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Sunken-Raised Hugel-Keyhole-Lasagna Hybrid

 
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas
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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.
IMG_20191126_131246.jpg
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.

IMG_20191126_152919.jpg
keyhole garden
keyhole garden
 
Kc Simmons
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas
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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
pollinator
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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
pollinator
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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
pollinator
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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
pollinator
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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.
IMG_20191127_142819.jpg
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
pollinator
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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.
00000IMG_00000_BURST20191127170259131_COVER.jpg
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
pollinator
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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.
IMG_20191130_163224.jpg
keyhole lasagna bed
keyhole lasagna bed
IMG_20191201_164648.jpg
keyhole garden center
keyhole garden center
 
Kc Simmons
pollinator
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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.
IMG_20191207_141831.jpg
3rd Wood Layer
3rd Wood Layer
IMG_20191206_142452.jpg
Charred Wood Pieces
Charred Wood Pieces
 
Kc Simmons
pollinator
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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?
IMG_20191107_170958.jpg
Mushrooms
Mushrooms
IMG_20191107_171032.jpg
Hand for scale
Hand for scale
IMG_20191107_171018.jpg
More shrooms
More shrooms
 
Kc Simmons
pollinator
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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
 
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