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Reference was made in a recent post to the massive piles of branches and other organic garden materials piled selectively around our living/growing area, as well as elsewhere on the plot. This is a kind of hugelkultuur en mass, and here I will describe my version of the reasoning behind using it.

Hugelkultuur is usually used in a more scaled-down way: trenches are dug and branches, logs, leaves, etc. (mostly carbon) are piled into the trenches; the displaced sand is then placed back on top of the organic matter.   

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We have used this method to add fertility to fairly bland soil and to raise that which grows from the floods of winter in this area, which was once a wetland and which occasionally likes to reminisce about wetter days.

The conditions on the flat piece of land upon which we are growing make hugelkultuur appropriate for us. Some debate can be found online as to whether or not the decaying organic material under the soil on/in a hugel bed competes with the growth of the plants growing from the mounds. We have not found this to be a problem.

The plot is in the line of fire of some serious south-west and northerly winds, so during his time on the plot since 2011ish, Damian – fellow permie, friend for almost 2 decades, owner of the land, chemist-muso-freethinker-father etc. – had arranged for branches and leaves to be piled as windbreaks for a fire-pit at the far end of the property. As trucks were hailed down on the road and their drivers convinced to bring branches to the plot, and as fire-breaks were cleared, these piles of branches gradually formed closer and closer and were eventually visible as one surveyed the land from most vantage points

Making the connection between the more common smaller hugels and these much bigger piles as potential hugels was then the next step. The key is to increase one’s time-scale when pondering the process. If you want an instant fertile mound on which to grow something, then dig a trench, pile with mostly carbon and a sprinkling of nitrogen, and cover with original sand/earth/soil. If you want to terraform the land and eventually have fertile mounds – like in 3 or 5 years down the line – then start piling branches where desired.

Again – this might not work for you, but it works for us. To an extent, that is. Not everyone living on the plot is convinced that brown piles of branches are aesthetically pleasing, so we will be planting a creeper at the base of the piles to try and make them look slightly less obtrusive soon. Another factor to consider is the potential fire hazard. Being in an area that was in the last 3 months overwhelmed by fires, we made that consideration and have still gone with the wood-pile wall option.

During the wetter months we will throw as much manure onto the branch piles as possible, transforming them from piles of branches into our versions of hugel beds, though much time will still be needed before anything will be planted directly into them – say, 3 to 5 years. For now, the decaying organic matter seeps into the soil around the hugels, providing fertility to trees that are (and will be) planted at the base of the beds.

We therefore managed to go from ‘fairly exposed’ to ‘mostly enclosed’ within a few months. We were open to the onslaught of the wind, as well as to the view of anyone who drove or walked past – and people seemed to stare considering how alternatively we are living given the ‘orthodox’, mostly conservative and westernised approaches of the residents in the city and in this estate of small holdings.

The hugels have also helped demarcate areas that now have their own specific ‘feels’: two areas are great for veggie patches, and one area is going to make a nice mini-orchard. The microclimates of each area are different, and the addition of the hugels has enhanced what at first was only a milder awareness of these microclimates. We have also not needed to spend any money on fences – we can now keep the dogs, pony and donkey away from damaging and/or eating the veggies. Birds, spiders, snakes, insects etc. also thrive in the wood piles. And all we did was wait; the branches were brought to us.

This post is of particular relevance to us now because the plot next door is being completely cleared of all its trees. Yes, they are alien, but that plot is now completely barren: it is susceptible to erosion from wind and rain, all wildlife is obviously ousted, and there is no privacy between one plot and the other. Fine, remove the alien trees, as we are doing slowly, but at least leave them piled on the land so that fertility is not lost, as opposed to sending the carbon away for processing into charcoal. One sighs in despondence at the thought that the people involved have no idea of how long it takes to grow windbreaks for a piece of land nor how important it is to retain soil fertility.

For any people moving on to a new, ‘cleared’ or partly-cleared plot, similar action to ours is recommended. Before one can look again, years have passed; such is life, and the passage of time is one of those things that astounds when looking back. Whatever is done ‘now’ pays off in time. This is our hope. By breaking with social convention now and embracing the ‘messiness’ of natural decomposition of organic matter, we have a massive advantage that comes with teaming with nature. Hopefully more people in the complex of small holdings in which we live will do the same, or at very least not pass conventional judgements about aesthetics when they drive past.