The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Brush pile in the garden

Forest garden brush pile

If you're building a homestead from scratch, you'll end up with plenty of brush.  So, what do you do with it?

The tradition in our neck of the woods is to pile it up, let it dry out, and then burn it.  But during our early years on the farm, one of our readers asked me why I'd burn good biomass, and I couldn't think of any good reason.

In the forest garden where every bit of topsoil eroded away before we bought the farm, I've been adding woody debris in the form of hugelkultur mounds to boost organic matter as quickly as possible.  I figured if I let a brush pile rot down over there, I'd get a similar effect.

The trouble with brush piles in the garden is that tall weeds and vines are protected from the lawnmower and tend to take over.  Our previous in-garden brush pile turned into an impenetrable mass of Japanese honeysuckle pretty quickly, and I could tell Mark thought this one would follow suite.

Butternut squash patch

But the area has been mowed for a couple of years now, so the honeysuckle is mostly absent, and the remaining weeds just aren't that ornery.  I spent about half an hour yanking a few of the tallest ones last week, and the pile looks almost presentable now.  It doesn't hurt that the butternuts are quickly taking over the area, and that a New England aster popped up in one corner.

What I really need is some sort of low tech roller to crush the branches down a couple of times a year.  Many of these branches are from the wild plum and are covered with thorns, so I have a hard time talking myself into crushing them with my body.  If I keep piling more compact biomass on top, though, I suspect the pile will naturally turn into high quality garden area in four or five years.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I read about hugelkultur ( a few months back and it seems to be a great way to get rid of the biomass while using it at the same time.
Comment by Jason Wed Jul 25 08:09:00 2012

Anything that is big enough to crush branches will not be easy to transport on your farm. So my thinking is that you'd have to make something that you can assemble in place.

Take a 50 gallon drum, put a tube through the centre of the bottom and the lid. Fill the drum with sand, put the lid on, and flip it over. Pass a rope through the tube and make it into a loop. This will give you a quite substantial roller. But you'd probably need the come-a-long to roll it over the mound!

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jul 25 12:35:08 2012

Jason --- We like hugelkultur a lot (or at least our variant of it. :-) ) It doesn't work as well with brush, though, unless you've got heavy machinery since you have to come up with a lot of dirt and mulch to fill those air spaces. That's why we're trying to invent an alternative that gives similar results, but on a more homestead scale.

Roland --- I was thinking of something like that, but wasn't sure if it'd be more work to manhandle it around than to simply put on really heavy clothes and do it myself. :-)

Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 13:23:04 2012

To crush branches you need to clear a certain threshold of force/surface. Basically there are two ways to reach that:

  • use a large weight
  • use a small surface

Since the first is impractical, try using a sharp spade to cut through the branches.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Jul 26 01:16:11 2012
Roland --- Good idea on the hand-powered tool front. Maybe a maddock would be even more appropriate, or the maul.
Comment by anna Thu Jul 26 15:51:57 2012
Maybe you could put a series of short bits of 2x4 or other bits on one side to poke down into the pile and act as "breakers" then stand and jump on the top or drive the cart over it or any other heavy, energetic motion from the top. Then repeat every month or so.
Comment by Becca Tue Aug 21 14:33:14 2012
Becca --- Good idea! That is a good size and weight for the project.
Comment by anna Tue Aug 21 15:34:10 2012

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