[permaculture] Re: Branches and small diameter wood

Keith Johnson keithdj at mindspring.com
Wed Mar 26 19:01:23 EST 2003

The bondage and domination of nitrogen has NEVER been a problem in my 
gardens and I've been using coarse mulches for nearly 30 years in a 
variety of climates (when I say coarse I mean the diameter of my fingers 
up to 16 inches in diameter or more). Now I'm in the humid south and, 
wow, does carbon rot fast! Fungi do the first predigesting and then an 
army of millipedes, beetles, pill bugs and worms tear it to shreds. 
Contact with earth, or at the very least, a good cover of leaves and 
finer carbonaceous material to keep the moisture level up accdelerates 
the process. If I want to speed up the fungi, I can spray the material 
with a solution of sugar or molasses and water. I've abandoned 
composting, too. Sheet mulch is my favorite way of feeding the manure 
spreaders, that army of helpers that work for free. If anything in the 
garden shows the least bit of yellowing a little household liquid 
activator (Rodale's polite term for urine) greens it up in no time. If I 
want to go for a really deep green I add powdered rock minerals: high 
Calcium lime, greensand, and rock phosphate. Seaweed fertilizers provide 
the trace elements.

I found the following definition of hugelkultur (there are some umlauts 
in that word but my keyboard doesn't have 'em) at 

    "A hole 6 inches (15 cm) deep and 5 to 6 feet (1.7 m) wide is dug of 
any desired length and running north-south. In the bottom, twigs, 
branches and rotting logs    are laid [I would put things like broccoli 
stems here too]. Then the sod removed when making the hole is laid face 
down on the wood layer. On top of this goes a deep layer of rotting 
leaves ...and green wastes.... Next comes a layer of fresh, nearly 
finished compost. Finally all this is topped with soil mixed with rich, 
mature compost. The completed mound can be as high as 30 inches (76 cm). 
Hugelkultur experts advise planting leaf and head vegetables such as 
lettuce, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower, plus tomatoes and cucumbers, 
the first year when there is considerable heating from the composting. 
The next year ... root crops can be added. The mound will last 7 years, 
its height gradually lessening and in the final year a perennial such as 
asparagus is planted."

While I'm sure that would work, it seems like more work than necessary 
(except in arid climates). Here in NC I just artfully organize the 
carbon logs, limbs, branches, leaves, weeds, and whatever, into bed 
shapes on top of the ground (I often use cardboard, newspaper, and/or 
junk mail on the bottom). Then, just as in straw mulch, a few scoops of 
better soil in the spaces between, a little mineral, and in go the 
plants. I've grown LOTS of things quite well under these conditions (I'm 
thinking of offering a class in the art of carbon arrangement, but what 
would I call it?)

The Echonett folks confirm my approach by saying further that:

    "The systems we are trying are quite similar. We make layers of 
whatever material we have available. By being able to plant immediately 
we not only get that "instant gratification" but also are able to make 
better use of scarce land by continuing to use the area for planting. 
Because it is in use, there is no hurry for the whole pile to decompose 
so there is no need for turning or chopping up the coarse material. You 
also have all the advantages of a raised bed. We are using fertilizer at 
least this first season because our top compost layer is thin and the 
decay inside may cause nutrient deficiencies at first. If we had manure 
tea we would water with it frequently. Instead we often use a soluble 
fertilizer, pouring it right over the leaves. Since we never seem to 
have enough compost, I will tear up some of these "hills" after a year 
or so rather than following the German scheme exactly.

Heat from decomposition may not be too serious a problem on a smaller 
scale. We have very nice carrots right now in a 12-inch (30 cm) tall 2 x 
4 foot (60 x 120 cm) bottomless box that we placed on a cement slab and 
filled to the top with grass clippings and a bit of fertilizer. We then 
placed about 3 inches (7 cm) of potting mix on top and planted the 
seeds. By the time the roots reached the grass it had apparently cooled 

Those of you with large amounts of rainfall are often discouraged to see 
the bit of fertilizer you were able to procure leached away by rains. 
Hill culture might help because the microorganisms that decay the 
organic matter in the interior of the hill use the same nutrients that 
plants use. As nutrients are leached into the pile they are "recycled" 
by these microorganisms and turned into compost.

Mulch on!

Rick Valley wrote:

>Apparently your not worried about the woodchips tying up the nitrogen?
>Ramial chips are not sawdust; there's lots besides carbon there. And lots of
>spaces- which have air, and thus atmospheric nitrogen that can be fixed and
>used by the microflora as needed.
>Once I put wood planer shavings on a grassy path; what came up was not grass
>but clover. After a year of clover domination, the grass came back. These
>goddam polycultures! Always pulling tricks on ya!
>But now I'm thinking of a cartoon of woodchips tying up nitrogen. Could get

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