Permaculture – Swales and Raised Hugelkultur Beds from Brush Piles

June 18, 2014 — 2 Comments

Brush piles have pretty much been a fact of life for us over the last year. It didn’t matter where you looked on the property, chances were that a brush pile was the back drop to your view. If you were looking for us on the weekend, all you had to do was follow the smoke. All of that changed last week with the installation of our first bit of permaculture framework at the Ant Farm.

While a photo can’t do the insanity of our brush piles justice, this picture gives you some idea of what one of our piles looked like. There were approximately 30 giant stumps in this pile alone, and we were becoming convinced that they would be with us forever… We even thought about renaming the place, but “The Stump Farm” just didn’t have the same ring to it. The above image shows one of the five remaining brush piles. We had already burned three of them over the course of the year, and something had to give.

Then my next door neighbor inspired us to action with the idea to rent an excavator. We needed to clear about 1800 feet of right-of-way for our fence, and he suggested renting a 20,000lb excavator for the job. He even offered to come over and run the machine to clear the brush. Leigh has posted about the quality of our neighbors here, but it never ceases to amaze me how willing they are to jump right in and help solve our problems.

I made some calls, and we lined up a 17,000lb machine (the largest mini-excavator available), and after a few weather-related false starts, things got underway. However, in the time it took to get the excavator on site, the plan changed significantly.


My neighbor called one morning and told me he had been thinking about it, and what we really needed to clear the brush was a tool called a forestry mulcher because it didn’t create any brush piles. Leigh was instantly in love with that idea. Of course, that is a topic for another post, so we pressed on with our plan to bury the stumps and brush piles in the big field while we had the machine on site.

If you look closely, you might recognize the fellow in the picture above. I logged about 40 hours in the machine last week, and by the end I swear I could open a beer can with the bucket and thumb. I used the machine to dig, haul and grade, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to bring myself to use an actual shovel again… It just seems pointless, now.

Using a mini-excavator stumps are lowered into the trench.

After the contours were marked using a laser level, I dug a big trench and began to deposit the first of 30+ stumps into the ground.

The plan called for hugel beds and swales on two separate contour lines in the field. I would dig a deep trench along the contour and then bury stumps and brush in the trench. The dirt would then cover the wood leaving a long raised bed. This is called “Hugelkultur” and is a German method for gardening that has been used for centuries. The wood core of the bed slowly absorbs water during rain events like a big sponge, and as the soil dries out, the water is wicked back into the soil. As an added bonus, the wood material breaks down over time and actually feeds the soil. By placing the line of beds on contour, moving surface water during heavy rain collects and pools at the base of the raised bed and captures an enormous volume of water into the system.

A mini-excavator is used to drop smaller brush into the trench.

Once the stumps were in I filled in around them with dirt. Then I began to drop load after load of smaller brush from the brush piles. This phase of the hugelkultur raised bed installation involved a million trips back and forth from the piles to the trench.

The hugelkultur raised bed trench is almost filled with brush.

I used the bucket of the excavator to shake and push the brush around in an attempt to remove any large voids or air spaces in the raised beds. Periodically, I sprinkled dirt in-and-around the brush as I filled the trench with wood material.

We had no clue as to how far we could go with the hugel beds, but our plan was to build them until we ran out of woody material. Then I planned to switch over to a conventional swale system for the remainder of the contour line. Swales are made on contour by cutting a ditch and then depositing the excavated material on the down-slope side. As surface water moves down the slope it is collected in the ditch. Because the swale is wide and fairly deep, the water moves very slowly, so there’s no erosion. As the water sits on the uncompacted soil it slowly soaks in, and a large underground lens of moisture is formed under the berm on the downhill side.

We ended up with about two-hundred feet of hugel beds and one-hundred feet of conventional swales. The system will soon provide a home for numerous fruit and nut trees, perennial vegetables and support species. Within 3-5 yrs these earthworks will provide more food than my family can possibly eat.

Completed earthworks as seen looking down hill on to the swales and hugel beds.

Completed earthworks as seen looking down hill on to the swales and hugel beds. (Click to view LARGE!)

The night I finished the hugelkultur beds it started raining very heavily (It was similar to my experience during the earthworks course at Jack Spirko’s place in Texas). Leigh laughed as I sprang from the bed and began digging through the closet looking for my rain gear. To my surprise, the 1/4″ rain event produced enough runoff to fill the upper contour and partially fill the lower hugel bed. I did the calculation afterwards and there were about 2000 gallons of water sitting in the earthworks at any given time. That’s a lot of water for 1/4″ of rain.

Both hugelkultur beds and swales are permaculture based approaches to conserve water and provide a consistent level of moisture to plants through wet and dry seasons. While it took a lot of sweat, time and money to install this infrastructure, it should pay dividends for decades to come.

Now we plant…




2 responses to Permaculture – Swales and Raised Hugelkultur Beds from Brush Piles

  1. Hello Ant Farm,

    So how have the ‘Hugel Bed’ progressed in a Year?

    I am already 95% sure they are the type of solution I am looking at with my own ‘stump farm’ situation. My property has a lot of forest, and has endured some ugly logging episodes over the past hundred plus years, rows of logging trash are every where. Supporting habitat creation I deliberately place hollow logs in places that can complement both the farm and (selective) forestry enterprise and house native animals, birds and insects.
    Yet, with literally hundreds of tons of piled bush: it is no only unsightly, I rank them a major bush fire hazard and seem mostly only to house vermin and local weed plants.


    Phil h

  2. Phil, the progress of the hugels has been interesting. We’ve got about 20 fruit trees planted in them and have been experimenting with all kinds of annual gardening on them.

    I might have a few ideas for your wood material that would require less work in the long run, though. First what part of the world are you in and what kinds of equipment do you have access to? What are you looking to plant?

    I think you’ve inspired me to post a detailed follow-up on the project!

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