Knowing the overall guiding principles and design methodology of permaculture is very important, but it is helpful to see what cool methods and ideas that knowledgeable people have developed.
Retaining water in wet times then using irrigation in dry times is a good theory, but it needs practical implementation. A technique turns theory into practical application. Remember:
The difference between theory and reality:
In theory, they’re the same.
In reality they’re not.
Today’s post is about a permaculture technique, made popular by Sepp Holzer of Austria, called hugelkultur.
Hugelkultur is a German word meaning mound or high culture. So basically you make a pile of logs or pieces of wood and cover them with a layer of dirt. That’s the basics, it’s pretty simple.
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Buried hugel mounds
You could do a variation on hugel mounds, by digging a hole, putting the wood in, then burying it and make a nice raised bed on top. This might be a better alternative in suburban neighborhoods where the evil HOA is a concern. They probably won’t like 6-foot tall mounds of dirt in your front yard. More’s the pity…
You can use pretty much any wood, but it probably should be scrap/trash wood you don’t really want to keep. You just don’t want to use wood that doesn’t rot easily. Woods like black locust and cedar have anti-fungal properties that prevent them from breaking down quickly.
I wouldn’t use pressure treated wood or anything with paint on it. You’re going to be eating from this mound, remember?
Now, make sure your soil is well firmed on the mound, and put in plants that will quickly establish a thick root system, to keep the dirt from eroding. Now what to plant on a hugel mound?
You can plant just about anything, as most things will do better than in a flat bed. Consider though, that the tops will be drier, and so it would be better to plant things like:
But parsley goes down lower in the mound 😉
A good process for seed retention is to make little divots to put seeds into. They will catch any overhead water and help to put more into the mound.
Reducing irrigation – why does this work?
The wood soaks up water, and releases it when the soil dries out. This means the plants have a stable water source, which results in less plant stress. And unstressed plants grow better.
It also starts to grow lots of soil life, which supports and feeds the plants.
I have heard that taproots get longer in hugel mounds, which is one reason irrigation is minimized. Keep in mind that a polyculture is a really good method for growing.
In effect, a hugel mound is acting like a fallen, rotting tree in the forest. Much life grows around (and from) this toppled giant. An often-quote line is that a forest grows on a fallen forest.
This works even in arid environments. Sepp did this with 2-meter tall hugelkultur mounds in Dayton, MT, and when everything else around it was brown, the mound was green.
They also work great for blocking wind if high enough, and creating sheltered microclimates. In reducing the need for irrigation, it reduces time and water costs.
Sepp Holzer does mixed-seed broadcasting instead of planting individual plants. You can also add rocks or wood around them to make them prettier, but it’s not necessary, and Sepp doesn’t do it.
There are lots of different ways to make a hugel mound, and all different sizes. The bigger (wider and taller) you can make it, however, the better it will do.
From what I’ve seen, you don’t have to water at all, after the first year. The wood will suck up water like a sponge all year long and self-water the plants when needed.
So I put in some small hugel mounds a few winters ago. I laid down trimmings from old brambles, juniper, and apricot trees. Then I put a layer of llama poo (thanks Mike!) over the wood, to mitigate the nitrogen trap issue.
This happens when wood that’s breaking down intakes nitrogen until fully broken down, then releases it. So instead of taking the nitrogen from your plants (temporarily), the wood will take it from the manure.
Next I covered the whole thing with a layer of dirt & compost, then planted with a mix of peas and annual rye for a cover crop. Mine have done very well, reducing watering to once per week or so. This is in the hot summer at about 95 degrees.
And that’s it! It’s a great way to get rid of scrap wood you would either have to take to the dump or throw in the trash.
So what are the benefits?
Reduce the need to fertilize or do irrigation, and better plant growth. Also, the plants are at a better height for harvesting.
Warm microclimates – Sepp Holzer orients the hugel mounds crossways to the wind so they create warm microclimates for better growing. He uses them extensively because they work so well.
He says also in his permaculture book that burning extra wood in piles is ridiculous. You lose all that energy and potential life-giving sponge.
Under the microscope…of a hugelkulture mound
Lets now look at what’s going on over time in the hugel mound. As the wood rots, it warms the soil around it, which could help extend how long you can grow in the fall by a week or more.
It also increases the soil life, which is how plants are nourished. You don’t feed plants – you feed the soil, and the soil feeds the plants.
The mounds also capture a great deal of water, so irrigation should become less necessary as time goes on. And less irrigation is better for the water bill, disease prevention, as well as food taste.
If you taste a wild raspberry or blackberry and compare it to a grocery store one, you’ll be amazed at the difference. One of the biggest factors in taste is how much water they get. If the wild berries get too much rain, they will have less flavor too.
Speaking of wild berries, I remember going to Nebraska for summer vacation and finding an overgrown mulberry patch that had thousands of tiny, delicious berries. We ate so much our faces and hands were purple with juice.
I bet Mom was not too happy, but we sure were!
Hugelkultur is a slightly more advanced technique, but it’s not difficult. You don’t have to make hugel mounds to practice permaculture, but they do have many benefits. For more information, there is an excellent in-depth article on hugelkultur by Paul Wheaton of permies.com with tons of pictures.
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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about hugelkulture, reducing irrigation, or planting tips? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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