Swales and Basins in Action!

img_0685This week here in Fallbrook, CA, at Finch Frolic Garden we received almost three inches of rain in 18 hours. Our storm pattern is changing so that there are fewer rain events, but when it rains, it really rains. img_0688For many this was a flood. Precious rainwater is channeled away from properties and into the street. In permaculture gardens the water is harvested in the earth with simple earthworks such as swales (level-bottomed ditches) and rain catchment basins.

Visitors have often expressed their desire to see the earthworks in action, so I took my camera out into the food forest. img_0691That was when the rain gauge was at about two and three quarters, with more to come. (I wanted to photograph the garden after the storm had passed but my camera refused to turn on due to the indignity of having been wet. A couple of nights in a bag of rice did it wonders.)img_0692

Please excuse the unsteady camerawork, and my oilskin sleeve and dripping hand making cameo appearances in the film. I was using my hand to shield the lens from the rain.

Irrigation for Drylands, Part 3: Designing Your System

Google Maps view of property lines.

Google Maps view of property lines.

Before you start buying pipe, make your design.  If you are new to the property, evaluate the plants and features that exist and decide if you really want them or not.  Use the ‘three positives’ rule in permaculture: everything in your yard should give you at least three positive things.  For instance, you have a eucalyptus tree.  It gives great shade, it is a great roost for larger birds which keep down your mice and rats, it drops lots of leaves for  mulch, etc.  On the ‘negative’ side, they are really thirsty and they send their roots out in search of water.  They will go to the nearest irrigation and drink from there, robbing water from the tree you are trying to water.  They are also allelopathic, meaning that they produce a substance that discourages many other plants from growing, or growing successfully, under or near them.  Their root mass is so thick close to the surface that very few plants can survive.  If planted in the wrong spot they will block views, hang over the house, drop those leaves, peels of bark and depending upon the species, heavy branches, where you don’t want them, get into overhead wires or underground leach lines, etc. They don’t make good firewood or building material, and are highly flammable. How does the tree weigh in?  Usually eucalyptus are all negatives in my book.  Only if they are providing the only shade and bird perches for a property are they useful.  Even then I recommend pollarding them (reducing their height) and trying to ‘nursery in’ other better trees to take their place.  Cut trees then should be buried, as in hugelkultur.   So evaluate what you have using the three positives rule and don’t be too sentimental if you don’t like something.  Do you like them?  If not, cut them and bury them to fertilize plants that will serve you, and yes, aesthetics is very much a plus.  If you love a particular plant, then if its possible, plant it.

If you have a property that is a blank slate, your irrigation diagram will follow your plant design.  If you have an existing landscape, as I had, you need to map out where all the trees and groupings of plants are, what their water needs are and keep in mind the way water runs past these plants when you do.  Use Google Maps.  Type in your address, find your home and zero in on it until you can clearly see the boundries of your property.

At the bottom right hand corner of the screen is the key that show how many feet are in a measurement. This line may not always equal an inch, so measure it!

At the bottom right hand corner of the screen is the key that show how many feet are in a measurement. This line may not always equal an inch, so measure it!

At the lower right Google shows you a key for distance.  There is a line with a number above it.  This shows you how many feet are represented by that length.  Don’t assume that the line is one inch!  The line will adjust, so put a ruler up to the screen and measure it.  I zoom out until the line is an inch long, and take that number; its just easier to compute distances using an inch rather than a fraction.  You can print that diagram of your property line, which will show you which way your house sits on the property.

Satellite view of Finch Frolic Garden. This helps to map groupings of vegetation.

Satellite view of Finch Frolic Garden. This helps to map groupings of vegetation.

I have a PC, so I press the PrntScr (print screen) key, paste it onto a paint.net screen, crop off the extra bits and print that.  Now you have something to work with.  I double or triple the size of the drawing onto a larger sheet; this can be done easily with a ruler, using the printed sheet to guide your angles.

A projected irrigation plan for Finch Frolic Garden. What you actually put in may differ.

A projected irrigation plan for Finch Frolic Garden. What you actually put in may differ.

Make a couple of copies of this template, and then use one to start drawing.

When you have the plants down on paper, then start with the irrigation.  Determine where your water main is, and where any valves and hose bibs are around your house.  If you only have domestic water to choose from, you’ll be coming from a domestic line.

Fifteen to twenty sprayers are good per valve.  I’m not talking about high-pressure nozzles that shoot water all over the place; these you want to eliminate. Most of that water is evaporated.

The sprinklers that we installed have a spray of up to 4 feet, and can be reduced down to a drizzle.

These are what we installed here: IMG_0080

IMG_0078

The 3/4″ T was glued in facing sideways rather than straight up.  A black Street 90 and a white Street 90 were screwed into the T, firmly but with enough leeway to turn if pushed.  Black ones don’t need pipe tape because they are soft and self-seal.   The risers (nipples) are 6″, and were taped at both ends before screwing into the Street 90.  (You don’t put the heads on yet because you’ll want to ‘blow’ out your system with water to clean the pipes beforehand. )

These risers can bend!

These risers can bend!

With this configuration the risers are resistant to damage from being kicked, from having 100-lb. tortoises crawling over them, etc.

Gamera enjoying the movable sprinklers.

Gamera enjoying the movable sprinklers.

They can be moved in all directions so that you can deliver water closer to small rooted new plants, then move them away as the root ball grows.  If you have the assembly ready when you glue in the T, then you won’t have to struggle to screw it on.  Ends will have a slip/thread elbow glued sideways with the same assembly.

There are lots of sprinkler heads out there.  These sprayers have threaded ends rather than barbed, so that they stay in place rather than be blown off.  These are 360 degree sprayers; you can obtain threaded sprayers for 180 and 90 degree, and probably other configurations as well.

A 180 degree head. Notice all the white? That is mineral deposit, and the sprinkler has run only about 10 -15 times.

A 180 degree head. Notice all the white? That is mineral deposit, and the sprinkler has run only about 10 -15 times.

Don’t forget the filter.  A filter in every head saves you a lot of grief with plugged heads and poor irrigation down the line.  They are easy to clean.

Next post: Concluding the project.

You can read Part 1 Options here, Part 2 Evaluating Your System here, and Part 4 Conclusion here.

Irrigation for Drylands, Part 1: Options

This tubing is so easily nicked that weeding around it often results in a bad leak that isn't detected for awhile. Leaks cause flooding with dry areas past them on the line.

This tubing is so easily nicked that weeding around it often results in a bad leak that isn’t detected for awhile. Leaks cause flooding with dry areas past them on the line.

A previous draft of this post was about 2,000 words of mostly rant against Netafim, so I’m starting over trying to be more helpful.  You’re welcome.

In Southern California, and many dryland areas, if you are to grow food crops you have to irrigate.  I have met several people who believe that they can ‘dry farm’ crops such as grapes here, and that is problematic.  Even in Central California where they receive many inches more rain than we do, farmers struggle in the long hot, dry summers.

There are many ways to water, and I’ll address as many as I can.

The first and most important step for irrigating your property is installing the earthworks that will harvest what rain we do receive and allow it to percolate into the soil.  Paring that with burying wood and other organic material to hold that water, planting in shallow depressions rather than on raised mounds and sheet mulching will greatly increase the health of your plants and decrease your water bill.

For delivering captured or purchased water you’ll need some kind of tubing and a force to deliver the water.  We’ll discuss the natural methods first:

Ollas (oy-ahs) should have a lid or stone or something to block the top, to keep creatures from falling in and drowning. Photo from link page.

For small yards, or for orchards with lots of labor, burying ollas (porous clay pots) in the center of a planting area is a wonderful idea. There is a really good article with diagrams and suggestions here. You can manually fill the ollas by carrying water to them (the best would be from rain barrels), or dragging a hose around to fill them. Or they can be combined with a water delivery system of pipes as discussed below.  Water is then drawn through the porous pots by the dry soil around them, and thus to plant roots. There is a tutorial about making inexpensive ollas from small clay pots, and interesting comments, here.  There are problems, but then, there are problems with everything.  Clay pots can break, especially if you have soil that freezes or foot traffic.  A larger pot doesn’t mean that water will be delivered farther underground; absorption is based on soil density.  This is a system that you need to monitor and replace periodically.  On the plus side, clay is natural and will decompose in the soil.  Many years ago, long before I ‘discovered’ permaculture, I buried gallon milk jugs in which I punched small holes by some trees beyond any irrigation pipes.  I didn’t know about ollas then; I just thought it was a good idea to get water close to the roots of the plants.  This really worked and those trees are mature and still exist almost thirty years later, and still don’t have irrigation to them.  However, I found that the plastic milk jugs become brittle and break apart, as will plastic soda bottles, and you really don’t want to bury plastic.  Clay is much better.

Clay pipe photo from Permanomades. Please follow link to website. These look very large, but are not.

Next would be delivering water via some kind of pipe.  Clay pipes are the most natural, but unless you have the clay, the labor and the time to create lots of long, hollow clay pipes, this is a pricey option.  Clay pipes break easily, too.

Split bamboo delivers water downhill. Photo from link page.

If you have lots of bamboo you can season it, split it, remove the nodes (partitions) and then mount it to deliver water to individual plants, to ollas, or to swales.  Again, you need time, bamboo, labor and some expertise.  There is a good article about it here.

Plastic:

There are a lot of plastic pipes out there, and although I hate to invest in more plastic, it is often a necessary evil.  Drip irrigation comes in many forms.  There are bendable tubes that ooze, tubes that have holes spaced usually 12″ or 24″, tubes that can be punctured and into which spray heads are inserted, and tubes which can support spaghetti strands that are staked out next to individual plants.  The popularity of drip irrigation has been huge in water-saving communities.  Unfortunately they have lots of problems.  Here I’ll indulge in just a little rant, but only as an illustration.

One of the big problems with flexible tubing in arid areas is the high mineral content of the water and what it does to these tubes.  Any holes -including those in small spray heads- will become clogged with minerals.

A nozzle that is clogged next to a hole that is not.

A nozzle that is clogged next to a hole that is not.

Flushing the system with vinegar works for a short time, but eventually the minerals win.  If the tubing is buried, then it is virtually impossible to discover the blocked holes until plants begin to die.  Tubing above ground becomes scorched in the sun and breaks down.

Also, flexible tubing is extremely chewy and fun with a little drink treat as a reward.

Coyotes and many other animals find flexible pipe so fun to chew.

Coyotes and many other animals find flexible pipe so fun to chew.

This is the opinion of gophers (who will chew them up below ground and you won’t know unless you find a flood or… you guessed it… dying plants), coyotes (who will dig the lines up even if there is an easier water source, because tubing is fun in the mouth), rats (because they are rats), and many other creatures.  Eventually a buried flexible system will be overgrown by plant roots, will kink, will clog, will nick (and some products such as Netafim seem to nick if you even wave a trowel near it), and will be chewed.  Some plants will be flooded; others will dry up.  You will have an unending treasure hunt of finding buried tubing and trying to fix it, or sticking a knife point into the emitter holes to open them up and then having too much water spray out.

Plus, drip irrigation is not good for most landscape plants.  Most woody perennials love a good deep drink down by their roots, and then let go dry for a varying time depending upon the species, weather and soil type.  Most native California plants hate drip irrigation.  According to Greg Rubin, co-author along with Lucy Warren of The California Native Landscape (Timber Press; March 5, 2013) and a San Diego native landscaper, native plants here enjoy an overhead spray such as what a rain storm would deliver.  Some natives such as Flannel Bush (Fremontia) die with summer irrigation and are especially intolerant of drip.  Drip is most appropriate with annuals or perennials that have very small root bases and that require regular watering.  Small root balls are closer to the hot surface and will dry up more quickly.  Vegetables, most herbs and bedding plants can use drip.  Plants that have fuzzy leaves that can easily catch an air-born fungal disease such as powdery mildew are better watered close to the ground rather than with an overhead spray of chlorinated water.

Then there is PVC, the hard, barely flexible pipe that is ubiquitous in landscaping for decades.  PVC is hard to chew, can be buried or left on the surface if covered with mulch (to protect from UV rays), is available in a UV protected version if you want to spend the extra money and still give it some sun protection, utilizes risers with larger diameter water deliver systems such as spray heads, bubblers, and even drip conversion emitters that have multiple black spaghetti strands emerging from them like some odd spider.

At Finch Frolic Garden I had taken advice to install Netafim, a brown flexible tubing with perforations set 12″ apart, which was buried across the property from each valve box.  It has been a living nightmare for most of that time.  Besides all the reasons that it could fail (it did all of them) listed above, it also at its best delivered the same amount of water to all of the plants no matter what their water needs.  It was looped around most trees so that the trees would receive more water, but since then roots have engulfed the tubing, cutting off the water flow.  There are areas with mysterious flooding where we can’t trace the source without killing many mature plants.

Over the past year we’ve lost about 1/4 of our plants including most of our vegetables, because we plant where there should be water, and then mysteriously, there isn’t any.  Flushing with vinegar helped a little, but whatever holes are still functioning are closing up with mineral deposits.  Okay, I’m ranting too much here.  But this was an expensive investment, and an investment in plastic, that has stressed me and my garden. So upon weighing all my alternatives I’ve decided to install above-ground PVC with heads on risers that either spray or dribble, and the dribblers will go into fishscale swales above plants.

Twenty-foot lengths of PVC can fit in the Frolicmobile, and sure beats carrying it down the property.

Twenty-foot lengths of PVC can fit in the Frolicmobile, and sure beats carrying it down the property.

In the next few posts in this series I will talk about how to draw up an irrigation plan, installation, valves and other watering options, as Miranda and I spend our very hot summer days crawling through rose bushes and around trees gluing, cutting, blowing out and adjusting irrigation.  Thanks for letting me vent.

You can read  Part 2 Evaluating Your System here,  Designing Your System Part 3 here , and Part 4 Conclusion here.

Year of the Gopher

They'll eat tasty above-ground plants, too.

They’ll eat tasty above-ground plants, too.

This year should have been dubbed The Year of the Gopher.  Every year brings an increase (and decrease) in some element in nature.  There are big earwig years, painted bug years, cabbage moth years, just as there seem to be good and bad years for certain crops.  This year seems to be a big one for gophers.

Pocket gophers are native to Southern California, and have their special roles to play in the landscape. They aerate, their tunnels are homes to lots of other animals and insects such as Pacific Chorus frogs, toads and lizards.  They are food for snakes, raptors and even greater egrets.  Their tunnels allow rainwater to penetrate the soil.  And, like any of us, if offered really tasty specialty food they’ll go for it.

Cute little guy.

Cute little guy.

Gopher tunnels are prime real estate.  As explained in a past post, it takes a considerable amount of energy for gophers to dig tunnels, and if you kill them, new gophers reoccupy the tunnels from surrounding property.  They are territorial and so the young are always looking for opportunities to have their own tunnel system.

Methods we’ve been using to train our gophers have been challenged this year by the desperation of our gophers, caused no doubt by the changing weather and growth patterns.  In our kitchen garden we’ve lost a lot of veggies this spring.

We don’t trap and kill here, so we work with animals because this is their home and habitat.  Permaculture isn’t about taking over an area to the loss of everything that usually lives there, its about working with nature and learning from it.  So the reason our kitchen garden has been attacked is that we didn’t prepare well enough to live with the gophers.  The only way to keep plants safe is to have boundaries around root balls.  Trees we plant in gopher cages, but vegetables -not so much.

So Miranda and I decided to bury 24″ tall 1/4″ wire around the garden.

The north side oddly revealed no gopher tunnels.

The north side oddly revealed no gopher tunnels.

These tasks always sound so easy!  Trenching through clay in the heat of early summer has been a challenge.  Gopher tunnels dug for food collection are within the first 18″ of dirt, and their nests are down to about 24″.

Gopher nesting material about nine inches under the ground. This is in such hard dirt that I have to use a pick on it.

Gopher nesting material about nine inches under the ground. This is in such hard dirt that I have to use a pick on it.

We pulled back sheet mulch on the pathways and found incredible fungal activity, loads of worms and moisture.

Peeling back sheet mulch that was only six months old showed lots of fungal activity already.

Peeling back sheet mulch that was only six months old showed lots of fungal activity already.

Newspaper being consumed by fungus and turned into soil.

Newspaper being consumed by fungus and turned into soil.

A great lump of fungal hyphae, if I may say so myself.

A great lump of fungal hyphae, if I may say so myself.

While trenching we found gopher tunnels into the garden, and often would find dirt in the trench under the holes as the gopher backfilled, trying to make a new dirt tunnel across the channel.

The east side we thought would be the most difficult, with the dirt rock-hard at the corner. We thought that until we began the fourth trench. Yikes!

The east side we thought would be the most difficult, with the dirt rock-hard at the corner. We thought that until we began the fourth trench. Yikes!

 

Along one active area I buried the wire, but also wanted to retard the invasion of Bermuda grass.  Along with the wire I buried a couple of pieces of scrap 3/4″ plywood to make a physical boundry for the grass, and these happen to be right where a gopher tunnel  was.  The next morning I was in the garden and I heard a strange thumping sound, and finally realized that it was coming from underground where the wood was buried.  The gopher was trying to get through the new wooden fence and wire!

We’ve buried wire around three sides (40′ long by 20 – 24″ deep), and are slaving away at the last trench where the most gopher activity is.

Burying the wire, shoving some rotten fruit into the gopher tunnel entrances and refilling.

Burying the wire, shoving some rotten fruit into the gopher tunnel entrances and refilling.

As we’re working, we’re also using a spade to collapse gopher tunnels from the back out, and using the smucky water (this batch is made from onion peels and bits leftover from pickling whole onions) to ruin those tunnels.  We’re herding the gopher out of the garden and fertilizing at the same time.

We’ve a couple more bouts left to go before finishing; my partially numb hands are ready to be done with it.  Narrow trenches in heavy clay right next to a fence aren’t easy to work in, which slows the process down a lot.  Knowing that we’re being true to what we believe in, to not trap and kill in our garden, makes it all worth the work.  The gopher is welcome to all the weed roots it wants elsewhere.

Polyculture In A Veggie Bed

7-22-13 106Polyculture is, obviously, the opposite of monoculture, but in permaculture (a lot of -cultures here) it means more than that.  The best way to plant in polyculture is to follow the guidelines for a plant guild .  A plant guild is how plants arrange themselves in nature so that each fulfills a niche.  The variety of plants aren’t competing for the same nutrients and are delivering something other plants need; i.e. shade, nutrients, root exudates, leaf drop, soil in-roads via deep tap roots, etc.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.

By burying sticks in planting holes you are helping feed the soil and hold water.

 

When planting veggies here at Finch Frolic Garden I often mix up a handful of vegetable, herb and flower seeds that fulfill the plant guild guidelines and plant them all in one area.  They come up in a mix of heights, colors, shapes and scents to fool bugs.  The result is like a miniature forest.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

A merry mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers in a mature bed.

However that sort of wild designed planting has its drawbacks.  Harvesting is more time consuming (although more fun, like a treasure-hunt).  Many people find peace in looking at rows of vegetables, and peace is valuable.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

We disturb the soil as little as possible, and pull the soil back for potatoes.

You can plant polyculture in rows as well.  Just plant each row with a different member of the plant guild, and you’ll achieve a similar effect with insect confusion, and with nutrient conservation.

In this small, slightly sunken bed (we are in drylands so we plant concave to catch water), we planted rows of three kinds of potatoes, two kinds of shallots, a row each of bush beans, fava beans, parsnips, radish and carrots.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

Miranda planting potatoes and shallots before the smaller seeds go in.

We covered the bed with a light mulch made from dried dwarf cattail stems.  This sat lightly on the soil and yet allowed light and water penetration, giving the seedlings protection from birds and larger bugs.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

This light, dry mulch worked perfectly. Since cattails are a water plant, there are no worries about it reseeding in the bed.

The garden a couple months later.  Because we had a warm and rainless February (usually our wettest month), our brassicas headed up rather than produced roots and only a few parsnips and carrots germinated.  However our nitrogen-fixing favas and beans are great, our ‘mining’ potatoes are doing beautifully and the shallots are filling out well.IMG_8621

Every plant accumulates nutrition from the air and soil, and when that plant dies it delivers that nutrition to the topsoil.  In the case of roots, when they die it is immediate hugelkultur. Without humans, plants drop leaves, fruit and seeds on the ground, where animals will nibble on them or haul them away but leave juice, shells and poo behind.  When the plant dies, it dies in place and gives back to the topsoil. When we harvest from a plant we are removing that much nutrition from the soil.  So when the plants are through producing, we cut the plants at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground, and add the tops back to the soil.  By burying kitchen scraps in vegetable beds you are adding back the sugars and other nutrients you’ve taken away with the harvest.  It becomes a worm feast.  Depending upon your climate and how warm your soil is, the scraps will take different lengths of time to decompose.  Here in San Diego, a handful of food scraps buried in January is just about gone by February.  No fertilizer needed!

 

Using Pathways For Rain Catchment

Here in the drylands of San Diego we need to be especially sure to catch whatever rain may fall. Building good soil is vital for the entire planet because humans are going through decent topsoil like nobody’s business.  Here at Finch Frolic Garden we’ve sheet mulched around trees to replicate decades of leaf drop, and on pathways to block weeds, prevent compaction and create good soil for shallow plant roots.  We’ve also continued making our pathways work more for us by burying wood (hugelkultur) in the paths themselves.  Most of our soil here is heavy clay, so creating drainage for roots is imperative. In sandy soils, creating more fungal activity to hold together the particles to retain water is important. We also need to store rain water when we get it, but not drown the roots of plants. This all can be accomplished by burying wood, the older the better.

Miranda and I have worked on many pathways, but for a few months this year the garden was given a huge boost forward with the help of Noel, a permaculture student and future farmer, who can move mountains in an afternoon with just a shovel.

The chosen pathways had these features: they were perpendicular to water flow, or were between trees that needed supplemental drainage, food and water access, and/or were where rainwater could be redirected.  Eventually we’d like to do all the pathways like this but because of time, labor and materials we worked where it was most needed.

An area that becomes flooded when we have a deluge.

An area that becomes flooded when we have a deluge.

The existing sheet mulch was pulled aside.  Sections of the pathways were dug up (Noel’s work was very neat; my work is usually much less so).  Wood was laid in the hole, and layered back with the dirt.

The pathway dug up and wood being layered. The nice, neat hole is Noel's doing, not mine.

The pathway dug up and wood being layered. The nice, neat hole is Noel’s doing, not mine.

Notice I said dirt, not soil.  We don’t want to disturb good soil because we’d be killing microbes and destroying fungal networks.  Dirt is another story; it needs amendment.  As we’ve already buried all of our old wood, we timed these pathway ‘hugels’ to coincide with some appropriate tree removal.

You can be creative when cutting trees and make a chair! Watch out for sap on your pants, though.

You can be creative when cutting trees and make a chair! Watch out for sap on your pants, though.

Trees were cut down and some climbing roses pruned back out of the pathway, and the green ‘waste’ was used in the nearby pathways.

This euphorbia was only sucking up water and not giving back anything, so it and its friends had to go. This one had a marking like an eye on it, and I was glad to see it go... as it was seeing me!

This euphorbia was only sucking up water and not giving back anything, so it and its friends had to go. This one had a marking like an eye on it, and I was glad to see it go… as it was seeing me!

Old palm fronds went in as well.  No need to create additional work – good planning means stacking functions and saving labor.

The first layer of wood is covered with dirt, and then another layer added.

The first layer of wood is covered with dirt, and then another layer added.

After the wood was layered back with the dirt, the area was newly sheet mulched.  Although the pathways are slightly higher, after another good rain (whenever that will happen) they’ll sink down and be level.  They are certainly walkable and drivable as is.  Although the wood is green, it isn’t in direct contact with plant roots so there won’t be a nitrogen exchange as it ages.  When it does age it will become a sponge for rainwater and fantastic food for a huge section of the underground food chain, members of which create good soil which then feeds the surrounding plants.  Tree roots will head towards these pantries under the paths for food.  Rain overflow that normally puddles in these areas will penetrate the soil and soak in, even before the wood ages because of the air pockets around the organic material.

The best part about this, is that once it is done you don’t have to do it again in that place.  Let the soil microbes take it from there.  Every time you have extra wood or cuttings, dig a hole and bury it.  You’ve just repurposed green waste, kept organics out of the landfill, activated your soil, fed your plants, gave an important purpose to the clearing of unwanted green material, and made your labor extremely valuable for years to come.  Oh, and took a little exercise as well.  Gardening and dancing are the two top exercises for keeping away dementia, so dig those hugels and then dance on them!

Burying wood and other organic materials (anything that breaks down into various components) is what nature does, only nature has a different time schedule than humans do.  It takes sometimes hundreds of years for a fallen tree to decompose enough to create soil.  That’s great because so many creatures need that decomposing wood.  However for our purposes, and to help fix the unbelievable damage we’ve done to the earth by scraping away, poisoning and otherwise depleting the topsoil, burying wood hastens soil reparation for use in our timeline.

Another pathway is hard clay and isn’t on the top of my priority list to use for burying wood.  However it does repel water due to compaction and because rainwater is so valuable I want to make this pathway work for me by catching rain.  I’ve recommended to clients to turn their pathways into walkable (or even driveable) rain catchment areas by digging level-bottomed swales.

Digging gentle swales along a pathway can turn it into a rain catchment system. Make your paths work for you!

Digging gentle swales along a pathway can turn it into a rain catchment system. Make your paths work for you!

A swale is a ditch with a level bottom to harvest water rather than channel water.  However many pathways are on slopes or are uneven.  So instead of trying to make the whole pathway a swale in an established garden, just look at the pathway and identify areas where the land has portions of level areas.  Then dig slight swales in those pathways. Don’t dig deeply, you only have to gently shape the pathway into a concave shape with a level bottom.  The swales don’t need to connect.  You can cover the pathway and swales with bark mulch and they will still function for harvesting rain and still be walkable.

Mulching over the top makes the pathway even and still functional for rain catchment.

Mulching over the top makes the pathway even and still functional for rain catchment.

If the pathways transect a very steep slope, you don’t want to harvest too much water on them so as not to undermine the integrity of your slope.  This is a swale calculator if you have a large property on a steep slope.

So up-value your pathways by hugelkulturing them, and sheet-mulching on top.  Whatever your soil, adding organics and mulching are the two best things to do to save water and build soil.  And save the planet, so good going!

Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture

3-26-13 009When set in motion the many parts of a plant guild  will create a self-sustaining cycle of nutrition and water.  By understanding the guild template and what plants fit where, we can plug in plants that fulfill those roles and also provide for us food, building materials, fuel and medicine as well as beauty.

Plant the appropriate plants for where you are placing them, for your soil and water use, and stack them in a guild with compatible plants that you can use.  The ground will be covered by a foliar density that will keep grasses and other weeds at bay and provide excellent habitat for a full range of animals and insects.  By stacking plants in a guild you are bringing life and abundance back to your garden.

Does it still sound so complicated?  Rather than try to learn the roles of all the plants in the world, start small.  Make a list of all the plants you want to plant.  List them under food bearing, culinary/medicinal herb, craft/building material, and ornamental.  Then read up on those plants.  What size are they at maturity?  Do they need full sun, partial or full shade?  If trees, do they have an upright growth so you may plant under them (stonefruit), or do they like to have their roots covered and don’t like plants directly under them (citrus and avocado)?

Citrus doesn't like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Citrus doesn’t like plants under its canopy, but does like plants outside its dripline.

Are they annuals, perennials or biennials? What is their growth habit: sprawling, rooting where they spread, upright bushy, do they need support and can they cling or do they need to be tied to a support?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Will the plant twine on its own?

Do they require digging up to harvest?  Do they fix nitrogen in the soil?  Do they drop leaves or are they evergreen?  Are they fragrant?  When are their bloom times?  Fruiting times?  Are they cold tolerant or do they need chill hours?  How much water do they need?  What are their companion plants (there are many guides for this online, or in books on companion planting.)

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

Do vines or canes need to be tied to supports?

As you are acquainting yourself with your plants, you can add to their categorization, and shift them into the parts of a plant guild.  Yes, many plants will be under more than one category… great!  Fit them into the template under only one category, because diversity in the guild is very important.

Draw your guilds with their plants identified out on paper  before you begin to purchase plants.  Decide where the best location for each is on your  property.  Tropical plants that are thirsty and don’t have cold tolerance should go in well-draining areas towards the top or middle of your property where they can be easily watered.  Plants that need or can tolerate a chill should go where the cold will settle.

Once it is on paper, then start planting.  You don’t have to plant all the guilds at once… do it as you have time and money for it.  Trees should come first.  Bury wood to nutrify the soil in your beds, and don’t forget to sheet mulch.

Remember that in permaculture, a garden is 99% design and 1% labor.  If you think buying the plants first and getting them in the ground without planning is going to save you time and money, think again.  You are gambling, and will be disappointed.

Have fun with your plant guilds, and see how miraculous these combinations of plants work.  When you go hiking, look at how undisturbed native plants grow and try to identify their components in nature’s plant guild.  Guilds are really the only way to grow without chemicals, inexpensively and in a way that builds soil and habitat.

You can find the rest of the 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries .

Podcasts with Diane Kennedy

Two podcasts with me talking about permaculture, Finch Frolic Garden, and how you can save money and the world through gardening! 🙂 Please let me know what you think:

This is a podcast with Sheri Menelli of earthfriendlyhomeowner.com, where I talk pretty much without a pause for breath for about the first ten minutes.  Recorded in May, 2015.

Ep7: Interview with Diane Kennedy of Finch Frolic Gardens and Vegetariat.com

This is a podcast with Greg Peterson of Urban Farm Podcasts, released Jan. 7, 2016, and you can listen to it several ways:

Urban Farm U:  

Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants

The beauteous taproot.

The beauteous taproot.

In the last post we explored one way plants take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil.  Now we’ll explore how plants take nutrients from deep in the soil and deliver them to the soil surface.  This is another way that plants create high nutrient topsoil.

All rooted plants gather nutrition from the soil, store it in their leaves, flowers and fruit, and then create topsoil as these products fall to the ground. Every plant is a vitamin pill for the soil.  When you pull ‘weeds’, clear your garden, prune and otherwise amass greenery and deadwood, you are gathering vitamins and minerals for your soil.  Bury it.  All of it.  If its too big to bury, then chip it and use it as top mulch.  Allow that nutrition to return to the soil from whence it came.  No stick or leaf should leave your property!  Period.

Fiberous roots hold soils together, and taproots dig.

Fiberous roots hold soils together, and taproots dig.

There are mainly two kinds of root systems: fibrous (like many grasses) and taprooted.  Some taprooted plants grow very deeply.  Those plants that are deemed ‘mining’ plants go the extra mile.   I envision mining plants as the gruff gentlemen of the plant guild: tough and weathered, dressed in pith helmet and explorer clothes with a larger-than life character and a heart of gold.

A monument to Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

A monument to Sir Henry Morton Stanley. I don’t know if he had a heart of gold or was gruff.

Okay, too many old movies on my part. The roots of mining plants are large taproots that explore the depth of the soil searching for deep water.  Depending upon the size of the plant, these roots can break through hardpan and heavy soils. They create oxygen and nutrient channels, digging tunnels that weaker roots from less bold plants and soft-bodied soil creatures can follow.  When these large roots die they decompose deep in the ground, bringing that all-important organic material into the soil to feed microbes.  Meanwhile these Indiana Jones’s of the root world are finding pockets of minerals deep in the soil – far below the topsoil and where other roots can’t reach – and are taking them into their bodies and up into their leaves.  When these leaves die off and fall to the ground they are a super rich addition to the topsoil.  Often the deep taprooted plants have a sharp scent or taste.  Many weeds found in heavy soils are mining plants, sent by Mother Nature to break up the dirt and create topsoil.  Dicotyledonous (dicot) plants have deep taproots, if you are into that kind of thing.  The benefits of a plant having a deep taproot is not only to search for deep water, but to store a lot more sugar in the root, be anchored firmly, and to withstand drought better.

So who are these helpful gentlemen adventurers of the plant guilds?  Comfrey and artichoke are two commonly used mining plants.  Also members of the, radish, mustard, and carrot  family such as, parsnip, root celery, horseradish, burdock, parsley, dandelion, turnip, and poppy to name a few.  There is also milkweed (Asclepias), coneflower, chicory, licorice, pigeon pea, and for California natives there is sagebrush, Matilija poppy, oaks, mesquite, Palo Verde and many more.  Most deep taprooted plants don’t transplant well because their straight taproot is often much longer than the top of the plant.  Check out a sprouted acorn. The taproot is many times as deep as the top is high.

Three day's difference in germinating acorns. Talk about taproot! Image from www.landscapeonline.com.

Three day’s difference in germinating acorns. Talk about taproot! Image from www.landscapeonline.com.

Yet some mining plants such as comfrey and horseradish can be divided or will sprout from pieces of the root left in the ground.  Deep taprooted weeds seem to all be like that, at least on my property!

Horseradish: the root is edible and medicinal, and the leaves are a spicy treat!

Horseradish: the root is edible and medicinal, and the leaves are a spicy treat!

Grating horseradish for sauce, and still tearing up!

Grating horseradish for sauce, and still tearing up!

Now for a little comfrey prosthelytizing:  Comfrey keeps coming back when chopped, so it is often grown around fruit producing trees to be chopped and dropped as a main fertilizer.  Its leaves are so high in nutrition that they are a compost activator, an excellent hen and livestock food (dried it has 26% protein), and have been heavily used in traditional medicine.  Also called Knitbone, the roots contain allantoin, a substance also found in mother’s milk, which among other benefits helps heal bone breaks when applied topically.

A handsome comfrey plant working in the garden.

A handsome comfrey plant working in the garden.

The plant also has flowers that bees and other insects love.  It spreads by seeds as well as divisions, and non-permaculture gardeners don’t like it escaping in their gardens.  I only wish that mine would spread faster, to create more fertilizer.  Comfrey grows the best greens with some irrigation and better soil, so it is perfect for use around fruit trees.

So when planting a guild you can easily plant miners that are edible.  If you harvest those deep taproots, such as carrots or parsnips, then be sure to trim the greens and let them fall on the spot, so the plant will have done its full duty to the soil.  Unless the plant can take division, such as the aforementioned comfrey, then planting seeds are best.  Deep taprooted plants in pots are often stunted and either don’t survive transplanting well, or will take a long time to grow on top because they need to grow so much on the bottom first.

Next up: the exciting groundcover plants!

 

Plant Guild #3: Sub-Canopy!

The many layers of a food forest. Yours doesn't have to be this rampant and wild; your plant guilds can look perfectly proportioned and decorative and still be permaculture.

The many layers of a food forest, Finch Frolic Garden.  Yours doesn’t have to be this rampant and wild; your plant guilds can look perfectly proportioned and decorative and still be permaculture.

The next part of this scintillating series of What Is A Plant Guild focuses on sub-canopy, or the understory.  Sub-canopy does many of the same things that upper canopy does, in a more intensive way.

Smaller trees are ‘nurseried’ in with the help of faster-growing canopy trees; in other words, the upper canopy helps shade and protect the sub-canopy from scorching sun, high winds, pounding hard rain and hail, etc.  However, sub-canopy trees can also be made of the slower, longer-lived canopy trees that will eventually dominate the plant guild/forest.  I’ve talked about how, if an area of forest was wiped clear and roped off, in a hundred years the beginnings of a hardwood forest will have begun.  This is due to succession plants making the soil ready for the next.  Each plant has a purpose.  This phrase is an essential mantra in permaculture because it lets you understand what the plants are doing and then you can let them do it.  So if you planted a fast-growing soft wood canopy tree, maybe even one that is a nitrogen-fixer, such as ice cream bean, or acacia, with a sub-canopy trees that include both something that is going to stay relatively small such as a semi-dwarf fruit tree, along with a slower growing, hardwood tree such as an oak which will eventually become the true canopy tree years down the line, then the original softwood tree would eventually be sacrificed and used as mulch and hugelkultur after the hardwood tree had gained enough height.  Wow, that was a long sentence.  At first that hardwood tree would be part of the sub-canopy until it grows up.  Meanwhile there are other true sub-canopy trees that stay in that height zone for their life.

What makes up a plant guild.

What makes up a plant guild.

Remember, too, that plant guilds are relative in size.  If you have a small backyard you may not have room for a tall canopy tree, especially if it is detrimental to the rest of the property.  So scale the whole guild down.  Canopy for you could be a dwarf fruit tree, and sub-canopy could be blueberry bushes.  In a vegetable setting the canopy could be corn or Jerusalem artichokes, where you either leave the dead canes up overwinter (a great idea to help the birds), or chop and drop them to protect the soil, which mimics the heavy leaf drop from a deciduous tree.  The plant guild template is the same; the dimensions change with your needs and circumstance.

So sub-canopy buffers sunlight coming in from an angle.

It receives rain from the upper canopy further slowing it down and shattering the droplets so that it doesn’t pound the earth.  The lower branches also help catch more fog, allowing it to precipitate and drip down as irrigation.  Leaves act as drip irrigation, gathering ambient moisture, condensing it, helping clean it, and dripping it down around the ‘drip line’ of the trees, just where the tree needs it.

An oak working a temp job as sub-canopy until it grows into canopy, being a support for climbing roses and nitrogen-fixing wisteria.

An oak working a temp job as sub-canopy until it grows into canopy, being a support for climbing roses and nitrogen-fixing wisteria.  This is the formal entrance to Finch Frolic Garden.

With its sheltering canopy it holds humidity closer to the ground.  In the previous post I talked about the importance of humidity in dry climates for keeping pollen hydrated and viable.

It further helps calm and cool winds, and buffers frost and snow damage.  Sub-canopy gives a wide variety of animals the conditions for habitat: food, water, shelter and a place to breed.  While the larger birds, mostly raptors, occupy the upper canopy, the mid-sized birds occupy the sub-canopy.  Depending upon where you live, a whole host of other animals live here too: monkeys, big snakes, leopards, a whole host of butterflies and other insects using the leaves as food and to form chrysalis, tree squirrels, etc.  Although many of these also can use canopy, it is the sub-canopy that provides better shelter, better materials for nesting, and most of the food supply.  And again, the more animals, the more organic materials (poop, fur, feathers, dinner remains) will fall to fertilize the soil.

Sub-canopy gives us humans a lot of food as well, for in a backyard plant guild this can be the smaller fruit trees and bushes.

Sub-canopy also provides more vertical space for vines to grow.  More vines mean more food supply that is off the ground.  A famous example of companion planting is the ‘three sisters’ Native American method… what tribe and where I’m not sure of… where corn is planted with climbing beans and vining squash.  The corn, as mentioned before, is the canopy, the beans use the corn as vertical space while also fixing nitrogen in the soil (we’ll discuss nitrogen fixers in another post), and the squash is a groundcover (also will be covered in another post).  There is more to the three sisters than you think.  Raccoons can take down a corn crop in a night; however, they don’t like to walk where they can’t see the ground, i.e. heavy vines, so the squash acts as a raccoon deterrent.  To stray even further off-topic, there is also a fourth sister which isn’t talked about much, and that is a plant that will attract insects.

Back to sub-canopy, while some of it can be long term food production trees or plants, it too can also have shorter chop-and-drop trees.  Chop-and-drop is a rather violent term given to the process of growing your own fertilizer.  Most of these trees and plants are also nitrogen fixers.  These fast-growing plants are regularly cut, and here is where the difference between pruning and chopping comes to bear, because you aren’t shaping and coddling these trees with pruning, you are quickly harvesting their soft branches and leaves to drop on the ground around your plant guild as mulch and long term fertilizer.  If these trees are also nitrogen fixers, then when you severely prune them the nitrogen nodules on the roots will be released in the soil as those roots die; the tree will adjust the extent of its roots to the size of its canopy because with less canopy it cannot provide enough nutrients for that many roots, and it doesn’t need that many roots to provide food for a smaller canopy.  Wow, another huge sentence.  In this system you are growing your own fertilizer, which is quickly harvested maybe only a couple of times a year.  Chemical-free.  So, by planting sub-canopy that is long term food producing trees such as apricots or apples, along with smaller trees and shrubs that are also sub-canopy but are sacrificial to be used as fertilizer such as senna or acacia or whatever grows well in your region, you have the most active and productive part of your plant guild.

Sub-canopy, therefore, provides shelter for hardwoods, provides a lot of food for humans as well as habitat for so many animals, it provides fertilizer both because of its natural leaf drop and because of those same animals living in it, but also as materials for chopping and dropping, it buffers sun, wind and rain, holds humidity, offers vertical space for food producing vines which will then be in reach for easier harvesting, and much more that I haven’t even observed yet but maybe you already have.

The next part of the series will focus on nitrogen-fixers!  Stay tuned. You can find the entire 9-part Plant Guild series here: Plant Guilds: What are they and how do they work? The first in a series. , Plant Guild #2: Canopy , Plant Guild #4: Nitrogen-Fixers, Plant Guild #5: Mining Plants, Plant Guild #6: Groundcovers, Plant Guild #7: Vines,   Plant Guild #8: Insectiaries, Plant Guild #9: The Whole Picture.