Practical Permaculture – Summer Reflections – Mint and Hugelkultur

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“The Brain on Gardening” – Hamnett Place Park and Ride – Wilkinsburg, PA – An onion flowering under a Serviceberry…

A permaculture garden should be thought of as a laboratory, we perform experiments with our plants and record the data for the future. Through careful observation, we determine what changes we need to make in our gardens and lives to better serve the land as a whole. Although permaculture is nothing new, many of the techniques are considered the cutting-edge of agricultural science. Given the new-nature of these techniques, there is still much to be learned.

Permaculture and science do not always get along, controlled experiments in laboratory settings regularly show no evidence of real benefits (of any kind) in even the most storied of companion plants. Sometimes, an individual must make a faith-based decision on what they think will work. Skeptics tend to only look for information that proves their skepticism, therefore they look past all of the opposing information. Optimists tend to do the exact same thing except in a positive direction, the difference is the optimist will only find evidence of the system working and typically… The system will therefore work…

Occasionally, something that seems like a good idea on paper… Fails miserably in the field… Here are a couple of tidbits I picked up this summer…

StreetHerbs

“Telephone Pole Garden” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Pineapple mint growing at the base of a local telephone pole garden I created a few years ago…

Mint and the Fruit Tree Guild

After a summer of observation, I have come to the conclusion that mint has no place in a dwarf fruit tree guild, it simply grows too fast to properly maintain to a height conducive to the health of the trees. The first course of branches on a dwarf fruit tree can be as low as one foot off the ground, and many mints will stretch to 4′ tall when in flower. One of the most important aspects to a trees health that is often forgotten in permaculture is air circulation, it is absolutely required for the health of the tree and production of fruit.

Many pests will search for the weakest target in their foraging territory, a tree trunk that is covered by competing weeds is a favorite of many boring insects. In nature, a fruit trees canopy hoards water and sunlight from the plants growing beneath it effectively keeping trunk contact to a minimum. This effect can be demonstrated by planting a sun loving perennial next to the trunk of a large shade tree, although it may survive, it will always seem like it is trying to migrate away from the trunk and into the sun.

The plants that you plant in a tree guild need to benefit the tree, anything that grows quickly or aggressively is most likely robbing the target of your guild from nutrients. A mint patch that is several years old becomes a tangled mess of rooted stems, this mat is impenetrable by all but the hardest rains. Mint can outcompete many weeds, it is safe to assume it will outcompete your tree, and garden as long as you leave it in the game.

Although mint can be a troublemaker in the garden, it is important to remember all plants have a place. Beginners often have no clue that the plants purchased in tiny nursery pots will one day grow into massive clonal colonies, no matter how many times they are told they still make this common mistake. Mint should be grown in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden, if you will not be harvesting it regularly it can be run over with a lawnmower a few times a year in an attempt to keep it regulated… plus it’s like a breath mint for your lawnmower…

BurntSienna

“Burnt Sienna” – Frick Park – Pittsburgh, PA – What remains of a large log left to rot on the ground… A few short years ago this log was a formidable obstacle… Now it is nothing more than a smear of red on the forest floor…

Old Man Hugel and the Mystery of the Disappearing Mound

As the story goes, old man Hugel was a miner who liked to collect wood. He spent his days working in the mine, but his nights were spent searching for his prized native lumbers… He eventually collected so much wood that it filled the house to the point that he could fit no more, growing increasingly frustrated he began to pile it in his backyard, and then the front.

Old man Hugel died in an accident later that year, his piles of precious wood left to rot in the wind and rain. The community toiled over who was going to clean this mess up, given the nature of government, this took some time and as a result, the piles of wood were left out exposed to the elements for quite some time.

Two years passed before the community was ready to clean up the mess, the money had finally materialized and the red tape had been cut. Much to the surprise of the group the piles were now apparently gone, a result of the effects of nature and time. You see, nature has no red tape. Rain, snow and wind do not argue. The elements are very unforgiving of the things we create, and are constantly fighting them. Some things we create are intended to be destroyed, as is the case with the hugelkultur mound.

Sorry… Not quite sure where that came from…

hugelkultur is a style of gardening in which wood, organic material and soil are stacked into mounds, these mounds are planted in and left alone to slowly break down. There is a lot of confusion and misconceptions pertaining to the use of  these types of mounds. The confusion arises from the belief that a hugelkultur mound is a permanent landscape feature, when in fact it is nothing more than a glorified compost heap.

Huglekultur, when done correctly can effectively eliminate a large amount of wood. When built properly, the wood inside of the mound slowly breaks down providing nutrients for the plants growing above. Individuals intending to create a permanent feature in their yard using the hugelkultur technique will ultimately be disappointed, this disappointment is only further materialized with the realization that doing everything right is what caused the failure.

Wood is not an impervious material, it is intended to break down into soil over time. A large tree that has fallen in the forest will not exist indefinitely, as it is exposed to the elements and weather, it will eventually break down into a tiny fraction of its original size. For this reason the amount of wood put into a hugelkultur mound directly affects the long-term size of the pile. The wood contained within the mound is meant to break down, in ideal conditions it is safe to assume your mound will disappear in a few short years.

I receive an alarming amount of emails asking questions about previously installed hugelkultur mounds… I want to stress, that I sincerely believe this is a product of misinformation as opposed to deceit. Complaints of hugelkultur mounds disappearing over time are in fact, a testament to how effective they can be at the conversion of wood into organic material. This common misconception is the reason for this post, I am essentially tired of answering questions relating to the subject.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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One thought on “Practical Permaculture – Summer Reflections – Mint and Hugelkultur

  1. GayinLA says:

    I love the community/teaching nature of permaculture! Thanks for the hugelkultur posts. I sincerely appreciate them.

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