Hugelkultur update

by Liz Beavis
Several years ago now I introduced you to my "hybrid hugelkultur".  The aim of this project was to try to rehabilitate and area of bad erosion on the slope above our shed.  It looked like the slope had been carved out to make room for the shed and the water flow from the driveway drain had been directed across the area, which was causing serious erosion.

We started by moving the drain to a gentler angle and putting rocks in the drain to slow down the water.  Next we used electric fencing to keep out the cattle.  Then we were ready to set up a hugelkultur.  Hugelkultur describes the practice of burying wood in garden beds.  I call our system "hybrid" because we didn't bury the wood.  We didn't have any spare soil, so we piled the logs of wood on the surface across the slope, hoping that they would trap material that was washed down the hill and slow down the water, kind of like a swale, except that we didn't want to dig into the bank either.  We also piled grass clippings and old hay over the logs.  We are hoping to build new soil using the organic matter and the logs. So the area is a hybrid between a hugelkultur and a swale.

a few things growing where I put the manure at the start
At first I tried to plant seedlings in compost and manure at the top of the slope, but it was just too hot and dry for them and most died.  Now I just scatter seeds up there, if I'm sorting seeds to save them, any dodgy looking seeds go on the hugelkultur.  Any old seeds, or if I have huge amounts of seeds, like from lettuce and brasicas, I scatter them on the hugelkultur.  From what I planted originally, the geranium is doing best, and the arrowroot is surviving too.  I don't mind what grows there, even weeds are ok, but I do try to only grow plants that wouldn't poison the cattle if they got in by mistake, or when we eventually remove the fence.  Anything that does grow is adding to the organic matter by losing leaves, and feeding the soil biology through its roots.  The aim is to generate biomass on the slope so I don't have to keep moving grass clipping up there.

Now there are little sprouts of green all around the area and I think we are slowly making progress.  We are certainly making an improvement and the erosion isn't getting any worse.  All I can do now is keep topping up the organic matter and scattering seeds, and if we're lucky, nature will take over and heal this hillside.

We have cut down a few trees at Cheslyn Rise to make room for the house and I'm looking forward to using them to try a proper hugelkultur raised bed.  We certainly notice that the soil improves around some of the wood that has been on the ground around our place for several decades, as it starts to decay it forms wonderful soil.  I'm very glad that the previous owner didn't burn all the piles of branches, instead he pushed them into big piles and they will be decaying and adding the fertility of our soil over time.

Have you tried hugelkultur?  Or swales?  Any thoughts on rehabilitating land?

2016 update: we are continuing to pile organic matter on this area, any time we have fallen branches, or mulch to use up, we put it on the bank.  I think we could probably speed up the process by putting more manure or compost on the bank, but I prefer to put that on my vege garden.  Keeping the area moist would also help with getting plants established, but we don't have spare water at the moment.  This is a slow process of rehabilitating the bank, but at least it seems to have stopped the erosion.

I occasionally get questions about hugelkultur, especially what wood to use.  Unfortunately I'm not much help because I haven't actually done this hugelkultur properly.  I do want to try it when we start new garden beds at our new house.  My thoughts are that wattle is an excellent wood to use as it breaks down quickly and grows all over our property.  I'd love to hear from others who have used Australian trees in hugelkutur as most of the information is from other countries.

Homestead in the Holler posted about their hugelkultur beds recently also.

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