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As I mentioned I'm garden  intense at the moment and since my bush turkey fiend seems now to be boycotting the beds she roamed and brutalized so often, I thought I'd risk a plant out. I wanted to plant out some seed spuds -- Nicola -- so I built a series of mounds as is my experimental habit.

But it is nagging me that you can do more with 'a' mound than grow I'm seizing any and every opportunity to mound up.

I planted three mounds with spuds and a fourth with Zuchini. In each I stuck a couple of Roma Italian Pole Beans . Dotted the bottom of each mound with Dog Bane and Pigface cuttings. Threw on a coating of grass clippings as mulch ....inserted my pots....

And as a further decoration -- I dotted my DIY hill with bamboo skewers in case the bush Turkey comes back.

I had built a bed only a short time ago -- like a camel's back with two humps -- two mounds -- and it is doing a extraordinarily well with its cargo of potatoes, pole beans, coriander and tomatoes.

So I'm telling myself, 'This works! By gingoes mounds are go!'

But I immediately felt anxious because this isn't garden lore. Ridges or raised garden beds may be  horticulturally approved, but mounds don't get much gardening press. I do have ridges running hither and yon but give me a good round mound any day.

Conical shaped. Knoll like...dotted about the landscape.

In geography, knoll is another term for hillock, a small, low, round natural hill or mound.

With mounds you have all around to play with. Research in New Zealand suggests that , at least there, productivity varies between the northern and southern faces of traditional Maori kumera mounds. My experience, using much smaller mounds, doesn't replicate that conclusion. Indeed, my mounds seem to share whatever fertility and moisture is in the mound by facilitating plant access. In a sense they are an oblique version of a vertical garden. Although I  have a shadier southern side too.

Do I get erosion? With a Bush Turkey mining away I get plenty. But with the roots and tubers infesting the hillock, and a coating of mulch , these smallish mounds hold their ground. Even with subsidence, all you have to do is mound up anyway.

Mounds give you more surface area to grow plants.

 It's simple:

^ has  a larger surface area than -

So hypothetically you should be able to grow more per square metre.

Mounds offer at least 2 microclimates: One in the valley (between the mounds or at their base)and one on the hillock. I'm thinking that you plant accordingly. While I water the mound -- embedding its core with a terracotta pot -- the valley acts like a swale and collects precipitation and run off. Indeed, it seems to me that mounds embedded with terracotta pots -- are extremely irrigation efficient. I've found that when I convert a flat garden bed to a succession of mounds I need fewer terracotta pot watering stations., and it's easier to monitor the hydration of all the plants.

Traditionally, mound gardening in Melanesia generates a sort of compost heap effect. I'm sure I could engineer that too if I stuff manures into the core of each of my mounds. But for now, my mounds make sense because I have a small tank of water embedded inside them.  On my sandy soil that's  a big advantage.

You plant differently for mounds. Since you are planting on a slope you don't have  the concept of rows to rely on. 'Spacing' doesn't mean the same thing. I'm still experimenting but obviously a root vegetable like a carrot may not suit mound gardening if it was planted on an incline. Indeed, what's the preferred angle for a mound that enables you to plant the largest array of different vegetables?

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Comment by Elaine de Saxe on August 25, 2015 at 22:11

Seriously good idea which you have adapted. That you can compare and contrast with conventional beds in the same location makes the experiment all the more useful.

Comment by Dave Riley on August 25, 2015 at 20:28

I gotta say that my mounds are performing très chic.

They're verdant and busy . All mix and match. Overgrown.

The DIY is : dirt mound+clay pot irrigation+polycultural/mixed vegetable planting...

The 'mound garden' has taken off!

I've really gone overboard with the plants I've planted in the mounds. Very much indulgent, close together, tumbling and regardless of gravity. Compared to the FLAT east/west BEDS it's another world altogether.

Much easier to manage in terms of estimating water use or scheduling. The pots are easier to fill and you can see more of the different plants in the undergrowth. Much more focused one mound at a time.

Will the root veg set good flesh? Will the cucumbers tumble and thrive? Will the underneath potatoes crowd the growth of the plants above? Are the spring onions being over powered?

Mound harvest so far: coriander stems, zuchini, Chinese broccoli, some wee new potatoes, parsley, Warrigal Greens (they're thriving)... Pole beans are coming on; chokoes thriving.; pigeon peas have taken root...pumpkins, nasturtiums and  marigolds are away. In the mix: NZ yams(fingers crossed), Siberian cucumbers and tomatoes...carrots, radichio, radishes, turnips...all in mound conditions.

The Siberian Cucumbers are doing better in the mounds than (a) on the flat beds; (b) at the school garden; (c) in milk crates (in school garden  and at home) ...but the imported soil beds at the school garden  are slightly ahead in cucumber growth at this stage. They're in full sun and watered 5 days per week.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 28, 2015 at 1:17

Having done more work outback on me' mounds today -- planting and mulching -- I realize why I've  become so passionately obsessed by these knolls. Everything I've been mulling over is beginning to come together.

Even when I insert bamboo skewers into the mounds and they look like battlements -- no bush turkey would come anywhere near them. They look like floating mines! But the shape is inadvertently a defensive position.

I'm not saying that mounds are the only way to garden. Indeed without the terracotta pot option they may be problematical in some situations. But mound gardening is a qualitatively different business to other approaches.

So I've now begun to experiment with  intercropping various plants by drawing on some of the research work done on mounds in traditional Indian '3 sisters' cultures and among Melanesian highlanders.

When I've done the work, and drawn some more lessons, I'll write up my experiences in a DIY Terracotta Pot/Mound Gardening manual.

It has bugged me for years that I didn't have a system to position my terracotta pots. Do you imbed them at regular intervals in the garden bed? How do you encourage the permeated moisture to spread the distance you want? How  do you plant in the pot zone to best effect? Do inner circle plants steal the moisture from those further away?

Like square foot gardening -- which is a rip off from Zuni waffle gardens anyway -- infrastructure can matter and leads on to suggest other possibilities.

Waffle gardening didn't work for me on sandy soil. Gardening in ridges is all very fine but you don't have focus -- little ecosystems -- to play with. Flat beds are OK but with my mix and match plantings the landscape within them can be confusing because after you start growing stuff one end of the bed may have very different soil qualities and environment  to the other. But you can't register the difference and the changes.

The mound  and its associated valleys replicate the concentration and focus I got out of gardening with car tyres. They're like terrariums -- at least when you first plant them out.

I could even give them names and anoint them with characteristics. Billy. Sally. Pointy. Sandy. Mt Legume. Spud Knoll.... They're my own family of foot hills.

I'm not going to convert my whole garden to mounds. Not even the '3 sisters'  Indians did that.But there's obviously a place for this gardening method for many plants.

In my minds eye I had this conception of a garden in my head all these years which is currently being debunked and rebuilt in my imagination. But if you look at the images below of my last garden you may note the physical continuity. I don't recommend tire gardening because the tires are so expensive to get rid of...but what I really appreciated using the car tires was the way I could focus on the separate circles; the plants, the soil, the worm population,. It was 'square foot circle gardening'

Today my mounds aren't much wider in diameter than these car tires. The 'beds' are higher, of course but the two 'systems' have a lot in common.

While I was dismissive of rotation calendars before -- I know from my tire gardening experience how easy it is to generate and run seasonal rotation using small plant out beds like car tires.... and mounds.


Comment by Dave Riley on June 27, 2015 at 0:33

For a useful discussion about the rationale for and science of mounds this is inspiring:

It warrants observing that intercropped mounds are labour intense, don't lend themselves to either machinery usage, plumbed irrigation or the methods of industrial agriculture. Inasmuch as I can research, block planting vegetables (but not grains) in rows is a modern habit partnered by the development of market gardening where bulk and predictable harvests of single crops was essential to any business plan.It is also a product of the rotation system.

Of course if you don't religiously rotate your crops  and instead plant out many species together, the mound option may register on your gardening radar. (Although the 3 sisters system did employ rotations).

What I'm interested in is the application of polycultural mounds to the kitchen garden. I've added an irrigation device -- the terracotta pot -- because my experience suggests that the raised convex contour lends itself to its best usage by enabling more roots to access moisture.

However, I cannot locate any other examples of clay pot irrigation used atop mounds of soil.

Similarly, mounds also enable bottom up irrigation by encouraging water to collect at the base of each mound (as swales do) . In some/most systems, bottom irrigation of raised beds , mounds or ridges is the primary and only watering system used.

Here's an example in this video, although I think they're over watering.

My tweak is to layer the spaces between the mounds with a lot of compostable (paper, twigs, branch cuttings, ect) matter so that any moisture is soaked up and held there.As that breaks down I shovel it into making or repairing the mounds. Since I'm on sand I can also dig down between the mounds to create trench beds to hold this mulch matter.

These mounds may contain a lot of vegetive matter but they are not as large or as embedded as Hugelkultur ridges. But they do exploit the same principle  See: Sweetpotato cultivation on composted mounds in the highlands of Pap...:

It is believed that the crop absorbs nutrients during the establishment phase from the soil tilth gathered on the surface of the mound. For the rest of the crop’s life, it absorbs nutrients that are slowly released by the decomposing compost materials within the mound. Sillitoe (1996) reported that plants absorb nutrients largely from the decom- posing vegetation concentrated at the centre of the mounds, as roots grow through it, rather than from the soil complex.

This ready use of composting material embedded in the mound reminds me of the 19th Century Parisian market gardens which were raised beds, often built over trenches of horse manure.

As for the intense mixes sponsored by the polycultural aspect, Chris Evans writes:

In a conventional vegetable garden, each type is planted in rows or patches. Usually similar species are grouped together, such as brassicas, beans and peas and so on. Plants of the same or similar species compete for the same nutrients, and are an attractive habitat for pests of that plant. Usually, the patches are rotated every year to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases and so as not to deplete the soil of nutrients. By contrast, in mixed cropping a large number of different vegetables are grown together in the same space. A well-chosen combination can result in less competition for nutrients, and other beneficial relationships between the different plants mean that plants are healthier.

In the Evans example, after exploring the method in Nepal, they ran a project sponsoring mixed vegetable gardening based on 3 crops (like the 3 sisters) and 12 crop mixes.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 25, 2015 at 3:09

Just on how companion planting meshes with design:

Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources

is very useful, especially in its overview of Indian well as its summary of companions.


Companion planting is based on the idea that certain plants can benefit others when planted in near proximity. The scientific and traditional bases for these plant associations are discussed. A companion planting chart for common herbs, vegetables, and flowers is provided, as is a listing of literature resources for traditional companion planting. An appendix provides history, plant varieties, and planting designs for the Three Sisters, a traditional Native American companion planting practice.

Table of Contents

Traditional Companion Planting
Companion Planting Chart
The Scientific Foundations for Companion Planting
Options for System Design
Appendix: Ancient Companions

Comment by Dave Riley on June 25, 2015 at 1:52

AFTERTHOUGHT: Companion Planting

I'm no great shakes with the marriage of different plants -- and you'll find that what one books says may be contradicted by another -- but since you have to plant mix and match on mounds the question of partners comes up. 

I'm experimenting with beans and radishes with potatoes...and my best beans grew among the spuds last year. But I'm also using a lot of coriander -- I buy bulk seeds from spice suppliers and just throw it at the mounds.

I've even thrown handfuls of Quinoa  at my elevated beds.

I've also grown sunflowers among spuds without problems -- and I'm planning to not only use a lot of Dog Bane and Pigface, but Portulacas -- like sun jewells: because these are my most reliable ground covers with an easy transplant.

Other candidates for the mounds are definitely tomatoes (unstaked; they do well), sunchokes, yams, Brazilian and Okinawan spinach,spring onions(?), chives, the basils, zuchini, pumpkins, cucumbers, parsley, Warrigal Greens, sunflowers....

Leeks: maybe not...although perhaps in the valleys.

Anything with a edible 'root'  that is easily exposed and must grow vertically --like carrots, beetroot or radishes -- is still open to confirmation. Maybe they could be grown at the top rimming the pots or in the valleys. But like the salad greens, I'll give them a go. I doubt I'll get far with sweet peppers because they are so shallow rooted and even fall over in my garden on flat land.

Since I grow a lot of climbers: last year i added stakes to my elevated beds(these weren't conical mounds) to support the beans but with the aerial lines I've got going now, I'm hoping to jute twine climbers to train them up from the mounds.Leastways the 'light' climbers-- like beans. Stakes on mounds only get in the way and in my sand, embedded in a mound, they fall over anyway.If you are growing choko on a mound, I'd guess you'd best let it tumble over the ground like cucumbers or pumpkins. They're not as productive that way...but it saves on having to trellis up.

And one final thought: When you grow a lot of different plants in  elongated beds it's easy to lose track of your children. But with mounds it's 'circle  gardening'  --as the mound is its own bed all the way around. You also have an elevated sight line because as some plants tumble downwards, other shoot up.Its' not vertical gardening -- but there is  a crude layering.That is also relevant to the line of the sun's ray....and while not as significant as the huge mounds used in Melanesia and Polynesia it is maybe worth considering.

What happens with the different roots meshing about inside the mound is still a work in progress. But consider that they have the choice to either go towards the terracotta pot or deeper down where the moisture table settles.

...and because you have all these wee separate beds many irrigation options will not work.Thus the pots..&/or hand watering.  But don't forget that the hygroscopic capacity of soil encourages water to rise and if you keep the circumference at the base of your mounds sponged up(mulched) and damp you are irrigating the mound too. Top and bottom irrigation...

Comment by Dave Riley on June 25, 2015 at 0:37

It's hard to explain this through photographs because the contour can be lost in the vegetation.Three Sisters mounds:Example 1

Three Sisters mounds:Example 2

We're talking mounds about a metre in diameter and 30 cm high. Convex.Carbuncles on the ground.

While I've been building some mounds in already existing beds, in renovating the Turkey's area today, and repairing the damage, I realized that I can put three mounds together similar to the combos the American Indians used for Three Sisters Planting (above images): corn + beans + squash. They used mounds too.

Indeed the relationship between mounds was smart and complicated. While the corn and beans were planted together, pumpkins were planted on every 7th mound. there wa salso a rotation sytem in play.

So I'm asking: why has the mound approach dominated the gardens of the North Americas,Polynesia and Melanesian despite the different crops grown and very different climates: arid, sub tropical, temperate and tropical? In the Indian example, different contours were exploited.

Gong back to the combos: it's a question of the relationship between mounds. While my sketch in the blog post is like a wave -- when I had a dig about today, I realized I can exploit combos of 3 because with a marriage limit like that   I can still have ready access from the sides.

Unlike the Indian approach -- I'm throwing down all my paper and cardboard, twigs and branches on the 'paths' between the mounds. And I walk on that while it all rots down. When it does I shovel it on the mounds...leastways that's what I  was doing today.

The build up at the base of the mounds also acts as a moisture sponge and it's clear that my army of garden worms appreciate both the environment around the terracotta pots embedded in  each mound and the sponges at the base of each hillock.

So there: I seem to be captured by this option and it has more background and more potential than I originally thought..

My mounds.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 24, 2015 at 12:49

Heavy rains eroding? No. Not only do the plant roots hold the embankments together but the mulch and plant leaves protect the mound. If the mounds were bigger you'd get erosion channels, I'm sure -- but at a manageable size -- say a 1 to 1.3 metre diameter -- you aren't building Uluru.

I'm also exploring dense planting...and of course, my mounds are polycultured. At least that's the theory. I'm experimenting with planting different vegetables at different contours

Now that the Bush Turkey has dug into my potato mounds (no doubt after the garden worms that rendezvous around the terracotta pots) I do have exposed dirt and fissures but I'm in the process of digging up the valleys or pathsways and spading the dirt back up the hills.  I'm also on sandy soil so rain drops do tend to filter through rather than run off the surface.

I do get settling. When you build the mound and make the volcano flu for the pot I don't pack down the surface like we used to do with sand castles.So the dome drops a wee bit in my sand as the fluff up settles.

That's no big deal.

But this rig wouldn't work without the pot system. No irrigation and you'd get gradual dry out from the top down. The other advantage is that the pot lids are closer to you and are easier to access because of their elevation rather than being on flat ground.

In the Melanesian system of mound gardening each year the mounds are leveled and rebuilt for each new season. In that approach the new build uses the nearby soil and bits and pieces of collected compostable materials as a recipe for the build.This enables several annual plantings of sweet potatoes in the same spot without exhausting the soil.

I've built ridges atop some large cut tree trunks -- in Hegulkultur  fashion -- but i can imaging you could embed lot's of different materials inside the hillock. Dead animals for instance. Would-be Egyptian Pharaohs...a tasty soft centre stiffing of cow manure: like a Caramello.

In the Melanesian example the mounds --which are quite large -- have plenty of aggregate which not only generates composting in situ (as Hegulkultur does) and act as water sponges, but the mix withstands the torrential tropical downpours.

A heavy soil without a protective mulch covering would no doubt suffer under conditions of deluge.

Comment by Lissa on June 24, 2015 at 5:40

Any problems with heavy rains washing the mounds down?

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