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The Honey Hole and the Fertility Trench



I've written before about my penchant to trench mulch by burying stuff.

Dig a narrow hole. Throw stuff in and scatter mulch over.

The 'stuff' can be anything from kitchen scraps, junk mail, manures..to  dead frozen Cane Toads.

My garden is a cemetery for the rotting dead.

So I was looking at my soil and was thinking I needed to manure this up. My habit had been manure teas and dispersal of mixes like Blood and Bone. Cow and horse manures always came with a weed tax.

But I suddenly thought. "What if I buried these manures deep, away from ready seeding?"

So I came back to the hole option. Did some homework and found I wasn't alone because the term for this is Honey Hole or Fertility Trenches.

"Before fertilizer became available for sale in bags, people came up with interesting ways to stash away nutrients in the soil. Some Native American tribes regarded the burying of a fish beneath each corn seed as a spiritual necessity, and early peach growers in Georgia are said to have buried an old leather boot at the bottom of planting holes. In both cases, these traditions created hidden caches of bioactive nutrients that were slowly released as the materials degraded, which is part of what happens when you make compost in a Honey Hole. We don’t recommend planting right on top of a Honey Hole, mostly because it’s filled with a more massive amount of active organic matter compared to a fish or a shoe. In addition, planting in a Honey Hole would compromise its secondary function as a reservoir for moisture when there is little water to be had." [The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin ]

Honey Holing isn't rocket science. It works no matter what you throw down the hole because the gains are  not just about adding nutrients. Water entering these trenches slowly percolates an enriched brew into the nearby root zone.  But as  Pleasant and Martin warn,

"Do think things through before using a Honey Hole as a depository for a glut of high-nitrogen manure, and use restraint should you decide to activate the mix with a high-nitrogen meal. Plant roots that wander into a moist environment that’s rich in nutrients may suffer damage from chemical overload, or frenzied microorganisms may mistake them for dead and eat them for lunch."

Trench mulching like this has formatted much of my activity although I've often strayed from my focus. Become eclectic.  I guess I'm engaging in some renewal with re-commitment in mind.

Originally I relied on cardboard and newspapers -- I called them junk mail sponges -- because I was  engineering moisture reservoirs. Now I'm hoping to integrate more manures into the beds this way.  

Another approach, offered by  Owen Geiger,  is to  service the trenches with wood chips.
This ingenious system rapidly converts wood chips into large quantities of fertile topsoil filled with earthworms and beneficial fungi and microorganisms.


Indeed I use the paths  between the garden beds like this: as fertility trench gullies

En route I also laid both small logs  and rolled up newspapers directly onto the beds and green mulched over them. The problem I've found with this approach is that I lost the sponge water reservoir properties that vertical mulching offered me.

So I'm back Honey Holing...this time with manure at the bottom of the honey hole.

Dig a hole. Fill her up.

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Comment by Andrew Cumberland on February 11, 2014 at 21:20

Reminds me of Huglekultur

Comment by Elaine coolowl on February 11, 2014 at 9:27

Oh I don't know, miniature garden gnomes are very economical creatures ;-)

There's a lot more productive fun with gardening than I ever thought! Keep those ideas flowing :-)

Comment by Dave Riley on February 11, 2014 at 9:18

There are a lot of options. I keep meat bones after the feastings and bury those down deep -- away from the dogs' noses. I find junk mail and local newspapers which arrives tubed and rolled up are ideal for these holes.Twigs pitched in vertically-- it doesn't matter if they stick out above the soil line .

My holes are always smaller gauge than the dimensions suggested by Pleasant and Martin. That way I can 'drill' them anywhere. They don't require a lot of earthmoving and I can position them without fear that they will be so strong in their juices or nitrogen demands to sour local soil.

So you can see the point: in the same locale as a plant or planting, you make your hole and toss in the materials.... and cover it up with mulch.

When hosing, make a point of squirting some water directly down the hole. To keep this up you'll need a flag marker and I've started to use coloured craft paddle pop sticks as I couldn't afford the wages of an army of garden gnomes.

My original use of the concept was an adaption from Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting for Dylands and Beyond. - best gardening manual Ever. There the holes are deployed as sponges to hold water longer than soil...that is until they themselves become dirt. 

Comment by Rob Walter on February 10, 2014 at 20:51

I think I just figured out what to do with the prawn heads in my freezer. They're going in a hole in the ground! I've got some nice dried plant matter to put on top as well, although it's not very dense. I guess I'll crush it up and then bury it under a layer of soil. Or maybe newspaper then soil. Oh wow, I can see what you mean! It's fun just planning it!

Comment by Elaine coolowl on February 9, 2014 at 22:42

Endless fascination with the variations on the in-situ composting theme. I want a photo of a yard dotted with mini-gnomes ;-)

Comment by Dave Riley on February 9, 2014 at 19:52

Yes the Permie 'circle' is similar but it presumes a big pit  and a rim of specific perennials. I have a couple of those filled with paper, branches, grass cuttings and such... but in the case of Honey Holes we're talking ad hoc trenches dug out as needed and dug much deeper relative to diameter than the Permaculture circle. They are also designed to soften  the initial impact of raw manures  by diluting them in mulching materials at depth. 

After tending to sheet mulch this last period I can see the ongoing effectiveness of this trench approach, not only because I have used it before to hold water but I've had the end product in my hand after a few months of composting. 

 I got tardy and decided not to dig down. 

Implicit is the assumption that by going down deep and narrow the plants and the soil critters find their own way to the 'honey', and that any spreading is done by roots, worms et al. In my experience, a hole forearm deep and  two  hand trowels wide suits my soil. You can stuff a lot of paper, and other detritus into such a cubby hole.

The trick is to engineer a method of flagging these holes so that you know they are there.

  1. so that you don't fall down them and trip
  2. so that you can water directly into them

Twigs don't work so well so I'm looking around for a good marker....Miniature garden gnomes would be ideal. 

Comment by Elaine coolowl on February 9, 2014 at 17:44

Sounds like a similar idea to the 'Banana Circle' of Permaculture. Digging a metre hole and using the spoil as a berm in which to plant whatever. Fill the hole with any kind of plant material (I do not use food scraps though) it's quite open but ours has been going for around 12 months now and the plants on the berm are doing well so far. Compost in-situ is a grand idea with many variations.

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