Permaculture Techniques

You may have already  heard of some of the technique used by Permaculturists in their designs including swales, forest gardens, companion planting etc. Lets examine one in more detail.

Hugelkultur beds. Hard to pronounce and spell for some of us, but luckily far easier to make. Roughly translated into English as “Mound culture” or “Hill culture” and the technique is hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Why do I want one? When you are gardening, hows your back? If you answered “fine” chances are you are young and fit. In a few years you may have a different answer. Years of bending over, planting, weeding, picking and trust us you will  benefit from this method of growing. Additionally Hugelkultur beds among other things absorb and then release when needed water and nutrients that would otherwise be lost as runoff, can offer micro climates (sunny or shaded areas) and a slight increase in growing season as the rotting material releases heat.

wooden-logs-hugelkultur-beds-permaculture-techniqueSo what do you need to make one? Well you know the sort of stuff that “traditional” gardeners chuck away? Grass cuttings, old rotten logs, leaves that make the lawn look so untidy, we think you are getting the idea. Anything organic that will break down and help form soil with high levels of nutrients, water retaining materials and air infiltration.  You can add other things, like plain cardboard, coffee / tea waste, nut shells and scraps of food that rodents would turn their noses up at. You start with wood of any condition (obviously not treated / painted wood) from recently cut branches (too fresh and they may start to sprout especially willow) to the sort that you find on a woodland walk, heavy in a squishy sort of way and will break apart with a small tap. If you start with just fresh wood then you might need to add some more nitrogen as the decomposition of wood uses it up but the bed will remain active for longer. A mixture of fresh and old wood can give you the initial benefits of water retention and allow it a longer lifespan. Oak  and other hardwoods breakdown more slowly. Some trees like Black Walnut, Pine and Eucalyptus can contain chemicals that  cause problems so best leave them in a pile somewhere else for a few years before use.

 

First stack up the logs  to give you basic shape. Next add layers oleaves-hugelkultur-bed-design-permaculturef organic matter such as branches, twigs, leaves, ferns, straw, moss, coffee grounds, grass clippings, plain cardboard and sprinkle with soil/compost lightly pack it in as best you can.  Keep building up to your desired height and width which will vary depending on the slope of your land, soil type, water tables etc. finally top off with soil and some compost. Over time you may need to add more as the soil fills up the inevitable voids. Now get planting! Over the years the bed will flatten out. So a basic  Hugelkultur bed is pretty easy to make and will serve you well for many years.

 

 

 

“Great so now I have learned how to make one why do I need to go on a Permaculture Design Course (PDC)?”

The simple answer is that you have used a technique used by Permaculturists and it’s a very good one that even at this basic level will improve your ability to grow some things but you have not created a design, just followed a plan. Is that plan suitable for use in your situation? Can it be adapted to serve you better if you modify the basic design?

fern-hugelkultur-bed-composting-designLets use one of the tools from a permaculturist’s toolbox to see how we might approach this question.

SADIMET
Survey. Note things such as sun directions soil type well draining or hard packed clay?
Assess. (or Analyze) What do we want to happen, sort out survey information, it is feasible?
Design. How high will the bed be, orientation, should a pit be dug or will it need a support “fence” till stable?
Implement. How, when, who, what, tools, money?
Maintain. (or Manage). What is required to keep this going, how much time?

(AFTER YOUR DESIGN HAS BEEN RUNNING A WHILE)
Evaluate. Has it met your expectations, if not how can the design be altered?
Tweak. Do the work needed to improve and remember to re-evaluate and if necessary tweak again.

Expanding the “Design” aspect of SADIMET will help highlight why we use a design process rather than just following by rote.

Design. Lets examine some bits as a series of questions to lead you to a  design that best suits your requirements.

  1. Is the soil welling draining (sandy) or poorly drained (clay)? How will this effect the height or depth of your design?
  2. Do you want to grow plants that need full light and plants that need shade or ones that prefer less direct  sunlight?
  3. Is your area flat, sloping and if so in what direction?

Looking at point 1 in more detail. Imagine you are in an area of heavy clay soil which can dry out very quickly. If we dig a pit say 15-100cm deep and fill it with wood. This could then absorb a lot of water to help lower the water table in times of heavy rain and then release it later. But if the flooding tended to be long term like on the Somerset levels we might decide to just build from the ground level upwards.  What about a design for a sandy soil, how would this differ? Would we make it lower lying so that plants had a shorter distance to reach the water retaining logs? Should we place some water containers or a clay liner at the bottom in an attempt to retain even more water. If we place the wood into these with the  end grain in the water they will be better at transporting water than those placed at right angles to the grain. Would we make more of an effort to locate old well rotten wood as opposed to freshly cut wood. This will retain water better and then we accept a shorter lifespan for the bed?

Okay so there is a bit more to it than first meets the eye and that is why we have the Permaculture Design Course