Deep Mulch Gardening: Building a Habitat for a Whole-Soil Ecosystem


| 10/7/2014 9:54:00 AM


Tags: gardening, soil ecosystems, mulch, Colorado, David R. Braden IV,

According to the literature, hügelkultur can remain fertile for up to 30 years without adding new materials. However, it can be difficult to plant into the logs and branches. We call our latest experiment a hügel mulch. It is a base of logs and branches covered with a wood chip sheet mulch that should give us many years of growing without any labor except planting and harvesting.

At the Living Systems Institute we work with the theory that nature maintains a habitat for a whole soil ecosystem that retains nutrients. By “whole soil ecosystem” we mean a complete set of organisms that cycle nutrients through complete growth, decay and regrowth cycles. I have been working with the concept over ten years now and I know I can grow more vegetable with substantially less work using a deep mulch system than with any of the other gardening technique that involves turning the soil. In my experience maintaining a habitat for that whole soil ecosystem is why it works.

Experimenting with Deep Mulch Systems

August 2011I started the experiment in 2004 using the permaculture technique called sheet mulching.[1] By 2011 our gardening teams were incorporating ideas from a technique called hügelkultur.[2] One third of our 2011 experimental sheet mulch garden was built with varying sizes of branches, sticks and wood chips twelve inches deep, then covered with an inch of horse manure. The section using hay has been renewed annually, the section using only wood chips will need to be renewed this fall. We planted the section built with branches for the 4th year in 2014 and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Typically, organic gardening involves a cycle of composting, tilling in compost, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and removing plant debris for composting. We spent a morning. We followed the sheet mulching formula contained in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden except that we used the sticks instead of the recommended materials. I then went in and “drew” pathways on top with more wood chips and put in drip irrigation. Since that morning we have done nothing but plant and harvest with an occasional mulching of volunteer plants. You can see how productive it is in the pictures.

August 2014I have given this explanation to people in my garden where they can see the results and yet they go home and crank up their rototillers. Many gardeners who have achieved success using labor intensive methods seem loath to try the deep mulch approach. How is it that we can do so much less work and still get this kind of production? Let's look at how the theory of whole soil ecosystems applies to our observed results.

Building a Habitat for a Whole Soil Ecosystem

Have you ever wondered how nature grows things without depleting nutrients from the soil? How can nature increase the nutrients in the soil while the land is fallow? Why is it that human gardening and farming depletes the soil?

sahmcolorado
3/19/2016 3:39:14 PM

How do you get down to the soil to put in new plants?


sjohnson1509
11/12/2014 1:17:09 PM

Ok, maybe I missed something or read the article too quickly, but it seems to me like you just made a big swaley compost pile. My question is how long it took for you to be able to plant and harvest from this Hugel pile? I would think that the manure would be too nitrogen rich for the first year at least?





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