Friday, April 19, 2013

My experiments with Hugelkultur and No Till

The weather here has been cooler and wetter than normal. I have finally gotten a lot of our garden in and I am excited about a several of my experiments for this year. So here we go with two of my experiments.

Things I am trying this year for the first time; I am going to try a modified Hugelkultur bed. Hugelkultur (hoogle culture) can be defined as the ultimate raised bed. The term Hugelkultur was first coined in Austria and is built by starting with a wood core and piling dirt on the tree trunks or stumps. This has been practiced since ancient times. Once completed the bed would be about six feet high and would be at a very sharp angle. The sides would then be cultivated with food bearing plants. Please see the image below.

Even in extremely dry areas irrigation is reduced to a bare minimum. The general consensus is that the wood core becomes spongy and retains water that is slowly released into the soil. Others believe that the wood core promotes a fungal network that works with the plant to harvest and utilize available water much more efficiently than other methods.

I have modified this type of agriculture. I did not mound the dirt. I dug a trench and buried the wood, then planted on top of where the wood is buried. I believe that this will produce excellent results. I have a couple of plants that are a control group. They are just planted in the ground the way I always have. I have 12 tomato plants in the ground. Six are planted above woody beds (I am not going to call them hugel beds because they are not). I also have six planted in the ground like normal. One is planted straight into the area where my last compost pile was and two are planted in the spot where my chicken tractor was. The remaining three have had no special preparation. I am also going to make my first attempt with no till. I am trying the no till only with the tomatoes as well. I mowed the area really good prior to planting. After I planted the tomatoes I surrounded them with cardboard as a weed barrier. I like cardboard better than landscape fabric because the cardboard breaks down much faster and actually helps improve the soil. (A thick layer of newspaper can be used in the same way.) On top of the cardboard I am mulching with wheat straw. The cardboard should stop grass and weeds from coming up around my plants. The wheat straw should help retain moisture and assist the cardboard in retarding grass and weed growth. Both of these resources will slowly breakdown and improve the soil quality.

Later I will mix compost into the wheat straw. This will allow nutrients from the compost to leach out and into the ground every time it rains and will speed up the break down of the straw. If this works like I think it will, I shouldn't have to weed very much at all and in the future I will only till when I am working new ground and even then I will not have to till the ground as hard. I will keep you all informed as to the progress of this experiment. Below are some additional resources if you would like to learn more about hugelkultur.
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  1. Breakdown of wood (cellulose) absorbs 12-30x as much nitrogen as normal planting does. You will need to up the fertilizer that much. Twelve to thirty times. Test your soil to verify that. Seriously consider nitrogen fixing plants. The upside of this is that once the wood breaks down it does provide lots of humic acid, which is a major soil nutrient. I learned about this in college.

    After college, I learned that clayey soils like we have in California due to all the volcanoes (the whole state is full of extinct or active volcanoes, not just earthquake faults) which produces clay soil when the ash breaks down is soil aeration is a major problem. If you have clay soil, you will need gypsum and rice hulls. Around here both are cheap. Rice hulls won't break down for 10 years plus and allow clays to form pellets so you get proper aeration and drainage.

  2. You are correct that there will be an initial nitrogen uptake of the wood as it decays. I will be using fish fertilize to counteract this nitrogen movement. The nitrogen is still there it is just not available to the plant. Nitrogen fixers are always a good idea. Even in my teens I would plant clover in the middles of the corn.

    Very valid input. Thanks.

    1. It's shocking, but sometimes college does provide useful and valid information. Most of the time not so much. College teaches you to think, maybe. But since 1998, when the requirement for passing Critical Thinking was dropped, college graduates make the same ignorant choices that high school dropouts do, only they make them more expensively, and with other people's money at risk. Sigh. I hope you'll put up photos of your test mounds. I remembered, after you posted this, of a short lecture in Soils class about this very thing, largely based on fallen trees buried by landslides on the Danube River valley, when humans moved up river from the Black Sea inundation 8500 years ago.
      note there is debate on the degree and accuracy, but is suggested as the primary cause for westward migration by black sea peoples into Germany and France.
      Their priciple farming method was slash and burn, followed by soil depletion, followed by a need to go upriver for fertile soil. The leapfrogging went on for centuries. Apparently Hugulculture was a means to stay longer at a site, and delay moving to somewhere harder to grow plants. Pretty amazing when you consider these were stone-age peoples.