot of height once things settled in, so I'll build them a bit higher next time.


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Name: Tee
TN (Zone 7a)
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SongofJoy
Feb 24, 2012 8:30 AM CST
Thanks, all.

I'll put the cedar shavings elsewhere then. I need some path material so that might work well toward that project. I know cedar is very slow to decay ... makes great decks and fences. I should have remembered that it has some anti-microbial properties.

That looks really good, chelle. I have the same seasonal stream issue in the very back as well although not quite that much. I lost a couple of big EEs to rot back there last year due to heavy spring rains. Glare

Tennessee Native Plant Society
In the garden I tend to drop my thoughts here and there. To the flowers I whisper the secrets I keep and the hopes I breathe. I know they are there to eavesdrop for the angels. ~Dodinsky



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hazelnut
Feb 24, 2012 12:02 PM CST
I am doing a lot of property clean-up this year and all of the woody materials will go into new hugelkultur beds. Yes. I conceive of the beds as on-top-of the ground structures. I am on sandy soil and a like to dig (being an archeologist now retired) -- but I have found that garden soil really does not like to be turned upside down. Plants grow in top soil and if you turn it under the plants will not do as well. To me hugelkulture technique is simply the next concept after no-til.
On top of the ground is the way nature makes soil.

I hadn't thought of throwing bones in, but my dogs eat a lot them so
bone disposal was becoming a problem. Thanks for the idea -- Ill toss them in with the woodies in the hugelkulture beds.

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hazelnut
Feb 24, 2012 12:06 PM CST
I once had access to a huge 19th century sawdust pile. I thought it would make great mulch but it turned our to be largely cedar and walnut sawdust. I destroyed my whole garden that year and I think still there is nothing that will grow in that space since Ive now moved away.

Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 24, 2012 12:14 PM CST

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hazelnut said:On top of the ground is the way nature makes soil.


That one statement really says it all!
Name: Sharon
Calvert City, KY (Zone 7a)
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Sharon
Feb 24, 2012 12:24 PM CST
Question:

What happens if some of the wood is processed, like treated lumber scraps?

And too, what about driftwood?

I would think the treated lumber scraps wouldn't be good for the bed, but the only thing I can think of with freshwater driftwood is that it would take a long time to break down. I'm asking because I have access to lots of both.
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Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
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Weedwhacker
Feb 24, 2012 12:25 PM CST
Anything that can use up some rotting wood is of interest to me -- our woods is full of it, and I have a perfect place already started, where we've been dumping yard waste etc. for several years. Smiling
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Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 24, 2012 12:32 PM CST

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Sharon, that treated lumber is horribly nasty stuff. Keep it out of your garden altogether! Google for "pressure treated lumber" to read what they use to keep it from rotting.

Driftwood: I don't see why not.
Name: Sharon
Calvert City, KY (Zone 7a)
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Sharon
Feb 24, 2012 12:41 PM CST
Thought so about the treated lumber. Wonder how long the nasty stuff lasts in the wood? Forever probably. I have 4' sized scraps taken off 24' of my 40 year old downsized deck. I stashed them out of sight beneath the deck thinking I could use some of the pieces for tomato stakes, but never did that. I always kept wondering about the 'treated' part and how it would affect my prized tomatoes. So it's best I just toss them all.

Good about the driftwood.
Thanks.
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tropicbreeze
Feb 24, 2012 6:17 PM CST
hazelnut said:
I hadn't thought of throwing bones in, but my dogs eat a lot them so
bone disposal was becoming a problem. Thanks for the idea -- Ill toss them in with the woodies in the hugelkulture beds.

Bones in acid soils don't last all that long, but still long enough. They keep longer in higher pH soils. A few years ago we had a cattle truck accident near where I work. It was a 3 trailer one and one of the trailers rolled. Some of the cattle were killed, about 30 had to be put down, and some escaped. The carcases were dumped in the bush. Over the past year I've been bringing loads of bones home for the gardens. Although I have big gardens, there's more than enough bones for quite a while, make no bones about that! Hilarious!

If your soil is sandy, charcoal is good to add, especially activated charcoal. Now I don't mean the charcoal sold for BBQs, that often has flammable compounds added to it to make it burn better. Charcoal has a huge surface area (at the molecular level) which nutruients adhere to preventing them from getting leached away too rapidly. It holds moisture as well. Plants are able to draw on these. Sand generally hold nothing.
Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 24, 2012 6:41 PM CST

All Things Plants Admin

Here's what I've been working on almost all day. Smiling

Thumb of 2012-02-25/dave/a2b050
Name: Sharon
Calvert City, KY (Zone 7a)
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Sharon
Feb 24, 2012 6:47 PM CST
So you dig trenches to hold the logs in place? Sort of like terracing on that little knoll. That's what my back yard is, a gradual climb, so the trenches would help with it. (Yeah, I'm taking notes.)

Looks a little like cedar.
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Name: Dave Whitinger
Jacksonville, Texas (Zone 8b)
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dave
Feb 24, 2012 8:09 PM CST

All Things Plants Admin

It's mostly river birch with a bit of sweet gum. Both are tremendous woods to use for hugelkultur.

Now, the trenches are not a normal part of hugelkultur. These are swales (level, on-contour ditches that hold water) with hugelbeds below them.

I'm going to be writing a very lengthy and detailed tutorial on these hugelswales when I finish the project.

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