Keeping as much water on your land and in your soil as possible.

I'm enjoying the sound of a storm and grinning with contentment as I think about the amount of water that will stay on our land and in our soil.  One of our primary goals is to capture rainwater and keep it in the soil for as long as possible.

So, how much rain can easily be accumulated?  1 inch of rain falling on 1000 square feet of roof generates 600 gallons of water.   Think about all of the roof space you have on your home, garage, sheds, barns etc.  That's an incredible amount of water that can be directed into catchment ponds, into your gardens, into swales or ditches and the list just keeps on going.  I approach every slope, hillside and curve of the land with this in mind.

Even on a microscale, we put in swales (ditches) on slopes just above plants.  These will catch runoff and allow the water to slowly seep down and deeply soak the plant(s) below.  During a drought, we simply fill up these swales and let gravity take care of the rest.  Below is a picture of a string of native hazelnut bushes that we transplanted.  Each plant got a personal swale making it quick & easy to keep them deeply watered as they get acclimated to their new home. 

 

On a larger scale, we configured our orchard gardens to slow down the runoff and capture as much as possible.  We stood at the far end of the orchard, which is the highest point and poured a 5 gallon bucket of water down each row.  With flag markers, we marked the natural flow down this hillside.  Sculpting the permanent raised beds to block and slow down this flow of water, allows the beds to capture and store this runoff for plant use.  This approach has lowered our need to irrigate dramatically.  I also think it makes for a much prettier and interesting garden.

Once we began capturing water, we always look at the landscape with that in mind.  In some of our gardens, we built hugelkulturs.  This is nothing new; actually these have been recorded as far back as the 1400s.  A large ditch is dug several feet deep.  It is filled with wood aka limbs, roots, trunks and then covered with branches and twigs, bringing the mound several feet into the air.  That is covered with sod (grass side down), compost, and soil then immediately planted and mulched.  My initial planting contained lots of peas & beans since decaying wood is a nitrogen sink, so I needed to replace that nitrogen and legumes do the trick.  

Wood holds 100X it's weight in water; it is literally a sponge for roots to drink from as well as a source of nutrients.   Other than keeping freshly planted seeds damp, no additional watering is needed.

Freshly built and planted hugelkultur

2 months after seeding, we have one happy mound of plants.

2 months after seeding, we have one happy mound of plants.

Taking this even further, we configured a 10 acre hillside with terraces designed to not only capture as much rain & runoff as possible, but to ensure that every plant will be slow watered with only 1 hour of our time invested in the watering process.  Think about that - we irrigate 10 acres and only spend 1 hour doing it.

Each terrace is 15' wide and there are 18' between each.  Close to the  edge of each terrace, a 12" deep and 8" wide swale was dug.  The dirt that was removed, was used to build a berm on the edge, easing the transition to the slope below.  The top of the berms were planted with brambles and the slopes hold fruit trees, berries and intensive guilds.  Water is pumped from a catchment pond at the bottom of the surrounding hills and all of the swales are filled in less than 1 hour.  It takes days for this water to slowly seep into the adjoining slopes, thus deeply watering all of the plants. 

This image was taken at the beginnings of the earthworks.  You can see the level portion of the terraces and the runoff pond at the base.

This image was taken at the beginnings of the earthworks.  You can see the level portion of the terraces and the runoff pond at the base.

Swales were dug near the edge and the soil was mounded up on the outer edge.

The berms were planted with brambles on the top, followed by fruit trees, berries and guilds.  The swales were filled with water to deeply soak the newly planted berms.  Everything was then deeply mulched with straw.

The berms were planted with brambles on the top, followed by fruit trees, berries and guilds.  The swales were filled with water to deeply soak the newly planted berms.  Everything was then deeply mulched with straw.

Bottom catchment pond surrounded by brambles and berries

We just couldn't help ourselves and dug a massive swale and built an extraordinary hugelkultur that runs almost a 1/2 mile long.  This will take us some time to cover with sod, compost and soil, but we're steadily broadcasting pea & clover seeds.  There's no limit to the application of water conservation and we're just getting started.  

If you haven't tried to direct water flow, it is incredibly fast and easy, whether it's to fill a pond/swale or to  encourage it to vacate an area.  Only an inch deep channel is needed to move water out from a standing puddle.  I simply use the corner of a hoe and create a roadway for this.  Pay close attention to the natural movement of your land and Mother Nature will show you the path of least resistance.  

Lastly, when capturing and directing water make absolutely certain the you plan for a flood.  In Southern VA, spring will always bring us inches of rain in a short period of time.  If you plan to capture a lot or even a little water, always plan and include an escape route.  With heavy rains, water may top your ponds and swales.  You have to give it a path to elsewhere or water will make its own escape route and it will collapse your hard work and good intentions.  On smaller swales, I simply curve both ends downward to an area that will easily wisk it away from all of my planting.  With bigger swales, you have to take time to observe your options and direct the overflow to a natural waterway to feed surrounding creeks or seasonal catchments. We installed several shallow "frog  ponds". for this overflow; the frog ponds have overflow channels as well.  

Careful planning about keeping water in your soil for as long as possible makes an enormous difference in the amount of time and money needed for irrigation.  Take some time after a good rain and walk about.  Your soil will show you where water wants to stand and where it will rush off.  That is how a good plan begins. 

Cheers to great growing~
Marianne

 

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