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!!! New hugelkultur garden outside Washington, DC

 
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I am about to create a hugelkultur garden in my backyard just outside Washington, DC. I have a slope in my backyard which I want to fill out with trees and other organic matter from around to make a garden on top. I need to do it fast because we are right in the middle of the planting season and I want a producing garden this season. I am two days new into this and am searching for any advice from local hugelkultur/permaculture experts. If anybody is interested to help me, please comment. Thanks!
BackYardBefore.jpeg
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pollinator
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Looks like an old trolley car right of way.
 
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Anastasia, welcome to permies!

I have not done a hugelkultur bed though I understand the principles.  Do you have some specific questions?

Here are some threads that might be helpful:

Paul Wheaton's hugelkultur article thread

https://permies.com/t/52077/Buried-Wood-Beds

https://permies.com/t/12206/Hugelkultur-good-wood-bad-allelopathic
 
pollinator
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Besides Paul and Sepp's wisdom, I can say this, I talked to a guy about hugekultur who live in the DC-ish area and he said it works but it has to be 7' tall to work at all.  In other words, don't even bother if you're not going all th way with it, from his experience.

I would say, don't be afraid to irrigate the first year.  I thought I wouldn't have to in our climate (you get similar rains to us) but it definitely took till year 2 to work halfway decently (mine was about 4' height differential, 3' with a 1' trench, all I felt I could get away with before I felt uncomfortable).  (I was an occasional visitor to my garden, my garden was far in the suburbs and I only got to it once every few weeks, so it had to fend for itself.).  "Irrigate" can mean capture rain in rain barrels/your recycle wheelie bin and then siphon over to the bed with a hose, rather than using municipal water, but still go ahead and water it in the dry months, and every time you feel bad about compromising on watering in year one, think of years 2-20 in which it's not going to need any irrigation, and mentally divide your irrigation by 20.  Transitional measures are the best we can do, and we can't do better than the best we can do.  Someday maybe we'll have re-synched the weather patterns that got disrupted by human imbalances, who knows? and then we won't need to irrigate.

What grew well in my bed despite no irrigation and very occasional weeding: turnips, kale, lettuce.  Full sun.  What croaked: beets, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes.  Tomatoes got lots of weird mold.  I would have grown from seed if I'd had the option, that might have helped, but I saw mold on lots of people's tomato plants, and I suspect it was just too heavy sun, it blasted everything that year.  I grew Lofthouse seeds the second summer, and they did better in my climate, now that we have this super-intense beating sun.  You can find Joseoph Lofthouse on this forum and he has a website that has ordering information.  You'll need to pay in silver dimes (not regular dimes, old-time ones), which cost about $3 apiece on eBay.  I would recommend something tough like his seeds in our climate for those three crops, based on this minimal experience and on his decades of experience in his climate and knowing much more what the heck he's doing than I do.

Also, if your neighbors get upset about the visual appearance, you can say something like "these are challenging times for all of us, and this is what I feel right about doing.

The 4' height, 3' deep trench around it tactic is a good idea, it makes it less visible to neighbors (and you still get the 7' differential).
 
pollinator
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I have been pleased with the performance of hugels around 3'-4' tall.

I am not sure what is meant above by 'don't work'. If the idea is that you will never have to water for 19 years, this is not at all likely in my PNW climate with a multi-month drought nearly every summer, even with very large hugels. Perhaps it can work in DC?


My small hugels coverted wood and crappy soil plus manure into very nice soil.

There was nearly no visible wood left at 2.5 years.


They did nor grow things very well in year 1. A much greater quantity of manure would largely fix this; I've seen a bountiful squash harvest on a 1st year hugel built with many many yards of composted cow manure.
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Thank you all for your replies. Anne, your links were helpful! I calculated the area I am working with and it's about 18 cubic yards that I need to fill (a gradual slope from 5' high). I am planning to find free fill dirt to put at the bottom. Is this something you would recommend? Is rocks ok to use too? What would you not recommend I put there? I just don't think I'll be able to find 18 cubic yards of good organic matter. Then on top of the fill dirt I'm planning to put some fallen and cut trees from around, plus brunches and brush. My question is how and with what do I cover all this to make it nice and smooth? I also have a truck of mulch coming and I signed up for ChipDrop for free wood chips. I am just overwhelmed with the amount I need to fill and puzzled with where to get so much good dirt to cover 2,300 square feet on the top???
 
Anne Miller
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I would fill the bed with any organic material such as grass, leaves, weeds, wood chips that you can find.

This thread has some great suggestions for materials to use:

https://permies.com/t/106070/permaculture-projects/west-coast-garden

This one addresses soil:

https://permies.com/t/59662/Soil-cover-hugel-bed#507129

Tracy said Go ahead and use whatever organic matter you have. You do not have to use a lot of soil. You don’t have to put soil throughout the bed as you build it. You can use some other form of organic matter. We built buried wood beds (basically an underground hugelkultur bed). We don’t have any soil, just sand, so we used alder chips, grass mowings, year-old Scotch broom wood chips and year-old grass/leaves/weeds that were breaking down nicely, and sand, to fill in between the logs and branches. The beds were then topped off with about two feet of the year-old mix, with a little sand, a little clay, and compost. And it grew an amazing garden the first year. The only soil that went into the bed was what went in with the transplants. Basically it was 2 feet of mulchy compost type stuff. It needed to be watered, as the bed was built in May and planted in June, and didn’t have the winter to absorb water.



 
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If you are in need of leaf mulch (pretty finely shredded) or more wood mulch, the city of Alexandria has free pick up:

https://www.alexandriava.gov/YardWaste

"Both leaf and wood mulch are now available for pickup, free of charge, at our self-serve mulch facility, located at 4215 Eisenhower Ave. "
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Anastasia Elliott wrote:Thank you all for your replies. Anne, your links were helpful! I calculated the area I am working with and it's about 18 cubic yards that I need to fill (a gradual slope from 5' high). I am planning to find free fill dirt to put at the bottom. Is this something you would recommend? Is rocks ok to use too? What would you not recommend I put there? I just don't think I'll be able to find 18 cubic yards of good organic matter. Then on top of the fill dirt I'm planning to put some fallen and cut trees from around, plus brunches and brush. My question is how and with what do I cover all this to make it nice and smooth? I also have a truck of mulch coming and I signed up for ChipDrop for free wood chips. I am just overwhelmed with the amount I need to fill and puzzled with where to get so much good dirt to cover 2,300 square feet on the top???



I actually have 213 cu yds, not 18. (I did my calculations wrong)
 
Anastasia Elliott
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George Yacus wrote:If you are in need of leaf mulch (pretty finely shredded) or more wood mulch, the city of Alexandria has free pick up:

https://www.alexandriava.gov/YardWaste

"Both leaf and wood mulch are now available for pickup, free of charge, at our self-serve mulch facility, located at 4215 Eisenhower Ave. "



Thank you so much, George! So nice of you to look this up for me. I am having 10 yards delivered from a facility like this, but closer. I think I'll keep going there myself to bring a little at a time to keep filling up my place.
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Ok, so my Hugel garden is coming along. I am having a couple of trees cut on my property which I am planning to burry. I need advice on what to cover them with. My plan is to first even out the cut trees that I will lay in the space on the picture above with wood chips. I signed up for Chip Drop and am confident that I will have enough to fill out the spaces in between the cut trees and to even out the space on the top. Then I have leaf compost coming. I need soil and was thinking to just get top soil (https://smd.craigslist.org/grd/d/charlotte-hall-asphalt-millings-top/7114271016.html) and turn it into fertile soil good for gardening by mixing my kitchen scraps into it, grass clippings from my neighbors after they mow their lawns and decomposed trees from the woods nearby. Any comments? I also have two questions: 1) is topsoil a good choice for my garden? 2) where is the best place to put the leaf mulch - mix it with topsoil or cover it? Thanks in advance for your help!
 
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I would be very cautious about the source of any materials coming from external locations. Wouldn't want to import disease or toxic chemicals. I think some topsoil will help add minerals & worms & provide a bit of stability. I've always mixed leaf mulch into new gardens & then add a thick layer on top. It seems to work well.
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Mike Barkley wrote:I would be very cautious about the source of any materials coming from external locations. Wouldn't want to import disease or toxic chemicals. I think some topsoil will help add minerals & worms & provide a bit of stability. I've always mixed leaf mulch into new gardens & then add a thick layer on top. It seems to work well.


I guess I already spoiled it. I have 200 cu yards to fill and good dirt costs a lot! So I just had this bad construction type material (with bricks, drywall, cement in it) dumped first to fill in the volume on the bottom (see picture). According to Tyler Ludens' one of the last comments here (https://permies.com/t/80/52077/Buried-Wood-Beds#1104956), he suggests that "it's best if each piece touches the soil." So, now I am thinking I need to order top soil (https://denchfieldnursery.com/collections/mulch/products/bulk-topsoil-1-cubic-yard) to put on top of the bad layer, then lay down my trees, fill the gaps with wood chips, add some horse manure, leaf compost, my kitchen scraps, grass clippings and some rotten wood from the forest nearby to bring some life to this Hugelkulture bed. Good plan? They are coming to cut trees the day after tomorrow, so I need the top soil delivered today-tomorrow. So, I need to decide quick what to do. Thanks for your input! And the second picture is of the place that I am trying to fill - the area around my cherry tree from the left side of the picture to the fence.
Bad-Dirt.jpg
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HugelSlope.jpg
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Anastasia Elliott
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Ok, I thought about it a little more. I am not planning to use this Hugel bed for a couple of years. So, I do not think now that I need top soil. I will just do what I described above, minus the top soil, even out the slope and wait. That should turn into good soil, right? I do not need to add any dirt/soil, as far as I understand after reading your comments. I will be adding my kitchen scraps, grass clippings and leaf mulch to it. It would be nice to cover it with wood chips on top. I guess I'll have to rake the wood chips in order to keep mixing in this additional stuff and then rake the wood chips back? Thanks.
 
pollinator
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Anastasia Elliott wrote:Ok, I thought about it a little more. I am not planning to use this Hugel bed for a couple of years. So, I do not think now that I need top soil. I will just do what I described above, minus the top soil, even out the slope and wait. That should turn into good soil, right? I do not need to add any dirt/soil, as far as I understand after reading your comments. I will be adding my kitchen scraps, grass clippings and leaf mulch to it. It would be nice to cover it with wood chips on top. I guess I'll have to rake the wood chips in order to keep mixing in this additional stuff and then rake the wood chips back? Thanks.



I would just try to sort out any real trash from that fill and put it as close to the center of the mound as possible. Bring in all that manure, rotty wood, etc.. And spread it all over the fill. Then plant some kind of cover crop and keep it irrigated, by next spring you'll have some decent soil I'd wager
 
Mike Barkley
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Have you seen Dr Redhawk's epic soil series?
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Joshua Myrvaagnes, you were the first one to reply to my post. You wrote: "I talked to a guy about hugekultur who live in the DC-ish area and he said it works but it has to be 7' tall to work at all.  In other words, don't even bother if you're not going all th way with it, from his experience."

I am looking for someone to come out and look at my place and help me decide what to do. Would you recommend I talk with him?

Thanks.
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Joshua Myrvaagnes wrote:Besides Paul and Sepp's wisdom, I can say this, I talked to a guy about hugekultur who live in the DC-ish area and he said it works but it has to be 7' tall to work at all.  In other words, don't even bother if you're not going all th way with it, from his experience.



Hi Joshua,

the quote button finally worked for me and I just wanted to ask you:

It's been six months since you replied to me. I am still working on my hugel place in my back yard near DC.

I am looking for someone to come out and look at my place and help me decide what to do. Would you recommend I talk with him?

Thanks.
 
Anastasia Elliott
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Hello everyone,

could any of you recommend someone to come to my place near DC and help me decide what to do with the space around my house. I would like to have a homestead farm. Thanks!
 
George Yacus
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Hello everyone,

could any of you recommend someone to come to my place near DC and help me decide what to do with the space around my house. I would like to have a homestead farm. Thanks!



Hi Anastasia,

I hope you will be able to find a local permie who can come by to talk with you about your local homestead goals and permaculture design!  I'll add some "flags" to this thread so that perhaps more people will see it, and therefore help you with a consultation.  I do know that DC region can be quite an expansive (and expensive) area, however.  

Depending on your location (and budget), Michael Judd is in the Maryland area, and offers the following services through his Ecologia business:

    https://www.ecologiadesign.com/2020/09/11/consultdesigninstall/

Michael is one fun and groovy guy.  Alternatively, you could check out his book for ideas and inspiration.

There is also Lincoln Smith and his team, located in Bowie, Maryland:

    https://www.forested.us/

Closer still may be "Jimbo" from Tomahawkpermaculture:

    https://www.tomahawkpermaculture.com/about-2/

I see he has experience with hugelkultur beds.  Speaking of the hugelkultur bed, I've read that the first year is a tough one for planting, because the wood decomposing may initially "steal" nitrogen from plants.  So no sweat about letting it break down a little first.

Alternatively, if you want free advice, posting more goals, questions, and site specifics here on the forums may solicit a response.  Best wishes!

 
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