Building and Landscaping
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trees were cut down and some climbing roses pruned back out of the pathway, and the green ‘waste’ was used in the nearby pathways.
Old palm fronds went in as well. No need to create additional work – good planning means stacking functions and saving labor.
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.
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.
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!
For about four years now a pair of wild mallards have called Finch Frolic Garden home. They visit most of the year, especially in mating season as it is now. The male guards her closely as she goes off to lay an egg a day in some secluded, secret nest. This is Mrs. Mallard’s best time of the year.
She’ll stroll all over the property while he has to follow, and it is hilarious to watch. They get in more walking time now than in the whole year put together. She deserves to enjoy the attention because the rest of mating season isn’t so much fun for her.
The mating occurs in the water, with the male biting her neck and holding her head under water. Ducks have drowned during mating. A couple of years ago Mr. Mallard was losing his mating plumage and decided to allow a rather mean drake have at Mrs. Mallard. It was a violent mating, and she tried hard to get away.
The next time the imposter flew in Miranda and I were close to the pond by a lime tree, with some bushes between us and the pond. Suddenly we noticed Mrs. Mallard slowly walking around the bushes, her head held low. If she could have tip-toed with webbed feet she would have. She slowly approached us and hid behind the lime tree next to us. We took action and chased the males away, then spoke soothingly to Mrs. Mallard in a sense of female solidarity. It was quite touching to have a wild creature so trust us as to come to us for rescue.
Once the eggs have been laid the female is entirely in charge of the eggs and the hatchlings. However, if the clutch fails, the male will keep re-mating with her and she’ll keep re-nesting. Mrs. Mallard has attempted to lay eggs on our property in the bushes, but rats or other creatures have eaten them. She had a nest right next to our garage one year, perhaps hoping that we could protect the eggs even though by the time we realize why we’d meet a duck on the pathway by the house every day it was too late. The stress of the mating, the egg production and laying is taxing to a wild duck’s health. Last year she appeared leading several ducklings to our pond. We have no idea how far she’d lead them, or how many there were to begin with, and we knew the babies probably wouldn’t last long. We were right; they were gone by the next day. Predation by the invasive bullfrogs in the pond, rats, weasels, hawks or any number of animals. So sad for the mallard family.
This year Mrs. Mallard has been disappearing daily, obviously to lay an egg a day elsewhere again. However Miranda decided to help out for future nests. She built a mallard nesting tube. Following instructions she found online from people who have proven this design works, she rolled the first three feet of a piece of 7’x3′ hardware cloth to form a tube.
This was wired together, and the last four feet was layered with natural plant materials and rolled.
This tube was wired onto a cradle she made mostly of recycled PVC parts, and painted dark green.
Also, to prevent hawks, egrets and other opportunistic birds from perching on top and snacking on eggs or hatchlings, Miranda attached strips of pokey chicken wire along the top.
Slipping into the chilly February pond was a shock until our legs became acclimated (or “numb”). We pounded a hollow pipe, then slipped another pipe into it (both found materials), and then mounted the tube on top.
Miranda then lined the inside of the tube with soft nesting materials – dried grass and leaves – because mallards don’t bring them in. A little interior decorating for future lodgers. A sprinkler riser screwed into the PVC cradle slipped into the pipe. This way the nesting tube can be easily removed for maintenance. The tube is about three feet above the water surface.
Mrs. Mallard hasn’t shown any interest at this point, but she’s involved with her other nest right now. We have high hopes for a successful nest. Anyone want to come catch bullfrogs?
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.
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:
You can sign up for free to hear all their great podcasts here.
Finch Frolic Garden’s Program in the Garden Series for July:
Analyzing Property for Maximum Use:
Site Evaluation Step-by-Step
Sunday, July 26, 2 – 4 pm
Looking for property? Creating a landscape? Planting a garden? Building a house? Diane Kennedy of Finch Frolic Garden will take you through the steps of evaluating your site for maximum effectiveness with the least labor and cost.
This class is for the average homeowner, with little or no permaculture background. All terms will be defined and explored. Guaranteed, you will leave the class excited about your property, and able to find new potential in it.
In permaculture, 99% of the work should be in design, and only 1% in labor, so find out how to look at property with new eyes and start designing! Participants are encouraged to bring a Google Maps image of their property to work on.
We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments. Cost is $25 per person, mailed ahead of time. Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com. You’ll love what you learn!
It is estimated that 97% of California’s wetlands are gone. Gone. About two-thirds of that remaining 3% is dysfunctional and polluted. In Los Angeles, only 1% of wetlands remain. We have constructed our properties to drain precious rainwater and even irrigation water into culverts and out to the ocean, rather than collect it in our soil where it belongs. All the riparian animals, from specialized aquatic microbes and fungi up to large mammals, have gradually all but disappeared. What we have instead of wetlands are millions of chlorinated swimming pools, lined ponds and bird baths. Although we may believe that these help animals, the treated water is weakening and killing them with chemicals when they are desperate enough to drink from them, and offer no shelter or food source.
Dr. Bob Lloyd of Pura Vida Aquatics, a Southern California-based business, has spent the last 20 years maintaining ponds chemical-free. “Algicide will kill aquatic microbes, and hurt hummingbirds and all the other creatures that drink it,” he says. To help offset some of the loss of wetlands Dr. Lloyd converts swimming pools into swimming ponds that are cleaned with plants and fish rather than with chemicals.
You may see photos of some methods of pool conversions on the Internet that look fantastic, but really are expensive and drastic, and hard to maintain. They require the draining (and waste) of the 22,000 gallons (more or less) of pool water, the altering of the pool itself by building a cement planting bed along the inside and the filling of that bed with a large amount of gravel. Plants are set in the gravel and after refilling a pump sends water through this system to clean it. The gravel would need to be cleaned over time, which would mean draining water again and hauling out a ton of slimy gravel, and buying new.
Dr. Lloyd’s system is far less expensive, not invasive to the pool structure at all and is easily removable if years down the road the system is no longer desired. His system is unique and is the product of his PhD in microbiology and his decades of experience working with natural ponds. The plants that are installed are outside of the pool and can have a look that goes with the surrounding vegetation. Even aquatic edibles can be experimented with, such as watercress, water chestnuts and more.
Installing plants inside a pool can be done without changing the pool structure if the pool isn’t going to be used for swimming, or only for gentle laps. The reason is that the splashing water and waves from vigorous swimming is very hard on plants. Many plants die from having too much water on their leaves, and from being battered against the sides of the pool. Using Dr. Lloyd’s method of external decorative plants the pool has the ambiance of a pond and the usability of a regular swimming pool. And you can still swim with koi and other fish! How cool is that?
Converting your pool or pond takes a little patience as the biology develops; do you remember the adage that you can’t rush Mother Nature? The evolution of a pool conversion lasts several months. Watching the evolution of a chemical pool to a swimming pond is exciting. With the absence of chlorine, there is a natural algae bloom which turns the inside of the pool a bright, beautiful green. The algae help clear the water of harmful chemicals. As the water is routed through plants, some of the aquatic creatures that balance a pond are added from a local source. As the water clears, fish are added. The fish eat the algae so there are no fuzzy green threads growing up from the bottom or floating on the surface. Fish can be added within weeks of the start of the project. “Its like managing a 20,000 gallon fishtank,” Dr. Lloyd grins.
Immediately the changes to the environment are apparent. Dragonflies, butterflies, hummingbirds and many more creatures desperate for truly clean (chemical-free) water are attracted to the water and the plants.
“I have clients who tell me how excited they are to see so many birds, insects and lizards in their yards that they’d never seen before,” Dr. Lloyd relates about his converted ponds. “Finding (native) Pacific chorus frogs around the ponds has been very fun.” Some of his clients have become active bird watchers as the wildlife come to ponds that he manages.
Best of all, you can swim with the fish and have no red eyes, green hair or other bad reactions to the harsh chemicals. The plants phytoremediate the water as it is pumped through the planting beds. Children can dangle their feet in the pond without fear of absorbing algicide and other harsh chemicals through their skin.
Because we are in a drought, people believe that drying out their pond or pool is necessary. No! Pools evaporate far less water than irrigated lawns and landscapes. What does evaporate helps hold humidity around your plants, something which our drying climate is eliminating. Humidity keeps pollen viable and helps trees and plants survive the lack of rainfall. If you convert your pool and/or pond to a chemical-free one, then it is now supplying habitat to creatures further taxed by dried-up water supplies. What’s more, your pool which isn’t attractive and is rarely used, which must be doctored with chemicals weekly, can be converted into something that benefits wildlife year-round, is interesting to watch all the time, and needs absolutely no chemicals.
Pools are also excellent catchment basins for rain. Instead of buying a large water tank, divert your roof water to your pool and allow the plants to clean it. Then you can use that water at any time during the year for watering plants – with chlorine- and chloramine-free water. In permaculture, everything should have at least three purposes. By converting your pool you can have a free rain-catchment system, a water cleaning system, a safe recreation area, a pleasing view, and some habitat, all while saving money and reducing your carbon footprint and reducing your water bill. How can you not do it?
A converted pool does require weekly maintenance, but not the usual kind with chemicals and cleaners. I remember having to clean the family’s pool when I was growing up and testing the pH, even though we didn’t swim very often. It wasn’t fun. The maintenance on a chemical-free pond consists of checking on the pump, the caring for the plants and fish, and insuring that the clarity of the water and the product is satisfying to the customer. The ecosystem evolves and must be watched. It also costs a fraction of what a pool cleaner charges.
If you have a pond or pool that is on a chemical system, consider a conversion. You’ll spend far less money, have far more entertainment, decorative and educational value, have safe water for your family and wildlife to enjoy, will be helping the environment by not supporting harmful chemicals and by helping off-set the millions of acres of wetlands that are gone.
Dr. Lloyd estimates that he’ll need to convert 1.6 billion swimming pools to offset all the wetlands that have been drained and paved over in California alone. How can it be done?
“One pool at a time,” he smiles.
You can find out about pool and pond conversions by contacting Dr. Bob Lloyd at Pura Vida Aquatics, 310- 429- 8477 http://www.PuraVidaAquatic.com. He has accounts from San Diego through Los Angeles, and can consult elsewhere.
Finch Frolic Garden’s Program In The Garden Series for June:
Shaping the land to harvest energy and water – easily!
With permaculturalist Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics and Landscaping
Use 30% – 70% less water on your landscape!
Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics will show you how to catch free, precious, neutral pH rainwater using earthworks. Whether you use a trowel or a tractor, you can harvest that free water. Each attendee will receive a plant! We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments. Cost is $25 per person, mailed ahead of time. Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook. Please RSVP to email@example.com . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com. You’ll love what you learn!
Want a green lawn that needs no irrigation or mowing? That sounds ideal. As with most products that sound too good to be true, so it is with artificial turf. Modern artificial turf is not much like the Astroturf of old. Artificial grass blades are usually made of polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, which create soft, harder or stiff blades respectively. These are anchored in an infill material that is usually a mixture of sand and ground up recycled automobile tires among other things. Utilizing recycled tires should give this product big bonus points; however, this material will leach heavy metals into the ground, contaminating the dirt for decades. When heated, the plastic and rubber will release toxins into the air as well.
Heat is the biggest problem with artificial turf, according to King Green. The infill made of plastic and rubber is a thermal mass: as it sits in the sun it absorbs and radiates heat. For example, at 6 pm, an hour before the Women’s World Cup in Canada began at the end of a nice 75 degree day, the artificial turf on which they were to play measured 120F. Where daytime temperatures rise to 100F, the turf could measure up to 180F. Having turf where children or animals play can cause burns.
Radiating heat from thermal mass such as hardscape (usually cements and asphalt), expanses of gravel, and especially artificial turf will heat up homes and is a contributor to more energy usage for air conditioners and fans. In arid areas there might not be much rainfall but there can be fog and ambient moisture that normally collects on leaves and drips as a form of irrigation. Good pollenization partially depends upon moist, still air because pollen dries rapidly. Radiating heat and reflected light (the albeido effect) from these surfaces help to dry out moist air and cause air movement as the heat rises. The more rising heat, the windier and drier the atmosphere becomes and the less fruit and vegetable set there is. As artificial turf heats up to a third again of the atmospheric temperature and continues to radiate into the evening it is even more damaging to atmospheric moisture than bright cement.
The claim that artificial turf greatly reduces the amount of toxins in the air that would be released from lawnmowers, and save thousands of gallons of water otherwise used to irrigate lawns is using select ideas while ignoring others. Artificial turf may not need mowing, but it needs leaf-vacuuming and hosing off, especially if there are animals using it. On soil bird, reptile and pet feces are part of the fertilization process and are quickly decomposed by microbes. On artificial turf the feces adhere to the plastic blades and are difficult to remove with even a power wash. Urine seeps into the rubber matting and cannot be completely removed, smelling strongly of urine for the life of the turf.
Native plants and grasses improve the soil, hold rainwater, moderate heat and wind, and offer habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals and insects. Areas that are covered in artificial turf are sterile, harmful to animals, people and the environment, and offer no educational value. Planted areas are magnets for wildlife that are starved – literally – for decent food, water and shelter.
The life of some artificial turf products is estimated to be 10 – 15 years, with a warranty usually for 8. If the grass is being heavily used the life is reduced. The turf doesn’t look new up until the warranty expires; the blades break off and the plastic and rubber slowly break down further been compressed, dried out and imbued with heavy metals.
The cost of installing artificial turf is heavy. It must be laid on scraped, level, rockless dirt, so there are earthworks involved. There are many types of artificial turf and they have a broad price range. A 12’ x 75’ strip of low-grade turf from a chain hardware store is currently over $1500.
What are the alternatives in this time of water scarcity? For areas that must have grass, tough native grass mixtures are a great alternative. See the selection that S&S Seeds has of native Californian grasses; they even offer sod. Lawns should be mowed higher and more frequently for best root growth, and the cuttings left to mulch in. For least evaporation and for pathogen control watering should be done between 3 AM and 9 AM. See this site for more lawn tips.
Stop using commercial fertilizers, which cause plants to need more water. Use actively aerated compost tea, which is easy and inexpensive to make, completely non-toxic and causes deeper root growth and therefore healthier, longer-lived and more resilient grass. Please explore the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, soil microbiologist, who has perfected the use of AACT on properties worldwide. Instructions for making AACT can be found here.
For those who don’t need a lawn at all, native landscapes can be lush and beautiful and after being established dislike summer water. You can see what native and non-native plants are safe to plant near your house if you live in a fire zone with the County of San Diego’s Defensible Space Plant List. Please see the books The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, and California Native Plants for The Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien.
The secret to water storage in the soil for both lawns and plants is to dig in as much organic matter into the soil that you can. Artificial turf is also not permeable, so it channels rainwater rather than harvesting it. Old wood is best, but cuttings, organic fabric and paper can all be used to hold rainwater. One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of water. The best place to hold that water for your plants –or to hold precious irrigation water – is in the soil. Wood in the soil along with top mulch will water and feed plants for months, as well as cleanse and build soil. This practice is called hugelkultur. Please research hugelkultur on the Internet for more information.
If you are considering purchasing artificial turf or gravel for your yard or common area, please think again. It is adding to the problem of global warming, it is an elimination of even more habitat – even the scarce habitat that a lawn can offer – and will become an expensive problem in a short time.
Today, despite being April Fool’s Day, our California governor finally recognized our severe drought and ordered mandatory cutbacks. That is a whole other can of worms due to the corporations and large businesses which are using so much water, and I won’t get into it. However, much of the world is becoming a drier place, and it is happening quickly. How does that relate to permaculture?
We will receive rain. Not a lot, but it will come. Remember that 1 inch of water on 1 acre in 1 hour is 27,154 gallons of free neutral pH water. If you have runoff water flowing onto (and usually funneled off of) your property, then you have to opportunity to harvest hundreds of gallons more water. You need to do three things:
1. The best place to hold rainwater in in your soil. For that you need to dig simple or extensive swales (ditches with level bottoms), rain catchment ponds (holes like dry ponds) and even small fishscale swales above each plant. Catch water as high up on your property as you can, in the areas where water will naturally flow into. Holes, dry ponds and swales all passify the running water and allow it to sink into the soil rather than running off the top. Even if you have flat property, texturing your soil will allow water to percolate more quickly. Driveways, roads, sidewalks and paved pathways – called hardscape – all channel water. See where the water flows and catch it, or redirect it into swales where you want the water to go.
2. Heavy clay soil will percolate slowly and water can puddle up and even become anaerobic. Sandy soil will allow the water to drain very quickly. What you want is for the soil to hold the water for as long as possible without becoming anaerobic so that trees and plants can use it for months after it stops raining. The solution to both of these soils is to bury organic matter. Hugelkultur is the term used for layering dirt on wood or other organic matter. Old logs are perfect. Any clippings, old cotton bedding, clothing, pillows, branches, leaves, junk mail… anything that can be considered ‘brown’ (as opposed to ‘green’) waste, will work. Don’t heap debris in a hole and cover it up. Layer it with dirt and cover it over with mulch. Plant on your hugelbeds. Make your holes or beds perpendicular to water flow so that water hits them and infiltrates the mounds. The organic matter will become a sponge and hold that water in the dirt. As the topsoil dries out it will wick the moisture from the buried organic material. Meanwhile just by burying or stacking the organic material you will have made nutrient and oxygen channels available to roots, and as the wood decays it feeds the microbes and thus the plants. You are improving your soil for years to come, feeding your plants, catching and holding rainwater in your soil, recycling, and sequestering carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from the exposed dead wood. How great is that? You don’t have to use trees… if the labor isn’t for you then use a trowel and a piece of old untreated 2×4, nails and all, and make a fishscale swale and hugel above each plant. Also, fill your raised beds and pots half-way with layered wood and dirt, and you will be saving water and fertilizing your plants as well. Have established trees? Use a hose and a power nozzle (or just a sledge hammer if the ground is soft!) to drill holes vertically around the dripline and hammerwood down into the ground. You won’t be cutting through roots. Turn your alleys and foot paths into hugelswales by digging them down, laying a layer of wood, covering the wood over with dirt allowing the path to have a slightly concave shape that is level at the bottom. You can walk on it, it will catch and hold water that gravity will feed down to plants below rather than puddling up. Every time you plant, except for when planting desert plants, put old wood at the bottom of the planting hole. Soaking wood in actively aerated compost tea or worm casting tea first will really kick off the microbial activity. No wood? Cruise the neighborhood at trash day and see what is out there.
3. Cover your ground with mulch. Sheet mulch under your trees and along your pathways to lock in moisture and prevent rainfall from compacting your soil. It is always good to leave some bare ground – particularly by wet areas – bare for some insects to lay their eggs in. If you have bugs, then you have lizards, frogs and birds which will eat your problem insects (unless, of course, you have outdoor cats. They will kill all of your predators. Keep your cats confined!). If you don’t have bugs, you don’t have predators. Then when the bad bugs move in there won’t be anything to eat them.
4. Plant a lot. That may sound opposite of what to do in a drought, but you need to plant drought tolerant canopy trees and bushes that will spread. Although we may not receive rainfall we will be receiving dew, mist and fog, and the more surfaces you have to catch it, the more water your yard will receive. Mist nets won’t work in Southern California very well because we don’t have a lot of heavy fog. However trees are made to catch water and gently deliver it to their leaf-covered roots. Shrubs are groundcover that produce leaf mulch and habitat for birds and lizards. They keep the moisture from being blown away during our Santa Anas. Trees are wind breaks which protect other trees and plants. Plant fast-growing drought tolerant trees on hugelbeds that are there to work for you: they passify the wind and catch precipitation, while dropping leaves for mulch and turning your dirt into soil.
PLEASE, do NOT spread gravel or small rock! All those little stones – which are virtually impossible to remove from your landscaping – are all thermal masses. They bake your soil, increase the temperature of your garden and reflect heat up onto your house and the underside of the leaves of whatever you may have planted. Gravel and stonescapes cook the planet because there are so many edges to heat up. With gravel yards there is nothing to allow water to percolate into the soil, there is no height to catch rain or passify winds. Stonescapes reflect light and heat back up into the air further drying the atmosphere, called the albeido effect..
How do you reduce your domestic water use? Cut in in half by flushing the toilet every other time (or less). See how fast you can take a shower. Fill a glass with water every morning and use only its contents to rinse your toothbrush or your mouth during the day (if there is any left, drink it or pour it into the back of your toilet tank). Use a pan of water to wash dishes instead of running water. Irrigate only when it is dark, after 3 am. That allows the least evaporation with the least insect problems. Don’t use overhead irrigation. If you are on a well, don’t think that you have an unlimited supply of water – don’t spray water around pastures at noon. Water is precious and needs to be cherished. See how many uses you can get out of water that you buy – wash water can go into the toilet or onto plants. Investigate greywater. Use your laundry water right into your landscape (use safe soaps). Get as many uses out of your clothes before you wash them. Look at your monthly water usage on your bill and challenge your family to reduce it by half, with a family reward (movie? Local restaurant?) when you succeed.
Saving water can be done. It MUST be done. We are used to water security and now we have to change our ways, while the changing is still easy.
World-wide we have a fresh water shortage, and the seas are rising. Erosion is cutting into our fields and washing our precious topsoil into waterways, causing them to silt up and die. In some areas of the US, unprecedented flooding from rain is occurring, while out West drought is drying up wells. The reasons for these happenings have to do with our farming techniques to begin with. How to fix the problems all boils down to some very simple methods that everyone can do – that everyone needs to do. It all comes down to making level-bottomed swales, and rain-catchment basins, to make the water penetrate the soil rather than roll over it. Rain compacts soil more than a tractor does – when it falls on bare ground. We have been trained to rake up leaves and burn them or send them to the dump. Leaves, dead vines and other organic matter cushions the rain and keeps the soil from being compacted. That organic matter also feeds the soil microorganisms that make soil hold manage rainwater. With the lack of organic matter, and the use of herbicides to kill off all vegetation, and the proliferation of huge swaths of lawn that is treated routinely with chemicals and therefore make the ground hard, rain rolls across the landscape taking topsoil with it.
Many neighborhoods have large culverts through their properties – mine included – where runoff from properties above is purposely channeled through and away from homes. All that precious water is wasted. The same happens in areas where rain is abundant. Rainwater is directed away from properties and into storm drains that fill and overflow, or it puddles in low spots because it has nowhere to go.
By creating regular level-bottomed swales perpendicular to the flow of water, beginning as high up the landscape as possible, rain will be caught before its momentum running downhill becomes destructive. The water in the swales percolate into the landscape, reestablishing water tables and re-energizing wells and streambeds. Swales should be level at the bottom, dug on contour if large, and have a dedicated overflow into another swale, rain catchment basin or dam. Small property? Dig a small fishscale-shaped swale with a trowel above each of your small trees and plants, perpendicular to the flow of water. Filling these small swales with coarse mulch such as woodchips will keep them moist and weed-free.
If your property is the recipient of water from uphill, then talk to all your neighbors above you and convince them to dig swales as well (neighborhood swale-digging party??). The amount of water raging down the hill will become insignificant, and everyone’s trees and plants will flourish due to the water being caught in the soil. The plume of water slowly moving through the landscape encourages tree and plant roots to grow deeper. The roots break through hardpan, produce sugars and proteins and carbohydrates to attract microbes, and create good soil for you.
So dig swales and rain catchment basins to passify and hold rainwater. Leave your leaves to prevent compaction and to feed your soil microbes. Enjoy having healthier plants, soil and waterways while helping to put the brakes on global warming.