hugelkultur and strawbale kitchens

This last weekend was International Permaculture Day (May 5th) so Tony and I decided to celebrate by offering our hands at two events. It was inspiring and informative. Our first stop was Sky Mountain Institute, where we helped a new family in the neighborhood start a garden using permaculture practices. We built a hugelkultur bed and a eucaylptus trellis. Hugelkultur is a popular permaculture method of building a mound of logs, organic matter and soil to create a self-watering, self-reliant garden bed that decomposes to slowly release nutrients and hold water like a sponge to support your plants. It is easy to build and very low maintenance. Check out Paul Wheaton’s article on hugelkultur here, and his short video here for some fabulous information.

The neighbor’s backyard had a slope and no good soil, but using hugelkultur and sheet mulching, we were able to boost the soil life tremendously. To build the hugelkultur bed we started off digging a platform placing a layer of cedar, palm fronds, zeolite, and beneficial oils on the bottom to detract pests. On top of that we began throwing logs of several varieties, and green organic matter. These do not need to be perfectly lined up but can be strewn willy-nilly to create varied microclimates.

lower layers of a hugelkultur bed

lower layers of a hugelkultur bed

side-view hugel construction

side-view hugel construction

After that, we piled up many truckloads of horse manure and piles of tree trimmings and other organic matter and sent dozens of wheelbarrows full of goodness to add to the hugel bed:

lots of organic matter and horse poop

lots of organic matter and horse poop

We had a giant pile of mulch that we used to cover the top and break down into nice soil. This hugel bed was created on a steep hill, so we incorprated it into the higher layer, but hugel beds can be created on flat land as well, where one can walk around and pick food from spots at eye-level.

growing hugel bed

growing hugel bed

While some of us were working on the hugelkultur bed, others were creating a natural trellis made of eucayptus branches on the property. The goal there is to grow squash and other viny plants over the top to create natural shade, and a microclimate for shade-loving plants to thrive.

hugelkulture and eucalyptus trellis

hugelkulture and eucalyptus trellis

Underneath the trellis was hard dirt, difficult for growing, so we decided to begin building the soil again by throwing layers of organic matter, compost and mulch that will break down to create a nice black soil, full of life and nutrients. This method of layering is called “sheet mulching” and is an effective way of building rich soil life when there is none.

sheet mulching and eucalyptus trellis

sheet mulching and eucalyptus trellis

It was a satisfying day, helping new friends build a happy, healthy garden. Tony was proud of his trellis handiwork. Soon enough it will provide shade and house lots of good organic vegetables! All this in a day. We are learning how important community and help will be for us when we have land. This would have taken 2 people a week, but with 15 helpers, it took a day.

tony and his handiwork

tony and his handiwork

From there, we revisited Liberty Advance for a second strawbale work party. We met new friends and were able to help finish up the last two strawbale walls. Tony and I mixed up a lot of cob and spent time filling in cracks and making the windows look nice. It went from this:

strawbale frame

strawbale frame

To this:

almost-finished cob kitchen

almost-finished cob kitchen

… in two work weekends. The outside natural plaster layer still needs to be added, and a few other things, but the strawbales are all cobbed and set. Once again, Tony and I know now that if we plan to build a strawbale or cob home, it will take many helping hands. We spent hours alone just cobbing the spaces around the windows, but it sure does look nice:

cobbed windowsil

cobbed windowsil

cob/strawbale window

cob/strawbale window

Tony and I can’t wait to learn more earthen building skills and get in on more work parties like this. Maybe it will pay off and we will be able to host some earthen building work parties in the future.

We visited one last spot after the weekend and left totally inspired and excited to start our permaculture farm. We met with Joey Delia of dirtypermies.com for a quick tour of his land in San Diego. In under a year he and his family have already created a booming food forest, with a swale, over 130 fruit trees planted (all of different types!), all 7 layers of a food forest, rich soil, and a composting toilet. Through seed-bombing he has been able to tame the canada thistle and bring in a tremendous variety of plants. He has a little jungle going, and we can’t wait to visit again in the future to learn from Joey.

Only two weeks left in San Diego before we leave for Grand Teton NP. We have a lot of things to do before we head out, one of which is passing our EMT final exams (yes there are two). I should probably study for those.

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2 thoughts on “hugelkultur and strawbale kitchens

  1. What a great experience! I liked hearing about your work. I’d never heard of hugelkultur before this. It looks interesting. Like green manure I suppose. I wonder how it would work in very arid places (like Gardiner.) Maybe you would have to water it like you would compost around here so it doesn’t just dry out.

    I have a question about strawbale construction. I have been exposed to it a lot in Missoula and elsewhere but I would like to know how do you keep rodents out of it? It seems like a great way to build, but if they got into the straw I don’t know how you’d get them out or what kind of damage they would do in there. What do you think? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been in too many mouse-infested cabins… haha.
    Dani

    • Hi Dani! Good questions. From what I have been learning, hugelkultur beds have been used all over the world, in many climates. Definitely check out Paul Wheaton’s hugelkultur article and quick video. I imagine you could get away with watering once a week. I think it is more difficult in arid climates, but check out this forum on permies all about hugelkultur beds in arid climates:

      http://www.permies.com/t/12150/hugelkultur/hugelkultur-hot-arid-climate

      There is a lot of helpful info in there!

      For strawbale construction: the bales were all covered in straight clay before we set them in the wall, and all of the holes were filled with cob (straw, clay, sand, water mixture). The next step will be covering all of it with natural plaster. I have also wondered about rodents, but I imagine the layers of clay, cob, and plaster will be a good deterrent. Also, when selecting straw it is important to make sure it is grain-free so that rodents are less likely to be attracted. I just looked it up too and supposedly the outer plaster uses sharp sand, clay, and sometime lime and there is no way for the rodents to get in. Here is the video link:

      Good questions!

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