By Jordan Lonborg
One of the best parts of working at Tablas Creek Vineyard is that any idea that pertains to organic, biodynamic, or regenerative agriculture is on the table for discussion. During a harvest lunch, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm spoke with Winemaker Neil Collins about a hugelkultur project he’d started at his home, and the wheels started to spin. I had no clue what this term meant or where it came from. It was easy to find out about, though! The concepts of all forms of permaculture are fascinating and fit into Tablas Creek's recipe book quite nicely, using nature to enhance nature.
Hugelkultur (a German term that loosely translates to English as “mound culture”) is a form of permaculture developed in the late ’70 s by a few Austrian horticulturists. Essentially, hugelkultur is a form of a compost pile that uses wood logs as the base of the pile. The logs are then covered by smaller wooden materials (leaves, straw, prunings, etc.), compost, and a last layer of soil to cover the mound. This then breaks down over time, producing a massive mycorrhizal fungal mat (inter-connected fungi that have the capability of breaking down organic matter and creating a symbiotic relationship with living plant roots acting as a conduit for nutrient cycling) that provides nutrients and moisture to any plants on or near the area.
This form of permaculture is typically used for raised bed landscaping and/or vegetable gardening. We wanted to implement this method between grapevine rows. As we started to discuss where and how we could implement this at Tablas, Neil decided that these beds belong in our wagon wheel planting of Counoise:
This location seemed perfect for many reasons. First, the block is a showcase planting based on biodynamic principles, with the rays of the planting shape acting as vectors to help beneficial insects move throughout the block. Hugelkultur should facilitate this. Second, from the start, our idea was to set this block up as a no-till, dry-farmed planting to see, on a reasonable scale, if no-till dry farming was possible in our dry, hot Paso Robles Adelaida District climate. Because we aren’t planning to till this block, the hugelkultur can sit undisturbed. And third, this block is at one of the lowest points of the vineyard, surrounded by hills. Any water that runs off these hills ends up here. Hugelkultur, like any composting system, requires moisture.
We decided to develop sunken hugelkultur beds on either side of a grapevine row. Since the vineyard block is already planted, we couldn’t start at surface level. But these sunken beds have the added advantage of allowing us to capture runoff while providing moisture to the Hugelkutur.
We used a mini-excavator to dig a 3’-4’ trench on either side of a grapevine row. Our first sign that we’d made a good choice: even after a very long, dry, and hot growing season, there was a lot of moisture still trapped in the ground at the bottom of our trench.
Next, we filled 2’ of depth along the entire length of the trenches with oak logs. We followed with a layer of young compost (just started during harvest this year) made up of grape skins, pumice, rachis, grapevine prunings, oak wood chips, leaves, and hay. Then, we added a layer of finished compost made during last year’s harvest. Next, we pumped grey water, recaptured from the winery drains and can be pumped into a water truck, into the trenches to moisturize the hugelkultur. Finally, we covered the trenches with the material we removed when digging them.
In the next month or so, we’ll broadcast some cover crop seed and/or a beneficial seed mix blend to cap this process off. We’ll be looking for signs that the nearby rows show better health and vigor than the rest of the block. If the project is successful and we see positive signs in our grapevines, we will continue the trenching, creating two more hugelkultur rows annually.
Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. The fact that there was still a lot of moisture in the soil after a brutally hot summer provides some hope. We will keep you posted.