How hugelkultur can help heal the planet

Hugelkultur is German for “hill culture.” It’s a composting method that allows you to grow food while longer decay processes break down large volumes of buried or mounded wood. It’s an amazing way to sequester carbon and help reduce CO2 outputs that recently have been measured at record levels along with record setting heat. It’s also something you can commit to doing right now to make a difference this Earth Day.

The problem: According to a 2010 report by the EPA, the total global emissions of carbon since the Industrial Revolution are estimated at 270 F 30 Pg (Pg = petagram = 10*15 g = 1 billion ton) due to fossil fuel combustion and 136 F 55 Pg due to changes in land use and agriculture. That’s 400 metric tons of carbon. The potential of soil organic carbon sequestration through composting is roughly 1 F 0.3 Pg C/year, or 1/3 the annual increase in atmospheric CO2 per year (which is 3.3 Pg C/year).

A backyard solution: All of that simply means composting yard wastes could reduce the annual increases in carbon output over the next 20 years by 30%. That’s not through an act of Congress or demanding corporations do anything. That’s a 30% reduction made by each of us in our own backyard. Composting yard waste simply takes all the carbon that your trees and plants sucked out of the air and puts it back in the ground (sequester) where it increases the health of soil, reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, increases water conservation and reduces CO2 emissions. When we burn yard wastes or send food wastes to landfills, we release stored carbon and converted methane into the atmosphere and become part of the problem.

How to make a hugelkultur: The process is pretty simple and a perfect way to get rid of brush, control erosion, retain water and create carbon-rich beds that will produce a lot of food. One thing we’ve added to our hugelkultur beds is old mushroom logs we hope will fruit as well.

  1. Collect carbon: this can be sticks, logs, wood chips, leaves, dried or freshly cut weeds. If you can keep a brush pile going for years, the decaying wood makes a great addition to kick-start the compost process.
  2. Dig a trench in the shape of the bed or hill you want. If you are addressing erosion, keep the trench along contours to capture or slow surface water. 2 feet is deep enough.
  3. Place a thin bed of stick in the bottom and then place your largest logs on top of that. Surround the log with more sticks and cover with wood chips and some of the dirt you dug up.
  4. Super charge your hugelkultur with mushroom logs. Myceliated mushroom logs will break down quicker while also producing edible and medicinal mushrooms. There is naturally occurring mycorrhizal fungi in healthy soil that will network itsway through your hugelkultur, but you can also introduce various fungi in a powerful way.
  5. Cover with dirt and compost if you want to immediately plant in your bed or mound. Cover with nitrogen inputs like green manure (fresh grass or weed cuttings) or animal manure if you plan to plant next season.

You will notice the bed adjust quickly after a few rains followed by a slow decay that makes the surface sink. Over time, the heavier logs will disintegrate. What’s happening is mycelium, microbes, insects and decomposition are making a rich mix of carbon and nutrients for whatever you want to plant. You can plant perennial herbs or annual fruits and vegetables for years as long as you continually amend with inputs from your property. The two beds pictured here took about 1.5 tons of carbon inputs this year alone.

How composted yard waste reduces carbon emissions

After reading our story on the front page of our local paper this week, I thought I should post some thoughts and links to supplement the section on compost making.

Making compost can be a tough subject for anyone to write about, but it’s one of the biggest steps I believe we can take toward reducing carbon emissions and understanding the role our own trees, plants and soil play in maintaining a natural balance.

The problem: According to a 2010 report by the EPA, the total global emissions of carbon since the Industrial Revolution are estimated at 270 F 30 Pg (Pg = petagram = 10*15 g = 1 billion ton) due to fossil fuel combustion and 136 F 55 Pg due to changes in land use and agriculture. That’s 400 metric tons of carbon. The potential of soil organic carbon sequestration through composting is roughly 1 F 0.3 Pg C/year, or 1/3 the annual increase in atmospheric CO2 per year (which is 3.3 Pg C/year).

A backyard solution: All of that simply means composting yard wastes could reduce the annual increases in carbon output over the next 20 years by 30%. That’s not through an act of Congress or demanding corporations do anything. That’s a 30% reduction made by each of us in our own backyard. Composting yard waste simply takes all the carbon that your trees and plants sucked out of the air and puts it back in the ground (sequester) where it increases the health of soil, reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, increases water conservation and reduces CO2 emissions. When we burn yard wastes or send food wastes to landfills, we release stored carbon and converted methane into the atmosphere and are part of the problem.

How to compost: Compost consists of four things: carbon, nitrogen, air and water. Carbon is pretty much anything brown or dry like leaves, dry grass clippings, chipped wood, or shredded newspaper. Nitrogen is manure, green grass clippings, or compostable kitchen wastes. According to the National Organic Program rules for compost, a compost pile should reach 130 degrees for three consecutive days and be turned a couple times during the process. The carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio should be from 25:1 – 40:1. If you don’t have enough oxygen, methane (23 times worse than CO2) is produced. Too much nitrogen and nitrous oxide (296 times worse than CO2) is produced. These two gases are created in landfills when we send our compostable inputs there instead of composting them at home.

To make a working compost pile, you need to make several alternating layers anywhere from 1-6 inches deep of either carbon or nitrogen layers. Each layer of the pile needs to be lightly watered as you make the pile. You can increase the air intake into the pile by building it in a fenced enclosure that exposes the sides, or place PVC pipe with holes in it on the ground before building the pile to allow air to circulate into the pile. After a couple days, you should see the temperature rise. When it begins to fall days or weeks later, turn the pile. After the second turning, leave the pile to cure for a month and then use the resulting rich organic compost as mulch or soil in flower beds and gardens as an alternative to commercial fertilizers.

UPDATE 05-23-14: A study released today by the Rodale Institute shows organic farm practices could overcompensate human carbon output through many required methods of sequestering carbon. Read the report here. Below is an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal post.

Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions.

Using mycorrhizal fungi in organic farming

One of the most important organic cultural practices I use on the farm is inoculating crops with mycorrhizal fungi. The photo above shows an application on one of 100 organic hop rhizomes we just planted. The symbiotic relationship between this fungus and plant roots is essential for healthy soil and plants. It’s also the secret that all of the current world record pumpkin growers don’t want you to know.

There are a couple types of mycorrhizal fungi. Endomycorrhiza work with certain plants by attaching to the root intracellularly while ectomycorrhiza work extracelluarly. Here is a good resource to find out which mycorrhiza you need for various plants and trees.

How it works: The fungi is naturally occurring in healthy soil all over the world. The largest living organism on the planet is a 2,400 year old 2,200 acre mycelial mat discovered in August 2000 in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. Mycorrhizae are the very life of our planet’s soil creating a network of microbial life that naturally mitigates disease, nutrition and water concerns in the cultivation of crops. Mycorrhizae reduce the use of tilling, irrigation and chemical inputs in aggriculture. It also helps sequester carbon and is a key environmental relationship in our survival on the planet. Many organic farmers who use mycorrhizal fungi never have to water their crops even during drought. You can see several of these side-by-side comparisons pictured here online that illustrate exactly why.

Conventional farming methods using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and tilling are slowly destroying this natural relationship in favor of predictable short-term outcomes from dependence on expensive inputs that often hide destructive and unsustainable results.

Perfect design: Mycorrhizae are basically a mushroom (mycelium) that feeds off the plant’s sugars through its root system. What the fungus does in return for plants is truely amazing: it takes nutrients and water from the soil and feeds the plant by becoming a huge network of extended roots. The fungi is also what breaks down rocks and minerals for plants. It also makes plants more drought resistant as their access to soil moisture is more than ten times that of non-inoculated plants. One application to roots during transplanting or seeding lasts the entire life of the plant, and the results are indisputable.

There is a lot of simple research showing plants do much better using mycorrhizae than using conventional fertilizers. Here is a 6th grader’s science fair project using Fungi Perfecti’s MycoGrow (what we use at Half hill Farm) to show you how simple this is to understand.

Products:

First organic seed starts for Half Hill Farm

Vince got our very first organic seed starts going in the greenhouse this weekend as the last of the snow melted. This first batch is:

  • Organic tomatoes: Roma, Lemon Drop, Kellogg’s Breakfast, and Giant Beef Steak
  • Organic peppers: Jalapeno, Peperoncini, Orange Bell, California Bell, and Sweet Pickle Peppers

After finding the temporary greenhouse temperature dropping below freezing, we decided to use this germination pad. It will keep the soil between 70-80 F degrees. We ordered a much larger 2ft x 4 ft pad for more starts we’ll plant later this week as well as for re-potted plants.

The soil we’re using consists of an OMRI-listed peat, soil from our orchard field and garden compost. We’re also using Jiffy peat cups for transfers.

Using stone walls as erosion control

I had no real plans to go all out and build a stone wall on the upper sides of my terraced garden sections, but here I go.

I love old rock walls, but this is one of those projects I get half way into and wonder why I do this to myself. Luckily we have a lot of stone on the property, and it has the same feel as the old rock wall along the East side of the farm.

I only want to give this project a couple days, so I didn’t trench and inset the bottom stones. You can do that and then build straight up the dirt face and cap it with a large flat field stone to lock it into place. If you begin noticing soil building up behind the cap stone over time, you can then add another layer of stone. You can use concrete. I dry stacked these.

This isn’t designed as a retaining wall. This is a low erosion control wall. You will want to use proper anchors and construction design to retain soil or other heavy material.

200 years of cover croping with clover in Tennessee

A lot of the required organic practices aren’t new ways of doing things at all. Planting clover as a cover crop is a practice that goes back to our state’s founding.

Using a cover crop does a few things in organic farming. It protects soil from erosion, helps build organic matter, mineralizes key elements and catches leeched nutrients needed by subsequent crops, and prevents weeds and pests. It’s the only choice farmers had 200 years ago and wisdom we are abandoning at great cost.

The use of clover as a cover crop in Tennessee impressed at least one observer whose notes in the 1836 edition of the Tennessee Farmer show a fading appreciation for perfected systems of nature.

ON THE CULTURE OF CLOVER:
Few things have contributed to the modern improvement of husbandry, then the introduction of clover, in connexion with the rotation crops. The plant serves to ameliorate and fertilize the soil, and at the same time it affords an abundance of wholesome food for every description of farm stock. Whether cut for winter stores, for soiling in the yard, or fed off by stock but few crops surpass it in the quantity of cattle food which it affords.

Cannon County’s use of clover in particular was cited by Tennessee’s Bureau of Agriculture report of 1874 as the best in the state.

Great attention is paid to the sowing of clover and no farmer deserving the name fails to have a considerable part of his farm given to clover every year. The consequence is there are no abandoned old fields to be seen. Scarcely an acre of land has been turned out. Gullies are scarce though the land is rolling. In no county in the State do the farmers pay more attention to the preservation of the soil.

The two strips pictured here are sewn with certified organic red clover. We’ll follow this with an overwintering of cereal rye then Spring plant our crops. We may try crimson clover next year.

Learn more about the use of red clover as a cover crop in Tennessee from the University of Tennessee Extension Office.