A good thing to do with sticks: Hugelkultur

I would like now to discuss one of those permaculture ideas possessed with real merit, at least for garden-farmer scale farmers.

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In case you haven’t guessed from the title, it is Hugelkultur. Supposedly, the idea hails from Germany, hence the name. To deposit so much material into a relativity small space would seem to indicate it came from a place with high property value and population density, like Germany. To put so much effort into reclamation and fertility restoration would seem to suggest a situation where land had been degraded, also like Germany. It almost seems downright un-American to me, that is, restoring the soil instead of just moving on to some other place once the fertility has been worn out, so I sort of like the foreign sounding name.

The idea is basically that one concentrates a great deal of nutrient-dense woody material into a small area, pile up soil on it, and then plant small woodland plants on it. It basically creates a micro-forest soil condition in a hurry, and at the same time makes harvesting (or weeding) of short plants (or fungi) easier because there is less bending down.

There are a few reasons why I think Hugelkultur can be worthwhile. One is that I am convinced that plants that hail from woodlands prefer rich woodland soil. Rich woodland soil is characterized by an abundance of mychorizal fungi and a relative paucity of bacterial activity, and this condition prevails in a regime of non-disturbance (no tillage). Woodland soil also has an abundance of organic material of varying durability. It has easily broken down leaf litter, but also rotting tree trunks. Often, woodland soils make only mediocre soils for growing your typical annual plants, of which almost all hail from grasslands (plants like Wheat, Corn, clovers, beans, Oats, etc.). Likewise, grassland soils, or degraded woodland soils (my farm), are only mediocre for many of the woodland plants (fruit trees, berries, Strawberries, Asparagus, Rhubarb, Sorrel, etc.). I think that a lot of the trouble that people have with growing berries, strawberries, and perennial vegetables comes from treating them like the annual grassland plants, when they are perennial woodland plants. These plants belong in your orchard, with your trees, and not in some garden rotation (with the possible exception of Strawberries).

The soils on my farm were at one time likely rich woodland soils. This is attested by the fact that my home and barn (which were built by the original settlers) are almost entirely built of Hickory, Oak, and Beech–the three climax species for woodlands where I live. The majority of the wood is Beech, which tends to dominate in the best soil conditions. My farm probably started off with very good native fertility, therefore. It wasn’t Illinois prairie soil, but it was among the best of the woodland soils that make up the majority of the United States East of the Mississippi.

Alas, those great trees where cut about 150-175 years ago and since then it has basically been a cornfield with on-again and off-again hay production. Even the most conscientious annual crop rotations which include hayfield breaks rarely improve a woodland soil; they usually only maintain it, and neglectful farming degrades. The last decade or so it was simply in corn, perhaps the most degrading crop of all. If my farm had been once humid temperate grassland, like much of the state of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, it would likely still possess so much residual fertility that I could grow almost any crop well. But woodland soils are much more fragile. They erode away and have less organic matter to being with. But at least I think I can restore a bit of it.

This year, my neighbor had a few great big Ash trees succumb to the Emerald Ash Borer, which has ravaged Southern Indiana. All Ash here is either dead or dying. Not even my single and solitary ash tree was spared. His trees were so massive they would have been very difficult to cut down, and he wanted the land cleared, so he hired a dozer. Usually in this situation, you will find plenty of folks to help you cut up the log and haul it off as firewood. But you will not have such an easy time of finding someone to painstakingly cut up and haul off the small branches and twiggy limbs that don’t make good cordwood. It’s not worth people’s time. It almost always gets burned, and when I asked that it not be burned, and that I would cut it up and haul it off, everyone thought it was a rather strange request.

I took those Ash limbs and hauled them off in my trailer. When I pruned my orchard trees in February, I added the prunings to the Ash twig pile. Usually these prunings are a pain and mess up the lawnmower. Most people chip them up. I hate the noise and hand injury that always accompaines chipping. The is another reason why I think Hugelkultur is worthwhile. I also added odd bits of cordwood that didn’t split well–crotchwood or pieces that were bucked too long, etc.

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Pond is anticipated to be 50′ in diameter, 8′ at deepest, and provide enough irrigation water (that would otherwise runoff) for a 1.5 acre garden. It also provided topsoil for other projects.

I also had a pond dug this winter, and since where I live is quite flat, and ponds must be of the excavated type (not the dammed up creek type), the dirt needs to go somewhere. It went to three places: the clay went to make the dam and the topsoil went to my orchard and to corner of my main field for a gun project (upcoming post). This topsoil, which had mostly white clover and weed grass growing it, along with the Ash twigs, orchard prunigns, and odd bits of cordwood would be the starter material for my Hugelkultur. I am thinking about putting some manure and straw into it (for a shot of nitrogen), but I am not sure yet.

The excavator conveniently deposited the topsoil in a neat North-South facing line (so there is no north facing, sunlight-starved, side), and then my family and I moved and wove together the mess of sticks and logs that would form the basis of the Hugelkultur alongside it. When the soil has dried out, I will then shovel it onto the sticks. This is the easiest and most efficient way I can think of to build a Hugelkultur without a skidsteer. I certainly don’t think it is worthwhile to dig a trench first, which is something that is commonly done. Perhaps if my soil drained better, but as it is, this makes no sense for me.

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We tried to weave together the stick and twigs at sightly as possible, but there is still much airspace, which the soil will fill. I am going to plant short trees (like hazels) into the killed sod beneath the dirt pile. 

After the soil is piled on, I want to plant Alpine Strawberries, Rhubarb, and perhaps Sorrel–all perennials. And I want to plant them from seed. I am a bit concerned about weed seeds in the topsoil, but with how relatively small this thing is, I am not too worried. I could do it all by hand if necessary. I understand that many folks will plant a Hugelkultur to either mushrooms or a covercrop (like Sweetclover) the first year. This makes sense to me, but I am a bit impatient. If I make one in the future with larger pieces of wood (cordwood sized), I would consider mushrooms or a legume covercrop. But with all the small twigs and the nitrogen rich topsoil, I am pretty confident it will break down pretty quickly. Probably by next year, which is the year I expect the perennials to really start producing anyway.

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