'Earth' – So important they named a planet after it (& how to build hugel beds)

Tim Green & Rebecca Hosking
Sunday, 20th March 2011

Film makers, Rebecca Hosking & Tim Green, made 'A Farm For A Future' for BBC2 and discovered permaculture. Now they are testing out the theory on the Hosking family farm and writing this regular column exclusively for Permaculture. This week they explore how to to counter compacted soil on a large scale and build a Sepp Holzer 'hugel bed', a raised bed filled with wood and brash as well as soil and compost.

When I say 'earth' what I really mean is soil. I know they are not strictly the same thing but I was quite proud of my clever title. Like almost all farms we have unhappy soil and unhappy soil makes for unproductive soil.

Big, industrially efficient farms (particularly arable ones like the one pictured above - not our farm!) tend to have sick, dying and dead soils as a result of some hardcore mechanical and chemical abuse.

From walking the land with a keen eye for plant distribution and by listening to our feet I'd say 90% of our pasture and hay meadows are suffering from selective overgrazing, surface compaction and depleted organic matter. All these problems tend to re-enforce each other. When clay soils like ours become low in organic matter, they are prone to compaction by livestock (and machinery) and compacted soil struggles to accumulate organic matter. This means plants grow less and over grazing is more problematic resulting in loss of organic matter and compaction and on and on.

So how do you fix it? If only it was as simple as in the garden. Unless you have a serious rabbit plague then over grazing shouldn't be a gardeners concern but lack of organic matter and compaction are both gardening issues to which there are fairly simple solutions – chuck in a load of compost and don't walk on your beds.

One garden solution is a variation on Sepp Holzer's 'hugel bed'. Our latest creation was a by-product from reclaiming a large area of brash and rotten wood where we intend to grow some chickens. It was a hard days slog but pretty simple.

First off, remove the turf, put it to one side and have a cup of tea. Then dig a great big hole saving all the top soil (at last! a decent use for the 1 tonne dumpy bags we've been hoarding). When we were about a foot into the subsoil (3 ½ ft down in total) we had another cup of tea. 


Having dug a large hole, the next stage is to fill it back in again. First in goes anything organic you can find. For us this was the rotten wood pile; tree trunks at the bottom and branches, twigs and brambles on top. Then we scoured the garden for old pots and hanging baskets full of weedy compost, any old weeds, a rotten hay bale, some woodchip etc.






With the hole nearly full we shovelled the subsoil back on top followed by a bit of topsoil then laid the turf back on upside down. At this point we're back at ground level with a couple of feet's worth of topsoil left over. We then made a simple frame to hold the above ground stuff together and filled it with the remaining soil and a couple of carloads of partially rotted manure (one of the benefits of having a herd of cows). No real attention to detail needed and no careful mixing in of the dung – that's what worms are for.

Final touches were a sowing of white clover seeds to form a ground cover and light dusting of wood chip to keep in the moisture and confuse the sparrows (they do like clover seed). In time, as everything composts under the bed, we should be left with over 4 feet of very rich topsoil. We'll probably put beans in first but everything should have settled enough by Autumn ready for planting asparagus (if that's when you're meant to plant asparagus crowns – must check that one!)

The bed construction process I have just described is inverting the soil to incorporate organic material, or as farmers call it – ploughing! Ploughing, as you may know, is not something we are generally in favour of as it is classic case of agricultural short term benefit at the expense of long term damage. Rather the same as borrowing money with no clear plan on how to pay it back. So what makes our hugel bed so different?



Well, it's partly a matter of scale. With only 80 square feet of bed to deal with we could source enough organic matter to add it in huge comparative quantities. To do that across the farm we would need about 50 years worth of dung from our cattle and fell a quarter of our hedgerows. The big difference, however, is how the one-off construction process forever changes our behaviour. Although it will take a few years for the soil to recover from our brutal forking, as a raised bed, it will never be trampled by wellies or wheelbarrows again. Planting a perennial crop like asparagus means the soil won't be dug or turned for at least 25 years and the ongoing process of mulching will mean a year on year increase in organic matter rather than the reverse.

So, what we need to do with our pastures is change our practices to slowly reverse the process of degradation rather than search for a quick fix. The quick fix, however, is always so alluring. Something we tried last year in one of our fields was a bit of machinery called a sward lifter. It's a bit like a subsoiler but is apparently specifically designed for breaking up surface compaction in pasture. We don't know if it worked as the following day we found one of the Old Boys (remember them?) merrily flattening the field with a 30 ton heavy roller....such is life.

Clearly the first thing we should do to alleviate compaction and get things moving is to stop driving machinery on the pasture unless absolutely necessary. This should be easy but for the two old farmers perpetually trundling around in their tractors using them as geriatric mobility vehicles. Maybe next year we won't be able to afford red diesel...we live in hope.




Rebecca and Tim write a regular BLOG on permaculture and farming for Pm online.


For information on Sepp Holzer's many innovative gardening and farming techniques see Sepp Holzer's Permaculture

Ciaran O'Sullivan |
Sun, 20/03/2011 - 20:34
Thank you Rebecca and Tim for sharing your journey with us. With large scale permaculture I imagine it is so difficult to know where best to begin. I find sometimes the planning process alone to be quite daunting. I was very inspired by your film 'A farm for the future' which was my introduction to permaculture. I find many similarities in your situation to my own especially dealing with an older generation who are terrified of change or even the mentioning of it. Myself and my partner Jennifer are about to take on five acres of the family farm which has been kindly gifted to us. However the prospect of change from traditional pasture or tillage does not sit well with the family. I will be following your progress with great interest. As I await the delivery of Sepp Holzer's Permaculture I will try your variation of the 'Hugel bed'. Thanks for sharing.
Tim Green and Rebecca Hosking |
Mon, 21/03/2011 - 10:06
Dear Ciaran, Thank you so much for you comment. In a small way it reassures us - as I hope it does you - that others are in the same generational predicament. Actually in our experiences it’s all to common. We’ve met countless farming youngsters and young couples with exactly the same story. To the point it’s a serious issue and, joking aside, it’s one of the largest barriers holding back farming from where it could be.. I think it could be my next blog piece:) because unless you’re in the farming community you wont realise what a silent fight is going on and not just a frustration to up and coming farmers but to sustainable agriculture as a whole. Well that’s if people are interested in reading about it, otherwise we’ll stick with the practical stuff , please let us know?:) very best wishes Rebecca
GreyCob |
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 14:21
and if the 'Old Boys' are relatives who find your comments amusing. If not, can I suggest that being unkind about people is spoiling an otherwise good series? Permaculture is also about people care, and even people we don't agree with can read and be hurt by our words. We all need to share the planet, respectfully. Being the incrowd doesn't entitle us to be mean to the old guard. Sorry to be a dissenting voice. Your actual farming information is excellent.
Wendy |
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 14:41
I built hügelbeets myself this year and in the course of researching them, discovered they're an old German tradition - hügelbeet just means 'raised bed'. Sepp Holzer has brought them to general notice, but he didn't originate the idea. Advantages are not just a large store of organic matter, but the dead wood acts as a massive sponge, holding water through the summer. That may not be a big advantage in the average British summer, but it makes a big difference anywhere with more seasonal rain! As it decomposes, the wood will also release heat (provided there's enough air spaces for aerobic decomposition) and the extra warmth can extend the growing season.
Theresa Wood |
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 19:00
@GreyCob - I seem to remember from their BBC2 film 'A Farm For A Future' that the farm belongs to Rebecca's father and uncle. The difficulties Tim and Rebecca raise between the generations are age old. The young want to use less NPK, the old want to carry on doing things the way things have been done since WW2 even though we are hitting peak phosphorous. The young use a decompaction technique, the older generation reply by rollering the field. It must be incredibly frustrating - but I don't think this is disrespect here. It is realistic - and sure with a measure of humour. As a reader, I want to hear more of the humour. If the family couldn't stand each other, they wouldn't be trying to make the farm work together, whatever the tensions. Let's not make permaculture so politically correct that we can't have a joke here and there. Tell us more of the Old Boys' antics and how crazy they think you are!
Tim Green and Rebecca Hosking |
Tue, 22/03/2011 - 20:32
Thanks for the comments Greycobb and Theresa. As you two show very well, everyone has a different way of seeing the world.:) In our case, the “old boys” are by far and away the biggest obstacle in turning the farm into something sustainable. Our somewhat mocking approach to them and the situation is the only way for us to stay sane. For what it’s worth, what we say about them is nothing to what they (and other farmers) say about permaculture and us.:) Sadly Greycobb, if you were to mention to either of the old boys the “need to share the planet, respectfully” you would certainly receive a considerably less than respectful reply! We take it as farmer banter, but farming banter isn’t for the easily offended. We personally feel it’s important to be honest and more importantly realistic in our blog. In UK agriculture, permaculture is sadly very much stereotyped and maligned; to be taken seriously it is imperative that we try as best we can to break down some of those stereotypes. More importantly, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking we are the “in-crowd”. When it comes to the agricultural world we are definitely the out and out weirdos – and as such must wear our thick skins with pride.:) "Origin of hügelbeets" Thank you so much Wendy for the added detail and knowledge you've shared on hügelbeets, much appreciated :) Very best R&T
GreyCob |
Wed, 23/03/2011 - 06:26
@Theresa Oh, that's ok then, it's just her father she's being rude about. Oh, wait. Isn't it Permaculture/Transition, which is always showing us primitive societies, and stressing respect for the elders? Obviously that doesn't apply to us. @Rebecca as a permaculturist married to a farmer, I find that if I speak respectfully to my husband and his friends, I tend to get respectful answers, to be honest. They are not entirley closed to my ideas, in fact, over time, they have started to listen quite closely. What shall I do then with this article - show it to them? I don't think so! It would set my cause back five years. They would write you off as a spoiled little madam who could afford to take the moral high ground because she is living off a generation of hard work by her father and uncle, with their tractors and their npk. You won't be 'taken seriously' by being sophmoric and snide. You are preaching to the choir! Of course all the hard core permaculturists reading this mag think you are brilliant, but is it a good piece to pass along *in order to make a difference*? I don't have a problem with honesty, but I don't consider it 'being PC' to suggest that advocates of Permaculture show respect to those who, after all, didn't farm the opposite way to spite you, but because in their generation it was deemed the best way to feed you (and in your case, clothe you and send you to school.) And I do have a problem with a philosophy which says we should be respectful of everyone except those who disagree with us. That way lies madness. Anyway, as I said before, your actual farming information is good, and I suppose I can't blame you for writing to the market, it's obivously perfectly pitched for Permaculture mag, but in these days of the interweb (and even farmers are online) there is a much wider audience watching.
Theresa Wood |
Wed, 23/03/2011 - 15:40
@GreyCob, As someone who is chastising Rebecca for her comments about the 'Old Boys' and admonsihing her that permaculture is 'about people care, and even people we don't agree with can read and be hurt by our words', I am surprised by the tone of your latest response and the words you use, given that you are an advocate of people care in permaculture and keen of being respectful to others. Firstly, you tell me off for not appreciating that we must respect our elders in permaculture/Transition societies. Then you accuse Rebecca of being 'sophmoric and snide' and indicate that she could be regarded as a 'spoiled little madam who could afford to take the moral high ground because she is living off a generation of hard work by her father and uncle'. Your finishing swipe is to insult Permaculture mag readers: 'I suppose I can't blame you for writing to the market, it's obviously perfectly pitched for Permaculture mag'! You seem to enjoy being disrespectful to people you do not know. So much for you 'people care'! This is a clear case of 'do as I say and not as I do'.
GreyCob |
Wed, 23/03/2011 - 17:30
Woah. Where did that come from? I'm sorry if you think I accused you of anything, I most certainly didn't. Do you think that Rebecca might *not* be regarded in this way by farmers, if they read her comments? It seems to me it certainly is do as I say not as I do, but quite the other way around. Rebecca may be really quite rude about farmers, but I may not speculate on what said farmers might think about her. And I absolutely did not insult readers of Permaculture ! (of which I am one) I merely pointed out that the response from a single issue audience is very different than that of the wider public. In what way is saying that an article is perfectly pitched for a particular magazine disprespectful either to the author, or the magazine? I live and work among farmers. I have talked permaculture to them for years, I might even be getting somewhere. Now, if they google 'farm scale permaculture' the second article they find will accuse them of riding round on their 'mobility scooters' - I'm afraid it hasn't done me any favours. Constructive criticism should be welcomed. I started by saying the farming content of the article was excellent, which I stand by, and that the tone was unfortunate, which I also stand by.
Tim Green and Rebecca Hosking |
Wed, 23/03/2011 - 18:54
Seems to be a bit of a storm forming in a teacup here. @Greycob - I was under the impression your concern was my being "rude" about my own family but it seems you are now suggesting I'm being rude to all farmers. This is categorically not the case... Maybe I need to clarify that this blog is based on our particular situation. We would never group all farmers together and never suggested farmers in general ride around in their 'mobility scooters". The older farmers in "our" family, however, do use their tractors for many unnecessary purposes (as they fully admit) and do cause damage to the land in the process (less keen to admit but do). A tractor is a useful tool but it is not designed to ride back and forth across a 1 acre wet clay field looking for lambs, for instance, when a pair of feet will do the job just fine. I think most people in the farming community will agree there are good farmers and bad farmers and a whole spectrum between. Much of what the old boys do has been good for the farm and good for the land but equally there are things they do that are not. Finally (hopefully), a genuine thank you for praising the content of the article if not the tone. The old boys (as everyone in our valley calls them ) didn't mind the tone and chuckled at the reference to 'mobility scooters" but thought the content was tosh ! :D very best wishes Rebecca
GreyCob |
Thu, 24/03/2011 - 07:51
and yes, I only ever really intended to suggest that you did clarify - after all, not having seen your tv film, I had not the first idea who you were talking about, and so I guess neither would any passing farmer reading online. I do genuinely believe we are all guilty of talking/writing online as if we were in a private room (or in this instance, a group of people who all 'get it') when of course we're not, we're in public. I've done it, believe me. Anyway, good luck with it. Farming and permaculture ought to be one and the same thing, but there's a way to go yet!
smart chick |
Fri, 28/12/2012 - 18:34
hi rebecca love your blog and the stuff about the old boys... Families who would have them? my intrest is in the fsrm scale operation of permaculture. We have pastures similar to your and im finding getting enough muxk on without over acidifying a real problem and im not wealthy enough to lime large acreages. whst would you do on your farm?
quandry247 |
Tue, 04/02/2014 - 00:02
As a person coming here directly from viewing Rebecca's 2009 Natural World program with the express purpose of getting a contemporary update I find the “Old Boys” comment both endearing and telling. Frankly, does Britain have time to hedge around intractable objects? I'm sure any farmer would not hesitate to label a tool a tool if that's what it looked like to them. My background is in technology and office administration, politics is part of the beast, but, if you can't be honest about issues holding you back to an audience trying to achieve similar goals, where in these green and not so fertile lands can you be open? At nearly 40 years of age I'm ready to switch careers and am keen to see Permaculture succeed for us all. It does not do to blunt the keen edge of our pioneers, however insightful the principle.
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