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Building soil in the forest garden

Waterlogged soil

Young apple treeLong-time readers will recall that my young forest garden sits in an area where all of the topsoil has eroded away and where the groundwater pools right at the surface during wet seasons.  My solution to this extremely-troubled growing area is create my own topsoil, raising the trees' roots up out of the groundwater as quickly as I can.

As you can see in the photo above, sometimes that's not quickly enough.  The apple tree in the worst part of the forest garden had to be staked this year because it had no place to put taproots, resulting in a leaning trunk.  In contrast, its age-mate to the right is thriving in the slightly-better soil not far away.


This long introduction is all to explain why, over the last few years, I've been focusing most of my forest-gardening energy on building biomass, with some techniques working better than others.  My hugelkultur donuts were the best option, but they depend on masses of punky firewood and we've been doing a better job lately of making sure our firewood stays dry and gets burned.  So I've instead been growing cover crops (like sweet potatoes) just past the root zone of my fruit trees, then piling up the biomass around the trees' roots to rot down into organic matter, building soil while feeding the trees.


Building biomass

And then there's my brush pile, shown to the right in the photo above.  All of the prunings from berries and trees across our homestead end up in this pile, which reaches over my head during pruning season but slowly rots down to a gentle mound by this time of year.  (Right now, the pile is also topped by yanked-up cover crops and weeds from the surrounding bed.)

You can also see how I kill-mulched under most of the fruit trees last week to ensure they don't have to compete with weeds during their
fall-feeding window, then cleared ground further away to plant rye for winter biomass production.

Forest garden

The result of all of this biomass growing is happy trees covering two-thirds of the forest garden.  The last third just needs a little more TLC before the soil is dry enough to really keep cover crops happy, at which point the soil-improvement cycle will take off nearly by itself.  That area is where I'll concentrate any punky wood I rustle up this winter.  I seem to recall a couple of piles of firewood in the floodplain that didn't get collected last winter and are probably ripe for hugelkultur right about now....

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.


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Three questions, please.

What do you mean by "raising the roots" out of the ground? Did you plant the tree in a raised mound and if so, what was the mound comprised of?

Second, do you throw weed clippings into your mulch pile or only brush? I'm never sure what to do with weeds because I'm a lazy composter and just throw things in a pile so I'm assuming I never get my pile hot enough to sterilize weeds.

Third, what is that pretty purple flower that looks sort of like ironweed?

Thanks so much!

Comment by Karyn Sun Sep 22 13:55:50 2013

Karyn --- I start the trees in raised beds consisting of whatever I have on hand --- soil, manure, rotting wood, etc. Then I expand those mounds in the ways I've been discussing in this post. My goal is to build new soil high enough up that it's not always waterlogged.

I do throw weed clippings in these piles, and some seeds (and roots) grow. But the piles aren't right at the base of the trees (unless they consist only of cover crops with no weeds or viable roots), so if something grows, I just toss more weeds on top. Eventually, most weeds die. :-) I wouldn't be so lazy if I was tossing my weed piles in the vegetable garden, but I figure the trees can take it. Depending on who needs it more, though, I sometimes toss the weeds into our chicken coops to refresh the deep bedding (and let the flock eat the seeds). And if too many weeds sprout up from one of my mulch piles, I'll throw a layer of cardboard on top to calm things back down.

The purple flower is New England aster, which I got from my mom. In her city yard, it attracts bees like crazy, which is why I put it in, but here, there are so many wildflowers around that it's not quite as much of a mecca for pollinators. Still, it's pretty, so I let it bush out and come back every year.

Comment by anna Sun Sep 22 14:09:25 2013

My attitude about keeping weed seeds out of the compost pit is like my attitude about cleaning the chicken coop: even if you could sterilize it, it wouldn't stay sterilized for long. Good enough is good enough. The beneficial biomass from abundant weeds outweighs the detriment of a few seeds which seem to inevitably find their way to the garden anyways.

Weeds,snakes & spiders need love too ;-)

Comment by doc Tue Sep 24 07:43:46 2013

Thanks for the help, Anna and Doc. I'm curious about the tree planting because I have a spot where most of the water of the property runs and would love to plant something to help with erosion. I never thought of a hugelkulture mound for a tree (I've only seen the models for raised veggie beds and don't know why I didn't think to use it in other instances).

I now I will joyfully throw the weeds into the compost!

Comment by Karyn Tue Sep 24 11:12:41 2013

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime