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I have a yard this year for the first time and I'm attempting various methods of building beds. For my first bed, I used double digging. But that was an insane amount of work and I'm not all that happy with the bed that resulted. I've been reading a lot of permaculture literature and they all suggest gradual bed construction through sheet mulching.

But I don't have that much organic matter readily available to me. About the only organic matter I have is a giant brush pile from a serious shrub trimming. The pile includes an entire box shrub, as well as trimmings of box shrub and yew. It also includes a large quantity of soft needle pine and tulip popular branches that came down in a storm.

I know pretty much all parts of a yew tree are toxic. Will that prevent it from working well in a hugelkultur? Will the toxin degrade or will it keep the yew from rotting and/or poison my soil microbes? Are there any woods that shouldn't be used for hugelkultur?

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I had to look up hugelkultur. That page recommends against cedar which makes sense. I would also expect you'll get a lot of funghi & mushrooms? Normally I would chop wood up for quicker composting, but this seems to work on a slow composting approach. – winwaed Jun 12 '11 at 16:09
Great link. Yeah, I've got some locust, but it seems the only problem with that is that it is slow to rot. I'm okay with that. I've got a lot of pine which he said might have some tannins, I'm gonna just see what happens with that. Looks like the rest of it should be fine. The fungi is part of the benefit of it, healthy mycelial culture ;) And yeah, the idea is gradual rot and consistent feeding. I don't have access to a woodchipper, so this is sort of doing the best with what's available to me. – Daniel Bingham Jun 12 '11 at 16:17
It's important to remember that something toxic to one species may be non-toxic to another, and the form of exposure matters too. What's toxic to plants (eg some woods with allelopathic qualities) may not be toxic to people at all, and vice versa. This means it could be somewhat misleading to say "all parts of a yew tree are toxic" without indicating whether it's toxic to people, or plants, or both. – Highly Irregular Apr 17 '12 at 22:35
Are you concerned that yew might interfere with the composting process, or that the toxins in yew might be taken up in to plants that you intend to eat? – Jay Bazuzi Jun 16 '12 at 2:24
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Here are some notes on hugelkultur that mention woods you may want to avoid:

Woods to avoid or at least be aware of, see above for details:

  • cedar
  • camphor wood
  • black locust
  • black cherry
  • black walnut
  • pine
  • fir

There is some question about whether the toxins in the wood will break down and if so how long it takes.

I haven't seen yew specifically mentioned, but this thread raises similar concerns to yours. The bottom answer addresses this problem credibly, discussing the primary toxin taxane, and that it's unlikely to cause problems for plants.

You might experiment with your yew trimmings and see how it goes. I'd love to see an update here in a year's time...

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Yeah, I'll experiment and see what happens. A lot of what I have is smaller and brushy. I don't have a whole lot of big logs and those are mostly around the borders. So we'll see. – Daniel Bingham Jun 13 '11 at 1:55

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