Hugelkultur is an old German concept/word meaning “hill-culture”. Wood is buried under topsoil (either in a hole or right on the ground) and as it breaks down, it holds lots of moisture and provides sustained nutrients for plant growth. Some more awesome benefits of Hugelkultur is that it greatly increases the available organic matter in the soil over time and for those of us with alkaline soils, which are mainly found in the more arid areas (which coincidentally is where water retention is greatly needed) the hugelkultur bed will release negative ions as it decomposes which will increase soil acidity.

Many people are using these beds for vegetables, but they are great for Fruit trees and windbreaks since the decomposition leans towards the fungal side and not as much the bacterial side as in compost.  This is more natural for trees and bushes, whereas compost is more natural for grains, grasses and vegetables.

The basic concept involves digging a trench and putting logs covered with branches and then covering that with smaller stuff such as straw, weeds, compost etc. that will provide an initial nitrogen source. The mound is covered with the soil that you dug out.  You can dig a pit, trench or just start at ground level with your mound. This is a great way to turn an old stump into a benefit.  Water will be retained by the wood acting as a sponge for roots to tap into while also releasing nitrogen and other nutrients to feed the trees. The soil is loose because of voids left by the decaying wood and gives great aeration for your newly planted trees and bushes. Because of this your trees and bushes will send down deeper roots, quicker and be much less susceptible to drought. Once established the amount of irrigation water required is substantially less than normal.  Combining this method with swales to capture our scare rainwater and snowfall and you have a win-win for your trees.

There are lots of good resources on the internet and several great videos to show and explain better the concepts and actual application.  Below I have listed a few:

Here is a Youtube that is a good and simple introduction

This one explains more how it saves water

This page is tremendous!  It show tons of good photos and different methods in action and also tells best and worst types of wood to use.


With our last post we showed some older pictures from planting pecan seed in April. Now that we  are  almost in July, they are starting to emerge.   I think its a good idea to become familiar with how a pecan seed germinates and grows in its natural environment. At left is a photo of a germinated pecan. To germinate, the seed must first imbibe enough water to swell the kernel and crack open the shell.  As the seed starts to grow, a vigorous tap root is the first structure formed. Shortly thereafter, a smaller, wiry shoot develops and grows upwards, poking through the soil surface. In nature, a new pecan seedling will invest most of it energy in growing a massive, deep tap root. Above ground, first-year pecan trees rarely grow more than  8-12 inches in height and produce only a hand full of  leaves. This growth pattern is the tree’s way of ensuring seedling survival. Between fires, floods, grazing animals and brush hogging, seedling pecan trees often lose above ground parts. By storing a massive amount of plant energy in the tap root, a pecan tree can easily replace a lost top with a new sprout.

Caution and Constant are the words when weeding young pecan trees

Caution and Constant are the words when weeding young pecan trees


Currently we grow about 30 varieties of apples in our orchard. Over the last two years we have grafted several more varieties (about 50) that we have received scion wood from collectors and will offer for sale in the near future.  Many of these we have field planted to grow up to size.  However we don’t have a lot more room to devote to planting fruit trees therefore our decision was to container grow these.

Tree grown for scion wood

Scion wood is 1 year growth from a specific variety of fruit tree.  The small twig or branch portion usually has 3 or 4 buds and is grafted onto an appropriate rootstock. Commercial tree growers that grow young trees for fruit farmers to plant, generally  keep what is called a “mother block”.  This is an orchard that the trees are pruned to maximize branching and twiggy growth so that the largest number of scions can be cut and grafted to become new trees each year. These are pruned to make wood and not fruit.  Several hundred scions can be cut from a single tree and many of these big growers may just have one or a few of each variety which they use to make hundreds or thousands of new trees yearly.   The picture shows a mother tree after dormant pruning.  In the mother block trees can be planted closer than normal since no fruit is desired and usually fertilized higher than normal with nitrogen to promote vegetative growth.

In our new scion nursery we chose to plant semi-dwarf instead of dwarf as would be Digging treesnormal for container growing.  We felt SD rootstock would give more and faster top growth. Add to that the natural dwarfing by container growing and heavy pruning should work better for our purpose.   Of course we don’t want to prune as heavy as the big guys since we also want fruit from these!  Container growing also eliminates weed competition and gives greater control of nutrient use. It also allows us to leave lower branches since the trees are elevated about 2′ above ground level.

setting containersThis Saturday was warm with low wind, a rarity for this time of year. The guys started by lining up railroad ties. This protects a faucet and drain that each year gets run over by cars plus will help hold the bark chips we will add around the containers.  After that they centered the 25 gal. cans at 48” in 2 rows alternating for better sunlight penetration and air circulation.  While this is close spacing, the benefit of container growing is they can be spread apart if more space is needed.

Next we backed up the pickup with a load of our potting mix to make filling easier.Ready to fill  This load held about a yard and a half. The mix can be purchased by the yard from Soilutions in Albuquerque.dug tree low branches

Trees were dug one at a time from our field planting.  We chose to leave some native soil on the roots to protect them from drying out during transplanting and also to inoculate the pots with the mycorrhizal fungus that is so important to the root’s ability to absorb nutrients.

all plantedThe trees were then planted and new tags applied. Along with that we made a map of their order which will be entered into our computer records.  Mapping your plantings and saving to disk is invaluable when tags disappear or fade and when your memory disappears or fades also!

We were able to get 19 trees planted with this load of soil mix or about 12 per cubic yard.  After the planting was completed we then went back and applied a 1” layer of composted and aged goat manure.  Goat manure, while not as readily available here as horse manure, is better because the multiple stomachs of a goat digest weed seeds better than a horse’s single stomach.  Also the nutrient profile is a little better for plants.Top dressing manure

We have room in this area for about 30 trees and will finish planting  with the next good weather .  After that we will fill the area with wood chips to stop weeds, add drip irrigation and mulch the trees. We have also gathered log rounds to use as stepping stones to get through on the west side.  At this point we have preserved and worked around the  native trees and will probably need to do some summer pruning on them.  We also helped to define a loading and parking area for customer pick ups on the east side with the use of the railroad ties.

Most people will want to sample their garden or orchard area and these guidelines are for small areas

Soil Sampling Instructions.

1. Several different tools – such as an auger, a soil sampling tube, or a spade may be used in taking soil samples.

2. Scrape away surface litter. If an auger or soil sampling tube is used, obtain a small portion of soil by making a boring about 7 inches deep, or if plowing or tilling deeper, sample to tillage depth. If a tool such as a spade is used, dig a V-shaped hole to sample depth; then cut a thin slice of soil from one side of the hole.

3. Avoid areas or conditions that are different, such as areas where fertilizer or liming materials have been spilled, gate areas where livestock have congregated, poorly drained areas, dead furrows, tillage or fertilizer corners, or fertilizer band areas of last year’s crop. Only sample growing areas, not roads or other areas of activity.
4. Because of soil variations, it is necessary that each sample consist of small portions of soil obtained from approximately 6-8 locations in the soil area. After obtaining these portions of soil, mix them together for a representative sample. Dry samples and place 16 oz. (2 cups) of soil in a soil sample bag or Zip Loc bag.

5. Soil sample depth is dependent on crop type. Our vegetable garden, since shallow rooted, is sampled at 5”, berries 6” and trees 8-10” since these depths are more indicative of the root growing zone.

6. It is important to not contaminate the samples by allowing surface debris or soil to fall into the hole where samples are gathered.

Types of Sample testing can be customized to give you results in lbs per acre, lbs per 1,000 sq ft, parts per million, Kilograms per hectare. We find lbs per 1K sq ft the easiest to work with. If I were testing a 40 acre field I would use the pounds per acre.

Standard Soil Test:

This test will show Ph, major minerals, minor minerals and some trace elements, total exchange capacity and organic matter content.  Note this differs from the basic NPK test offered by some state ag colleges because of the type test we request and use.   This will show you the total content in your sample.

Paste Soil Test:

The saturated paste test shows what nutrients are immediately available in the soil’s water solution.  These are the easy access nutrients for plants, so this test better predicts what nutrients (and how many) will get into the plant.  This will show ph, major and minor minerals and their availability.

What is the real difference in the two tests?  The easiest way to think of it is the standard test as the soil’s “savings account” and the saturated paste test as the soil’s “checking account”.  Both show nutrients that are accessible, but the checking account nutrients are more easily available.

An example we have is that each spring we face iron chlorosis in strawberries. Iron chlorosis is a yellowing of plant leaves caused by iron deficiency.  It frequently occurs in soils that are alkaline (pH greater than 7.0) and that contain lime; conditions that are common in New Mexico. Even though we have plenty of iron in our soil, the high soil pH causes chemical reactions that make the iron solid and unavailable to plant roots. Such iron will be tied up indefinitely unless soil conditions change to lower the ph.

I recommend doing both tests to give a bigger picture, but if you can only do one then a Paste test will give you items to work on immediately.

These are the basic tests we use.  Of course you can go more I depth and get particulate type tests showing percent of clay, sand, loam and organic matter or individual tests for specific minerals.  Before I do those I would get a quality water test.  It stands to reason, for example, if you are trying to lower your soil ph but constantly adding high ph irrigation water that you need to calculate this into your equations.

One of our farm goals is to produce the healthiest and most nutritious food we can for our families. This is one of the reasons we chose to apply and become USDA Certified Organic.   But does this certification mean our fruits, berries and vegetables are healthier and more nutrient dense than those raised by conventional means?  I think the answer is both yes and no.  In terms of “healthy” there is no doubt that foods grown without conventional pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers are “healthier” for you.  In terms of nutrition though, that can be debatable. It stands to reason that a crop grown organically on poor, nutrient deficient soil will not provide more vitamins, minerals etc. than a conventionally grown crop in soil that is more complete in minerals and micro biotic life.

The foundation of “Organics” is building a healthier, more balanced soil and to that end I think the average crop  grown on organic soil will be more nutritious than those grown conventionally.  Remember that organic production does not guarantee good soil building.  I know of one large organic farm that I toured a few years ago that had no real soil building program.  When I asked what they did to increase fertility, their answer was to add blood meal between crop cycles. Blood meal is an organic approved source of nitrogen but very little else. In essence they were just adding a shot of nitrogen to cover the reason that their crops were not as good as they should be. In my opinion this is not soil building, it is conventional growing substituting “organic” nitrogen for chemically derived nitrogen.

The modern “Organic’ movement has three large groups or methods within it and all are approved by USDA.  The most notable is the method following the Rodale principles of organic growing developed and refined by J. I. Rodale.   This utilizes an emphasis on compost, crop rotation and cover cropping (or green manures) to improve soil quality.  Another branch is the group which promotes optimal mineralization developed by William Albrecht.  It seeks that optimal nutrition is based primarily on ratios of minerals and quantity of these including trace elements. Restoring a balance in these and that excesses can be as bad as deficiencies.  The third is the BioDynamic movement.  Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include its treatment of animals, crops, and soil as a single system; an emphasis from its beginnings on local production and distribution systems; its use of traditional and development of new local breeds and varieties; and the use of an astrological sowing and planting calendar. Biodynamic agriculture uses various herbal and mineral additives for compost additives and field sprays; these are sometimes prepared by controversial methods, such as burying ground quartz stuffed into the horn of a cow, which are said to harvest “cosmic forces in the soil”, that are more akin to sympathetic magic than agronomy.

There are as many facets to organic growing as there are farmers.  Many gardeners both amateur and professional combine parts of all of these methods and also utilize others such as no-till farming and carbon restoration by use of bio-char.  Our approach and philosophies combine some of both Rodale and Albrecht practices. While Rodale promotes compost as a panacea, we feel this isn’t enough.  If your location is deficient in something, using on-farm generated compost will just perpetuate the situation.  It may benefit soil tilth and microbial activity and this may improve your growth, but not make your food more nutritious.

We know where we want to end up: with the best soil and most complete balance of major, minor and trace elements possible combined with the correct microbes to utilize and convert these elements to plant useable products. But how do we get there?  First you must know where you are before you can map directions to your destinantion. If you want to end up in New York, it is almost impossible to get there if you don’t know where you are to start with.  Go north, east, west, south?  Closed roads, washed out bridges, construction etc.  What to do?  Any approach you take is just a guess and any solutions you add will be just luck if they get you there.   So logic dictates we must first determine where we are and this is one of the purposes of a soil test.    Continued …….

The last few Saturdays have been exceptionally warm and gave us a chance to do a little catch up work.  Amazing the things you need to get done in the fall but never quite get to.

For us one of those things is adding compost to our berry rows. 

Dormant Raspberries

In theory the compost  can sit all winter and the melting snows will carry the nutrients down to the roots where they need them for the new spring growth.  Let’s hope we haven’t missed out on all the snow for this year!   February is a good time for cutting down Primocane, also known as fall-bearing or everbearing raspberries.  This is easy since you cut all the canes down, unlike summer bearing where you only cut the 2 year old wood.  I like to leave about 2” above ground as I feel the sun will rapidly callous off the cut and prevent any possible infections at the site. 

Raspberries after cutting canes

This is just my feelings, no proven fact.  It was surprising to see just how green they were this year when cutting.  It makes you think the warm weather is working on them.  Cutting all of the canes makes it simple to add compost.  We are trying to put on a one inch layer in about a foot  wide band. 

Adding compost after cutting canes on raspberries

I would like to go about 18-24” wide but good compost is always in short supply.  Probably the reason gardeners call it “Black Gold”.  The batch we used was 2 years in the making and we used about 6 large wheelbarrow loads per 100 foot of row length

A great link that takes you to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Survey Page.  95% of the counties in the US are in their database.  It is interactive and allows you to get an amazing amount of information. Area of Interest tab - Click to close Then you can print it all out in a professional report.  You use the “shopping cart ” feature for this but don’t worry there is no cost and no info required from you

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