February 27, 2014


A start to the digging. Flags are marking the contour line we are following.

If you walk around Windward these days, you'll see many mounds of earth, holes and trenches of various kinds, and almost everyone here digging at some point throughout the day.

Now is the time to dig. The ground is soft. The air is warm enough for it to be comfortable working outside. And if it's seeds or plants that are going in the holes being dug, it's best for them to be put in the ground while ground moisture is still high, and evaporation is low.

The apple trees I grafted a few years ago are needing permanent homes. And, over the past year, we have gained a strong conviction that given our climate and soil, hugel beds are the best way to establish perennial fruit and nut trees and shrubs on our land. Increasing soil moisture rentention, building soil, slowing downhill water flow and increasing microclimates all make the needed difference when establishing perennials in our dryland, sloping, clay-rich soil conditions.

Trench curving to follow contour. Notice how piles on the righ are darker (topsoil) than soil on the left (subsoil).

So, I'm building a hugel bed on contour in the courtyard. Just uphill (north) of the bed, I'll plant the apple trees. Our standard practice at this point is to dig a trench, which we fill with biomass and then continue to add biomass and nitrogen-rich straw (from the animal bedding) as high as the physics will allow us to make the characteristic hugel bed. The trench is intended to increase the soil moisture rentention capacity and increase the amount of biomass that can decompose into soil over time. The biomass underground also serves as a kind of wick, bringing soiler moister deeper in the ground up into the root zone of the young plants.

Since I am working in an area with already established trees and not enough room for heavy equipment, the trench needs to be dug by hand. First, I've been removeing the rich topsoil, placing it in piles. Then digging out the subsoil to make a trench, placing the subsoil in separate piles.

I've reached a point where its time to start adding and piling biomass. The chickens need to have their bedding cleared out, so we'll add some of their nitrogen-rich woodchip bedding as well. Stay tuned for updates!

Adding Biomass to the Hugel Bed

A dead tree that fell over during the winter ice storm.

This past winter we had several ice storms. And ice storms have a tendency to cause dead or weakened trees to fall to the ground. Perfect material for adding to a hugel bed!

In between the bouts of rain and snow, Andrew and Ashley have helped me in gathering up dead and fallen wood from the forest over the last couple days.

Adding biomass, soil and chicken manure to the bed

I cut it up into manageable sizes and we've hauled it back to the hugel bed.

The chickens were also in need of a spring house cleaning, so we cleaned out their coop, interspersing the biomass with subsoil and the chicken manure (which was also mixed with the wood-chip bedding we use). We left the rich topsoil for the top layer, so that the soil closest to the surface, in which the seeds will germinate and into which they will initially sink their root is the most fertile.

The bed covered with a layer of chicken manure and soil.

At this point, part of the bed is pretty much complete. I seeded this area with clover and covered it with some more topsoil. I plan to go add a mixture of plants as well soon, then mulch it over with straw.

There are still several feet of this section of the bed that I need to finish before I start digging holes on the uphill side of the bed for the apple trees.

Planting Apple Trees and Seeding the Hugel Bed

With a few more hours of work, we finished this section of the hugel bed. Then it was time for my favorite part: planting the apple trees!

I planted three different varieties of apple trees, all ones I grafted here at Windward a few years ago. A Mutsu, a Fugi and a variety I call "KPO" which stands for "Klickitat Post Office" as the scion wood was taken from an unknown variety but delicious apple that grows on a tree across from our post office.

Planted apple tree, with clover around the base.

I planted the trees just on the up hill side of the hugel bed. And I planted the trees with 12ft spacing in between. This is fairly short spacing for MM111 rootstock. But it will take probably at least 10 years for the trees to grow large enough to close the canopy. And since shading the soil is such a high priority for us with our long, hot dry summers, I figured the higher density planting would help rehabitilate the soil faster. If in time, it appears we want the trees to grow larger than their current spacing allows, we can always thin out the middle tree.

With the help of Andrew, Ashley, Pat and Claire, we the rerouted the path, keeping it on contour for part of it and lined it with woodchips. We seeded the disturbed ground with alfalfa, turnips and then I divided up some comfrey and added that in too.

I gave the trees a good coat of bone sauce to help ward of the deer. So far it seems to be doing its job of protecting the vulnerable trees from unwanted browsing.

The finished hugel bed, with sticks holding on the straw mulch.

The final touches to the hugel bed involved seeding the whole bed with a seed mixture that included clover, chicory, turnips, poppies and several different kinds of asters (a nitrogen fixer and other seeds I had readily on hand). And then mulching the bed with straw, using sticks to help hold down the mulch.

Now we wait and watch it grow!