Thursday, May 30, 2013

Putting Unwanted Logs and Branches to Good Use

First of all, most wood round here gets used for firewood or building material. But I have plenty that I don't want to use for those purposes, for one reason or another. Many a time hubby wanted to load this stuff into the truck and cart it to the dump. But I balked. It just didn't seem right. It had to be useful for something on a farm. I just hadn't discovered its use yet.

First thing I did with this debris was use it to fill in a truck sized hole we had in the pasture. This is the hole I almost drove my truck into one day while clearing the land. So I was bent on filling it in. It took a lot of material and time to fill that giant hole, but eventually it was done. I topped it off with a thin layer of soil, then I started looking round for more holes. I found them alright, but after a year or so I noticed that something unusual was going on at the first hole I had filled in. It had sunk down a bit but that wasn't unusual. The weeds and grass grew very nicely there, staying lush even during drought months. I never watered the area, but things stayed green and perky while the grass around it had stopped growing. Checking it out with a shovel, I unearthed some of the branches and logs. It was quite apparent that they had absorbed and retained scads of water. Plus the smaller pieces were already decomposing. Hummmm. It got me thinking.

I finally found a beneficial use for woody debris, other than just as fill for holes. It could be used as the foundation for growing beds. We get plenty enough rain here in normal times for the decomposing wood to become very water ladened. It would retain this water, making it available for growing plants. And if I supplied nitrogen to the pile, it could serve as a nutrient source too. So I went off to experiment.

The driveway slopes off. I've rolled big rocks to form a back
wall. It's 2 1/2 feet deep in the back. Next step is to fill in the
hole with trunks, branches, etc. This will become a flower bed.
I had planned to create flower beds along the driveway, so I opted to make these my experimental areas. There were spots where the ground dropped away from the driveway sides. By building a rock retaining wall a few feet back from the driveway, I now had a hole that I could fill in. Into the hole  went all sorts and sizes of woody material: logs, branches, twigs. As it went in, I attempted to eliminate all air spaces using smaller pieces, plus some dirt, plenty of weeds, and horse manure. I packed it down as the hole filled. If it didn't rain as I filled, I added water to start the wetting process. When the hole was full, I topped it off with a couple of inches of soil just so that there was soil to plant into.

The first flower bed I made I planted sweet potatoes into because I hadn't yet grown any flowers to transplant into the bed. The sweets did great! I never had to add fertilizer or water. After the sweets I planted a banana tree and flowers. They too did fine and were lush and beautiful. The banana tree clump is still there and doing good, but I have since replanted sweet potatoes. This is the third year. I've never irrigated the bed, but I have used compost for mulching it.

I'm working on the fourth bed now. The only problem I am seeing so far is that the neighboring trees are aggressively growing roots into the beds. This is a boon for the trees, but means that the beds become less useable as flower beds as time goes by. Ohia trees can form a very dense root mat.

I plan to use this idea on my arid south farm, which by the way has no ohia trees on it. So the beds should work better since they won't be getting root-choked.

Recently I discovered that using woody material for making beds is nothing new. There is a system called "hugelkultur" for making growing beds as ditches, swales, and mounds. Wow, looks like I inadvertently reinvented the wheel!


  1. Nah, I dub your method "SuBakultur", and I confer the most coveted rank of Kupuna upon you. I was island-born, just not in those islands, so I have "island status" and by my self-declaration, I am duly entitled to confer such designation.
    All seriousness aside, you really proved the theory, which has also been demonstrated successfully for swine pens, IIRC, somewhere right there on Big Island. I "lost" the computer that had a bookmark for that, but essentially, the fellow had documented very nicely how he piled a lot of logs, then smaller wood debris, and eventually, had hogs penned in a very nice structure on top of that, . The claim was no stink, not hard to manage, and so on. It may even have had a tag back to the Agricultural Extension Division, so maybe you might ask them.
    There will undoubtedly be some gradual subsidence in those holes you have filled, but that will be replaced with your soil-building efforts ongoing. One question about the ohia roots - if they are severed but left in place, do they die and decay, or would they sprout up in the cut-off part?

  2. @Barry:

    1. @Jason: Mahalo nui loa for the link! I DID recall it, and now I learn that a book is pending! So terrific!