Garden Update Winter 2019

The Solar Fields, the land of the hugel mounds, the hottest place in the forest, a permaculturists paradise, if you are thinking about getting involved, beware, you may get sucked in with passion and the vision of what it could look like out there. I can attest, it has just recently happened to me.

Hi, my name is C.J. but this isn’t about me, it is about the solar fields and a little backstory and intro to what is actually going on out there. I mean, I guess it doesn’t take a scholar to see, there are a ton of mounds everywhere. Hopefully at the time of whoever is reading this, there is an abundance of plants and trees growing all around. If not, don’t worry. You are here now, and I believe in you. Don’t panic. I know there are a thousand projects you COULD do, but just focus on what you feel is most important and go from there. Although I have fallen in love with the idea of what the Solar Fields could be, I realize that the hostel is a constantly changing place, with new staff and perspectives coming through. People with different visions and ideas for the space out there is bound to manifest, and I am learning to love that. Practicing nonattachment to the space and how “I” perceive it should be. But I do want to help whoever decides to work on it in anyway that I can, which is why this we are both here right now.

You opening this document shows that you have at least the faintest amount of interest in learning about the Solar Fields, so let us start from the beginning. The land that the Solar Fields is on was actually owned by a lumber company until about 2010. Right before the hostel gained ownership over it, the company went through and cleared the whole area. When the hostel got the land, we went through and planted an assortment of about 100 trees, like native longleaf pine, cedar, live oak and hickory. The trees that were planted didn’t do very well, which left a good amount of open space left.

So about 5 years ago there was a joint effort between a few managers, Lavar and Stephen Bryan, where they began to put focus into the Solar Fields. Creating a nice basis of hugel mounds out there, about 5 feet tall and the width of a truck bed. As far as I know, the solar fields were left mainly dormant after that initial effort was put into it. Which definitely isn’t a bad thing, because the hugels needed time to decompose. However they probably could’ve been planted in, because according to Stephen, when they formed the mounds, they used mainly decomposing logs from all around the forest in the mounds. Decaying cypress and oak were mainly used in the original mounds, with a small amount of pine. When I got here, in July of 2019, there were 2 or 3 mounds planted in, but it wasn’t fun getting to them. The fields turned into a mini jungle, full of weeds, blackberry thorns, and grapevines. You are probably thinking “Wow! Amazing! Blackberries and grapes everywhere!” No. You are wrong. They create no fairyland, they create suffocating trees and a land where no hippies want to go, because we all know none of them wear shoes. I mean, hey, if you want to pick thorns out of your feet as you take a stroll there the forest, there are many other places I can suggest.

But the Solar Fields is supposed to be a place guests want to go, and staff want to take care of. So, with a little love, and some pine needles for mulch(to help keep weeds out of the pathways) it cleared right up out there. I cleared most of the trees surrounding the mounds of dead branches and grapevines, but there is no end in sight. The blackberry bushes sprout up everywhere and are very convinced that the solar fields is their home, which it was, for a while. The solar fields used to be the blackberry fields, they were everywhere. Luckily some brave souls went through and thinned it out immensely, however the battle still continues. But hey, if you want a field of blackberries, you go ahead, I won’t stop you. But you will stop anyone from wanting to ever step foot in the Solar Fields. Which I realize as I am typing, that most gardeners would prefer it like that. So let’s get to hugel mound care. If you are thinking of building one, or adding to an already existing mound, don’t use any pine or cedar. Pine is acidic for the soil, unless the pine is already really far gone, but I wouldn’t even risk it, we have an abundance of other woods in the forest. Cedar is fine, I guess, if you want to plant in the mound 20 years from now. You can use freshly cut wood, it will work fine, it will just take longer to decompose and be ready for planting. But hey, if you add enough soil, compost, and manure to the top, it will be plantable. I’ve read that the mounds should ideally be 70/30, 70% dirt and 30% other material. But honestly if you just made a mound of logs and decomposing material, and never added dirt, it would be plantable eventually. When I’m building the mounds, I like to gradually add the dirt as the mound is being made. Lay down the bottom layer of the slowest decomposing material, and then fill it in with dirt. Then add the second layer, of farther gone logs, and add more dirt. And just continue to do this for each layer. This helps with filling in all the gaps between the logs and material, so that the dirt doesn’t just fall off the mound after a good storm.

I think ideally the mounds should be about 5-6 feet tall and 2 feet wide, because this makes it the easiest for harvesting the plants that are on the mound. If the mound is more than a couple feet wide, which some of them most definitely are, then you have to walk on the mound to harvest, which isn’t ideal for the mound and just creates more of a chance of people walking on planted seeds. But honestly, there is much debate on the size and shape of hugel mounds, and there isn’t much leaning towards one specific way. Much of what I have read is very contractiditing and people all have very different experiences with their mounds. I have been just experimenting, with not much to go off of in results, because they were just made in the past few months. I will say that the beans I have been growing in the new mounds are doing really good so far, so that proves they can be planted in right away. I would suggest, though, to plant things that will add nitrogen to the soil, like most legumes and clovers. Because right away the wood is actually going to be extracting nitrogen from the mounds, so for the first year it will help return what is taken back to the soil. If the mound is wide enough, I think making a little crevice at the top of the mound would be ideal for holding water, giving the logs more water to absorb. Then maybe after a little while filling it with compost and the hay from the chicken coop. Or if you find a source of horse manure, that will work nice too. But honestly I am realizing as I type this, that the hostel is a place of growth and learning. So if you don’t want to follow any of this advice and try your own methods, that is beautiful also. But I do think I should write a little description of the mounds that have been created in the past couple months, and the changes that have been made to the solar fields. So just in the past week, I (with the help, of course) cleared a new entrance/pathway to the Solar Fields, that was previously just grapevines and blackberries, I know, I’m a monster. The entrance way is right next to the human compost piles.. So maybe building a wall or something that covers it, as to prevent a guest from having a shitty day… ha.. Anyways, following this entrance are 2 mounds, creating an almost complete circle, but obviously leaving room for a walkway. These mounds were created in October, 2019, just in the past 2 weeks of me writing this. I used about half and half of freshly cut wood, and decomposing material that was scattered across the forest. Right now they sit at about 4 ½ feet tall, ideally they will continue to be added to. Leafy material, food scraps(that have been turned into compost), hay from the chicken coop, horse manure, etc. are all really good choices to add to the top. Then maybe just adding some dirt, and it should be nice to plant in. The miniature mound in the middle of these two, is all decomposing wood that was made into a diamond shape. I planted a moringa tree in it that wasn’t doing too well in another mound, hopefully it will survive. If not, plant whatever tree you’d like, just put some deep thought into it, please. It will be at the entrance way of the solar fields for many years to come. Once you get past these mounds, the original area of the solar fields are all mounds that were created back in 2013-2014, so they are amazing to plant in. The only exception is the mound to the left, towards the guest parking lot, was just created. But a very good amount of extra dirt has been added to it, and beans are already growing all throughout it. The middle has a tad incline to it, this is because it was originally 2 mounds, made with an excavator, and I wanted to combine them. So I dug a trench in between them and filled it with logs and branches, however I knew I couldn’t compress the same amount of material that the machine did, so I made it slightly shorter, so that with time it will even out as the wood decomposes. Now going to the right of the main area, right past the very long and skinny mound, all of that is new.

Currently as I write this, the one closest to the skinny mound doesn’t have dirt on it, but it has a heck of a lot of material. It was original 3 seperate mounds, but with the help of 22 people from an herbal medicine school, we flattened it out and created a whole new mound on top of it. So in addition to the 2 feet of decaying wood under the ground, another 5 feet of material was added. The one right next to this one has a good amount of soil, from wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow being brought out. The other ones in the area I haven’t done much with besides what Eddy and I did when we made them with the excavator. Which is pretty much dig 3-4 foot trenches and use the material that was cut down the week prior and compress it in there with the machine, and then use the dirt that we dug up to cover the wood. So about 9 of the mounds that are out there were created in the past two months of typing this(November 1st, 2019) and will probably need some good time to decompose before they yield amazing results, but hey, no harm in trying. I hope this inspires you a bit about the possibilities out there, it is your playground. Have fun, experiment, put your mark on it, and in no time the forest could have a whole garden of plants growing on the hugel mounds. Oh, and one final P.S.A, do not, and I repeat DO NOT, plant bamboo. Although, we welcome any and all guests willing to help us maintain the bamboo surrounding the Secret Garden!