The Hugelkultur Question

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?

Saturday Tweets: Cast Iron, Astroturf and Testing Your Microclimates

“Interstellar”: Leaving the farm for the stars


Erik: Every once in awhile I like to see a big budget Hollywood movie, especially when I think it might be a window into the cultural episteme. I had a hunch Interstellar might touch on some themes related to this blog so I suggested we go.

Kelly: And I went for the popcorn.

Erik: I wasn’t disappointed, at least with the epistemological bits.  The movie itself was a mess.

Kelly: You and your big words. We should tell people who don’t know that this is a science fiction film set in a near-ish future, in the wake of Something Bad happening which causes massive depopulation of the Earth. I think the food supply failed.

Now, everyone left is a farmer, and working hard to keep failing monocrops going. We seem to be living on an all-corn diet. There are no animals to be seen, anywhere. Not even a cat. I’m assuming we ate them. There seems to be plenty of gas left, perhaps because there are so few people. At any rate, things aren’t good–there are constant dust storms and disease threatening the crops. It seems that humanity isn’t out of hot water quite yet.  And our hero, Cooper, who is a ex-NASA pilot forced to play farmer, discovers that NASA still exists, in skeletal form, in an underground bunker. (For Angelinos: The NASA bunker is the Bonaventure Hotel!!!!)  From there the plot turns to “How can we get all of us off this sorry rock before humanity expires?” aka “Space will save us.”


Kelly’s photo of the Bonaventure Hotel: the set for underground NASA.

Erik: Two more big words for you: eschatological panic. To me that’s what the movie is about. That panic is intertwined with, as you note, a profound disrespect for Mother Earth. We screwed up the source of all life, but thankfully we can shoot ourselves up into heaven (through the Bonaventure!). Anyone who thinks otherwise (like the school bureaucrats depicted in an early parent/teacher meeting scene) are cranks.

Kelly:  I think we should spell out that scene with the teachers which Erik is referring to, because it is important to what I’ll have to say later.  In this scene, the hero/pilot, Cooper, goes to a parent teacher conference where his son’s high-school teacher blithely states that the Apollo landings were all a brilliant CIA hoax designed to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. She believes this as absolute truth, and shows him that it is written into all the revised textbooks. Cooper is horrified. Somehow he has missed the re-education program that came after the big die-off.

This is important to me because it is a good example of the typical, lazy — and typically lazy– thinking about science and nature and philosophy which goes on in popular culture. There is a central narrative which tells us that science will save us, and that science must be protected at all costs from backward thinking nutjobs–whether these be religious zealots or brain dead bureaucrats.

In the world of Interstellar it seems a new sort of political correctness has been developed which privileges some very narrow band of ag studies over all other kinds of learning, and downplays the achievements of science in the past. There are hints that this may be because the failures of science are what got them into their predicament to begin with– this is not clear.

But what is clear is that the only hope for humanity, both physically and spiritually, is abandoning the planet.  We see this played out in Cooper’s adult children: one is a farmer, one is a scientist. The farmer is blind, blind even to the suffering of his own family, while the scientist literally saves mankind.

This dualistic set-up–Science vs. Farming or really, as the story plays out, Science vs. Earth is a very bad model, yet it is the one we are presented with over and over again. You’ve heard the quote attributed to Einstein that says something along the lines of “We’re not going to solve our problems by using the same thinking we used to get into trouble”?  I feel like we are swimming deep in those problematic waters, and this false duality is an example of it.

Erik: Interstellar, like most Hollywood movies, takes the techo-utopian side of that dualism. So does Richard Branson with his plans to sell expensive eschatological roller coaster rides. On the other side of that dualism you have pseudo-science and a kind of rainbows and unicorns denial of the physical plane.

Two things really bug me about Interstellar: first it’s the ultimate expression of suburban flight. We screwed things up here, but thankfully a wormhole has opened and we can (spoiler alert) repopulate a new planet that looks like Joshua Tree. It’s dry but there’s some great rock climbing!

Secondly Interstellar’s denial of the sanctity and beauty of Earth. And, I want to be clear that I’m not misanthropic: I believe in human civilization. I’m saying that there is something special about this planet and that it is our place in the universe. And, practically speaking, the rest of this solar system is inhospitable to life and the stars are so remote we’ll never reach them. We really need to tell different stories than this one.

Kelly: Yup. And to be clear, neither of us is anti-science — we just want to look a little more closely at the stories we tell ourselves in this culture.

For instance, why can’t we see a story which tells about people rebuilding after the Bad Thing happens, and being happier than they were before?

Instead, the story is always apocalyptic. In Interstellar they make passing reference to the greed and blindness of the before-times, but the present reality for the survivors is grim. Everyone is “stuck on the farm” and Cooper’s farm house needs a paint job real bad and there’s not much to do except watch for dust storms. Leaving the planet becomes our manifest destiny.  As Cooper says at one point, “I was born on Earth–I wasn’t meant to die here.”

Here’s a different story. In the wake of the bad times, people awaken to their true humanity? What if we let go of materialism and greed  and fear and live in more cohesive communities? We develop a positive, living spirituality and a deep bond with nature,  to which we are now devoted to healing?

What if we celebrated the role of the caretaker as much as we do the explorer?

I know, I know, that would be a boring movie because it would have no spaceships or explosions.

Erik: I can think of some positive examples from science fiction with both spaceship and explosions. First, Frank Herbert’s Dune which values human abilities over machines. Then there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, among other ideas, explores what happens when we become detached from nature. And in some ways Gravity is the inverse of Interstellar. Gravity celebrates humanity and culture (Remember the radio conversation? See the short the director’s son made about the other side of that conversation with the Inuit man–very worth watching) with a plot about how inhospitable space actually is and how good it is to be standing on the living earth.

Kelly:  All true. But my obsession right now is not with SciFi but with real life. I’m tired of our culture’s hostile and dismissive attitude toward nature. I’m more than tired of narratives which have already given up on nature. This includes the “Let’s get off this rock” narrative of this movie, but it also includes the “Don’t worry, the Rapture is coming” narrative and the “It’s too late to do anything, the planet is doomed anyway” narrative and the related “Humans are doomed for X Y or Z reason and the planet will be glad to see us go” and the most pernicious narrative of all, “It won’t happen in my lifetime, so why should I care?”

I want new narratives. We deserve more. Our children deserve more. Our planet deserves more.