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Hugelkulture on a hillside (and introducing myself)

Zafra Miriam

Joined: Apr 16, 2012
Posts: 8
Location: Venezuela
Hi Everyone,
I've been reading here for a couple of months, including the prolific thread on hugelkulture in general, which seems so long and overwhelming I thought it might be better to start a new thread about the particular idea of using hugelkulture on hillsides as a form of terracing. (I saw one or two posts about that idea but not much conversation, unless I missed it which is entirely possible considering the density of that thread.) Anyway, if this post should be there then I apologize and hope one of the kind folks in charge will just move it on over.

My partner and I are about to embark on a permaculture project on a mountainside in Venezuela. Subtropical climate, lots of rain during the rainy season which is most of the year, it seems, and then nothing during the hot "summer", although the summers have been shortening lately - thank you climate change. We have about an acre of land in a forest. Clay soil, but lots of soil life and amazing fertility. We plan to use a fair amount of the space for forest gardening, planting lots of useful trees, and have the great fortune of basically being able to "plug in" to an already functioning and healthy forest ecosystem, just shifting it over to tree/plant varieties that produce for us. So that's the big picture. I'm in overwhelm, of course, and to get a grip am following the start small advice I see everywhere and focusing on what will basically be the zone 1ish kitchen garden, otherwise known as the veggie patch. It's in an area we've already opened up to build our water tank, and we want to get producing relatively quickly to become more food self-sufficient. It's a not-too-steep hillside of about 11X16 meters, north facing which doesn't matter that much being so close to the equator - it gets full sun pretty much all day.

So this slope is just above the terrace that was cut into the mountain by the previous owners of the land, where we are going to build the first and smaller of 2 earthbag/bamboo structures, where we will live while we complete the second larger one. We are going to stabilize the wall with vetiver grass and will probably also toss in some vetiver among the veggie plantings as well, because besides being an awesome stabilizer it's also been shown to be very friendly to other plants - a 2fer! Structurally, we want to keep the water from crashing straight down the slope for all the myriad obvious reasons, so I was thinking a series of swales, each one followed by a berm on the down slope side where the plantings would go. Reading about hugelkulture, I'm thinking that those berms could be small-scale hugelkulture berms. That is, largeish deadwood mounded with soil instead of just mounds of soil. Seems to me that the sponge action of the rotting wood will be good not just for assuring that we never have to water in the summers, such as they are, but also to hold water that would otherwise be running down the mountain destabilizing things and draining nutrients. My plan is, from up slope to down, swale, hugelkulture berm, path, repeat. First, I am digging out the rampant grass that spreads with the most fantastic die-hard-with-a-vengeance rhizomes and will cover the entire area with cardboard to try to stifle those that I don't get to. We'll leave it alone for a few months while we're building, and hopefully the organic material under the cardboard will further nourish the soil and bring out more worms, etc. Then we'll do the swales and berms and paths. Now here are the two variables that I have questions about (for now - more are sure to arise).

1. We have a ton of the brush etc. that we cut to clear space. It contains a lot of woody (twigs, woody vines) material plus some leafy stuff. That will be sitting and breaking down for these months as well, but it for sure won't get to be finished compost. I'm wondering where it can fit into the hugelkulture - on top of the wood and before the soil seems right...?

2. Paths. I said down slope of each hugelbeet and before the next swale would be a path. In that case could I plant the swales with plants that dig extra water? I've seen where people have mulched the swales and then the swales themselves were the paths, which would be a great space-saver, but it seems like in a rainy climate like ours that would leave you walking in puddles a lot, which is inconvenient. Am I right in that assumption? Anyone have an idea for a better arrangement than mine or how paths would fit into my situation? I want this to be a no-dig garden, so the paths have to be useful and permanent.

Any other ideas suggestions warnings or whatever from the permies will be most appreciated. I'm a total newbie here - the more information I can get the better. I'm sure I'll be posting lots more questions about all kinds of things as we progress in our project. Nice to "meet" you-all .
John Polk

Joined: Feb 20, 2011
Posts: 6578
Location: Moving to: NE Washington USDA zone 5 Western steppes to the Rockies
Welcome to the site Zafram.

I am also looking at some land with a slope, and have thought along the same lines: the berm part of the swale should be a huglebed.
If the swales are built on contour, this gives a nice natural watering system to your grow beds.

As far as paths are concerned, you could keep them in a low growing cover crop. This would help control runoff, keep mud to a minimum, and also supply abundant organic material right next to your grow area where you want it.

Good luck with your project.

Brenda Groth

Joined: Feb 01, 2009
Posts: 4433
Location: North Central Michigan
with the clay and slope you might try to do similar to what Sepp Holtzer has done, but with plants more suited to your climate..if you haven't read his books or seen his site you might check them out.


Bloom where you are planted.
Zafra Miriam

Joined: Apr 16, 2012
Posts: 8
Location: Venezuela
I'll definitely start looking for a good groundcover that doesn't mind being walked on for the paths - anyone have any suggestions? Does this mean I could plant some water-loving plant or plants in the swales? Or are swales supposed to be just mulched?

I've been checking out Sepp Holzer's work - very impressive. He works on such a large scale thought that sometimes it's a little intimidating, but still a great inspiration.

Thanks for the input!
Chris Kott

Joined: Jan 25, 2012
Posts: 796
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Greetings, and welcome to the forums, Zafra. I've posted in other places about this idea, but haven't gotten any solid feedback on it. The only concern I have with the whole venture is what would happen to new hugelterraces that were improperly anchored to the slope; but I suppose that's where plant species with good properties for soil stabilisation come in. If I have time to prepare my sites for this, what I plan on doing is growing black locust saplings on the sites of future hugelbeds, such that when they get chopped, they form an anchored vertical structure to keep the horizontally-oriented scrap organic matter anchored as it decomposes (black locust is something like 4% fungicide by volume when harvested fresh, and so would be the last to decompose in any hugelbed, surviving until an extensive tree root mat could stabilize the hugelterrace).
Nick Garbarino

Joined: Apr 24, 2012
Posts: 239
Location: west central Florida
I created a terrace swale hugelkultur and planted lemon grass Cymbopogon citratus. I think I got the idea from someone on this forum. By the time the wood rots completely and shrinks, the lemon grass should be thick enough to hold the terrace. Lemongrass likes lots of water, so it should do well in Venezuela, I guess? Or you could use another similar but native plant. Good luck!

Certifiable food forest gardener, free gardening advice offered and accepted. Permaculture is the intersection of environmentalsim and agriculture.
L. Jones

Joined: Apr 29, 2012
Posts: 80
Location: NW Mass Zone 4 (5 for optomists)
Zafra Miriam wrote:
to hold water that would otherwise be running down the mountain destabilizing things and draining nutrients. My plan is, from up slope to down, swale, hugelkulture berm, path, repeat. First, I am digging out the rampant grass that spreads with the most fantastic die-hard-with-a-vengeance rhizomes and will cover the entire area with cardboard to try to stifle those that I don't get to. We'll leave it alone for a few months while we're building

I'm quite concerned that these two things might not be compatible. ie, dig out the existing rampant weed/grass, on a rainy slope, and leave it with no vegetation for several (mostly rainy?) months - seems like a recipe for a mudslide, or at least topsoil erosion. My instinct would be to weed a swath and build the berm for that swath, then weed the next swath and build the berm for that swath pretty much without waiting between weeding and berming - and if you can't get to that because of housebuilding, don't start with weeding out what's holding your soil in place, until you're ready to hold it in place some other way. Not that I'm a big fan of rampant weeds, but even they can serve a purpose.

Muddling towards a more permanent agriculture. Not after a guru or a religion, just a functional garden.
Zafra Miriam

Joined: Apr 16, 2012
Posts: 8
Location: Venezuela
Hi again and thanks for all the feedback. Chris, I'm not really worried on this particular slope about the trunks rolling down the hill because it's not all that steep (we have others that are much much steeper and I won't be trying this system there). We'll probably flatten out one side of the more cylindrical trunks and maybe dig them a little depression to rest in. Also they're so damn heavy, wherever they are is where they seem to want to stay. The black locust idea of yours sounds good. I'm pretty sure we don't have black locusts here but also we don't have time to wait for trees to establish, so we're going the vetiver route for that because it establishes fast. As for landslides, that's not a big concern because we've only cleared the space I mentioned in my first post and upslope from that are like 20+ meters that are completely covered with native forest which isn't going anywhere any time soon. Also, the area I've cleared isn't being held together by this nasty grass but rather by the roots of an enormous tree that sits off to one side (I'm of course taking the roots into consideration in my plan for the space) and the roots of other plants that are still growing in the area surrounding the space we've cleared. The part of the space that is potentially unstable (although it has withstood many rainy seasons including 2010 which was a doozie) is the wall that descends from the slope to the terrace the previous owners cut. That we're going to stabilize with vetiver (which will catch any topsoil that might want to creep downslope in the rain). Speaking of which, I'm going to use vetiver the way you used the lemongrass, Nick. It's an absolute miracle plant I'm actually surprised I haven't seen more about it on this forum - talk about a multi-tasker - non-invasive, pest deterrent, and the most spectacular vertical root systems for stabilization! But where exactly did you plant the lemongrass in the system you created?

Thanks again for the welcome and the input! Cheers!
Nick Garbarino

Joined: Apr 24, 2012
Posts: 239
Location: west central Florida
I planted the lemongrass on the uphill side of the swale, close to the swale and the buried log. I think the lemongrass will eventually spread to both the uphill and downhill sides, so it will act like a sieve for water flowing over the swale which would probably only happen in a pretty heavy rain event.
subject: Hugelkulture on a hillside (and introducing myself)
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