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Idea for Hugelkultur beds in places without readily available wood

 
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Location: Tacoma, WA & Winemucca, NV
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First off, let me start by saying I'm a beginner to the Hugelkultur (H.) part of permaculture, so forgive me if this is covered extensively elsewhere and I've missed it...

So my understanding is that H. beds contain wood which mimic the action of stuff breaking down on the forest floor, creating no-till, long-term fertilized garden beds, right? My understanding is also that there are some substitutes, such as cardboard, which allows for the reuse of "trash", may not be as good, some people are anti-using, and may require some selection based off food safe inks and previous content, etc. Cardboard or paper shavings might be better composted in the pile, etc because it is structurally less like branches and more like brown (dry) compost layer, i.e. leaves/sawdust, but is also more accessible for free in more urban areas. (Hopefully, this about sums it up with out rehashing every debate on this ever)

So the other day we received a packet in the mail addressed to a former roommate "or current resident." Drat. Couldn't just send it back. Opened it to get a softcover book of something I'll call religious propaganda for a religion that I don't belong to and have no interest in converting to. As a very avid reader, I fully admit to at least thoroughly skimming it, and I found nothing of merit to my household personally. I could stick this in one of the local free libraries, or I could give it to a charity organization for possible resale, but I take umbrage to that for a couple reasons. 1. The whole reason the "propaganda" was put into book form was because off hopes that someone would do just that- if it had been flyers stuck to my door over weeks or months they would have been recycled/composted without qualm. 2. I have reason to believe that even if I were to recycle it, it may not actually get recycled (Let's not argue this here)  3. Both charity shops and sidewalk libraries have staff that sometimes (often?) choose to recycle or worse throw them out anyway, so I'd just be making this book someone else's problem. But none of these options seem to me to validate the harvesting of the trees used to make it in the first place. (Yes, I am the dork that agonizes over my recycling, hopefully some of you will relate, or at least find this endearing)  

As I was pondering this of the last few days, during an unrelated conversation, my spouse brought up the scene in The Day after Tomorrow when they need heat and they're in the NYC Public library and decided that the legal books are no loner needed. So I considered fire tinder (too Farenheight 451 for me personally), outhouse paper (not comfortable enough). And then it hit me...I need to make hugelkultur beds in an extremely treeless (at this point) area. Would books work? The permies would know!

The more I thought about this, the more it seems that not only could I dispose of this book, but also the tomes of debunked-fad-diets-with-outrageous-claims-of-medical-cures-designed-to-sell-supplements-that-are-no-longer-available-due-to-safety-concerns I inherited with our used R.V. and the book(s) my dog chewed. It seems to me that I would likely not have a hard time getting my hands on other books for this purpose, and that most people (everyone with road access) probably could get "appropriate" books, like the-book-found-in-the-back-of-the-kids'-closet-that-is-moldy-and-covered-in-a-whole-gallon-of-juice, the damaged textbooks from the local school in the areas without a recycling program (after I learn any new curse words), and stuff that is so outdated as to be either useless or detrimental without historical value, like your '73 motor carrier's road atlas or a set of encyclopedias that has already been used as collage fodder (Unless, of course, your '73 motor carrier's atlas holds strong personal memories).

TL;DR: So the question I pose to you, dear fellow permies, is: Could books be an acceptable substitute for wood in a Hugelculture bed, especially in areas where trees may be at a premium?

(While I'm open to discussing where "appropriate" books might be sourced, I think we can all decide for ourselves which books "should" be returned to the land- let's not delve very far into this potentially heated area ;)
 
 
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Putting aside issues of what sort of toxic gick might be contained in any random books, the biggest short.coming that books (or cardboard, school notes, packaging material, etc...) have for replacing wood is that they won't last.nearly as long or soak up nearly as much water as true, full, logs and branches. That kind of material could be appropriate to use as filler.between the bulky wood pieces but on its own it is unlikely to last more than 2 seasons before it breaks down and won't really hold any appreciable amount of water in the soil.
 
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S. Lowe said



on its own it is unlikely to last more than 2 seasons before it breaks down and won't really hold any appreciable amount of water in the soil.



I'll add my experience of using newspaper here.  When I was planting the tree field I tried to mulch around the new trees with newspaper covered with haylage.  It was partially successful, but I was short on haylage, so I have acquired piles of newspapers in various places.  These aren't buried, although they get grown over by the creeping grass.  Even after 5 years you can split the newspapers and read them, although degraded at the edges and weathered on the exposed surfaces, they are surprisingly durable.  I'm now using them as path substrates, covered with wood chippings.  I even wonder whether they have been treated with an anti fungal agent, although they do grow some sort of fungal growth after a while, and I can't see why they would bother for short term media like that.

I must admit I can't imagine burying books, although do appreciate that there are books that have reached their end of life.  The key to longevity presumably is the density of the stack of paper, and it's quality.  Paper generally has a lot of other substances in than just cellulose, which is where the toxic gick uncertainty comes in.
I've seen some pretty clever artwork made with books.
 
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let's not delve very far into this potentially heated area



Wise choice.

I read your excellent desert thread the other day so I have a bit of background info about your situation. I think what I would do in this case is use the paper to feed worms & mushrooms to let them help eliminate any potential toxicity. Then mix the resulting compost with the native soil to grow in & that will gradually start building quality soil.

Have you noticed Dr. Redhawk's excellent soil series? If I remember correctly it contains some info about using paper. https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk
 
s. lowe
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Nancy Reading wrote:
S. Lowe said



on its own it is unlikely to last more than 2 seasons before it breaks down and won't really hold any appreciable amount of water in the soil.



I'll add my experience of using newspaper here.  When I was planting the tree field I tried to mulch around the new trees with newspaper covered with haylage.  It was partially successful, but I was short on haylage, so I have acquired piles of newspapers in various places.  These aren't buried, although they get grown over by the creeping grass.  Even after 5 years you can split the newspapers and read them, although degraded at the edges and weathered on the exposed surfaces, they are surprisingly durable.  I'm now using them as path substrates, covered with wood chippings.  I even wonder whether they have been treated with an anti fungal agent, although they do grow some sort of fungal growth after a while, and I can't see why they would bother for short term media like that.
.



That's very interesting Nancy, and obviously not what I'd expect. Did those newspapers get irrigation over the top at all? And how wet is your environment?  Now I want to bury a newspaper just to see what it does!

But really my thoughts came from a garden where I laid newspaper down and then covered with woodchips for paths and even after one season they were very much disintegrated. That was a place in Michigan with ample water
 
Nancy Reading
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We have almost constant moisture here on Skye (not called 'the misty isle' for no reason...).  We're always pretty cool though (5 to 15 celsius for most of the year), maybe that will make a difference.  The papers do break down more quickly when in thinner layers, but anything with a couple of newspapers thickness lasts surprisingly well.
 
Nancy Reading
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I've been sorting out some old photos on the PC and came across these that show the durability of newpapers outside here. These are stacks of papers together - when the sheets are fewer they do biodegrade more quickly.

piles_-of_old_-newspapers.JPG
Piles-of-old-newspapers
Piles-of-old-newspapers
readable_headlines_after_10_years.JPG
Headlines-readable-after-10-years-outside.
Headlines-readable-after-10-years-outside.
 
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