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.

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