To hugelkulture or not to hugelkulture? Mulch is the question @ Rahma

Rahma Forest Garden is likely one of the most carbon rich soil sites in the city of Syracuse. Trees and perennial plants have been established there for over 5 years, and many truck loads of mulch have been spread on the site with Syracuse Grows’ annual garden Resource Drive. We chop and drop some plants like black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and comfrey (Symphytum) to help build soil Carbon & Nitrogen. In addition to chop & dropping some plants, we accumulate a lot of plant matter from weeding, thinning, and pruning on site, which gets piled up in a low pallet fence roughly separating woody debris from green materials.

This piled up plant debris is useful in theory. In reality, the piles are too loosely stacked to effectively break down, they are unwieldy to move or turn over, and they ultimately end up an eye sore (or once upon a time, a nest for abandoned kittens!), needing to be brought to the curb for city pickup.

Mulch from Syracuse Grows waiting to be spread with pitch forks & shovels, buckets & wheelbarrows at Rahma Forest Garden September 22, 2018

City pickup is a nice option as the city has substantial mulching infrastructure & logistics, and the mulch made from city yard waste like that at Rahma Forest Garden is available for pickup at various locations for free. We end up cycling nutrients from Rahma Forest Garden, to the city composting facilities, then back to Rahma Forest Garden in some cases (or in some ‘Carbons’)! Taking a closer look at this nutrient cycle, city pickup means the use of fossil fuels (trucks, heavy machinery) and the removal of nutrients from on the garden. That yard waste grew from sun, water and soil. If the goal is to build soil with a low-footprint as part of the regenerative garden, isn’t there a more regenerative solution? Some options being considered are listed below. The question at hand is: what’s the best way(s) to handle plant waste from the forest garden, maintaining healthy nutrient cycles for the site and beyond?

  • Hugelkulture (the rest of this post explores this in more detail),
  • Chipping small diameter woody debris, using the chips immediately or piling up to make mulch, and/or
  • A denser compost pile, with shorter and higher fence walls so plant matter can be packed in and piled up dense enough to break down.

Hugelkulture is a promising but controversial option. It can be an eye sore at first for neighbors unfamiliar with the method, it can take up a bit of space, and it won’t use up all the plant matter anyway so we’ll still need to use some city pickups. This is one of many cases of the social dynamic being an integral part of permaculture design, especially with a community forest garden: the aesthetic of the garden and opinions of neighbors is an important part of the garden’s value and success over time.

We’ll likely use all the tools in our toolbox (chop & drop, city pickups,hugelkulture, compost pile) and may add new tools too (a wood chipper, better compost systems). Do you practice any of these methods, and if so what pros & cons do you see? Do you have any tips for nutrient management at Rahma Forest Garden?

Leave a Reply