340 – Hugelkultur Listener Questions With Cassie – Part 2

Paul continues to lie on his back (secondary to his spinal issues – listen to the previous podcast) and field questions from Cassie about hugelkultur:

“What about hugelkultur beds without wood?”
First, Paul tells you how you can get a 6’ hugelkultur berm by piling up 3’ and then digging 3’ deep trenches on either side. You can sort of use the sod as the carbon rich material. Sepp Holzer built hugelkultur beds and when they ran out of wood, he planted a bunch of potatoes to become the underground carbon. At base camp, they have some berms built without wood inside – things don’t grow as well as on the proper hugelkultur berms.

Then Cassie asks about “taking, like, balls of really good soil and planting that in shitty soil.”
Paul says when somebody wonderful like Kelly Ware brings you a 5 gallon bucket of amazing garden soil, you don’t want to sprinkle that all over the place, because the life in the soil will likely die. It’s better to divide the bucket into fewer parts, each at least a good double handful of soil, and then put that gob of good stuff in your hugelkultur (in different spots). The life in the soil is more likely to survive, and it can eventually spread throughout the berm.

“How can you work on a super tall, super steep hugelkultur bed?” (local question – trying to deal with Paul’s 12-15’ tall super narrow steep berms)
If you build a 15’ tall hugelkultur bed, it would be ideal to have the base be 30’ wide, and then you could have a sort of terrace for a path partway up. However, on Paul’s land there just wasn’t enough room, so the berms are very tall and steep. The plan is for a siege ladder (!) O.K., actually maybe the way to go is to alter an orchard ladder by putting a short leg (or a couple of short legs) at the top of the ladder. Then you can lean the ladder up against the berm, and the short legs keep it from crushing everything that’s growing on the berm.

“Do hugelkultur beds make sense in dry climates, or should we leave them to the wet Alps?”
Sepp has made successful hugelkultur berms in very dry land in Spain and Portugal, places that get just 6” of rain a year. He added drip irrigations to half the berms, but things grew on both halves. When the drip irrigation was removed, the plants died on that half. Sepp Holzer made a bunch of hugelkultur berms in Montana (where it gets 20” of rain a year on average) and then there was a terrible dry year. Some of the beds were given drip irrigation. The berms that got no irrigation are the ones in Paul’s video. They had all kinds of food growing on them. The hugelkultur berms do more than just soak up and hold moisture in the soil. Adding the berms changes the effect of the wind, it decreases the desiccation from the wind and if you can really slow down the air, you might even be able to harvest some moisture (some dew).

“What about hugelkultur beds in the suburbs?”
The primary thing that keeps people from building them 6’ tall is the neighbors. First advice – build your tall hugelkultur berms in the back yard. Nobody should be looking at your stuff back there. Second advice – in the front, start with a raised bed, a 2’ tall raised bed. Then, maybe you could sneakily add more soil every year so it gets taller! At 2’ tall, it won’t be as amazing and awesome as it would be at 6’ tall, but it will be good. It’s always worth it, to at least build a raised bed. “The idea of having a FLAT garden is just mind boggling to me. I just can’t do it anymore!”

This is why Paul likes to be out in the country, with super tall shielding berms. To limit the crazy that comes to his doorstep.

“How do you avoid unwanted fungi bothering nearby fruit trees?”
“I don’t.”
Fungus is everywhere already. Yes it will come to the wood in your hugelkultur bed, but as long as your fruit tree is healthy and strong and vibrant, it won’t be overcome by pathogens. How is the leaf count on your trees? Are you capturing all the sun? Have you removed any crossing branches? The goal of pruning is to maximize leaf surface per branch (minimize bark). If you have two branches running right next to each other, you can remove on of them. Both Sepp and Masanobu Fukuoka talk about the advantages of completely unpruned trees, but many of the trees on Sepp’s property are pruned. His staff always seem to have a pruner in their pocket. Once a tree has been pruned, it probably needs to keep being pruned.

When it comes to fungal pathogens in the soil, being built up in the hugelkultur bed helps the soil be more aerobic, and that generally helps with soil health, a la Elaine Ingham. And of course if you have hundreds of acres, you might want to just let the pathogens take out the weaker specimens. If you have just a little bit of land, you’re going to want to do something. A good quality mulch around the base of a fruit tree can make a huge difference.

“When piling up the wood core, should you try to neatly pile up the wood, to eliminate air spaces?”
When you are laying down the wood, you want a single layer of wood, with at least an inch of space between the pieces. Then, cover all that with soil until you can’t see the wood. Only now do you pile on more wood, then more soil, then more wood. Try to create diversity inside the hugelkultur bed, don’t make things homogeneous. Have a glob of manure over here, and of sod over there, not spread out and sprinkled evenly. You are trying to add variety, to create diversity.

“What types of plants are good for controlling erosion in a newly built bed?”
“Grasses.” They are terrible for gardens, but they are awesome at controlling erosion. Vetch is good, but hard to establish. Hemp used to be grown in ditches, actually. Once the grasses are going, they are good for chop-n-drop. Sepp has developed a grain that grows 8’ tall in poor conditions and creates a lot of biomass. Paul is using a special variety of tall fescue that is amenable to ruminants (listen for details) called Max-Q. They are also planting some orchard grass and other grasses. Annual rye is a good thing to have on hand in the fall, to put down on any bare soil.

(The Bullock brothers bordered a one acre flat garden plot with rhubarb in an attempt to stop grass infiltration, but Paul thinks it didn’t work.)

Probably the best way to manage grasses is with ruminants. Paul tells a tale of two farms: one worked hard with plastic trying to kill Canary reed grass, another one nearby which was trying to grow more of it, to feed their cattle. It was the only thing that grew well in a swampy spot. Grasses are very bad news for fruit trees, and for garden plots. Hmm, maybe there are other plants with webby roots that aren’t so troublesome as grass.

“If I use freshly cut wood, how long will it take to get the characteristic “sponge effect” of the wood?”
The first year, not much effect, the second year some, and the third year it should be good. If the logs are massive (and fresh) it’s going to take longer. They are also going to last a lot longer. But hey, if you’ve got fresh cut wood, why use it for hugelkultur? The first best use of wood is to build with it. The second best use is to burn it. It’s just the low quality wood that goes into a hugulkultur bed, generally.

Relevant Threads

Permaculture Magazine North America
Hugelkultur Forum at permies
Paul’s hugelkultur video

Credit: Julia Winter


You can discuss this podcast on this thread at Permies.

Get all of the podcasts in convenient, giant zip files