Forest Floor Gardening (modified hugelkulture)

It’s all about the soil. You’ll hear Suzi say this more than once as she shows you around her incredibly productive, stunningly beautiful and much loved food garden in South Hobart. Suzi is a self-taught, meticulous, ever-curious and bloody good food grower. Over the past couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to pop into her garden a few times to see how it’s evolving, which is significant.
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Suzi's garden
One view of Suzie’s garden, it’s impossible to capture the fullness of her garden with one shot.
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suzi collage
Vibrant healthy rainbow chard, yarrow and goats – she has 5 glorious miniature goats… and I love them.
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Each time I’ve visited this garden there’s always something changing – a new technique being tried on improving soil health, holes everywhere as clay’s being excavated and replaced with this or that. It’s constantly in flux and I’m coming to realise (and accept) that all working gardens are, because we’re always looking to improve and refine. Nothing is ever fixed or finished – and that’s completely ok, and somewhat perfect.
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Suzi’s garden has really heavy clay and receives significant water run off from the road above her property. This results in severe water logging in her garden where there is so much ground water that it literally pools in place and the plant’s roots can sometimes drown.
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suzi puddles
Suzi showing how water pooling occurs in her heavy clay soils
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After trying numerous approaches to moderating this, Suzi has developed what she’s calling ‘forest floor gardening’ inspired heavily by hugelkulture. This includes converting all pathways between the garden beds into deep swales paths which involves removing the existing soil and replacing it with coarse woodchips, where possible, Suzi has made these up to half a metre deep. But she doesn’t use just any woodchips, she tries to source only ramial woodchips and ideally from deciduous trees.
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Ramial woodchips are young branches up to 7cm in diametre (Suzi prefers branches up to 5cm) which have higher levels of nutrients and are therefore are effective promoters of the growth of soil fungi and all round soil building. You can read a great article on regenerating soils with ramial chipped woods here.  She also makes a solid layer of these woodchips within the garden bed, she caps this off with a mix of garden soil and ramial woodchips which she plants directly into as shown below in my rough sketch.
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forest floor sketch
Sometimes Suzi will build tiny walls on the edge of her swale paths in summer to dam water and prevent overflow. Pushing the soil around like plasticine in strategic little ways achieves dramatic changes to water movement.
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A close up of a pathway in the process of being turned into a swale path.
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In Suzi’s own words – this is what forest floor gardening is all about…

“An intrinsic aspect of the system is the deeply woodchipped paths between the beds. The paths perform many functions: they sponge up run-off, harvest and store rainwater, provide in situ habitat for close-to-surface-dwelling composting worms, provide an abundant on-site source of worm compost for planting holes, enhances soil air flow and helps control weeds. Once set up, occasional top-up makes good use of a recycled resource.
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The best time to set these beds up is in the autumn to take advantage of rainfall and weathering and to be ready for planting in spring. That way the nitrogen draw-down will be minimal. However, if I am going to plant into a freshly treated area I use a light dusting of blood and bone (N) and make sure the ground is well-watered because the wood sucks up a lot.
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The woody matter not only conditions the soil with its long-life humus, but also offers a significant nutrient profile. I believe that heavy clays benefit from the mechanical action of the coarse chips literally propping open the soils to let in the air.
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The best performers in newly treated beds are curcurbits. Green leafy vegetables take some months to cope. The second year everything grows better and the root systems of all plants are vastly more extensive and complex. Can’t wait for the rotation to swing around to carrots!
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The method works perfectly for sandy soil too I imagine, just deleting the clay removal and water with clay slurry.
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Building beds too high in the air in Australia (eg  6′) is probably not a worthwhile option with our relatively mild winters and drought-prone summers (not to mention the desiccating winds Hobart sees). Tall beds would be too vulnerable. And the whole exercise is of course about balancing air and water in soil.”
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The high beveled edges of beds you can see above is something Suzi emphasises going into cold weather as it increases the warm sun hitting the soil. In Summer she lets them slump so they don’t dry out too quickly. 
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soil close up
A close up of Suzi’s garden soil
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What’s happening with all the clay Suzi’s removed from her garden (by hand). She’s building a clay bank in the goat paddock which catches extra sun and provides the goats with a warm spot to hang out. Perfect.
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Suzi’s place backs onto the Hobart rivulet, she’s been able to use her goats to eat back the blackberries which once swamped the creek bed.
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I’ll be trying this method out in our own garden in the next few weeks and am genuinely and deeply excited about it. As, while we already do swale pathways in our garden – using ramial woodchips in the way Suzi is is all new to me. I’ve seen how it’s transformed Suzi’s soil and I can’t wait to see what it does to ours!
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Suzie with one of her bird nest inspired compost piles, she is the coolest person ever. You can keep in touch with Suzi and her gardening journey via her blog.

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things garden-esk.

5 Responses to “Forest Floor Gardening (modified hugelkulture)”

  1. Johnny B

    Hi Hannah,
    I’m just about to start doing exactly what Suzi has done (I have the same problem with clay aand poor drainage). Any idea where I can source bulk wood chips (ramial or otherwise) in the Hobart area?

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Hi Johnny,

      Suzi gets her woodchips from the South Hobart Landscapes supplies – they have two types of woodchips, really rough and quite large and then a smaller variety. Suzi gets the smaller chip. Good luck!

      Reply
  2. Joel

    Hey Hannah, so great to browse your blog and to particularly come upon this model of managing waterlogged clay soils. We’ve been pondering strategies for our farm on the Fleurieu Peninsula and this looks like a good idea to start toying with! Hope you’re well!

    Reply
  3. Hannah Moloney

    Hello dear Joel! Yep this is a great technique – I’ve seen how effective it is and am a keen advocate. Look forward to hearing how you go with your own farm. Lots of love to you and your family :-).

    Reply

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