Friday, September 13, 2013

Hugelkultur in a stump

So my neighbor has had this dead tree snag next to his driveway for so long that it was threatening to fall over and block it.  He decided a couple months ago that it had to go and fired up the chain saw.  It didn't take long to get it down, and we carted it over to my hugelkultur staging area.  Lots of rotten wood for me to build more mounds with!

But back to the stump that was left. There was a large cavity extending below grade, so I poured in a wheelbarrow load of sand, threw some squash seeds on top, and raked some of the rotted wood on top of it all. 

Fast forward to today and what do we have?

That butternut squash is doing great! There are two vines running out of the top and the right side of the picture, each about 10' long with a hefty size squash.  The only thing I could have done better would have been to add 2 wheelbarrow loads of sand to the stump.  That's quite a bit of volume eaten away below the top of the stump.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lingzhi, known in the west as Ganoderma.

I had some business to take care of in downtown Augusta, so I parked in the shade of a massive live oak tree and set out on foot.  As I was walking, I noticed the stump of another live oak that had been cut at ground level quite some time ago.  It had rotted away considerably, and in the center of it was a Lingzhi mushroom:

 What struck me about this particular specimen was that it had a rougher, alligator-skin like surface rather than the usual sanded-and-varnished appearance of most Ganodermas.  There was no stem present, and the underside is pure white.

I've read about the medicinal properties of Ganoderma soup, maybe part of this one will have to get a bath in the crock-pot.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mystery mushroom

Here's a picture of a polypore that I scraped off of an old hickory stump.  The tree had been cut down at least 5 years ago, and the stump is in the end stage of its rot.  Any guesses as to the name?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How to plant acorns

This was an experiment from last year that turned out far better than I expected.  My starting materials were saw oak acorns I collected fresh off the tree in late August, and boletes from the shopping mall.  No, they don't sell boletes at the shopping mall, they overmulch and overwater their oak trees in the parking lot, so right after a heavy rain, there is usually a new flush of them free for the collecting. Here's what I came home with. 

The bucket contains a mix of 50:50 composted manure and peat moss, the acorns get dumped into the bucket, and then the boletes go into the blender with some water.  The bolete gazpacho then goes into the bucket and it is time to plant some acorns. 

Next post I will let you know how it turned out.

Monday, June 10, 2013

May harvests

It's been a while since I last blogged, and in that time, I have had potatoes and peas to harvest.  These were the last of the pre-hugelkultur crops I put in, and they had a hard time of it.  A cold March meant that I waited until the end of May to harvest, unlike last year when the unseasonable warm winter had crops ready to harvest at the end of April.  I really didn't put much effort into the potatoes and peas this year; most of my time was spent planning and preparing hugelbeets for the summer crops. 

Variability of precipitation has been a readily apparent facet of our new climate.  We had 2-1/4 inches of rain for the entire month of May, and in the first 10 days of June so far, we have had 6-1/4.  One good thing about all the rain this last week: I scored big on a mushroom hunt today.  I've come to the conclusion that the best place to hunt mushrooms, other than old growth forest, is at shopping malls.  The reason is that they overmulch and overwater the trees in their parking lots, creating perfect conditions for fungal cultures.  Today I was able to collect 4 different types of bolete, some non-descript Laccaria type, and some marble sized puffballs.  I also came across a near picture perfect specimen of Amanita muscaria, save for the fact that the cap was a shade of yellow rather than red.  Perhaps it was due to age and the color had not developed yet, as there were several in the area and most were still in their button stage.

I brought home a good haul from this mycological cornucopia, and I'm going to use them to fix the front yard.  I planted some semi-dwarf apple, plum, and pear trees in the front yard in 2010 and so far they have been disappointing -- failing to set fruit and just surviving, certainly not thriving.  I have gotten a good stand of crimson clover to grow in this area, so I'm puzzled as to why the trees are lagging.  What I am going to try is a mixture of retro-hugelkultur and heavy mulching with a fungal drench.

"Retro-hugelkultur" is a technique I developed that uses a garden hose and decaying branches about an inch in diameter.  First you go around the area with the hose and use the water pressure to drill holes into the ground.  Depending on what you run into, the hole can be 8" to 2' deep.  Then you shove the decaying branch into the hole, maybe giving it a good tap with a sledge hammer.  Not exactly the way to go about doing real hugelkultur, but it's faster with less soil disturbance. 

I've already put 4 to 6 of these 'hugelsticks' around my fruit trees, and today I finished mulching them with a 50:50 mix of wood chips and aged horse manure.  To top it off, I put my mushroom haul through the blender, added it to some aerated compost tea to which I had previously added some blended biochar, and drenched the mulch with this inoculant.  Now to wait and see what the results are.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Turkey tail toxin treatment

I'm posting over on about how to do you own mycoremediation.  One of the common species used in mycoremediation is Trametes versicolor, which can be a striking example of a fungus to come across in nature.  A standing dead tree, once infected by T. versicolor, can give rise to a huge column of fruiting bodies up and down the length of the trunk.  Like this:
These are a little small and pale to be T. versicolor, and after studying my field guide section on 'Polypores and other Shelf-like Fungi', I still haven't made a definitive identification.  Nevertheless, it probably does a good job metabolizing lignin, so it is good starting material for a mycoremediation experiment. 

Now I need to hack my way up to this trunk and scrape off of the fungus to make some inoculate.  More updates as this project progresses.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Okra, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.

Can you tell I live in the Deep South from that title?  There is a reason certain foods are featured in certain cuisines -- they grow well there! In fact, I've had volunteers from last year's crop for all three of these pop up on their own.  But since I went and dug down 8" and built up 18" to make my hugelbeds, I'm starting from new seed this time.  Now we will see what they can really do. 

Peanuts and sweet potatoes are low spreading crops, and okra is the tall crop (I've had some go as tall as 8' before the frost got them), so that leaves a middle-size, bushy type crop to fill out the triad.  This year, I'm filling that niche with eggplant and hot peppers. 

Agricultural research has a big blind spot when it comes to intercropping, with most of the serious studies taking place in Third World countries.  American universities are still in the thrall of agribusiness, with its unquestioned acceptance of (large) monocultures.  But the days of big agribusiness may be coming to a close.  High fossil fuel inputs to agriculture in the way of diesel fuel for tractors and fertilizer manufacture aren't sustainable.  Pesticide and herbicide use to create an otherwise sterile culture medium for one crop plant isn't sustainable.  What is sustainable is growing a polyculture, with decaying organic matter as fertilizer, and clever and labor-intensive methods used to foil weeds and pests. 

My 25' row of potatoes is still growing, compared to last year, when potato harvest was around the first of May.  Even though spring was late in coming this year, the summer heat is holding off and giving the potato plants time to grow and set 'taters.  And this year I am having little to no bug problem.  Maybe a few small holes on just a few plants.  I don't know whether to attribute it to the regular compost tea applications, or the companion planting of red clover and cilantro that surround the potato row, but something is working right.  It bothers me as a scientist that I can't isolate and rank all the success factors, but in consolation, maybe I am learning how to be a successful gardener in a multi-, multi-variate world. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Learning from mistakes

Lesson #1)  Potatoes don't do too well on a new hugelbed.  Or it could have been that I planted them in February and we had a very cold March that kept nipping at any growth.  They looked pretty sad when I pulled them out last weekend, and all I got were little marbles, not even anything that I could save and try again for a fall crop. 

But I had another spot in the garden (where I grew sweet potatoes last year), and I put in a row with some seed potatoes in mid-March that my neighbor had leftover when he planted his.  They are going great guns, and I hilled them up yesterday.  I haven't given them any attention other than a weekly drenching with aerated compost tea.  It got up to 92 today, and the weather forecast is for highs in the 80's for the next two weeks, so I don't know how much longer they will be able to take it.

Looking at the variable results on the hugelbeds that have been planted, I can now understand why it may take a couple seasons to get to optimal results.  I had hoped that my additions of biochar, grass clippings, leaf mulch, sand, chicken manure tea, crumbled drywall, and anything else I could think of adding would make for a nice planting bed, but it seems there is no rushing things, you just have to give the earthworms and other soil critters time to move stuff around and digest some of the big chunks.

The weather is getting a bit warm to construct any more new beds, and I will probably lay low during the hot months and start in again building new beds comes September or so.  It's just as well, I wilt in the Georgia summers, and it shows in the garden.  I have much more stamina to keep a cool season garden going in the fall and the winter.  I came across an interesting article about intercropping cabbage, broad beans, and radish (, so maybe that can be my fall combination after the three sisters are harvested.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Atmospheric CO2 breaks 400 ppm

A rather auspicious day, which only the climate change nerds are paying any attention to.  Oh, it will drop back down below 400 as the Northern Hemisphere growing season goes on, but the number of days below 400 is definitely limited.  Soon it will be a distant memory, just as 350 now is, but I don't think there will be an organization called "" trying to raise political awareness of this as an issue. 

What's the significance of this?  Not much immediate significance, and for that reason, we will probably have business as usual for the next couple of years.  The really big jolt to the climate is going to be the first summer that the Arctic Ocean is ice free.  I expect that once that happens, a hysteresis effect may set in, and it will suddenly get much more difficult for the Arctic Ocean to freeze over completely from Siberia to Canada.  Just a hunch on my part, and I haven't seen any serious talk of it from the climate modelers.  But if and when that does happen, it will certainly become topic #1 of climate change conversation. Be that one year from now or five years, it IS coming, so I will continue my efforts to divest myself from any reliance on commercial agriculture and make myself food secure.

I had a surprise when I went out to check the garden this morning: I saw two colonies of the "dog vomit" fungus.

I've had a visit from Fuligo septica before, last time on a pile of wood chips.  But this one was encircling the base of this scrawny tomato that I had nursed through the winter, so I had to move it to one side, just in case it had evil intentions. It is probably a good sign though, indicating that the hugelbed has plenty of moisture in it to allow visiting spores to go through their life cycle.

I make it a policy to welcome all fungi to my garden.  In a future post, I will have to chronicle the lengths I go to in order to get more fungal diversity into the garden.  More diversity means more competition and pathogens can spend less time on the attack when they have to compete for their dinner.  My first season on this piece of dirt, I lost an eggplant seedling, probably to Fusarium, in less than a week.   I'm hoping I have increased the fungal diversity in the garden now to the point that if there are any Fusarium spores still waiting around, they will be bullied into submission by the other saprophytic, beneficial, and mycorrhizal ones.

How did some spores of Fuligo septica find my hugelbed?  Not a big mystery.  When I was building it up, I noticed that a few hours after I added a fresh layer of dirt over the organic matter, the whole mound was buzzing with fungus gnats.  Somehow they must sense the freshly disturbed dirt and be able to decide whether it has enough decaying biomass to make it worthwhile for them to start a brood there.  And when they land to lay their eggs, they probably bring new spores in with them.  I'll take it as a compliment and a validation that I am doing this hugelkultur thing right that my hugels were being  swarmed by them. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hugelkultur by threes

When I decided to start this blog, I wanted to use it to chronicle the ongoing hugelkultur experiment in my garden.  When I started reading about hugelkultur, it all came together for me: soil fertility, companion planting, biochar, no till, permaculture, they could all be incorporated into the raised bed, or "hugel".  I could discard all the soil destroying agronomy topics I had studied, and instead concentrate on building the "food forest" I had heard about and seen on YouTube. 

I have decided to do my companion plantings in threes, a tall crop, a second story under that one, and at the base, a spreading crop.  I have a classic 'Three Sisters' planted, with 'Bloody Butcher' variety corn, some Chinese 'Red Noodle' pole beans, and various squashes (but mostly zucchini) as the low crop.  Today, in surveying the garden, the corn is not very uniform. Some healthy plants are about 18" tall, but there are quite a few runts that are still struggling at 6".  The beans are starting to come up now, and the squash was just planted last weekend, so maybe after the next good rain, they will be up as well.  I'm thinking that since the hugels are only about 4 months on, there is still quite a bit of non-uniformity going on below the surface that the earthworms and other soil flora need to work on.  But that is part of the learning process -- how long does it take to come to equilibrium?

The other triads that I am going to plant are: (1) okra, eggplant, and peanut; (2) okra, hot peppers, and sweet potato, and (3) tomato, cucumber, and sweet peppers.  I suppose the 'mirepoix' bed from a couple posts ago is a fourth one.  In all the web-surfing I have done related to hugelkultur, I see plenty of "how-to" and people starting out, but little in the way of quantitative yield results.  I intend to use this blog to document my successes, and hope there are no crop failures to have to puzzle out. 

In building the hugels, I dug down to the clay layer, which underlays my whole property, anywhere from 2 to 12" deep (actually most of the clay is right at about 8").  With 8 to 10 inches of dirt excavated, I piled in rotted pine and oak (plenty of that around here), and about 4" of wood chips.  I was fortunate to score about dump truck load from a tree trimming service, before it made it to the landfill.  There is also an old borrow pit of sand from the construction of the house, and I added some of that sand to the clay-rich soil I piled on top.  I also amended the soil used to top the hugel with biochar and leaf litter that I sucked up in the lawn mower.  As a rough guess, the 8" of poor soil has been expanded with twice that volume of organic matter, and things planted on the top of the hugel now have 24" of soil building material to grow upon.

In the little time that I have had the 'Hugelbeets' (or 'mound beds', translating from the German), I have noticed promising signs.  The biggest clover plants in the garden are the ones that happened to be next to where I laid out the hugels.  Other volunteer plants (not weeds!) close enough to send roots into the hugelbeet also seem to be very healthy. 

I have some potatoes growing in a non-hugel part of the garden, and they are actually doing better that the ones I planted on one of the first mounds I built.  Maybe I rushed those, because they were planted in February, and we had several killing frosts in March, which although I covered the little potato plants, they may have still suffered.  Bottom line, I think I can agree with those that advise not to have high expectations right away for your hugelbeet, that it will take a while for a prosperous soil flora to establish itself to support the fauna you want to grow on top.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Trends in the local climate

One of the predictions of the global warming hypothesis is that precipitation will become much more variable: more droughts, more flooding, more extremes in precipitation events.  I decided to see if this holds true for precipitation in Augusta, GA with data available on the website.  It didn't take me long to look up the monthly precip figures for 2012, 2002, and 1992, copy them over to a spreadsheet, and have it crunch the statistics. 

Year         Avg.Mo. precip. (in.)      St.Dev.                St.Dev as % of Precip
2012         3.01                                3.17                           105
2002         3.41                                1.52                            45
1992         4.45                                1.91                            43

This scant bit of data, just three points over the last 20 years, seems to validate the hypothesis that, at least here in Augusta, GA, precipitation has become more variable.  It seems to have more than doubled (going by the standard deviation). 

In all the political arguing about global warming, one side seems to rely on observations and data, and the other on everything else. If you are looking for a way to convince your neighbors about the validity of global warming, I would think a very good way would be to analyze your own local data, just like I did, so that you can quantify what's happening right in front of your face.

If this trend, more variability in precipitation, is going to continue, then it makes water conservation and management ever more important.  That's what got me so interested in the hugelkultur method of gardening.  The large amount of rotting wood under the mounds soaks up the precipitation and makes it available to the plants, all without any irrigation equipment.  It takes quite a long dry spell to dry out this Georgia clay, but once it does dry out, be it June or August, it's a lost cause to try to get anything to grow until the fall weather pattern of cold fronts with their associated precipitation sets in.

While we have just come out of a drought (statewide, we are under 5% for any drought stage), it could recur at any time, and this time I will be prepared for it.  I hope to have all of my garden converted to hugelkultur beds by the end of the year, and it looks like a goal that I will be able to make.  Fortunately, I don't have much of a terrain problem.  I am on kind of a knoll, with my neighbors on both sides a little lower in elevation.  All I have to do is make sure that I catch what falls and make sure there are no obvious places where runoff can occur. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Growing the basics

One of the old standards in the kitchen is a mirepoix (or w┼éoszczyzna if you are in Poland); a mix of celery, carrot and onion that is the starting point for a variety of soups, stocks, and sauces.  I decided that this would be a good combination to plant in one of my hugelkultur beds, and the one below is off to a good start.

This bed is 3' x 8', and has carrots in the center, Egyptian 'walking' onions on the left, and little celeriacs that have yet to make it to 2" tall.  The proliferation of white flowers are chamomile, and in the back is a lone kohlrabi that needed a home.  There is also some salsify along the right of the mound, across from the onions, but they are not very big yet. 

This bed was planted in the middle of January, and the onions are going gangbusters, much better than their parent plants in another, non-hugel part of the garden.  This is proof for me that I want to move all of my Egyptian onions to hugel type beds.  The chamomile is also much happier than their scraggly cousins in other parts of the garden, and I have been able to cut and dry quite a bit from this flowering.

I chose celeriac over regular celery, as I think it is more versatile.  Not only can you use the stalks just like regular celery, but the big bulbous root can be harvested at the end of the season.  Or overwintered.  I had good luck overwintering some celeriac plants from last year in another part of the garden, where I am trying to see how far I can get treating it like a perennial. 

I have had mixed results planting carrots in the regular garden.  If they can find a fissure in this hard Georgia clay, they do OK, if not, then I end up with stunted little failures.  These seedlings on top of the hugel are off to a much better start than my previous carrot attempts.  It will be interesting to follow their progress through the season.

This is what food security looks like -- vegetables that can be harvested as needed, growing in beds where they can regenerate.  Also, selecting varieties that are not just simple annuals, but can continue to yield over the winter months and into the following year. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How much has the climate changed?

It's odd that a question that lies in the realm of observation and science, and which can be answered by collecting and analyzing data, has turned into a question of political debate.  These people who argue for the absence of climate change must not do any gardening, because if they did, they would see the changes in their gardens over the years.  When I first moved to the southeast almost 20 years ago, we were barely into climate zone 8.  This past winter, the temperature never did drop into the teens, meaning that climate zone 9 has moved north into our area. 

If you want to see a good graphic of this, the folks at the Arbor Day Foundation have this graphic of climate zone changes from 1990 to 2006:

This is also the sort of thing that you can verify for yourself with historical temperature data from places like

What importance does being included in climate zone 9 mean for me and my garden?  For one thing, it means I can look forward to better chances of getting fruit from my loquat tree.  If you read any horticultural bulletins about growing loquats, you may see them say that winters are too cold north of Jacksonville, FL for them to set and bear fruit.  Well that may have been true in 1990, Jacksonville used to be the northern limit of zone 9, but not any more.  A couple weeks ago, when I went on a visit to Columbia, SC, I happened upon a loquat tree that was loaded with ripe fruit.  It was part of the landscaping in the parking lot of an office building, and I was able to sample a few.  Quite tasty! 

There are a couple of loquat trees outside my local library, and they bore fruit last year, but I figured that their microclimate was warmer. They are on the south side of a two story brick wall, so they already have an advantage and could be considered to be in zone 9, unlike the rest of the area.  Or so I thought.  I have since seen other loquats around town with fruit on them, so I guess we really did have a zone 9 winter.  My little loquat tree is still not as tall as I am (over 6'), but with any luck, maybe it will put on some good growth this year and flower and set its first crop of fruit next year. 

Oh, and if you have no idea what a loquat is, check out this page from Purdue University:

Friday, May 3, 2013

Spring Planting

Right after New Year's, I came across 'hugelkultur' in my readings and decided that I should give it a try.  Hugelkultur is a German word for a type of raised bed gardening where lots and lots of wood is piled up under the garden bed and the decomposition of the wood acts as compost to provide nutrients from below. So for the last four months I have been carefully digging out trenches, carting in decaying logs and leaves, and topping them with soil.  Now that spring is here, the seeds are sprouting and I am starting this blog to keep a journal of my successes (or not so successful experiments) in the garden.

These mounds are about 3 feet wide, 32 feet long, and a little over a foot above grade. In the foreground, I have a "Three Sisters" planting planned, with corn already emerged and beans and squash waiting for a good rain to help them germinate.  The wire cage in the middle will act as a trellis for some Korean melons, and the far end will be for a tri-culture of peanuts, eggplant, and okra.  

The green between the mounds are volunteer grasses and forbs (not weeds!) that will be harvested and fed to the chickens at some point.  I've decided, after much study, that there really is no such thing as a weed, only plants volunteering to become mulch or chicken feed.

With the cool spring we have been having, these plantings are off to a slow start, but soon the beans and squash will be up and in no time there will be no more bare dirt showing and the canopy over the mounds will have closed in.

In future updates, I will be blogging about my take on sustainability, food security and climate change, things that I have picked up and ideas that I discarded.  In this synthesis, I have cobbled together many ideas, some old, many new, which have not been brought together in a comprehensive body of knowledge.  For example, when you go to Google Scholar and search on 'hugelkultur', there is very little in the way of scholarly study.  But if you look for biochar or intercropping or other more limited studies, there is a wealth of information.  What hasn't been done is to bring all these topics together into a new method of gardening, that can be used to adapt to the changing climate in store for us. And that's what I hope to accomplish.