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Hugelkultur update - 2016 version

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.


  1. It will take time but should come back once you get the gully stopped.

    1. Hi Liz,
      I like what you've done - slow gentle and natural. Its good too that you refused to dig - my experience is that this generates a mad weed infestation. One thing I would offer is to sow nitrogen producing plants like cowpea, I know Fukuoka also sowed Daikon raddish in these situations, they have a deep root system that aerates the crust, encourages little critters to come along and do some work for you ... 10/10 from me. Terry

  2. We have found JAP pumpkin vines really good at what you're trying to achieve here. They sprung up from compost that we used nearby and they just fell down the slope. The beauty with pumpkin vines is, you need only get them started at the top where you notice small patches of shade or behind wood which collects moisture. The pumpkin vine will then move downhill of it's own accord, finding the best spots to root itself again.

    We did this last summer, and the pumpkin vines smothered the plants we were trying to grow on the slope on purpose. Then when winter came, the vines died back and fed the plants which were struggling. Whenever the vines got too wild (ie: they blocked a path we used) we just cut them back and placed them in a pile. This rotted very quickly to feed the rest of the area.

    If you had more trees to fell, I'd double what you have on the slope. Not only will it create more moisture spots for seeds to grow, but you double the insects and microbes which live underneath the slowly rotting wood. We have noticed in our experimental areas that we planted/placed what we thought was adequate, but those areas really struggled until something did start growing. So we started to double what we were doing and the areas rehabilitated a lot quicker.

    I like the permaculture principle of "edges" and it has always worked very well here. We plant on an edge (ie: the top of a slope) and place all our nutrients where we plant. The vines then take over the area, but we've only worked a very narrow strip ourselves.

    If I could make a suggestion, I would place more felled trees on the slope but concentrate your grass clippings on the top edge of it. Plant your vine seeds in that edge (a hardy pumpkin is better than a whimpy watermelon) and only water that area. Because nature is beautifully interconnected, when the rains come, the vine will rampage down the hill - rooting itself in all the protected spots behind the logs. Don't worry if grass and weeds grow between the logs, because in my experience when the vines get cracking they smother the area pretty much. Everything gets shaded out, dies and goes towards feeding the vine.

    The bonus is, you get a lovely crop of pumpkins that didn't take over the vegetable patch. You put it's tenacious tendrils to good use fighting erosion and improving soil condition. Maybe even a feral zucchini would do the same thing?

    I like what you've done by the way. I deal with erosion similar to yours, on our property too and covering a bare slope is better than leaving it to continue eroding. The only way I have found I could grow stuff on heavily eroded areas (because the soil is awful) is to concentrate on the very edge at the top. Then let gravity, seasonal rains and plants do the rest. It's beautiful how nature works.

  3. Hi Liz, I love the concept, and it seems to be working too.
    I am in the process of developing a Hugelkultur vegetable garden which is going really well. Have a look at my blog for details.

  4. It's funny to come back, and read an old comment/post. Because your experience deepens, but you have to start somewhere. It's great that you've managed to stop the erosion.

    Regarding types of wood to use, in my experience with ironbark, spotted gum and various types of wattle, all break down. But as you've noted in your holistic management series, oxidisation can slow the process for all of them. Which is what happens here when it doesn't rain, more times than it does. For hugelkultur to work, I have noticed in arid climates, there are a few tricks you can use. Namely, plants. But you have to be selective in what types.

    Here are some which work in our arid climate: old-man saltbush, lemon grass, wormwood and African daisies in shrub form. Geraniums and arrowroot too, as you've already mentioned. These require very little water to produce a lot of carbon material. Mine live on natural rainfall. Plant them strategically on your slope and use them as chop 'n drop material. When the rains arrive, they'll break down what you've chopped and it will feed the soil microbes and fungi. I've realised we have small openings to exploit when the rains arrive, so growing chop 'n drop material nearby, aids in helping the bigger stuff, like trees, grow, or break down - depending on their incline.

    Think of these are your nursery plants. They are the tough nuts which can survive extremes. They eat drought for breakfast. What is interesting however, is the moisture they can maintain underneath, and how other plants learn to exploit their edges. If you cannot get these kinds of plants to survive on natural rainfall, then nothing will grow. But I also think people don't think beyond rainwater tanks, when it comes to directing and collecting water with hard surfaces.

    I've been learning a bit more about permaculture lately, and specifically to exploit hard surfaces more. For example, if you have to store items without cover (ie: rubbish bins, garden ornaments, bricks, iron or other leftover building materials) place them near a plant that needs the run-off. Hard surfaces are perfect for capturing run-off and directing them where they're needed. So if you're having a storage problem elsewhere, store it above your slope, or near a plant that needs the run-off.

    I especially think the fact you can dump excess carbon here (whatever you have a surplus of) means you're putting that material to work in a concentrated area. Which will have more benefit, than a spars covering over a larger area. As you've already noted, it just requires more time to improve. Glad it's working out for you. If you boost the number of tough plants you're growing though, the seeds you're putting in, will have more niches to exploit in such an exposed and arid position. You will also find the site retains more moisture for longer.


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