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Episode 147A Hugelkultur and Hugelbeets

*Note – I actually recorded two episode 147’s this is episode 147A (I rearranged things to bring you the first episode 147 earlier!).

In today’s episode I talk about hugelkultur and hugelbeets.  I can assure you that if you listen you will hear things about hugelkultur that you may not know.  I can also assure you that my view on hugelkultur not being the garden panacea but rather another tool in our toolbox will inevitably offend some people.

  • How the forest works and why you would want to “mimic” it.
  • Why I don’t use standing deadwood (snags) for hugel material.
  • Hugelkultur is a way to utilize otherwise wasted materials in ways that make your garden beds do things you want them to do.  The thing you want it to do might be varied or complex or quite simple.  Changing little things can change the effects.
  • Earliest reference I can find in a book called Handbuch Garten German in 1997.  In there it doesn’t seem to be called hugelkultur – for all intents and purposes hugelkultur seems to be a new word or at least phrase. 
  • The correct term for a hugelkultur bed is a hugelbeet.  Hugel meaning hill or mound and beet meaning bed.  If your garden bed is not a hill or mound its not hugelkultur.  You can bury wood 15 feet deep and if its not a mound it won’t make it hugelkultur.  You are just burying organic matter.  Rotting wood is not hugelkultur – its begraben Holz.  Even I thought it was just buried wood for a while.  Doesn’t really matter what you call it though.
  • Though the earliest reference I can find is in this book, people in Europe have been using them for some time now.  In the US its fairly new.
  • There are two styles of hugelkultur.  The first is what I call the European style, the second the American/Australian style.

European Style

  1. a shallow pit
  2. wood (usually in some state of decay) is added.
  3. Then chaff (wood chips, hay, branches, twigs, etc.)
  4. Then wet leaves
  5. Then compost
  6. Then sod, then soil.

    Hole

    Wood and Chaff

    Wet Leaves

    Compost and Native Soil

      

  •  Built with the intention of draining away excess water and heating up the mound/soil.  – the wiki page for hugelbeet in german literally says:  Rain water runs off more quickly in Hügelbeet, which is appreciated by many plants. These principles are also used in the herb spiral.
  • How it works – the wood and chaff is high in carbon (about 300 to 1).  The wet leaves are relatively balanced (about 60 to 1 – compost by themselves).  The compost 10 to 1 and sod have better nitrogen ratios.  This mix composts under the mound and as it composts it heats the soil.  The soil on top traps the heat and holds it.  The hill drains away excess water and creates high dry areas and low wet areas

The good

◙        gets the garden up for people who don’t like to bend over.

◙        Sheds excess rain

◙        Creates more sun exposure

◙        Warms the soil

◙        Adds nutrients

◙        Holds some water

◙         Air pockets hold in heat

The bad

◙        Too steep sheds too much rain

◙        Some plants may not like the extra heat

◙        A lot of work

◙        wood rotten enough to hold water is going to take up a ton of nitrogen.

American/Aussie style

  1.  Bury wood.

 How it works – The wood rots slowly under the ground, not composting quickly like the European style.  There is some nitrogen tie up.  The organisms that oxidize (burn off) the carbon and use the nitrogen to do this.  The wood soaks up water and keeps it in the bed.

The good

◙        The wood soaks up water

◙        Sheds excess rain

◙        Creates more sun exposure

◙        Gets the garden up for people who don’t like to bend over.

◙        Smaller air pockets still hold in heat, just not as much.

The bad

◙        Ties up nitrogen

◙        A lot of work.

◙        If it does hold water well not all plants like that.

◙        If it is built to drain then you lose a lot of water.

  • What woods?  Most woods in a rotting stage are ok to use.  Rotting stage to me is lignin breakdown.  Fungus does this.  Lignin breakdown in my evaluation occurs when the wood breaks with axe or by hand and doesn’t have connecting strings.  At this stage the wood will absorb water and actually break down into compost easier.

    Lignin Breakdown

 

  • Only wood that is technically off limits is Walnut – juglones are allopathic.  BUT if the wood is rotting then its probably shed all of those chemicals.  Cedar and black locust don’t rot easily.  All other woods are basically good. 
  • What to plant in it?  First years, things that are relatively shallow rooting but don’t take up much nitrogen because its going to be a little deficient and is needed to compost the wood.  Zuchinni and beans first years.  Final years, potatoes.  I do not think tomatoes are the ideal crop in some of our southern climates.  Blight loves moisture.
  • Termites.  If you take wood that is rotting on your land, why would the termites find it if you buried it?  Isn’t your house made of wood.  Don’t put it too close to your house.
  • Moles, mice, etc.  They like this so watch for them.  Snakes

You have to pick what you want.

  • When you build a hugelbeet you have to pick the things that work for you.  Don’t use the cookie cutter model.
  • Do you want heat? Need to add the right amounts of compost, nitrogen and carbon materials. 
  • Do you want moisture?  It needs to be in ground.  It needs to have plenty of wood of varying sizes and states of decomposition. 
  • Do you want less moisture?  Build the mound.
  • Do you want more sun exposure variation?  Build steep mounds.
  • By all accounts melons and pumpkins take this as a SUPERIOR method.  Personally we’ve been growing melons in hills since I was about 7 years old.  That’s the WAY for growing them in most of the south.  Why is this such a boon for cucurbits.  They don’t like wet feet.  They like it hot.  They like less acidity.

A forum post at The Helpful Gardener about a firsthand experience with Hugelkultur over 3 years.

Paul Wheaton’s Hugelkultur Page

Here’s a guy who did a side by side comparison of four beds (one being hugelbeet).  Note that the post I linked to showed Lasagna garden bed as winning but the hugelbeet did surpass it with the help of some large squash (thus further supporting my research that cucurbits are awesome in this).

In Mil’s cooking segment today she talks about cooking brussels sprouts.  Check out Mil’s site here!

3 comments to Episode 147A Hugelkultur and Hugelbeets

  • Brian

    Interesting…I think you are right on some points in the podcast, but one thing that I think would retain more water than just soil or the wood is the wood composting.  Because compost holds more water than wood.  And you hinted at it, but didn’t directly state that the nitrogen isn’t lost, but that it is just held until the wood decomposes more at which time it will be released.  I definitely agree with you that this is a tool, not an all eggs in one basket thing you should do, that is always asking for trouble.  I think that the best thing to do is try it a see what happens.

  • Really liked this episode, plenty of food for thought, especially since hugelkultur is in the plan for this year, we have lots of wood in various stages of decomposition available (some from the big ice storm in 2007)  and a friend that likes to play with digging equipment so we’re going to give it a try. 

  • Jason

    Again, with the water its a matter of allocation of resources (as it is with the nitrogen).  Without water the wood won’t compost, without water your plants won’t grow.  Which gets what? I’m not sure.  The term I used with the nitrogen is “tie up” (immobilization is also correct).  Wood starts at somewhere between 300 and 1000 to 1 C:N.  In order for plants to utilize the nitrogen in an effective manner you need to get closer to 30 to 1 (or lower).  So you either compost slow, keep some of your nitrogen, store less water OR you compost fast, get your nitrogen and maybe some more water – who knows? 
     
    The thing with nitrogen is theres the thought that tie up isn’t an issue.  It really is.  Composting is great, its one of my “things”.  But even with compost you lose about 50% of your nitrogen to offgassing.  Then you lose some more to leeching.  Putting something in the ground to tie up more is sometimes a fools errand.  The solution: dump compost on top and use the wood to store the compost!
     
    Here’s a decent article that articulates this better than I (if you ignore the Big-Ag crap!):  http://www.hpj.com/archives/2008/dec08/dec1/Nitrogentie-upacommoncauseo.cfm

    But you are right, if you don’t put all of your eggs in one basket the nitrogen tie up in one bed doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the long run.
    Jason