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Sunken-Raised Hugel-Keyhole-Lasagna Hybrid

 
gardener
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After reading some of the threads on keyhole gardens, I felt inspired to attempt building my own & thought it might be fun to document the experience.
Since the main goals for my property is to build soil and reduce the need for irrigation, I decided to implement some hugelkulture concepts in the keyhole. The neighboring landowners on both sides of my land have been clearing brush and making piles of perfectly good wood that they plan to burn, so I got permission from both neighbors to take whatever I want from the piles while they're waiting for it to rain enough to safely burn them (score for me).
For the location, I decided to put the bed in an empty spot near the rabbit barn. It gets full sun from dawn until about 3:00 PM in the growing seasons, and then is blocked from the most intense rays during the hottest part of the day (which crops seem to appreciate). It has direct exposure to the east, north, and south.
Step 1 was lining out the bed perimeter using some logs/branches and removing the top layer of (dead) crabgrass on the surface. I've discovered that surface hugels tend to dry out quickly with my pure sand in the Texas heat, so it's best to get the bulk of the wood below ground level to retain moisture.
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keyhole garden
keyhole garden
 
Kc Simmons
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Step 2 was digging out a couple of feet of sand. The plan is to have a combination of a "sunken-raised" bed (contradictory much?). Currently, I don't know what I should use for the walls in the raised portion so, for now, I just left the logs and made little, berm-ish mounds of sand over them to help define the border. I figure once I decide on a border, I can just keep adding to the surface level of the bed, which will incorporate those logs into the buried material and increase the depth of the soil.
Step 3 was laying the first level of wood and making the compost cage. I had some leftover floor wire from building rabbit cages laying around that I'd been tripping over for months, so I decided to use it to hold the compost. It's a heavy enough gauge to keep it collapsing under the weight of the soil and/or compost; plus I can always add to the height later, if needed, by using c-rings to attach another piece to the top. It turned out to be about a foot & a half in diameter or a little less. For the first wood layer, I used a mix of logs/limbs of pecan, oak, mimosa, elm, and grapevine trunks. None of it was "green," but most of it was still in the early stages of decomposition.

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keyhole garden
keyhole garden
 
Kc Simmons
gardener
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**Photos are struggling to upload (likely due my rural internet & me being too tech- illiterate to know how to reduce the file size), so will get them uploaded as I'm able to. :)

Step 4 was stuffing the gaps with smaller sticks, wood chips & shredded leaves, and adding some of the dirt to the top.

Observations so far:
1. The bed seems awfully small. I read that a diameter of 6 feet is recommended, as that allows the nutrients from the compost to leach throughout the bed, as well as the moisture from the compost greens and any graywater poured in the cage. I didn't measure this bed, but I paced out about 6 feet when I lined it out. I'm fairly short (for a guy), but I should be able to reach enough to access the whole bed without having to step in it.
2. The topsoil in that spot doesn't have much "soil" in it. It's a very dense sand with fine particles. The crabgrass that invades everywhere appears to not have contributed much to the OM.
3. I'll need to include lots of organic matter to help retain moisture, as this sand "repels" water instead of letting it penetrate the surface, especially when it's totally dry. Erosion & runoff will be a concern to watch out for.
4. I knew I was unable to make straight lines and, obviously, I'm also terrible at making circles with an even circumference. This one is just a little"lumpy."

More to come...
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keyhole garden center
keyhole garden center
 
Kc Simmons
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After that, I kind of beat the surface with the shovel to help the sand settle down between the logs & chips. Then I cleaned the rabbit barn and dumped about 3 inches of manure/urine in the bed. While rabbit manure is considered a "cool" manure, the urine has a super high level of ammonia, which tends to heat things up.
My show rabbits are housed in 3-tiered cages, with each compartment having a wire floor with a tray to catch the droppings under it. I usually add a handful of the horse stall pine pellets to the tray (basically compacted sawdust) to reduce moisture from urine & a sprinkle of stall refresher (basically granulated barn like) to neutralize the ammonia odor. So the dumped trays in the bed included that, along with the manure/urine, bits of hair (molting season) and any spilled/dumped feed (alfalfa based pellets).
Once I got that spread out, I used the hose to wet the whole thing down & help it settle.

By this time, it was still an inch or two below ground level.
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keyhole garden nutrients
keyhole garden nutrients
 
Kc Simmons
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Once that was done, it was time to call it a day so I could get the daily chores done before dark.
I think this was the 26th, so will pick back up with the 27th a little later (going out to enjoy the weather & work on some projects).
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keyhole garden progress
keyhole garden progress
 
Kc Simmons
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Wednesday (the 27th) was mostly spent gathering materials for the next couple of layers of the bed.
The 2nd wood layer was much more decomposed than the first one, with a sponge-like texture & crumbly consistency that I collected from my north side neighbor's woods.. Normally I would leave this type of material in the woods to finish breaking down to nourish the existing ecosystem, but this neighbor has cleaned out most of the understory trees/plants that would have benefitted from it, and I've already observed him pushing/raking it in piles & burning it, which seems like a waste of resources; therefore I didn't feel bad about collecting it for my own use. There were some pecan logs about the size of my leg, which ended up breaking during transport, that I spaced throughout the bed; as well as some smaller oak & mimosa logs I squeezed in the bigger gaps between the pecan. I also found some freshly cut mimosa limbs to put in the layer. Since mimosa (Albizia) is an alleged nitrogen-fixer, I assume they'll contribute some N to the mix(?) but, if not, at least they'll contribute to the OM.
I tried to fill in the smaller cracks with wood chips, but the logs kept crumbling so I just left it alone.
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Well-rotted wood layer
Well-rotted wood layer
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Example of wood consistency
Example of wood consistency
 
Kc Simmons
gardener
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I initially planned to do another layer of rabbit manure for the next "green" layer, but still have some plots in the forest garden & annual vegetable garden that I want to top-dress with it before mulching, so I decided to save it and forage for greenery, instead. Unfortunately, the combination of the summer/autumn drought with that arctic blast a couple of weeks ago has driven most things into dormancy already. I had one scraggly comfrey plant that was full enough to donate a few leaves, and I found some dandelion, dewberry, and some little mounding plants I don't know the name of that I stuffed in the collection bucket. Additionally, I found a few patches of chickweed, and clipped some small branches/leaves off the little, weedy evergreen trees that come up everywhere along the fence line (that I think are, either, privets or a type of holly).
I stuck some of the dewberry plants with roots under a peach tree in the forest garden and used the rest of the green material in the keyhole bed.
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Unidentified herbaceous plants
Unidentified herbaceous plants
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Unidentified weedy tree
Unidentified weedy tree
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Greens in keyhole
Greens in keyhole
 
Kc Simmons
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After I put the greens down, I heard myself being summoned by various animals around the farm.
Apparently my livestock tell time better than I do because the pigs, geese, and chickens start getting loud if I'm a few minutes late serving dinner at the usual, 4:00 feeding time.

So I quickly tossed a layer of dirt on the top to keep the wind from blowing out the greens, and sprayed it down to settle in the gaps.
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Covered and wet down.
Covered and wet down.
 
Kc Simmons
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Observations & Details
1. Things appear to be settling well. After spraying down the various layers I am right around the original ground level. I expect it to sink more over the winter but, fortunately, I collected the dug-out dirt in buckets, and still have quite a bit to increase the height.

2. I wasn't going to do another wood layer, but am now considering it since I'd like to, at least, get the surface level to the top of the bordering wood/soil mound.

3. The sand is an issue with the compost cage. It's so fine that the water carries it through the wire and it tries to fill in the space below the surface area of the bed. To help with this I retrieved an old soda carton from my collected cardboard pile to use as a solid barrier while I'm filling it with compost to the same level or higher.

4. I've started to fill the compost cage with the daily kitchen/house scraps that don't get fed to an animal. Mostly my morning coffee grounds, paper towels/Kleenex tissue, egg shells, some urine, etc. I plan to let the bed age until spring planting, so I'm not concerned with it heating up.
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Dinner is served
Dinner is served
 
Kc Simmons
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I didn't get to work on the bed Thursday due to family time and, on Friday, it rained on & off most of the day, so I decided to just let it collect some moisture in the existing layers before adding more to the top of the bed.
Last weekend I filled a bunch of feed sacks with leaves I raked, and decided to put a layer of leaves on the top, around 4-5 inches thick, which I then crunched down to around 2-3 inches thick.
I also wasn't very impressed by the soda carton liner to keep the sand from filling up the compost cage, so I brainstormed other possibilities and came up with the idea of lining it with rabbit wool. I thought it would be great for acting like a filter by allowing water to flow through it but keeping the sand from filling it while I build the compost level. Plus it tends to hold water well, compared to cardboard that tends to wick moisture and dry out. For now I left the cardboard to help with molding it around the cage, but rabbit wool tends to be dense enough to hold it's shape, so will likely remove the cardboard once it's no longer needed. I also expect the wool to break down fairly quickly once it's in contact with the compost. By then, it won't be needed since the compost will be high enough to keep out most of the sand.
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keyhole lasagna bed
keyhole lasagna bed
IMG_20191201_164648.jpg
keyhole garden center
keyhole garden center
 
Kc Simmons
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Just a quick update... Progress has been slow since the holiday break due to work & other things needing attention, but I've been trying to get a little bit done each evening. Most of the time has been spent on gathering wood for the third wood layer (which will probably be the last of the wood layers, for now, while I let it settle a bit). For this layer, there were a few bigger pieces, but the majority of the wood was smaller sticks in order to speed decomposition by increasing surface area. Almost all of the wood was far enough along in breaking down that it was spongey and broke easily when handling it. Also, I collected some char from the neighbor's burn pile and the little place I like to build campfires on cold nights, which I soaked in a bucket of urine/compost/water mix and tossed in the bed. I don't know much about biochar, and don't know if it'll actually help anything; but I figured it wouldn't hurt to put it in there.
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3rd Wood Layer
3rd Wood Layer
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Charred Wood Pieces
Charred Wood Pieces
 
Kc Simmons
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I've also been finding these little mushrooms growing wild, and have picked a few to help inoculate the compost cage, as these little things did amazing with breaking down my wood chips in the annual garden last year.
While it probably wasn't needed since it's likely the same fungus that's already on the rotting wood, I tossed a couple in there, anyway, since I had to use municipal water to wet everything down in the previous layers.
Unfortunately, I know nothing about the different types of fungus in the area; but I don't really care about edibility if they're good for breaking down organic matter. Anyone have an ID for them?
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Mushrooms
Mushrooms
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Hand for scale
Hand for scale
IMG_20191107_171018.jpg
More shrooms
More shrooms
 
Kc Simmons
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Spent some time last night shoveling the soil on top of the third wood layer before the cold front came in last night. Yesterday was a high of 81 and, today, the forecast called for a high of 40, with 100% chance of rain (it did rain pretty steadily until early afternoon). I wanted to get the dirt on top before the rain in hopes that it would help wash it down in the gaps/cracks between the wood.
I also put a layer of rabbit manure on the dirt and kind of mixed it together with the rake to help with water saturation and to minimize the chance of the north wind blowing it off the bed. This brought the aboveground height to between 10-12", and level with the wood/soil mounds I outlined it with at the beginning. Total depth below ground is 26-30 inches, so about 3-3.5 foot deep in organic matter. Wow, seems like that's not very much, but I also could be underestimating, which I oftentimes do.
To help keep the "keyhole" having dirt spill in, I rummaged in my dad's junk pile & found the wooden side-slats that I think were once attached to the little red wagon my mom uses in the yard. I used some little plastic fenceposts (meant for electric fences) to prop them up, and cut up a paper feed sack to staple over them to hold back the dirt while it settles.

While I eventually want to make it around double the current height, I think I'm going to let it settle a bit so I can level out any uneven areas formed while it's breaking down. Also, the weather is supposed to be back in the 70's later this week and early next week, so I'll take up a few loads of leaves, crush them down, and use them as some mulch to protect the soil & hold moisture in. Maybe lightly dust them with some of the more fine wood chips to keep the leaves from blowing away.
IMG_20191209_193332.jpg
Soil/Manure layer for keyhole hugel bed
Soil/Manure layer for keyhole hugel bed
 
Kc Simmons
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Thoughts/Observations (mainly a "note to self to refer back to).

Current expenses are $0 + some hours of labor. All materials were gathered from scraps or repurposed from things that were laying around. Labor isn't important because, 1) it's fun (to me) and, 2) the production potential of the life of the bed will be worth more than the labor.

I need to scavenge some materials for a border to build any higher, or else the dirt will wash/blow off. Maybe cut some stakes and try to weave vines through them? I don't have any large rocks, but I may have some old, broken bricks I could do something with.

Once the compost ages a bit, I'll probably put a scoop of red wigglers in the bed. The compost cage isn't large enough to generate much heat, but maybe with the layers of manure/greens, along with sporadic additions of nitrogen and top-dressed manure before any cold fronts come in it would, at least, bump up the temp a few degrees, which is all that's needed to keep the worms content.

The proximity to the barn is great, as it'll be convenient to build height by dumping manure on the top during the months that flies aren't a major issue. Since rabbit manure is "cold," I'll just need to be considerate of the heat in the urine.

Since there's not much to grow at this time of year, I'll probably take some leaves to crush & spread 4-6 inches deep over the top along with a sprinkle of wood chips to hold them in place.

What should I grow in it? Next spring I'm planning on doing the annual garden in blocks, with each section having a "theme," such as "salsa garden," "salad bar," "pickle patch," and some others. This one will probably have some sort of theme. Since it's so close to the barn, I could do a "bunny bistro" theme around things to give the rabbits as supplemental forage material.

Since I'd like to double the height above ground, once I get a border I could probably add more wood/manure/leaf/etc. layers to the "lasagna," to keep from having to haul dirt from other spots. Also, since it's near my nursery area for potted plants, I can empty used potting soil in the bed. Most of the things I've potted are in a mix that's made from organic & natural, inorganic components with no chemicals. Probably not the case with the soil in plants I've purchased, but that soil should be mostly depleted by the time it's dumped, and the fungal network should be able to break down any trace amounts of remaining stuff.

For now, I'm just going to let it settle down, develop some life in the soil and build a reservoir of retained moisture. I'll probably do some adjustments and improvements as the need arises & I come across materials, and will update as that happens. Once I start getting out seeds & germination stuff in the end of January, I'll draw up the 2020 garden plans and decide how to utilize this new planting space.

Feedback, criticism, comments are always welcome. Like most of my projects, this is one of those "learn from experience" things, so it's always possible I'm setting myself up for failure when the actual events don't match up with the theoretical events
 
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Great thread! I’ll be watching with interest. Do you have any plans to channel runoff from elsewhere into the hugel? I’m thinking about a bed that’s at the top of our property, and right next to the sidewalk, and trying to decide if it’s worth running a trench from my downspouts, or if a hugel will retain enough water. Since it would be quite close to our (busy) sidewalk, mine would also be of a sunken design.

D
 
Kc Simmons
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Daniel Ackerman wrote:Great thread! I’ll be watching with interest. Do you have any plans to channel runoff from elsewhere into the hugel? I’m thinking about a bed that’s at the top of our property, and right next to the sidewalk, and trying to decide if it’s worth running a trench from my downspouts, or if a hugel will retain enough water. Since it would be quite close to our (busy) sidewalk, mine would also be of a sunken design.

D



Thank you for commenting! At the moment, I'm hoping the large amount of rotting organic matter will be sufficient to hold water throughout the hot/dry season; but the group level where I put the bed is slightly lower than the surrounding area due to the foundation of the rabbit barn. When I bought the building for the barn, I had a load of rock brought in that my dad spread with the tractor, and we built up the spot to be a bit higher in hopes of the water flowing away from the barn to minimize it sinking in the sandy dirt. We haven't gotten enough rain yet for me to observe the runoff in action, but it should run downhill slowly enough to hit the border of the bed and seep in.
If needed, I may dig some small trenches around the bed to catch water, and use the soil on top of the bed.

Your idea of a trench sounds like it would be a good way to direct the water to where you want it. I did something similar with some other hugel beds by trenching from the spout alongside the beds, then filled the trenches with wood chips to reduce the trip hazard & erosion. Let me know what you decide to do & how it works!
 
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Kc,

Very nice project you have going there!  I like the way you are combining several processes all at once.  I especially like the fact that you are combining mushrooms to the project,  if it were me, I would add in wine cap mushrooms as they really eat the wood quickly and leave behind a nice, rich bedding material when they are done.  But even without going to wine caps this is nicely done.  Please let us know how things work out for you!

Eric
 
Kc Simmons
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Eric Hanson wrote:Kc,

Very nice project you have going there!  I like the way you are combining several processes all at once.  I especially like the fact that you are combining mushrooms to the project,  if it were me, I would add in wine cap mushrooms as they really eat the wood quickly and leave behind a nice, rich bedding material when they are done.  But even without going to wine caps this is nicely done.  Please let us know how things work out for you!

Eric



Thank you, Eric!
I have little experience with (purposely) cultivating fungi so, for now, I've just been working with the native species which seem to thrive in the Central Texas climate, with the growing conditions of my property. Since I don't particularly care for mushrooms as food, I mainly just care about their ability to compost wood chips & other organic matter. The variety that's so prominent here (which I've yet to identify), seems to have a voracious appetite, even through the Texas summers. Eventually, however, I do plan on cultivating an edible type of fungus; as it's always good to have another food source on hand in case of an emergency, and I would most likely be happy to eat them if I was hungry enough, with no other options.
Thank you, again, for your encouraging comment, and I will continue to share updates on the progress of this little experiment!
-KC
 
Kc Simmons
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Since the last update, I've only done some minor additions to the bed. I mulched with about 6 inches of crushed pecan & oak leaves, along with some wood chips to hold the leaves in place. Since that brought the height up beyond the top of the mounded edge, I scrounged around for some old, cracked/broken bricks to raise the height a bit more. I also have been adding more wool to the outside of the compost cage whenever I groom rabbits. I'm pleased to see the wool at the bottom of the cage is already beginning to break down, despite there being very little material in the cage.
For now I'm going to allow the bed to begin breaking down, and will probably just add dirt and/or manure to the surface if it starts to become unlevel. I'll also start building up the composting matter in the cage. With only about 12 weeks left before planting season begins, I'd like to see the lasagna layers break down enough to easily put transplants or seeds in the bed in spring. Fortunately, we've had a fairly mild winter (so far), with most days reaching the high 60s- mid 70s; which I hope has allowed the microbial life in the bed to get established.
I'm also going to try to make some sort of border around the mounds before the spring rains hit to help minimize the chance of the mounded sand of the borders washing away.
So, stay tuned for more...
IMG_20191214_152142.jpg
[Thumbnail for IMG_20191214_152142.jpg]
 
Kc Simmons
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Just a short update:
Haven't really done much else to the bed. I've noticed it has settled in at few places that are a little lower than the rest of the surface, but nothing major. I've been putting some coffee grounds, pulled/cut weeds, and miscellaneous scraps in the basket, which still has a lot of room to fill before I plant in spring; in order to get the full effect.
I also dug up some of the tiny worms that are in my mom's beds, which I assume are a type of composting worm; but I don't know what species. Since the bed should have some shelter from the harsh afternoon/evening sun in the summer, I'll probably put a handful of my res wigglers in the basket in spring.
We've finally gotten a couple of good rains that have saturated the bed through the mulch layer, so fingers crossed it is building up a nice bank of stored water to last through the growing season.
Still working on ideas for a border. I have a bag of Portland cement that I need to use before it goes bad, so may mix up a small batch of it with some sand & clay to form into tall bricks as a border for holding the soil, thermal mass, and (hopefully) absorb water to release later.

Will update with the results.
 
Eric Hanson
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KC,

Things look really great in your little garden.  Great way to simply utilize some resources easily available on/near your land.  I was going to mention that the earth you excavated might be enough by itself for the raised edges, but I see that your landscape bricks are doing nicely.

I think this is a great way to reduce irrigation needs.  You have some buried mulch that should help your plants reach far into the ground during the hot and dry months.

Ironically, when I first started gardening on my property I dug a hundreds feet long drip irrigation system to water all my garden beds and fruit trees & bushes.  As the summers do get hot and dry I kept adding in more irrigation.  Eventually, slowly and stubbornly I started actually building my soil as opposed to my irrigation system, simply by piling up woodchips and letting them age in place.  Now, with a rotted-woodchip soilbed and mushroom Inoculated woodchips on top, my plants root deep for their sips of water everyday during the hot months.  This is miraculous to me.  Prior, While we would get water, it frequently would not penetrate the hard clay soil.  Now, early spring rains really soak in and give it back up slowly all summer long.  My irrigation system sits there unused and I don’t care.  My plants are never dry.

I heard this would be true long ago, but I never fully appreciated it until recently.  I suspect that your keyhole garden will work very similarly and over time, irrigation will be massively reduced or might just disappear altogether.

Great work on your garden and please keep this thread updated.

Eric
 
Kc Simmons
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Nothing much to report about the bed. Mostly, I've just been pouring the daily urine collection over the top of the chips, and dumping some kitchen scraps in the basket every few days in an effort to build up the amount of material in the compost holder. It's mainly coffee grounds, paper towels, and things that the worm bins don't process quickly (like onion skins).
I recently discovered that a huge colony of fire ants have moved in the front half of the bed (around the keyhole) so will be trying some of the things I've read in the forums to hopefully eradicate them. I have removed several of the bricks from the top since the ants are using them for heat & shelter, but I still haven't found a better border to hold the soil in as the bed breaks down. I may end up weaving a "wattle-ish" fence around it if I can scavenge some materials.
It does look like the height of the bed has decreased a bit, but nothing has actually poured out of the bed yet; so it's not a huge priority just yet (likely because of the wood initially used to border it under the dug-out dirt hasn't decayed too much). I just don't want to make the bed too much bigger by adding the border to the outside, since it's already a stretch for me to access the bed without walking on it.
I have been walking on it a little, though, as I've been adding compost to the ring to mound it from the center & adding more rabbit wool to act as a screen over the wire. I tend to have a bad habit of not staying on the path (literally & figuratively); but I haven't really noticed any extreme compaction in the gardens (yet).

Still haven't decided what to even plant in it this spring... Since most of my garden plots will be polycultures based on themes, I'll probably create a theme for this one, as well.
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No major changes
 
Kc Simmons
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Since the last update in January, I've seen a little bit of progress in the decomposition of the bed. The top layers of manure, leaves, and chips is still pretty defined, though. One thing I've learned since joining Permies is "you need some roots in the ground" to build soil, so I tossed some alfalfa seeds over the surface and had it sprout over the bed, but it hasn't had time to fully cover it. Also, I've read more than once in the forums that potatoes are good for building soil, so I decided to let that be the first crop for the bed. Basically, I dug little craters through the top layers of chips/manure/leaves, until I hit the last layer of actual soil I'd applied, which was about 4-5 inches deep. Since there are more layers of chips/leaves/manure under that soil layer, I added a dollop of soil to each crater, dropped in a tator, and topped with another dollop of soil to make a "pocket." Then I watered & covered with a couple inches of the mulch. While this killed a lot of the baby alfalfa, there's still some left and, if it grows enough, I can chop it back to help feed and mulch the potatoes.
The bed was pretty damp all the way down, but February was a wet month, so we'll see if it holds on to that moisture for when it's needed.
Also, I still haven't won the war with the ant colony, yet. Every time I put corn meal on the spot they've colonized they just laugh at me, and coffee grounds just makes them move over to a new spot. Right now they're in the hill of compost I used to build up the center of the bed, so I avoid that spot until I get a new action plan.
Will let you know how the potatoes do.
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Potatoes planted
 
Kc Simmons
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Potatoes are growing quite well. This group is much larger, above ground, than the batch in a hugel bed and the batch in the garden. Since the bed gets some afternoon shade (which will be needed in another month or so) I hope they aren't just putting on top growth without making tubers. Also, since planting these I read in one of the forums that potatoes get scab if planted in/close to manure, which is a big component of the OM in the bed.

There's still some alfalfa growing underneath the potatoes, and the few oak seedlings (out of the hundred that sprouted from the mulch) appear to be getting shaded out. There's also a couple of nasturtiums holding their own and getting enough light to thrive.

The compost cage isn't full, yet. I've mostly been giving them coffee grounds, paper towels and other kitchen waste the pigs won't eat, as well as some chopped alfalfa, comfrey leaves, and misc weeds that get too tall. I believe there's even a little cottonwood whip that rooted from a few livestakes that I didn't get stuck in the ground soon enough and dried out. For now I'm letting it grow for future mulch & nitrogen fixing. If it starts hogging too much moisture or nutrients I'll pull it up and replant in the hedge.
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Potatoes growing
Potatoes growing
 
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KC, even if the potatoes aren't edible, the plants may be doing a lot to condition the soil. The roots will be holding the soil and encouraging the microbiome. So long as you aren't counting on the spuds for food, you won't have lost anything in the long term! As Eric mentioned above in his post - it's amazing what happens given time and working to build soil.
 
Kc Simmons
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Jay Angler wrote:KC, even if the potatoes aren't edible, the plants may be doing a lot to condition the soil. The roots will be holding the soil and encouraging the microbiome. So long as you aren't counting on the spuds for food, you won't have lost anything in the long term! As Eric mentioned above in his post - it's amazing what happens given time and working to build soil.



That is definitely a good thing! I'd read, once, that potatoes were good for building soil, and kind of kept that in the back of my mind when deciding where to plant them this year. Can't remember if I already said this, but I originally ordered just 10lbs of seed from my feed store, but lucked out and caught the local farm supply store marking theirs down to $1 for 5 lb bags, so grabbed another 25 lbs plus some that had fallen out of torn sacks they gave me. Since I was up to my ears in taters, I planted them in most of the newest beds in hopes of building soil (and in some spots I want to make future beds). Since I I spaced them out and had several varieties to play with, I hope one of the potato beds produces some edible tubers. Then I will have an idea of what works best here.

The only concern with the keyhole bed is I don't think I planted them deep enough, and have since learned that too shallow seeds can produce poisonous tubers. Now that they've grown some, I think I'll put some of my grandad's leftover spoiled hay around them in hopes of minimizing the risk.
I still have so much to learn about some of the most basic crops.  
 
Jay Angler
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Yes, Kc - the green on potatoes is poisonous to eat. That's why the traditional technique is to "hill" your potatoes. There is a technique that a friend of mine uses where you keep adding straw or hay to do the job. I've added some dry leaves in the past but that was to a bin so blowing wasn't an issue.
 
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Mulch will help! It doesn't really matter what type, either (though a mat of green grass isn't the best). I've used fern fronds, poultry bedding, woodchips, leaves, and grass clippings. The mulch will also compost over the winter, improving the garden bed even more. When you apply the mulch, just tuck it under the leaves--try not to cover the leaves, as it needs them to photosynthesize.
 
Kc Simmons
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Thank y'all for the advice! I went and gathered some old hay from my grandad's cow pasture yesterday. I like to get the wasted stuff that has fallen out of the ring and has been stepped, peed, & pooped on. It should be free of chemicals since the experimental container of potatoes I used it to mulch last time haven't died (yet), plus some of the bush beans I put in the bed are coming up now that the weather is warmer.
My thought is to mix the hay with some half-done leaf mold and some wood chips, as it seems that might improve the texture and keep it from matting down to form a barrier. Since I know there's seeds in the hay, I should probably spread it out over the ground so it'll get rained on tomorrow, which will hopefully germinate a lot of weed seeds, which I can kill by mixing in the mulch before putting it on the bed. That'll also allow the bed to absorb some of the rainfall and add to the moisture bank.

It's all trial and error for me, but at least it's fun (and it's building soil!). I'll update the thread with the results.
 
 
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Somehow I lost track of this thread a while back. Looking really good Kc. Those are some excellent looking potatoes for Centex.
 
Kc Simmons
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With summer practically here and temps already hitting the low-mid 90s, the potatoes are beginning to look a bit rough; especially after some windy days, paired with the weight of the foliage, had caused the plants to start leaning over, despite my attempts to hold them up with more mulch. The whole bed is starting to look like a jungle with the potatoes hanging over the edges and the weeds growing in the ground around the bed.
Last week was the first time I had to water them with the hose, as the wind and sun had everything dried out. The compost cage in the center hasn't been fully filled yet, so getting that filled with organic matter may improve moisture retention in the future.
The potatoes in the keyhole still look better than the potato plants in the other areas. The afternoon shade it gets that worried me a few months ago has now become a positive attribute since potatoes don't like it too hot, and the afternoon sun really sucks the moisture out of the soil & leaves.

Haven't really thought about what to put in the bed after the potatoes. Since the hugel and kitchen garden potato beds will likely finish before the keyhole, I've been working on the next designs for those spots more than for this one. I'm leaning towards making it a semi-permanent herb garden or a "rabbit garden," to grow forage material for the rabbits. But I'll figure that out when the bed is actually vacant.
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Potato jungle
Potato jungle
 
Jay Angler
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Kc Simmons wrote:

The afternoon shade it gets that worried me a few months ago has now become a positive attribute since potatoes don't like it too hot, and the afternoon sun really sucks the moisture out of the soil & leaves.

Ah! Location, location, location - or the permies version, "the problem is the solution". My question will be, how does the mass of tubers compare to the other beds that got more sun. I tend to find that it is the west sun that often does more harm than good. Many plants are very happy with morning sun. It dries the dew off and warms them up for the day without roasting them.
 
Kc Simmons
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Jay Angler wrote:Kc Simmons wrote:

The afternoon shade it gets that worried me a few months ago has now become a positive attribute since potatoes don't like it too hot, and the afternoon sun really sucks the moisture out of the soil & leaves.

Ah! Location, location, location - or the permies version, "the problem is the solution". My question will be, how does the mass of tubers compare to the other beds that got more sun. I tend to find that it is the west sun that often does more harm than good. Many plants are very happy with morning sun. It dries the dew off and warms them up for the day without roasting them.



I've found even the biggest heat-lovers, like okra, tend to appreciate some shelter from the west sun. Especially since my sandy soil dries out so quickly when the afternoon sun is harsh.
I'm excited to see how the tuber production differs between this bed and the beds in the full sun. I expect the plants in the sun will die down before the keyhole plants, but the extra sun they get may be causing the tubers to grow faster than these.
Just recently I've observed some plants having, what I suspect, is some sort of fungal problem causing them to wilt and die down; moreso in the full sun beds, which could be due to me having to water them (though there's one in the keyhole that has done it). Another issue is pest pressure from the snails and, just recently, a ton of baby slugs. Yesterday the humidity was at 98%, so they were really active in the keyhole bed, and the plants are beginning to struggle with overcoming the foliage damage more than before. Probably/hopefully because they've finished blooming and are now putting more energy in the tubers. After squashing the ones I could see, I pulled some weeds from the yard and wadded them up to prop up the potato stems that were leaning the most. In my (naive) mind, I thought it would help to get the foliage further from the ground, while the damaged/stressed weed foliage may be a more attractive meal to the slimy beasts.
Since it seems I planted them closer together than I should have, I'll probably wait until all the plants die down in each bed before harvesting that crop so I don't risk stressing the plants that are still growing and developing tubers. If we continue to have this hotter than usual spring weather, I expect they'll start wrapping up in a few weeks.

 
Kc Simmons
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Found out why I haven't been able to fill up the compost cage. It seems some soldier flies found it appealing enough to have some babies in it. Since that's the case, I'll gladly put them to work a take advantage of the big appetites by giving them the rabbit manure under the spots in the cages where I feed them bermuda hay. In the past I've found it doesn't take long for BSFL to consume the soiled bermuda hay and produce compost I can use without a fear of the hay scraps returning from the dead to root & take over this part of the world

Also found lots of little spiders hiding in the foliage. While I'm sure they aren't helping with the snails/slugs, maybe they will eat the cabbage beetles that have been munching on the nasturtiums in the bed.

Sorry for the crap-quality photo. Fog & mist don't work for quality photos.
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New employees
New employees
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What a great thread!  If it were a book, we could describe it as a page-turner!

My past experience includes filling the foundation hole of a 5-bay garage with leaves that turned into lovely soil in a couple of years.  I've also had wonderful experience with wood chips over time.  I'm a little too random to make beautiful compost, but a pile of chicken poop mixed with leaves, garden waste, and food scraps slowly makes itself into compost, even with neglect from me (and attention from the chickens).

Here in my new house in Vermont, while I don't have serious clay (in most areas), total sand, or some other soil disaster, I have built my raised beds on dirt left after a construction project.  It is hopeless stuff, a happy home for occasional tufts of bermuda grass and some other random undesirables.  So any description of creative soil-building gets my rapt attention.  My raised beds have rotten wood on the bottom, chicken bedding, leaf mold, and more-or-less compost layered above.  They produced quite well last year, and we have added three more this year.  But I am also adding fruit trees, berry bushes, a Jerusalem artichoke bed, and making a food forest this year, so the hunger for soil continues unabated.

I'll be watching this thread with serious interest!

 
Kc Simmons
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Anne Pratt wrote:

Here in my new house in Vermont, while I don't have serious clay (in most areas), total sand, or some other soil disaster, I have built my raised beds on dirt left after a construction project.  It is hopeless stuff, a happy home for occasional tufts of bermuda grass and some other random undesirables.  So any description of creative soil-building gets my rapt attention.  My raised beds have rotten wood on the bottom, chicken bedding, leaf mold, and more-or-less compost layered above.  They produced quite well last year, and we have added three more this year.  But I am also adding fruit trees, berry bushes, a Jerusalem artichoke bed, and making a food forest this year, so the hunger for soil continues unabated.



Anne, it sounds like you have a great start on building soil in your raised beds!
I hope you'll consider making your own project thread (s) for your new trees/bushes, beds, and food forest. I would love to follow your progress! :D

 
Anne Pratt
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Why thanks, KC, maybe I will!  I'll figure out where, and get started.  It's a road that we are already on, so there's already things to write. . .

Appreciated - Way to show the new folks they are wanted!
 
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Potatoes have been harvested. Results were kind of "meh." The plants produced a lot of tubers, with many being a good size. Several of the biggest ones looked like they split during the growing process. Unfortunately, probably half of the yield was ruined by some sort of bug nibblers under the mulch, and another 15-20% were damaged but usable. If it weren't for the pests, I would be totally pleased with the results considering I only had to water the bed once or twice, and only had to add extra mulch once to the bases of the plants. Overall, though, I got back more than I put in, weight-wise.
My guess is that the rich substrate paired with the afternoon shade created an ideal environment for the little nibblers; then I have been so busy that I waited too long to harvest. I noticed the plants that were still, somewhat, alive had fewer damaged potatoes, compared to the plants that had already shriveled up and died down. Surprisingly, the red potatoes had the most damage (although they are the most commonly grown in the region). The golds and russets had some damage, but not nearly as much.

I did notice the improvement in the planting medium, although I wouldn't call it "soil" yet. Presently there's a zucchini plant and a couple of kale plants growing in the bed that I stuck in there while the potatoes were growing. After the harvest I put 3 hot pepper and 3 tomato transplants that were leftover from the seed trays last winter that were still in little pots, so may end up being stunted, but we'll see if they pick up growth. There's still quite a bit of space in the bed, so will probably put some sweet potato slips I have potted up in there, and maybe something else for a fall crop. Will update with future developments.
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Potatoes Harvested
Potatoes Harvested
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Bed right now
Bed right now
 
Kc Simmons
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I noticed the crabgrass surrounding the bed was seriously trying to throw runners over the bricks so it could take over (like it does with everything), so I figured I needed to get some roots in the dirt. Fortunately, we have had a cold front this week, with temps in the high 80's- lower 90's, plus it's rained two times! I took advantage of it by planting some of the leftovers from the spring seed trays & cuttings that I never got in the ground last spring. I think there was a safe, chamomile, lemon and almond verbenas, a tamarillo, and a few kale plants.
It's worth noting the size of the zucchini plant on the left side of the picture. That zucchini is presently the largest and best producing of the dozen or more zucchini plants I've grown this year. The zucchini plants in the ground surrounding the back of the bed are healthy and producing, but they're some of the smallest of the zucchini plants, leading me to think the one in the keyhole is benefitting from the developing soil & moisture retention, especially since it's getting quite a bit of afternoon shade (which is why I suspect the others in that area are the smallest). It's also one of the few that I never saw a squash bug on this spring.  
The tomatoes and peppers I planted in the last update are just kind of hanging on. Hopefully the little bit of rain we've received this week will give them a boost.
Once I see what lives and grows from the newly planted stuff, I'll probably plant some more squash/zuccs in any open spots.
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Current situation
Current situation
 
Anne Pratt
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Impressive, KC!  When you’re done with it, send some rain this way!
 
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