“Turning problems into features” is an attitude we try to cultivate here at the ranch. When our builder trenched across the pasture to lay the water line, naturally the grasses got all tumbled with the subsoil. Now the grasses and roots are breaking down, and one day as I walked across the field, the trench sank underneath my footsteps. Not a serious problem, but somewhat dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.
In the meantime, I had scheduled a crisis by buying 30 asparagus roots before digging the holes to plant them in. And we don’t really want to do much digging here. Besides the fact that digging is always hard work, we have a noxious weed problem. The pasture, like too much of the intermountain west, is infested with bindweed, which sprouts new vines, like a maniacal plant version of the Hydra monster, from every bit of cut roots. And turning the soil promotes its seeds to sprout, seeds which might have lain dormant for 50 years! Digging today means non-stop bindweed cultivation tomorrow and for years to come.
The asparagus roots have been lingering in a plastic bucket for about 10 days, apparently waiting for the holes to dig themselves, while I tried to decided where to put them. R came home from his university workweek ready to do something about the trench. We don’t need people falling into it (there’s a lot of foot traffic on our property because of various irrigation easements, but that’s a different story). But we have only one source of free fill dirt, the topsoil from under our house, which our builder kindly saved for us. We weren’t too thrilled to be wasting topsoil to fill a trench.
And so a feature is born: we built our first hugelkultur bed this weekend. I had read last year about this traditional German technique of making raised beds from the timber left over from tree-cutting. The concept is to replicate soil conditions on the forest floor. The decaying wood and leaves, munched on by natural bacteria, fungi, and worms, create a spongy, carbon sequestering, water-thrifty planting bed. The best part is that you can plant in it right away, but the bed can last decades without retilling.
We started filling the trench with deadfall from our own cottonwood windbreak. The trench swallowed everything in easy reach. Then we remembered that over the winter, a poplar had fallen across our canal just on the other side of our property line. The wood was rotten and useless for firewood. They just limbed it to get it off the canal and our fence and left a big mess of branches, bark, and sawdust. Problem to feature, right? Here were loads of debris that was in our neighbor’s way to her ditch. We cleaned out a path as we hauled off loads of free hugelkultur fill. Even so, we only collected enough to complete about 20′ of bed yesterday.
Building one of these things is mostly improvisation–use what you have. One thing we have is hay. I can’t tell you how many locals have casually asked me what I was doing with my hay, since we don’t have livestock, ready to make an offer to take it off my hands. Some folks around here probably think I’m a fool for “wasting” it, but it makes wonderful mulch that I don’t have to import. And I have other plans for a big project that will use up a lot of hay later this summer. Yesterday we spread just a couple of bales on top of the wood debris, then trundled over wheelbarrow load after load of topsoil to cover the heap. After planting the asparagus, we plastered down a bit more hay as a final mulch. We have about 30′ more of woody material in the trench, ready to top with hay and soil. We need to finish that over the next month, before the next self-induced planting emergency is scheduled.
Some hugelkultur beds are 6′ high and supposedly can hold enough water from spring rains to last all growing season. We didn’t have the materials or inclination to go that large. Knowing that this bed will collapse some as the wood decomposes, we aimed for a bed that will end up around a foot above grade. Nothing too high in case we have to cut through it to move irrigation water around, but high enough to hold a good amount of moisture for a happy bed of asparagus. Problems solved, trench now a berm, expensive plants out of the holding bucket, hugelkultur experiment underway, and platters of asparagus in three years.
Almost every winter, somewhere in Torrey a tree falls across the canal. If this project works, the next time a tree comes down, I will be loading up my trailer with someone else’s problem and stockpiling it to make another hugelkultur bed. I have never had too much asparagus.