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Questions about using spongy wood as a base layer for a garden bed

 
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Edit:  Sorry I'm not the best at uploading photos.  I've attached them at the bottom in the order I mentioned them.

Since I don't foresee going out for at least another month, I am trying to use what I already have to build some new garden beds.  I gathered three totes of rotten spongy wood today thinking it would make the ideal base for my potato bed.  





This consists of well rotted maple.  There's some bigger chunks in the bottom but I was surprised at how crumbly this was.



This is also maple but in a sunnier location and not near as moist.



This is what was left of a scrap lumber pile that has sit for a few years.  



What's left of the scrap lumber pile.  I plan to lay this down first and then empty the totes on top.  However I'm wondering if I should attempt to sift it first to separate the large chunks from the finer stuff?  I'm wondering if that would be time wasted as the finer stuff would gradually fall amongst the larger chunks eventually.  It's all pretty thoroughly rotted except for the remnants of the lumber pile so would there be any benefit to adding blood meal or urine before adding a layer of top soil?  I plan to plant the potatoes in the layer of topsoil and cover with shredded leaves since I don't have near enough topsoil or compost to fill the bed.  I may possibly be able to get a few buckets of river sand to add to the bed too.  

Any advice or comments will be appreciated.
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I've been doing it for a while now with no adverse effects. In fact I chuckled when I read your post because I just started some more little beds this way today. Only thing you might have to watch is pine type stuff or around here I don't use Mountain laurel, that stuff will root from a branch.
 
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Do you hugel builders ever have trouble with ants moving in? That's my worry. I have seen them find old, rotted, buried stumps, move in, and decimate all vegetation in the surrounding bed.
 
Michelle Heath
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I can’t say I’ve had trouble with ants in a bed, but containers are another story.  I don’t notice any destruction to the plants but they are a nuisance.
 
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Hey, i think this will just work fine, but it might indeed be interesting to add urine just to increase the nitrogen level. The bacteria and funghi that decompose the material need nitrogen and carbon to function, since the beds are now very carbon-rich from the pieces of wood. they might be taking out nitrogen out of the rest of the soil to get their work done, generating a temporary and local nitrogen shortage.
Urine is very nitrogen rich so it might do the job, also you can add green materials like plants you've weeded (this will build up organic matter aswell). planting some nitrogen fixers willl help too, so a first year of using the beds for nitrogen fixating plants (like beans or peas) might be interesting.
Adding the river sand a bit can be usefull for adding minerals.

Good luck!

 
Michelle Heath
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Update to this thread:

I made three raised beds using sifted spongy wood as the bottom layer and topping with a mix of topsoil, sand, some composted cow manure and a bit of compost.  I mixed some blood meal in the top layer before I planted.  A layer of leaf mulch was added to all beds after planting.

So it's bean over a month since the first bed was completed and I'm seeing a definite nitrogen deficiency in all three.  The bed of potatoes is a bright green instead of a dark lush green like the bed beside of it, which is an older bed.  In the next bed the onions and cabbage appear to be growing and doing okay.  The beans are a bit pale and the beets are just standing there as I don't think they've grown in two weeks even though we've had rain.  In the third bed, the corn looks rather pale.  The first sewing of beans came up horribly but the resewn beans look pretty good.  I side-dressed the tomatoes with eggshell, bonemeal and blood meal about two weeks ago when I noticed they were deficient in nitrogen.

My solution to counteract the deficiency has been diluted urine.  Each bed has received a day's worth.  I also spread grass clippings over the top of the beds, careful to keep it away from the base of the plants.  We've had three heavy showers since I spread the clippings, so hoping they are doing some good.

The large chunks of wood that I sifted out have been put to use in the bottom of some large planters which I planted tomatoes in. They are looking good.
 
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Michelle,

I think you have a great plan there.  Seems like you have a healthy supply of well rotted wood.  I imagine that the wood is full of desirable microbes that you want in your garden bedding.

You mentioned a nitrogen deficiency.  Personally I plant in pure woodchips composted with wine cap mushrooms and I have no observable nutrient deficiencies whatsoever.  In fact, I have the healthiest, most fertile “soil” I have ever had.  I attribute this to synergies between the fungi and the plants.  This is where my thoughts intersect with your gardens and nutrient deficiency.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you said that you put the wood portion on the bottom and then covered with topsoil.  I am wondering if it would be better to have the wood on top or at least mix the two together.  My reasoning is that the wood that you found was likely sitting on the surface of the soil.  Am I correct?  If this is the case, then the microbes that decomposed the wood tend to like being on the surface and not being buried.  I am wondering if burying is setting the microbes back and therefore the don’t get to interact with the plant roots.  I could be wrong, but I have never had a nutrient deficiency issue with my decaying wood.  This is not an insurmountable issue, it is just a thought I had that might be helpful.

BTW, the urine is likely to be a great fertilizer to get your plants off to a great start.  Urine is one of the only fertilizers I will use.  I have a personal ethic that prohibits me from importing any nutrients from outside my property, so urine is ok.  Grass clippings rock as well but they take more time.

Anyhow, this is all just my own thoughts.  Really, I think you have done a great job and I hope to hear how things work out.

Eric
 
Michelle Heath
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Thank you Eric.  Actually the urine idea was from a post of yours.    

My thoughts on the spongy wood was to mimic a hugel effect by putting it on the bottom of the beds.  It seems to have worked in the containers, but the wood was in larger chunks there.  In hindsight, I probably should have mixed everything together.  It will be fall before I can "harvest" more spongy wood and hopefully will have a useable product by spring.

I am also limiting myself to resources I already have on hand or can be acquired for free.  I have effectively used up every bag of soil and every container of compost I had.  In addition to the spongy wood, I have also collected river sand, a mix of sand and decomposed leaves, and shredded leaves.  Our garden paths are mulched with wood chips from our property and am noticing some sort of mushrooms popping up which is a good thing.

The most important thing is that I have learned something from this experiment.  This will help me in the future and will hopefully serve as a reference for anyone else thinking about giving this a try.

 
Eric Hanson
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Michelle,

So pleased you have the same ethic as me regarding using your own resources!  Also, I am glad that you found the posts about urine helpful.  Some people get the idea and others are repulsed.  You got it.

You mentioned woodchips, have you considered wine cap mushrooms?  All of my beds, as of this year, are raised beds filled with woodchips decomposed by wine cap mushrooms.  It is amazingly fertile stuff!  Just an idea.

I think you will have good luck with that river sand filled with organic matter.

Overall, I like the sounds of your project(s).  Please keep us updated.

Eric
 
Michelle Heath
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I'm hoping to get wine caps started next year.  I have some sort of mushroom popping up now and have been making a slurry out of any mushrooms in the fridge that are a little beyond eating.  

My husband is taking down some locust saplings today and chipping the smaller stuff.  What would your recommendations be for utilizing this?  I know locust is a legume so I'm thinking it will be high in nitrogen, but not wild about putting it in the paths because of the thorns.  Wondering if I should spread it out on the garden area I'm planning for next year or let iit sit and break down until spring.

 
Eric Hanson
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Michelle,

Oh, what to do with locust!  It is fast growing, strong, straight, burns hot & long and won’t rot so it is great if you need ground contact.

But the thorns!  The locust by me is honey locust so it has 3” thorns that have punctured the tires of my tractor!  I really don’t like working with honey locust, but it does have its used.
Given its rot resistance, I would avoid using it as a mushroom substrate.  It makes great piles, especially for ground contact and excellent firewood.

I take it you have a chipper?  What type, make model, capacity etc.  not trying to pry, but a chipper has interested me for some time, but personally I cannot justify the expense.  In my experience, the chipping capacity needs to be about twice the average diameter of the material being chipped.  These days I Rent a 12”, 85 hp Diesel chipper once every two years.  This gives my hedge 2 years to grow before cutting back and I get a substantial amount of wood to chip up.  I just this spring chipped up a huge pile of debris and now I have a towering pile of chips I hope will last me two years before I chip again.

So I hope this helps you a bit.  

Eric
 
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All my raised beds are made with rotting wood on the bottom, and the results are good, though not always perfect. Your spongy wood is more rotted than much of mine. I have no source of decent topsoil and limited compost, although what I do have tops off my rotten wood beds.

So glad you’re another convert!  Filling raised beds and quickly creating usable soil is difficult, so this is a great resource.
 
Michelle Heath
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Eric, our chipper is small. I believe it's a 5.5 hp Craftsman chipper/shredder vac.  We try to feed it 2" diameter limbs and smaller. It's great for shrubs, leaves and basic pruning.  We have on occasion fed larger stuff through it though depends on what it is as to how it handles it.  We gave $70 or $75 for it used eight or nine years ago and have only done regular maintenance on it, so it's paid for itself many times.  As soon as we get some of the bigger stuff taken care of we'll start on the shrubs.  

We also have an older model Troy-Bilt that we bought off of my uncle but somehow they tore the bottom screen up and we've not had much luck finding a replacement for it. We'll probably take it to a fabrication shop and have something made for it.
 
Michelle Heath
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Anne Pratt wrote:All my raised beds are made with rotting wood on the bottom, and the results are good, though not always perfect. Your spongy wood is more rotted than much of mine. I have no source of decent topsoil and limited compost, although what I do have tops off my rotten wood beds.

So glad you’re another convert!  Filling raised beds and quickly creating usable soil is difficult, so this is a great resource.



Anne, this year has proved challenging.  Our income has been drastically reduced since the pandemic and trying to conserve what we have left after paying the bills.  I thought about buying some topsoil last month, but so glad I didn't as we've encountered some unexpected car repairs in the last two weeks.  

I figure the more resources I can collect to turn into useable soil, the better.  The one thing I thought would do good hasn't and the thing I thought wouldn't do good has done great!  I have one compost pile that is about half finished and just started another. As soon as the leaves drop this fall, I plan to start gathering and preparing for next spring.  Plus the money I'm saving on bringing in soil from outside sources means the more I have to spend on seeds and plants.  :)

 
Anne Pratt
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Oh, Michelle, I hear you!  I moved here two years ago, and last summer was my first.  We built three raised beds, and I had no compost, no stored-up fall leaves, nothing.  I used rotten wood in the bottom, gathered leaves from the forest floor, and bought compost and "garden soil" to finish. Cost a fortune.  This year, we added 3 more.  I dragged more rotten wood from the woods, more leaf mold, and added chicken bedding to fill these.

For a way to save money, gardening can sure be expensive!  I am promising myself that I'll invest in the equipment I need to start seeds.  I told the owner of my local greenhouse that I spent my whole stimulus check down there.  Well, a slight exaggeration.
 
Eric Hanson
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Michelle,

Yeah, I can believe that one of those little chippers are good for chipping up small branches.  It may say it has a 3 or 4 inch capacity, but I bet that chipping one of those branches takes quite a long time.  But if you are basically chipping up sticks, then I bet it is good for that application.  I have quite a bit of brush to chip up when I do my chipping, and as I am striving to do it once every two years, when it does get done, I have a massive pile of brush, much of it consisting of branches 6” or larger and 10-20 feet long.  

I used to rent a 7” chipper, but that was not up to the task.  It had its own feeding mechanism, but it reversed frequently, was slow and exhausting to use for a relatively small amount of chips.  Now I use a 12 inch model that takes the wood faster, easier and reverses much less frequently.  I am still exhausted, but I will chip a minimum of twice what the 7” model can and typically more like 4-5 times as much and get it all chipped in a single day as opposed to two with the smaller models.  I have even looked into an 8” model my tractor could power, but I cannot justify the expense.  I pay $250 for the 12” model vs. $3000 to buy one for my tractor.  But I do get a huge pile of chips.

Sorry if I strayed in my reply, but since you can chip up your own chips, I think you will get good luck with gardening with woodchips.  Great job on considering wine caps.

Eric
 
Michelle Heath
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Just a few pics of the mushrooms that are popping up in the wood mulch.
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This one is past it's prime. They appear in the morning and are gone by noon.
This one is past it's prime. They appear in the morning and are gone by noon.
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These are popping up everywhere
These are popping up everywhere
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I'm no expert but I can share some reactions I have to what you're doing.  If a hugel is supposed to last 15 years, that rotted wood you have seems to be on the 13-14 year end of things already.  That's fantastic from a soil architecture standpoint, but doesn't help much with the water retention/release and nitrogen you'd get from younger wood.  I've done four raised beds approximately four feet deep (two feet down, two feet up.)  I like to fill the bottom 2/3 with solid hardwood of mixed ages then fill in the gaps, then finish with a foot of planting medium as you have done.

You have some 2 by lumber in there.  That sets my radar off big time.  It looks old, but is still recognizable, which suggests to me it is treated lumber.  That's bad. But if that lumber is 15 years old, it could be ACQ treated, and arsenic is REAL bad.  The best case scenario is you have copper in the soil which will poison the plants.  Now if you're sure that wood is untreated, ignore everything I just said.

My crude and untutored rule of thumb is that if soil is black, leave it alone, if it's brown, add nitrogen, and if it's gray, start over.  Your dirt is brown so add nitrogen. Urine is what I'd do, also green leafy matter.

I've had ants and snakes in every hugel I've done.

Also, the first year there is always something that comes up through the mulch.  Hay, grass, weeds, mushrooms, you name it.  I weed it and recover it with thicker mulch, and the next year there is less.  The year after that it's pretty good.

I would avoid putting locust, walnut, cypress, or cedar into a hugel.  They leach antifungals and they are far more useful for other things.  Woodworking, ground-contact posts, firewood, etc.

I think you are going about this the right way and doing the right kinds of things to build soil.  Good luck.





 
Michelle Heath
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Thanks for your input Rob.  I'll definitely remember to add nitrogen in the future if it's brown.

I'm certain the lumber isn't treated though it is over 20 years old.  Basically my first mother-in-law came into a large sum of money and hired a fly-by-night contractor to build a deck on her house.  When my first husband saw it he hit the roof as they had used regular pine lumber to construct it yet had charged her three times as much as most contractors charge for construction using treated lumber.  It was dismantled about 18 months later and most of the lumber was brought here and stored on racks in a garage.  It is gnarly and green as it had a bit of algae growth prior.  I only expect it to last a year or two as an older bed is really starting to rot after year two.  After that I'm hoping to eliminate the wooden sides.

It definitely has been a learning experience.  I was hoping to create a hugel effect by using the finely rotted wood, but when compared to other beds using different soils, they're all staying pretty moist. Of course I'm sure the thick layer of leaf mulch in the beds is contributing to that as well.  
 
Rob Lineberger
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You have a porch worth of 20yr old untreated lumber?  NICE
 
Michelle Heath
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Well we had a porch worth.  It has been used for various projects over the years. The beds are the last of it.
 
Michelle Heath
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Update on the status of the three beds.

All three showed signs of a nitrogen deficiency and diluted urine and comfrey tea were added during the season.  My potato plants are still small but are a deep dark green and I'm seeing some rather impressive tubers when I pull back the mulch.  Onions were a failure.  Yes, we're eating the harvest, but some are only slightly bigger than the sets I started out with. I have three beets total out of two rows.  Beans took forever to grow after popping through the ground but are producing well now. Corn only grew to 5' at the tallest but has produced decent ears.  Roma tomatoes are loaded and have performed magnificently.  I look to have three small heads of cabbage from the eight plants I started with, though I did recently transplant some fall cabbage to the bed as well.

My major mistake?  Water!  I assumed that the 3-4" of leaf mulch was doing a great job of conserving moisture.  It did not!  The plants that are performing the best are plants that received additional water or were beside of plants that did.  I'm thinking that maybe the spongy wood bits actually were absorbing the water from the soil as the other new beds without the wood bits performed well with the same amount of water.  

So, would I do it again?  Yes but with some changes.  I would probably incorporate the sifted wood bits into the soil, preferably in the fall, and also add as much organic matter as I could.  I do intend to bring in more spongy wood this fall and think that preparing the beds in advance for spring planting and topping with compost will work much better.  I will also keep in mind that these beds may need more water than the established beds.  All told, it has been a great learning experience using only found materials.
 
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Thanks for following through with the updates, Michelle! My garden beds which were also in their first year had many of the same issues so it was very helpful to see what you did and read the advice others gave. So yeah, thanks for taking one for the team, as it were.
 
Anne Pratt
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I have hilarious lumpy multi-lobed potatoes from planting them over some not-quite-spongy-enough small logs!  Remarkably, the plants really produced.  Funny-looking, though.  I wasn't even going to plant that bed as I knew it had very little actual soil, but I planted so much I was running out of room.  I've harvested the funny potatoes, but the amaranth is still growing, tall, and producing those fancy seed heads.
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