Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Infiltration berms belong at the public works level, but a comparable practice for us masses is hugelkultur. I attended a talk last year at the Mother Earth News fair comparing biochar to hugelkultur and discovered that hugelkultur is generally easier and less chancy than making and applying biochar. Yet, a hugelkultur bed will not be as long-lived as one with a load of biochar.

Hugelkultur is the practice of piling soil and organic material on top of a bunch of logs and sticks to form a mound (mainly on contour) which can capture runoff in order to grow plants like a super high raised bed. +paul wheaton published a DVD about it and  +Sepp Holzer put some good instructions on Paul's richsoil website.

I've been using hugelkultur to augment swales in order to reduce erosion on the back slope of my property. My previous post about infiltration berms brought me to consider hugelkultur not as an alternative to biochar, but as another opportunity to put biochar to good use. Filling the gaps with biochar (or some percentage thereof) while building a hugelkultur bed is one way. Biochar could also be applied in areas where there is a need for extra moisture.

Such was the case with my wife's hydrangea which she wanted planted in a sloped area that normally would not stay moist enough for this plant. Yet, there is a roof downspout nearby which spills out onto the slope (via a splash plate) once the rain barrel fills up. I built a quasi-hugelkultur bed to direct the overflow to the hydrangea and loaded the outlet with unground biochar in order to slow the flow of water and hold it close to the plant.
There is enough of a dam behind the biochar to keep it from being washed away. Over time the biochar will break down into small particles and leach into the soil where it can do even more good.

I can see using biochar in a similar fashion on the uphill toe of a hugelkultur bed in order to reduce the tendency of the toe to erode where runoff sheetflow meets the mound. For highly steep slopes (> 25%), a deep swale on the uphill side of the hugelkultur mound containing some percentage of biochar could serve the same purpose.

Swales are an approved ESD practice in the Maryland Stormwater Manual. Hugelkultur beds aren't, but there may be enough latitude in the specs and descriptions that it would fit without requesting special approval. Beyond these practices, terracing is the next step for reducing runoff on steep slopes. For that, heavy equipment is needed, so it's better in most cases to think in terms of swales and mounds.

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