Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Layered Acidic Garden

I’m going to keep this short and sweet with lots of pictures for those of you that just want a quick reference and then are off with your shovel and to shop for plants. If you’d like a more detailed explanation of layered gardening, see my post on hugelkultur mounds.

Whatever name you give it, ‘compost gardening,’ ‘layered gardening’, ‘hugelkultur’, ‘lasagna gardening’, ‘no till gardening’ they all employ basically the same methods and mean the same thing. You’re building a raised bed garden out of several layers of material that compost in place over time. The idea has gained a lot of popularity in recent years because of how incredibly low maintenance these gardens can be. A properly built hugelkultur mound is said to even be able to sustain a garden in the middle of the desert! If you’ve had a traditional garden in the past, you know that the digging, planting, hoeing and watering can become an exhausting chore and eat half of your summer. Lasagna gardening gets it’s clever name from the multiple layers of material you build into your raised bed. You can build a lasagna garden in just about anything. A raised bed of wood framed walls, a plastic tub, on the ground surrounded by bricks, cement blocks or just rocks you’ve picked up in the woods. The container really just depends on how formal, or informal you want it to look and how high you want it off the ground… or of course if you live in an apartment or a neighborhood where you can only garden in a container.
In hugelkultur, you dig below the ground itself and your layers begin there. The base is a bit different, the results pretty close to the same. I believe if you CAN dig into the ground at all, hugelkultur is the better method, since it requires less watering and improves itself over time with little or no interference from you after the initial build. lasagna gardening
I got this picture from the City of Cuyahoga Falls website.

So here we go, layered garden in a tractor tire. T’s grandpa had most of his garden in tires, using them simply as mini-raised beds. I’m just going to improve on what he’s done, not re-invent the entire garden.

HG00

First I dug all the dirt out of the center of a tire, just scooping it right next to it, because I’ll be putting it back at the end. I dug down almost 3 feet, until I hit the clay layer. I couldn’t do this in our previous yard, because the soil WAS clay and rock. Lots and lots of rock. I just dug it down as far as was possible to hold the logs in place. Deeper is better if you can manage it.

HG01

Next, I raided a wood pile that had been sitting for at least 2 years. There were good sized logs, already half rotten. Perfect! Don’t use logs that don’t rot or that give off chemicals to slow rot- avoid woods like locust, cedar and cherry. These logs were birch and oak and already breaking down, so they are fine.

HG03

Hugelkultur mounds are usually just free-form on the ground. I’m building this one inside the tire, kind of like combining hugelkultur and lasagna gardening. Add your logs to the hole, to the level of the soil (or in this case, almost the top of the tire). I threw in the bark that fell off and all the chips and pieces as well.

HG04

An old bale of straw or hay works for the next layer. You can also use chopped up leaves or grass clippings, shredded cardboard, newspaper, etc. I have a barn full of old rotting hay that I need to get rid of, so I used that.

HG05

Dump the leaves, hay, grass clippings on top of your log layer.

HG06

This is the layer you’ll vary according to what you’re planting. In this case, I’m planting strawberries, which are acid-loving plants, so I want the bed to stay fairly acidic. My neighbor was kind enough to send me home a load of aged cow manure; if you don’t have access to a friendly farmer, you can buy manure at most garden centers by the bag. Mushroom compost will also work well, you just want something that’s high in nitrogen so that as the logs break down, they don’t leach all the nitrogen from your soil.

HG07

For a little extra heat, I added some blood meal to this layer. It’s a big nitrogen boost too. Blood meal AND manure is really going to lower the PH of your soil and make it highly acidic, so if you’re planting things that need a bit higher PH- such as watermelon, cantaloupe, peas or lettuce you might add lime or wood ashes here instead of blood meal if you’ve already used manure. If you don’t want to guess, get a soil tester and test.

HG08

On top of the manure, I’m putting back all that dirt I first dug out of the hole, mounding it up in the center and packing the sides down a bit so it will stay in place until the plant roots can take hold and keep it there.

HG09

Add your plants… and a pinwheel if you are so inclined. 🙂

HG10

I just used more straw to mulch in the plants and then watered everything really well.
First mound finished! The best part is, there will be minimal weeds, once the logs underneath are saturated, I will seldom have to water because they will maintain the soil moisture beautifully. There’s no tilling, even in the next season, you just dig and plant again. If your plants are perennials, like strawberries, you just add more mulch on top. No fertilizer is needed, the logs underneath break down and provide nutrients.

HG11

For a cleaner, or more formal look, you could edge the planting bed with blocks, bricks or stone and use a commercial mulch from the nursery.
My cost on this mound was about $3.00 for blood meal and another $4 or so for plants. Everything else was sourced from our property or our neighbor.

Now I only have a 1/4 acre of garden left to do something with…

-B

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Quick raised bed

004My daughter threw a few zinnia seeds at the end of our driveway this spring, which resulted in a slightly haphazard patch of gorgeousness by midsummer. I mulched her spontaneous flower garden in August to help protect them from drying out too quickly in the horrible dirt they’d been planted in. When we cut away the last remaining stragglers last week, (zinnias bloom forever!) I promised her a much nicer medium for next year’s seeds.
This is my basic recipe for any raised bed I do in our yard now. It’s part hugelkulture mound, part lasagna gardening. Both are just fancy terms meaning I layer a bunch of organic material and then plop some plants in at some point and watch them grow.
I was breaking down a previous very large bed I built nearly 12 years ago, so I pulled rock and small boulders from that to use as a border. Some of my beds are made with scrap lumber, some with purchased landscape blocks. Most of them are rocks from various places on our property- because they are a) free and b) look organic instead of overly formal and contrived.
Build your border out of whatever you like. Just remember you’ll want it high enough to accommodate several layers of material, unless you mound the bed (tall center, near ground-level edges.)
First layer, if you are concerned with underground lovelies, such as moles, should be hardware cloth. Our “soil” here is clay and rock, rock and more rock. I seldom bother with hardware cloth. If you are lucky enough to have wonderful, silty soil, you probably have critters to go with it. Put down hardware cloth, save yourself grief later. (Hardware cloth is not actually cloth. It is a metal grid with holes small enough to put your finger through, but not small enough for rodents to climb through. I’m not sure why they call it “cloth” at all.)
FernWalk 006
MY first layer is cardboard and/or newspaper. I receive a ridiculous number of catalogs and papers stuffed with ads from every grocery and hardware store within a 30 mile radius… And the occasional phone book. I use them for weed barrier. Worms like this stuff, MUCH better than they like that black weed barrier on a roll crap you get at the garden center. Put a nice thick layer on the bottom of your new beds in the fall, water well, you’ll have 99% fewer weeds to deal with later. I’ve also used cardboard boxes ripped up like in the photo with the ferns at right. Cardboard lasts longer, but it’s harder to place around delicate plants.
107To the newspaper, I add a course layer of twigs, leftover mulch, chopped leaves yard clippings, whatever I have around for drainage. I avoid grass cuttings though, because we have a lot of crabgrass that sprouts everywhere and that stuff is vicious if it gets a foothold.
Over the roughage, I’ll add the actual soil or planting medium. How amended this is depends a lot on what I’m planting. For annual flowers like zinnias or marigolds, native clay with a bit of last year’s compost is usually fine. If I’m planting veggies, I use a lot more nutrient dense mix. I may add blood meal, peat moss, mushroom compost.

By now you’ve probably built things up enough it’s time for the second course of border (if you used rocks). Some people mortar these together or use landscape adhesive. I used it when building the pond and can vouch that it holds pretty well. I just use clay to hold together most of my rock borders. Since our native soil is 70% clay and 30% rock or clay that has turned to rock, it makes great glue when it’s wet. Start the base of your border with newspaper or cardboard to keep weeds from growing up between. Add the first course of rock. Fill your raised bed to the tops of the first level of rock, covering the tops with a bit of earth. The lay the top course over the bottom. If you’re doing this with landscaping blocks, bricks or concrete that you purchased, you’ll need to level each course and use sand/mortar to secure them in place. Rocks are a bit more forgiving. Kids can even sit/climb on the big boulders without damaging the bed.

On top of leftover straw, I added a couple wheelbarrows of burned  up trash from our burn pile. Over this I added 3 wheelbarrows full of native soil. This spring, I’ll add the plants, maybe a little blood meal to give it a nitrogen boost and mulch on top of that. Water each layer well to settle the bed and prevent air pockets.

In seriously weed prone areas, I sometimes newspaper between the plants again, on top of the soil, to keep weeds from taking over between my plants.


The mulch I start as a light layer, then build to about 3-4 inches deep as my plants mature. The idea is to retain moisture and soil nutrient content without smothering your plants. If your mulching material is fine (like shredded leaves) you may need to add to it a couple times a season as it breaks down.
117That’s it. Follow that recipe for your raised planting beds and they will be low maintenance and grow very healthy plants for several seasons. As the organic materials break down, you may need to re-layer every 4-5 years or so. On this bed, I’ll eventually have to replace that big stump with rock as it rots… but it looks kind of cool for now. 🙂
Raised garden beds are MUCH easier than raking, tilling and hoeing all season. Healthier for the micro-organisms in your soil and for your plants too!
B


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Hugelkultur

Walking through the woods a couple weekends ago with family, we came across an area of Pa Pa’s property that we hadn’t visited before. It was a far corner along the property line, the woods there so thick and close that the light was dimmed at least by half by the canopy above.

HugelkulturMound

Very old Hugelkultur mound

The wood’s floor was deep and spongy with leaves- even the usually prolific Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper wouldn’t sprout; mosquitoes were abundant, we could smell the leaf mould and wet permeating everything. Many scrubby cedars stretched up to the canopy, struggling for light but found little in the understory of taller trees. As a result, only the branches at the very tops still remained green and held needles; all the lower branches within reach were dead or dying and brittle to the touch. We pushed through to the edge of the property line and began to back track, when we came across several large mounds of earth in our path.  The mounds were 3-4 feet high and about 10-12 feet long. Rocks were piled on top of one of them as if to mark that spot. The larger two mounds were planted at the foot of a big cedar, this one towering over its straggling, sad looking younger cousins.

Shawnee are common in the St. James area and I had already spotted multiple thong trees pointing in the direction of a dry creek bed nearby. My sis in law speculated that they might be burial mounds. Under that darkening canopy, with sounds of water, critters chewing away at the rot and squirming about under a foot-thick carpet of decaying leaves and spongy wood- the idea of burial mounds seemed not only plausible but very likely. We also kept hearing something near us like footsteps or small rocks being tossed… but each time we stopped to listen, we heard only insects chewing and the whining hum of mosquitoes trying to feast on our ears.

I climbed to the top of one of the mounds so that I could look at it from a bird’s eye vantage point- it occurred to me that this would be rather irreverent if these were graves. Looking down on them though, they looked less like burial mounds. They reminded me more of  my Great Grandma’s old root cellar. We found four mounds in sets of two. They were placed with a space between them almost equal to the width of each mound. The tops of the mounds were squishy; the soil rich, deep and covered in moss.

We walked in the direction the thong trees were pointing after examining the mounds. Most of the thongs were in mature oaks that I’d guess their age to be about 80-100 years. By the way, I found this little guide from Missouri Conservation most helpful in guesstimating the age of  trees without counting rings: http://mdc.mo.gov/your-property/your-trees-and-woods/backyard-tree-care/how-old-tree

After traveling downhill for a bit, we came to what I expected to find, which was a creek bed. It was dry though, no active spring feeding into it. We wanted rocks to take back with us and had ridden down to that part of the property on Pa Pa’s 4-wheel drive mule, but I wasn’t sure that I would make it down to the stream-bed through all the thick undergrowth and trees. We opted to backtrack to the field and look for the source of the stream instead. We found it, at the bottom of a wide ravine that allowed a perfect size space to park the ATV in.

BigAssRockAt the top of the stream bed, there was a dam. It had been built of stacked rocks, earth and chunks of concrete that I noticed were decorated with bits of glass. The dam was about 5 feet at its widest point and spanned the bottom of the ravine like a bridge. The rocks I found there had mineral deposits that reminded me of the formations you see in the caves around here- I took one back to the house and Thurman said it had a lot of iron oxide in it and a fair amount of pyrite. It was a REALLY heavy rock for the size that it was. I also brought back another monster rock, which Miranda had to help me lift into the back of the mule. I’m still trying to decide where in our yard I want to park it. For now it’s sitting near the frog pond, since that is as far as I could carry it myself from the trunk of our car. :-p

When I got home, I decided to do a little research into what those strange hills in the woods might be. My husband read a fair bit about Shawnee burial mounds. I started looking at different types of root cellars. It was during my browsing of root cellars that I stumbled across pictures that looked EXACTLY like our mounds. 3-4 feet high, paired in sets of two, at the base of large trees. The word under the caption was Hugelkultur, which is a German word for “Hill culture.”

There has been a lot of interest in recent years regarding perma-culture, or permanent, sustainable methods of gardening or small scale farming. I’ve heard gardening called a “retired person’s” hobby, it’s coming back into vogue thanks to the popularity of survival-ism and prepping. Hill culture is method of lasagna gardening, which is layering different materials for your garden bed and planting right on top of the layers, then allowing all the materials to compost there in place. It’s less labor intensive than building compost piles and turning, watering and caring for them every day. The material breaks down slowly, feeding the plant roots on top as it turns into compost. The mounds we found in the woods would have broken down over time, spreading out and losing height as the bulky inner layer decomposed. After I read how Hugelkultur mounds are built, I understood why they felt spongy when I stood on them.hugelkultur

The inner layer of a Hugelkultur mound is bulky, rough material- such as tree trunks and limbs. Over this you would add a layer of a slightly lighter compost material- straw, chopped leaves, grass clippings, sod, large vegetable scraps, newspaper, cardboard, etc. Soil amendments can be added on top of this layer. I’ve read that the first couple years, nitrogen rich additives may be needed, since the tree trunks will absorb most of the free nitrogen in the pile until they reach saturation and begin to break down. Blood meal is great for this and relatively inexpensive. If you have access to manure, it’s full of nitrogen. Plants in the Legume family will also add nitrogen to the surrounding soil.
On top of all this bulk, you would add your actual soil. I have mostly clay and rocks here, so I’d probably use a mixture of purchased garden soil from the nursery, cut in half with some native clay. Clay is wonderful for holding nutrient value, it just sucks for drainage. Add plants, then mulch well as the final layer.

hugelkultur_how_to_imageThe mounds are built in pairs at an angle where the sun will pass over them side to side; some pictures I saw used  trees as a wind break on the north. Some left the space between the mounds empty so that every part of the hill was easily reachable. Others used the middle space for extra compost and added this center to the tops of the mounds as it broke down; this would give the hills a constant source of renewal and nutrient build up.

I’ve already chosen a spot in our yard where I intend to try this out. Even though I have a commercial drum-style composter, I would love to see if Hugelkultur gardening is as pain-free as its proponents claim. I already build raised beds for practically everything I grow in our yard, since few plants really love the rocky, clay soil. Plus, tilling clay only serves to dry it out and completely strip it of any nutrient value. A tilled garden simply wouldn’t work well in our yard. I tried it a couple times, then my tiller was retired to the shed up the hill after about 3 uses, it will likely see a revival only if we move.

I know our local Amish and Mennonites are genius when it comes to growing anything- if you’ve ever had one of their tomatoes from Farris Fruit Market in Camdenton, you’ll stop in there JUST for those. The Amish on Pa Pa’s property would have been the ones who built these mounds. I’m guessing they might have also dammed that spring, maybe to create an artesian well, in order to water their gardens.  I’ll post more pictures when I get back up to St James and can visit the mounds with a camera in hand. When I build mine, I’ll try to do a step by step write up on what I put into them and post later on whether or not they were superior for growing plants or not.

This site has some really excellent information about Hugelkultur and a ton of photos if you’re interested in learning more. http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/ It also shows the progression of the mounds in graphic form, from year one all the way up to 20 years.

http://gardenhillbilly.hubpages.com/hub/Gardening-Without-Fertilizers-Tips# also has some great how to’s and tons of info on Hugelkultur gardening.