The Hugelkultur Question

hugelkultur
A debate broke out at the Root Simple headquarters this past weekend over hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is the most talked about concept in the permaculuture world. The idea with hugelkultur is that you mound or bury logs in compost and plant in it. Proponents contend that the logs break down and become open fungal pathways to store water and nutrients.

Kelly suggested we take an unused raised bed in our front yard and try an at-grade hugelkultur experiment (mounding in our dry climate seems like a bad idea, especially given our current drought). I balked at the amount of digging that would be involved. Kelly suggested that we should try it since we had little to lose and we’re supposed to be experimenting with garden ideas for the sake of our readers. I, again, thought about all the digging and the excess soil that would have to be carried down the staircase.

Then I had a change of heart. We should be experimenting, I thought. And we have a pile of wood.

But, like a gardening version of Hamlet, I started waffling again. I decided to post the hugelkultur question to the Garden Professor’s Facebook page. One of those horticulture professors, Linda Chalker-Scott is someone who I seek out when writing a magazine article. A civil discussion ensued on that Facebook page, proving that Facebook is good for something other than angry political screeds and cat videos. A summary of some of the points made:

  • There is no peer reviewed research on hugelkultur.
  • The concept seems to date back only to 2007 or so, most likely to Sepp Holzer.
  • Chalker-Scott suggested that you could get the same benefits with surface mulch with a lot less effort. See a previous Root Simple blog post for the reasons why mulch does many of the same things as hugelkultur.
  • Someone pointed out that subsidence in a hugelkultur bed might be bad for trees, though many use hugelkultur just for vegetables.
  • I pointed out that nature mulches but does not hugelkultur (except maybe in the case of floods).
  • Relieved that I would not need to dig, I chimed in that I thought that hugelkultur would rob soil of nitrogen as the carbon material broke down.
  • A hugelkultur supporter countered that large logs would not rob soil of nitrogen due to the surface to area ratio.
  • The conversation concluded with a back and forth on mulch vs. hugelkultur and the benefits of hugelkultur as a method to break up compacted soil. Again, the issue was that mulch takes less effort.

What’s needed is a field trial to answer a few questions. Would surface mulch alone work just as well? What is the effect of mounding? Would at-grade¬†hugelkultur work better in dry climates? Does hugelkultur save water? Since I’m lazy and especially don’t like big dig projects I’ve decided to forgo a hugelkultur bed. But I also don’t want to completely dismiss the idea.

What do you think?

Flowers from Vegetables

flower of an Italian dandelion

Whenever possible I let vegetables go to flower, sometimes to save the seed, but more often to share the bounty with insects and birds. The usefulness comes in two waves: the first being the pollinators attracted to the flowers, and once the flowers go to seed the birds will move in. Of course this means that I’m “wasting space” and making my garden “unproductive” but the rewards outweigh any inconvenience.

New gardeners are often surprised to see what amazing flowers different vegetables make. People with no connection to food plants whatsoever may not even know that vegetables make flowers, so it’s fun to show them a carrot flower, a squash blossom, a bean flower.

My new favorite garden flower comes off an old Italian chicory plant left to go riot. I’m not sure which chicory it is, but it’s one of those¬† long-leaved, bitter greens beloved in Italy and sold by Franchi seeds. It’s easy to grow, pest proof, and we like the strong, bitter flavor. The flowers, though, are amazing. The greens send up narrow stalks 8′ tall or more (approx. 2.5 meters) and the stalks are covered from top to bottom with beautiful periwinkle blue flowers which are about 2″ (5cm) across– classic chicory flowers.

The bees adore these flowers. What’s more, this plant has been blossoming continuously for months now–at least 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t mark down when it started, but it’s been at least 3 months by now, maybe 4. It’s given me lots of joy.

In our yard the flower stalks have interwoven with grape and bean vines, adding a lot of color to a corner of our patio. The situation is impossible to to photograph, because the flowers are both high and low and tangled up with everything, but trust me, in person it’s charming in its wild way.

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005 Amy and Vince of Tenth Acre Farm

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Image: tenthacrefarm.com

In the fifth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we talk to Amy and Vince Stross of Tenth Acre Farm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

We begin with the story of why Amy quit her job and how she began to radically transform their yard. Some of the first work they did involved constructing berms and swales in the front yard, the only part of their property that gets enough sun to grow edibles. Amy and Vince describe the trial and error process they went through to perfect this water harvesting system.

We also discuss the beautiful result you see above–a front yard that combines edibles as well as flowers that both please the neighbors and provide habitat for beneficial insects. The magic extends out into the parkway which is planted with a cherry tree guild.

Amy and Vince go on to discuss how belonging to a CSA inspired them to cook from scratch and learn how to preserve food. This knowledge came in handy once their garden got really productive. Amy shares why buying a pressure canner is a good investment.

We talked to Vince about his post on making a non-electric mason jar vacuum sealer with an automotive brake bleeder. This is a cool and low cost alternative to the electric Food Saver vacuum sealer.

And Amy discussed her provocative post on why they don’t keep chickens.

According to Amy, homesteading is “more of a marathon than a sprint.” They are in it for the long hall.

We conclude by having Vince and Amy answer a Listener question about living a sustainable life in a cold climate (something we know nothing about!). Amy mentions growing fruit trees and freezing fruit in one pound packages. Canning projects then take place in the winter when heating up the kitchen also heats the house. Vince talks about growing greens year round and references the books of Elliot Coleman.

You can visit their blog at tenthacrefarm.com. Amy also does a newsletter (see the sidebar on their website). When you sign up for you’ll get a free ebook describing a little more about all the amazing things they are up to. We could have chatted for hours.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

Biochar Results: Mixed

Biochar

Image: Wikipedia.

Results from the first ever scientific study of biochar by researchers at the University of Southampton have been released. Plant growth was stimulated (up to 100%!) but,

the positive impacts of biochar were coupled with negative findings for a suite of genes that are known to determine the ability of a plant to withstand attack from pests and pathogens. These defence genes were consistently reduced following biochar application to the soil, for example jasmonic and salcyclic acid and ethylene, suggesting that crops grown on biochar may be more susceptible to attack by pests and pathogens. This was a surprising finding and suggests that if reproduced in the field at larger scales, could have wide implications for the use of biochar on commercial crops.

The researchers concluded:

Our findings provide the very first insight into how biochar stimulates plant growth — we now know that cell expansion is stimulated in roots and leaves alike and this appears to be the consequence of a complex signalling network that is focused around two plant growth hormones. However, the finding for plant defense genes was entirely unpredicted and could have serious consequences for the commercial development and deployment of biochar in future. Any risk to agriculture is likely to prevent wide scale use of biochar and we now need to see which pest and pathogens are sensitive to the gene expression changes.

Thanks to Michael Tortorello for the tip.