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Hugelkulture Construction Recipe

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So yesterday I went into the basic concepts of hugulkulture, and its main benefits to you as a home grower or gardener.  Now its time to get into exactly how you can construct a relatively painless hugel bed, and you can learn from where I went wrong with some of my design.

Building your beds:

Building a hugel bed is very easy, and as I mentioned yesterday, now is the perfect time to be building them, especially in the wetter climates.  I couldn’t find any graphics to illustrate my beds correctly, so I actually made one for us to use.  Disclaimer: Not an artist.

HugelbedOk, once again, not an artist.  This seemed the easiest way to describe what I was doing for you.  So first, the frame around the outside, I actually made of of pallets.  I will post a picture below.  I basically built either a square or rectangle out of pallets, and then left it open to the ground underneath.  On the very bottom layer I put in cardboard.  This will break down into soil eventually, but in the mean time it does a great job of holding the moisture up in your growing medium, rather than letting it wick out into the soil.

The next section is the bigger branches.  I was fortunate enough to have had a dead orange tree in our backyard when we moved in.  We had our neighbour cut it down into fireplace sized pieces, but we don’t really use our fireplace that much.  So instead I had an easy and readily available source of wood to use.  Now these are the pieces that will start to get consumed by the fungi.  As they decay, they will go from hard wood, to a soft and spongy material.  Think log found in the woods.  I put a decent amount in the bottom, basically enough to loosely cover the bottom of the bed.

Next I piled up leaves, hay, alfalfa and twigs to cover over the branches, and give it a flatter feel for the soil mix.  There isn’t really any wrong items to put in here.  I used whatever we happened to have laying around.  I did use quite a bit of the chicken’s alfalfa litter, as it would both introduce bacteria into the soil to aid decomposition, as well as provide lots of nitrogen.

Lastly, on top I put on the soil mixture.  I used basically a 50/50 mix of organic top soil and denatured manure.  I would say from a nutrient perspective I actually did OK, but I made one tremendous error.  I didn’t mix in any peat moss or other substance to keep it from clumping up.  My soil got very dense and hard, very quickly.  You will want to mix in large quantities of SOMETHING to help keep it loose, or put in lots of worms if you don’t have my kind of climate.  Anything to keep it loose.  If it gets too tight your plant’s roots won’t be able to grow downward, and your water will basically just pool at the top rather than soaking down into the soil.

In terms of ratio, I was looking for about 18 inches total of growing space for the roots.  I used about 6 inches of the material at the bottom, and then about a foot of soil at the top.  This may or may not have been the perfect height, but its what I used.

Raisedbed2

The reason that’s important is because for all of my struggles with gardening this summer, the hugel system was working.  This picture was taken some time in either late August or early September.  It was the driest time of the year, and my squash plants were still growing.  We actually would have had a good harvest, if squash bugs hadn’t killed them all.

Despite the fact that at this point we hadn’t gotten rain in more than a month, I could still poke my finger down about an inch into the soil and feel moisture.  I did have to water every day, but I watered by hand, rather than irrigation.  It was able to take that moisture in and release it slowly to the plants when they needed it.  So I have to say the system does work.

Why build now?

There are two main reasons to be building your hugel beds right now.  First, its cooler outside.  Doing manual labor when its hot is a terrible plan.  Believe me.  I screened in my porch when it was 110 degrees outside.  That sucked.  Second, everything is wet right now in most areas.  Its a great time to get a jump on your hugel beds.

Under normal circumstances, hugel beds don’t do a whole lot for you in the first year.  The wood hasn’t really started to break down yet, and the beds really need to go through a rainy season in order to charge up the moisture.  Which is why now is a good time to build.  Now the wood is already wet.  So you can go out into the woods and bring back some wet wood that’s already starting to break down.  If you bury it now, it will continue to charge up.  This will let you see more benefit this summer.

If it isn’t wet in your area right now, grab a bunch of wood, throw it in a bin, and soak it in water for a week.  It will smell terrible by the end, but it will be a great way to start a bed.  That’ what I ended up doing on the last bed I built, and it was the most effective.  I am convinced soaking that wood ahead of time gave me the jump on it.

So that is a basic recipe for a raised bed hugel system.  This is a great way to both extend your growing season through the summer, and cut down on irrigation costs.  There is really nothing that using this type of strategy won’t help, and now is the perfect time to start.

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Hugelkulture Basic

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Its not yet spring time for most of the country, technically its not spring time here yet either, but with days reaching up into the 80s, its very hard to keep that in mind.  Its feels like spring, it looks like spring, and everyone in the gardening and homesteading community is anxious to get out and get growing.  If I wasn’t moving in the next few months, I would be out amending my beds, and starting my seeds right now.

After all, that is how most of us start our gardening seasons.  Well, there is another, much more beneficial way to get a jump on the gardening season, and you can start right now.  That is to start integrating hugelkulture into your gardening system.  Now is the absolutely perfect time in the wetter climates to get started on building a hugel system.  You can have it built and in place to capture late season snow melt, and the spring rains, so that by the time summer heat rolls around, you have a nice water battery in place to reduce or eliminate your need for watering or irrigation, which should be good news for everyone.

What is Hugelkulture?

Hugelkulture (Hill Culture in german) is a system of permaculture popularized by Sepp Holzer in Germany, and Paul Wheaton here in the United States.  You can get really complicated with the application (Sepp Holzer does) and try to go crazy getting ratios, angles and a whole bunch of other stuff just perfect to optimize your garden.  The other more sensible option is just to worry less about it, and bury some wood in the ground, because that’s really all it comes down to (don’t worry, I will layout a template tomorrow).

A traditional hugulkulture bed.  NOT what you will be doing.

A traditional hugelkulture bed. NOT what you will be doing.

What you want?

There is an old saying, “A forest grows on a fallen forest”.  If you have ever taken a walk through a forest, you have seen fallen logs covered with moss and mushrooms gently being consumed back into the earth.  The leaves underfoot are also being slowly turned back into soil.  That process is all being driven by fungus, and that is both what you want in your soil, and what you encourage to grow by burying wood.  If you were to dig up a little of that forest soil, you would see some white string like things running through the ground.  Those are fungal hyphae, and you need those for healthy soil.  Hugelkulture provides a good environment for these to grow.

Fungal hyphae growing through forest soil

Fungal hyphae growing through forest soil

Why it helps?

Soil works a lot like a sponge, it has a wicking effect that automatically moves moisture from the wet parts to the dry, so that the entire area achieves moisture equilibrium.  Think about taking two sponges, one of them saturated wet just under the point of dripping, and the other one dry.  Set them next to each other so that they are touching.  Come back in a few hours, and they both will be equally moist.  Soil works that way too.

Normally when you water, the moisture is actually pulled away from your plants through the wicking effect, so that you end up needing to use way move water than necessary just for plant survival.  That is actually why rain water is more beneficial to plants.  Its not that rain has magic powers, but when it rains, there is no wicking, since the ground is universally moist, it stays where it needs to be.

Having buried wood in the ground provides wicking element that you control.  When the ground is very moist during the rainy season, the wood and the fungus that it spawns will just suck it all in.  As you move into the summer and the ground dries out, the fungus will start to slowly pay that water back out into the ground system, and greatly reduce your need for watering.  This is how a forest survives and grows.

Why its easy?

If you start to plow into the world of hugelkulture, you will meet fanatics who insist on only doing it a certain way, and if you don’t you are a heretic.  They are wrong, and its easy to prove.  Go walk into a forest, anywhere in the world that it hasn’t been messed with by people.  Look around.  You will see fallen trees slowly being consumed, leaves on the ground, and new plants growing up from the decay.  Nature isn’t out there worrying about angles and ratios, you shouldn’t be either.  Discovery is made by trying something, and seeing how it works.  If we didn’t push the boundaries of knowledge, we would never learn anything new.

How it will help?

Hugelkulture provides three main benefits to your growing beds.  First, it will retain and release moisture for your plants, reducing the need for irrigation in most climates.  Second, as the wood breaks down in your soil, it will begin to transform into nitrogen rich soil for your plants to grow in.  Third, as the hyphae reach down into the ground, they start to transport minerals and nutrients up for your growing plants to consume.  Generally increasing the health of your plants, and you, after you eat them.

This is something that I saw start to work for me just in one summer here in the absolute driest conditions in the USA.  If it can help here, it will help anywhere.  Tomorrow, I will lay out exactly what I did, and tell you how it worked, and how I could have done it better.  It will give you a great jumping off point for designing and building your own system.

Day 37: The Care and Feeding of Chickens

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Chicken Feeders:

Yesterday was a bit of a sad day for us here at the ranch.  We lost our first baby peep.  She clearly wasn’t doing as well as the rest of them, and it was sad to lose one of the cute little puff balls.  One the plus side, almost all of the rest of the peeps seem to be doing really well.  In just one day I can see more of their wing feathers forming, and the patches on their wings are growing longer.  They have calmed down on the eye pecking, and are now enjoying the attention from Momma Peep (Jenn).  In fact one of the Welsummer chicks makes it her mission to get picked up and petted, which is hilarious.

As I said yesterday, I would show you some of the care and feeding techniques we are using.  Here is their little feeder.  Rather than buying one, as you can see, we reclaimed a cottage cheese carton.  They are a little young to figure it out now, so is also sitting on a plate of loose food.  Once they get a little smarter though, they will be able to use it.  Jenn just took the container, and cut some holes in the bottom about the size of a dime.  This allows the peeps to reach in and eat, and it allows us to refill it from the top, with a minimum of hassle.  We already salvaged a 5 gallon bucket from the Safeway bakery to use for the adult chickens once they graduate to the yard.

Something interesting that I learned in this process, is that chickens are born with no bacteria in their digestive system.  I guess people probably aren’t either, but I never really thought about it.  So on the first day, we had to mix yogurt with water to let them eat some nice tasty bacteria.  Which, by the way, is why people should eat yogurt or raw milk every so often, especially if you take lots of anti-biotics.

We came up with several water bowl type solutions to allow them to drink without drowning.  Unfortunately, they are too small to use them yet, so we just put some water on a plate for now.  This water is almost constantly guarded by this helpful little girl that I tried to capture in the act.  She likes to stand in the water.  Constantly.  Its really cute.

Chilean Mesquite Tree:

I have discovered over the last several days, that I enjoy being able to come home from work and do something around the yard.  Its much more Zen for me than what I do every day.  Yesterday I planted a Chilean mesquite tree to replace the shade lost by the Oleander.  I dug out a small hugel bed for it, and popped it right in front of where the Oleander was.  It only took about 20 minutes to dig it up this time, but it was actually pretty relaxing.

This is just a picture of chalupa in the goat house.  Its a non-sequitur, but very cute.

Paleo Portion:

Breakfast:

Cottage cheese and strawberry preserves

Although delicious, this didn’t keep me going all day.  At least I remembered to buy eggs to make up for it.

Lunch:

Small Bag of cashews

Dinner:

2 country style pork ribs

Sauerkraut

Salad w/ Ranch

Dinner was delicious of course.  Jenn friend up the sauerkraut in butter, and it was amazing.  The pork ribs were pretty tasty as well.

Weight: 235

Day 31: Our First Sprout

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I am sure my dedicated audience was waiting with baited breath for my missing post today.  Well, my normal writing time for today was taken up with some pretty awesome events, which means you will hear about them in the morning.  Yes, sometimes the temporal causality involved with blogging can make my head hurt.  Thats ok though, I shall persevere with my mission.

Not a lot happened today for my paleo journey.  Perhaps I was subconsciously gearing up for my busy Saturday.  We did get our first sprout of the growing season though.  Jenn started some pepper seeds in those little compressed peet pellets. 

We now have our first little guys of spring starting to show up.  I will take some pictures of our actually setup once there is enough growth you can see it on camera.  Now I have some extra motivation to get my hugel bed put in under my raised beds.  I will have some little guys to toss in pretty soon.  We also started some leaf lettuce in a long plastic tray we happened to have laying around.  I generally don’t like leaf lettuce, but I can’t wait to taste it from my own garden.  Everything tastes better when you grow it yourself.

So far the hugel bed under the orange tree is working well.  It still holds moisture really well.  I think our bigger danger now is actually over watering it, not a problem you often associate with the desert.  We have also started watering the Palo Verde trees in our backyard.  Those guys are so water conscious, I swear they are growing more already.  They really know how to take advantage of water when they find it.  For now we are just hosing them down, perhaps we will rig up some rainwater irrigation once we get all our other projects settled.

Paleo Portion:

Breakfast:

2 cups of coffee with cream and cane sugar

Lunch:

2 Delicious Homemade cookies

So yesterday I was bad.  I had wheat for the first time in a month.  One of my employees was super kind and brought a plate of cookies his girlfriend made in for all of us to eat.  Which is really nice.  I tried to resist, but I ended up eating two of them.  Now granted, they were really good, and made with a lot of care.  Unfortunately, my body isn’t used to wheat anymore.  I was nauseous with heartburn for about two hours.  I never get heartburn.  Clearly, wheat is not good for us.  I feel so much better when I don’t eat it.

Dinner:

Steak w/ Cajun seasoning

grilled zuchini

grilled onion

salad w/ homemade ranch

Cottage cheese with strawberries

Dinner was awesome.  Not much else needs to be said about that.  We didn’t really do any special cooking, but it really hit the spot.

Weight: 234

Day 27: We planted a Trovita Orange Tree

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Although it is critically important for me to practice my new diet, some days it just feels like I am doing work.  I am often wanting to do more with the tribal lifestyle than I get a chance to do.  I want to truly exemplify this life that I have been led to.  So today, I planted a tree for the first time in my life.  Not only that, I had a great time doing it.

Today, Jenn and I were out and about, and we happened to wander into Lowes to check out their raised bed kits.  I didn’t see any there that I wanted, but I sure did see some cool looking orange trees.  Since we have some plans in place to get our chickens, I figured we could take care of some of our vitamin needs.  Once again, God’s guidance was on us, and we didn’t even realize it at the time.  I did know that this would also give me a chance to practice Hugelkulture in my yard for the first time.  More on that in a moment.

 

This is a mature Trovita orange tree.  They get about ten feet tall, and about 20 feet wide when fully mature.  So I will have something like this in my backyard if I live here for awhile.  Even if I don’t, I am totally going to plant an orchard on our ranch.  I find that I like it.  Nothing beats an orange grown yourself.

So why do I think this tree was God’s guidance.  Because it is the best type of tree for Arizona.  In fact, the Trovita is also known as the “Arizona Sweet Orange” .  Its fine with the heat, it hates the cold, and it only needs watered about once a week or so.  We didn’t know any of this at the store.  We didn’t do any research on this first, we simply walked in on a whim, and opened ourselves to God’s plan.  There were several flats of both valencia and navel oranges.  We chose neither of those, and chose one of three Trovita oranges in the entire garden section.  Absolutely by chance, we found the best tree.  Now I have this little guy in my yard.

As I mentioned, it also gave me a chance to start practicing Hugelkulture.  Sepp Holzer and Paul Wheaton are doing most of the work with Hugelkulture that I have been exposed to, and I linked to Paul’s Site for anyone who is more interested.  Hugelkulture is basically what nature does in a forest instead of irrigation.  Nature doesn’t irrigate, people do.  So rather than fighting nature, why wouldn’t we copy her methods?  Essentially, you bury a ton of wood in the ground, and you soak it with water to get it started, then cover it with good compost type soil.  Ideally you do this a year before you plant anything, but I wasn’t that smart.  The wood absorbs the water and holds it.  So it is always slowly releasing it into the ground for the plants.  Eventually the wood breaks down, and becomes rich nitrogen soil.  This keeps your plant growing in a moist, rich, non-compacted soil at all times.  These are the things we have to do to wean ourselves off of petroleum based fertilizers.  Remember how God did it first.  Here is my little hugel bed mid production.  I am sprinkling gypsum in, because I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I will be working more in the yard tomorrow, lets see what trouble I get into there.

Breakfast:

2 cups coffee with cream and cane sugar

Lunch:

1 small burger

grilled onions

Parmesan Broccoli

Small salad

I made burgers for Jenn and I, while she took care of the hard part with side dishes.  I discovered that in addition to being allergic to chili in pepper form, I am also allergic to chili powder.  I have no idea how it took me so long to learn that, but I did.  Jenn steam some broccoli with the stems still on, it was awesome.  I think I like it better than the florets.

Dinner:

Chocolate

Smoothies

Since we ate “lunch” at like 4.  Dinner was more like desert, but thats OK.  Jenn made some more smoothies with coconut milk, sunflower milk and bananas.  They were pretty darn good.  Tasted very yummy, but also healthy.  The chocolate was awesome, I haven’t had any real desert food in awhile.

Weight: 234