I grew vegetables in raised beds made of old bookshelf wood for many years. Then several years ago we buried that wood along with other biodegradable material in the vegetable garden and grew in the earth This is the best method of growing vegetables. However, the ongoing drought caused plant scarcity and otherwise manageable wildlife then foraged in desperation. Gophers began an onslaught of our vegetables and being a no-kill garden (except for Argentine ants) we tried many kind methods of discouraging them. Finally this year after a dry warm winter, anticipating more animal depredation, I took a friend up on their offer of free used pallets.
We sorted through stacks of pallets and found those stamped with the same name. These pallets are untreated raw pine and of a manageable and portable size. I cut each pallet in half and then nailed and screwed them together. One raised bed needed three pallets. We then covered the bottom with hardware cloth. The areas where the raised beds were to go were leveled and in several cases, de-Bermuda grassed. The pernicious weed had infiltrated our good soil and so shovelful by shovelful we turned and picked. The stolens were unceremoniously tossed into a trashcan which will solarize in the burning hot summer to come, and will then be used in compost.
On top of the leveled ground we placed cardboard. This provided a grass and gopher barrier to the bottom of the bed. Although the cardboard will break down over time, it will in the short run discourage gopher tunneling and weeds. The new pallet bed was placed on top of the cardboard.
Here is one of the tricks of having a raised bed in a hot climate: insulate it! Anything raised above soil level in hot climates are quickly heated and dried out. Raised beds notoriously have dead zones around the edges where the heat cooks the soil, killing microbes and sucking water out of the bed. Lining the inside of the bed with thick cardboard is one way to help insulate the bed, as well as planting cascading plants on the southwest side, or bushy herbs in the ground outside of the bed, or even fastening flakes of straw around the outside. With the pallets we had room to not only line the inside of the bed, but stuff cardboard down into the gaps all around the bed. We repurposed a lot of cardboard.
To fill the bed, we began with old sticks, limbs and logs as we had them. We layered these items as they were available, making sure that earth was touching each layer, and balancing green plant material with the brown as you would in a compost situation: dried tomato vines, fresh passionvine prunings, cut back rose canes, sycamore leaves, heavy clay taken from a new asparagus bed, silt from the rain catchment basins, kitchen scraps including bags of orange rinds after juicing, poopy chicken dirt from inside the hen house, poopy newspapers from the cages in which we kept sick hens indoors (crop binding), decomposable trash such as used tissues, paper towels, cotton ear swabs, junk mail (not glossy or plastic), hair, cotton balls, old cotton T-shirts, and corn husks which many people don’t know are used for compost purposes (visit https://homewarranty.firstam.com/blog/corn-husks-not-just-tamales to get all the details). As we built the beds, we’d take our time filling them as we produced ‘waste’ materials, and threw them in. When the bed was filled (and understanding that the contents would settle) and watered in with rainwater from our 700 gallon tank, we topped it with microbially rich soil from the garden beds (making sure there weren’t any grass bits hiding in it).
I stuck pieces of old 1′ PVC pipe evenly along the sides of the pallets prior to stuffing with cardboard, so that if needed I could insert wood or bamboo pieces and either build an upright sturdy trellis for climbers, or even make arches from bed to bed on which I can grow vines.
For irrigation, I connected each bed to its own set of overhead sprinklers. Each bed has its own shut off. The pipe is resting on the opposite pallet as support, and the joint where it els across the bed are threaded pieces, so the entire length can be raised and pulled out of the way so working in the bed can be easy. The irrigation is hooked up to our well water and is on the irrigation timer for a brief shower every other day. With a lasagna garden, once saturated water will be held in the organic materials that make it up, so after initial regular watering for seed sprouting or hardening off transplants you won’t need to water as much. Roots will grow very deeply.
Because we allow some vegetables to go to seed, we had to transplant vegetables from the ground where the raised beds were placed, into the raised beds. We have a forest of beets, fennel, perpetual spinach, onions, peas, arugula and lettuce in what is still in the ground, and have transplanted selections from these into the beds along with planting seeds. Fortunately we love beet greens, which don’t taste like beets and are more mild than Swiss chard.
Into one bed we’ve planted potatoes in good soil at the bottom, and are gradually filling in with straw as the plants grow. We used leaves in the soil mix, but no woody bits or other lasagna garden materials because we didn’t want to dig potatoes out of piles of old wood, nor burn the potatoes with composting materials in the shallow soil layer.
I am not a good carpenter. I however am great at figuring out what should have been done after I’ve done something. Here are some tips on building pallet beds:
I had thought about placing them on top of flat pallets to be raised off of the ground, so even less susceptible to gophers and grass, but I fortunately nixed that idea before it was enacted. The reason is that that space would be a wonderful habitat for mice or rats, or even snakes. Much as we welcome non-venomous snakes into our garden I really don’t want to startle one with my feet as I’m leaning over a bed. Of course, they would take care of the mouse and rat problem, so maybe it would be a good thing.
I had several bags of 16p galvanized nails given to me years ago, a rescue from a construction dumpster. I mean, kitchen trash-sized bags. I can’t move them, and they sit in my large shed. I opted to use some of them for this project. It was difficult hammering them into the knotty wood of the pallets, and often the holes had to be pre-drilled. Nailed wood also can pull apart, so braces across the width of the pallet to prevent bulging would have been a fantastic idea. For the last two I resorted to screws, which are far easier to both install and remove. Perhaps the nails will have to go to Temecula Recycling. If I can lift them.
We needed to build the beds quickly, as planting season bore down on us here in San Diego even earlier than usual. Here at the beginning of April we are far behind because we haven’t planted out tomato, squash, melon or cucumber seeds yet. Whew! So the beds are not beautiful, but they are functional. You can pretty up pallet beds by attaching wood around the outside, or straw flakes, or other material, and by putting wood around the top. Especially if it is repurposed wood. If you have mouse problems, then try attaching chimney flashing or other wide strips of metal around the base of the bed so that they cannot climb up the sides.
My entire vegetable patch is surrounded by a chicken wire fence, so bunnies can look but they cannot touch. We don’t have squirrels anymore in the garden because California ground squirrels like to see all around them, and our dense food forest is much too scary for them to be comfortable. Using a mild shock wire around the beds or garden fence, using metal flashing to prevent climbing, or enclosing a small garden with wire would all be ways to prevent squirrels and rats from feasting.
We covered the surrounding ground with cardboard and topped with free wood chips, for sheet mulching. This cools the soil, prevents weeds from emerging, helps choke out the Bermuda grass, and also keeps the gopher at bay. He or she must push droppings out of the hole, and if they hit cardboard, or have a shower of bark come down on them, they will go elsewhere.
Because we used non-sterile garden soil as a topper, we’ve had some weed seeds germinate but also some pleasant surprises. We planned on planting dill but found it popping up in our polyculture planting. We had several potato bits sprout, so they needed to be moved into the potato bed. Purslane, which is a weed but also one of the most nutritious greens you can eat, loves the beds so we are harvesting it regularly for chicken feed, personal use and also for making green smoothies as liquid compost for our citrus trees. Because we don’t use chemicals of any sort in the beds, there are a number of native western fence lizards loving the heck out of the beds and helping with our integrated pest management.
Some crops such as corn and tomatoes will need to go into the soil; so far gophers haven’t eaten corn, and the tomatoes can go into gopher cages up against fences or around the property on trellises or trees. The strawberries, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish seem safe in the ground as well.
Our raised beds are working beautifully already, and the dirt and organics inside of them will be building good soil month after month until it is gorgeous compost. Except for labor, wire and a few PVC parts, they were free to build and free to fill. They can be topped off with good compost after a season, or even given another layer of old tomato vines and dried plant scraps topped with compost for the next planting season if needed. But it shouldn’t unless the height of the soil needs building, because the soil inside the bed is improving all the time.
Give it a try, and make it more attractive, and you’ll have wonderful, safe vegetables and no green waste at all.
We can help the planet re-vegetate and reverse climate change. Here are three large projects that have had success and one which is still in the making because it is so vast. Watch these and be inspired, be hopeful, and plant native trees where you live:
Africa’s Great Green Wall:
Subscribe to our channel http://bit.ly/AJSubscribeThe Sahara is creeping into the verdant southern Africa. To counter desertification, the Community of Sahel…
China’s Loess Plateau:
Go to https://FoodAbundance.com to join the Food Abundance movement.Excerpts from Hope in a Changing Climate (http://www.open.edu/openlearn/whats-on/ou-on-th…
Jordan’s Greening the Desert:
The three main ethics of permaculture, according to the late Bill Mollison who wrote the Permaculture Design Manual, are 1. Care for the Earth, 2. Care for People 3. Return of Surplus. These ethics are what keep me soundly grounded in permaculture, and what we humans need to embrace in our everyday lives especially now in the face of environmental disaster. As I write, millions of people are trying to recover from travesty from hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, severe drought and unprecedented amounts of rainfall. That is above the starvation and political unrest that is ongoing. What is also happening to the millions of species of animals and insects, not to even think about all the domestic animals and livestock, who are also victims of these disasters isn’t even in most people’s thoughts. We live in the Anthropocene epoch, which means that now humans and human action determine the fate of everything else on earth. We have that much power. We are children driving a double-shift semi on a busy freeway going the wrong way.
Instead of sinking into depression and denial, every one of us can make subtle changes that will help. Understanding these permaculture ethics and putting them to work in our homes, our gardens and our workplace WILL help, and will influence others to do the same.
When I was a very easily-influenced young person, the church our family went to began a campaign around the slogan: God first, Others Second, Me Third. I took that to heart, and being naive, it also made me into a doormat for anyone with a stronger personality than me, which was practically everyone. This slogan serves the church by demanding support, instills guilt and creates identity issues. I didn’t realize that until decades later. What would have happened in my life if I’d have known about permaculture when I was in college? If I’d heard and embraced the three life-giving ethics then? Without caring for the earth, we have nothing. Did you know that over half of the oxygen we breath is created by phytoplankton in the ocean? And that all those insecticides and herbicides that are sprayed in backyards and on crops run into the ocean and are killing the phytoplankton at enormous rates? Trees and plants provide the rest of our oxygen, and with deforestation, desertification, and out of control weather catastrophies trees are dying. People are not replanting trees at a rate that will help. So where will our oxygen come from, if our first ethic is not Care for the Earth? The church’s slogan sounds devout, but it doesn’t focus on real world issues. It makes religion the most important thing rather than keeping religion in your heart as you help in practical ways. You can belong to almost any religion and embrace permaculture ethics. They work well together.
Care for People: in this world dominated by humans and connected by media it is amazing how frightened so many of us are of anyone who looks or acts slightly different than we do. How racism is alive and well, and flourishing in and under the current US administration. How governments are torturing their people in so many countries, and this is 2017! We learn history in schools for a reason, to not let the hatred repeat itself, but we aren’t teaching it well enough to make a difference. So caring for people has to be an ethic that is enacted on a daily basis. Help those you can or at the very least, just be nice. Overreaction, intolerance and obscenities seem to be the fashion, especially for young women. It began several decades ago and it still hasn’t stopped. Women don’t have to be hateful and insulting to be recognized. Realize that people act the way they do often just because they don’t understand another way to think. Just smile at those around you and see a smile back. It may help that person not mistreat someone or something else or even themselves that day. You don’t know what others are suffering from or with, so give them the benefit of the doubt.
Caring for People also means to care for yourself. Forget the whole ‘I’m Third’ nonsense that engenders guilt and submission. You are not last. In permaculture properties are divided into zones of action, and Zone Zero has been given to the home itself and those people in it. You are Zone Zero, the most important part of the design. If you as part of the human race have the power over the planet, then you shouldn’t be ignored. Your actions are important, so your health, your state of mind, your feeling of importance, should be attended to. Not that you are royalty, just that you are important. If you are Christian, the parable of the man with the splinter in his eye is the same thing: remove the one from your own eye before you take out the one from the other guy. Take care of yourself so that you can help others better. Remove your own hatred and insecurity before you try to influence others. Keep yourself healthy so you don’t support the medical industry with many prescription drugs. All of those drugs also end up in our water table after they go through you. Treat your body to healthy food and exercise. You’ll feel better, and when you feel better you can then begin to be of genuine help to others and to the environment.
Return of Surplus: Have extra time you waste? Volunteer. You’ll meet amazing people and do something valuable with your time and energy, and for yourself. Have extra fruit and vegetables? Look into local gleeners who will harvest for free, give you some and donate the rest to food banks, or donate them yourself. Or set up a table out on the street with a ‘free food’ sign it and let the hungry take it. Is your recycle bin or trash can full? Why? What can you compost? What about your buying habits can you change so that you aren’t part of the problem, filling up the landfills with plastic and toxic waste? If you buy a cotton or bamboo shirt instead of a nylon one, it will decompose when you’re done with it. Or it can be re-purposed as a cleaning cloth or other useful thing, and then buried. Buy cotton Q-tips instead of plastic ones. Do you have a place to plant native plants? Plants native to your area thrive with little or no care and are the best possible food choices for the animals that live by you. So help the decimated wildlife population and plant some native plants. Check the ingredients on what you buy. Do you know what any of those are? Do they include palm oil? Farming palm oil is decimating forests in the Congo and engendering child slavery. Purchase locally: don’t wait until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to support your local businesses. Get to know them and see who has good business ethics, and then support them financially and with word-of-mouth recommendations. There are so many positive ways of returning surplus, which creates a better world for all creatures.
So to fight the depression that so many of us battle in the face of politics, current events, natural disasters, economics, and personal problems, we can embrace the life-giving ethics of permaculture and know that we are actually making a positive difference in the world and for ourselves. Permaculture ethics bring about better soil, better air, better food, better habitat, regeneration rather than sustainability, better communication between humans, care for all the other creatures that inhabit this planet, and kindness to ourselves. Permaculture isn’t a religion. It’s ethics transcend race, age, sex, economics, politics and education. Guilt-free. It isn’t a license to hate others or ourselves, it isn’t a license to act out violently, it isn’t a license to live like spoiled children. Permaculture ethics are the key to rebuilding our planet, our habitat and our people. And they are so simple to follow. So today make some small choices that will have large ripple effects. Don’t release balloons, don’t take that drinking straw, smile at those you pass by (and not in a creepy way!), treat yourself to some really healthy, tasty food, put a native plant in a pot on your balcony or best of all, plant a native tree where it can grow and live a long life, buy the items not wrapped in layers of hard plastic, start a recycling bin at work or school or in your home, bury your kitchen scraps, don’t use herbicides or insecticides. All of these small choices repeated in every household in every city will have dynamic ripple effects on all of our issues we face today. You can do it. We can do it. Don’t give up.
Guess what we picked today? I’ve just finished freezing the large ones to make into tomato jam and tomato sauce later, or seasoning and setting the smaller ones out to sun dry. We’ll sell these fantastically tasty foods at our Marketplace in November.
Last year, 2016, we had no tomatoes until the Fall. I couldn’t figure out why. Our summer temperatures were over 100F for days on end, peaking at 116F several of those days. The nights never cooled off and sleeping was difficult. It turns out that the tomatoes didn’t like the heat either. If temperatures consistently stay over 85F and don’t dip below 75F at night then the flowers won’t set fruit. And here I was thinking that tomatoes loved the heat! They just love the warmth, like I do.
Tomato flowers are self-pollinating. Each has both male and female parts and it takes vibration from winged insects and gentle warm winds to pollinate. Others flick them with their fingers, or set a tuning fork on them to simulate insect vibration. If there are very hot, dry winds, pollen dries out and isn’t viable. If the humidity is so high that it is sticky out the pollen swells and sticks, unable to fall to the female part of the flower. When the temperatures lowered in the Fall, even though the day length was shorter, the tomatoes quickly put on fruit.
Here in Southern California’s inland area we don’t receive snow, so tomatoes can last outside as a perennial vine for several years. However a good way to keep tomatoes for use after summer is to prune it, hanging the vine with the tomatoes in a dry area with good air circulation. The vine will die but the tomatoes – especially sauce or paste tomatoes such as Roma – will stay in excellent condition for months.
Tomatoes enjoy a good deep watering, and then let go dry in between. The tomatoes are more flavorful that way as well. Most of the tomatoes we harvested today came from volunteers that had popped up along our fenceline and receive no water, and others receive water once or twice a week along with the trees by which they are planted.
This apricot tree has been struggling with the heat and heavy clay in which its been planted, and as it has too few leaves there isn’t anything protecting the trunk and branches from the scorching heat… except for this tomato plant. The tomatoes vine upwards away from nibbling animals and are easy to pick, and the apricot receives shade. (Remember that growing under trees that have an upward growth is great, but only grow companion plants outside of the dripline of trees that have heavy skirts such as citrus and avocado).
When tomato vines die down, cut them at the soil surface and then either bury them or cover them with compost and then plant right around them. Worms love tomato vines and roots, and the vines will return nutrients to the soil. Also, tomatoes don’t care about being planted in the same place twice, so don’t worry about crop rotation. The only issue you might have is that if you plant a different variety the following year, seeds from the previous year’s tomato might come up there as well.
If your tomatoes crack on the vine, that usually means too much water, or that you’ve dumped some fertilizer on them and the growth spurt was too quick for the expanding fruit. Don’t use chemical fertilizers. Period. For anything. If you dose the tomatoes with fertilizer you’ll have lots of vines and little fruit. Also, if the tomatoes have blossom-end rot (round black dents in the bottom of the fruit) it means there is a calcium deficiency, so to prevent this bury crushed egg shells where you’ll plant tomatoes, or pour sour milk or milk products around the tomato plants.
We have tomato hornworm in our garden,but they don’t get out of control because we have birds. They take care of most of the caterpillars in the garden. Besides, the tomato hornworm is the young of the Sphinx moth,
a large lovely moth that you may see in the night.
If the temperatures remain tolerable this summer, we here at Finch Frolic Garden can look forward to lots of tomatoes to dry, can, freeze, eat fresh, make into sauce… whatever. Tomatoes are truly the taste of summer.
In drylands there is a noticeable lack of trees. This situation is kind of a Catch-22. The hotter and drier it is, the less water there is in the ground to provide for plants that can attain height, and the more the leaves of the existing trees must adapt (become smaller) to prevent transpiration and sunburn. Yet the very lack of trees and their extensive root systems, and the shade and habitat they create, and the transpiration that allows humidity to keep the air moist for pollen to survive, is one of the causes of desertification.
So how do we stop this cycle?
First, work on a manageable area. If you have a large property, then start on the area closest to your home or where you need water the most, or where water settles. As in the Annie Lamont title, Bird by Bird, you work on a piece a little at a time.
- Put in earthworks to harvest rainwater. Simple swales or rain catchment basins, perpendicular to the water flow and on contour with your property, will harvest hundreds of gallons of water each rain. You can do them with tractors, you can do them with shovels, you can do small ones with trowels above small plants. Just do them.
- Bury organic matter: hugelkultur. Do you have old wood laying around? Palm trees that are growing and being a fire hazard? Old untreated lumber full of nails? Branches? All of this can be layered into the ground. Bury organic matter downhill from your swales. If you cannot bury, then pound sticks vertically into the ground. The important thing is that you are adding organic material back into your depleted soil. It will hold rainwater, it will activate soil microbes and fungi, it will open oxygen and nutrient channels, it will sequester carbon and make it available to the plants. Our soil is mostly just dead dirt. By layering organic material with dirt you are doing what nature does, but at an accelerated pace. If your soil is unmanageable, or you can’t dig, then layer on top of the soil. Its called, among other things, lasagne gardening. Lay out newspaper, top it with fresh grass clippings or other greens, top that with dried grass clippings, dried leaves or other ‘brown’ materials, and depending upon what you want to plant in this, you can top it with mulch or with a layer of good compost and then mulch. Then plant in it! You create soil on top of the ground.
- Mulch and sheet mulch! Protect your soil from the heat and wind, and from pounding rain. A thin layer of bark will actually heat up and accelerate the evaporation process: add several inches of mulch to the ground. Better yet, sheet mulch by laying cardboard and/or newspaper directly on top of the weeds and layering an inch or more of mulch on top. This can be free mulch from landscapers, old weeds, grass clippings, animal bedding, softwood cuttings… just cover the soil to keep it moist and protected. Thick mulching alone will help keep some humidity in the air and begin soil processes, as well as reduce evaporation by reflected heat that comes from bare earth or gravel.
- Plant native plants. They thrive in our soil. Grow trees that filter the sun and don’t like a lot of water, such as palo verde, or those that take minimal additional water such as desert willow, California redbud, valley oak, or others. Grow tall bushes such as toyon, lemonadeberry, sugarbush, quailbush, ceanothusor others. Use these wonderful plants to invite in birds,butterflies, lizards and other wildlife that will begin pollination and help activate the soil.
- Design your garden for what you want to grow besides natives. Fruit trees? Vegetables? Ornamentals? They can be arranged in your mulched area in guilds to grow cooperatively.
- Grow shade. Fast-growing trees and shrubs are invaluable for protecting – ‘nurserying in’ – less hardy plants. Acacia and cassia are both nitrogen-fixers and will grow quickly to shade your plants, can be cut for green waste in the fall and also attract pollinators. Moringa is completely edible and is also an excellent chop-and-drop tree. There are many others. You need to protect what you plant from the harsh summer sunlight, and using sacrificial trees and shrubs is the most productive way to do it.
- Protect your tree trunks from scorching by growing light vines up them, such as beans or small squash.
Once you have done this process in one area, then move on to the next, like a patchwork quilt. These areas should all be planted in accordance with a larger plan that covers your entire property, so that you plant what you want in the best possible place. However, the earthworks, hugelkultur and mulching can be done everywhere. By following these guidelines, and working one small area at a time, you’ll have success, have trees, shade, food and be helping reverse desertification, one plot at a time.
Last Saturday we hosted our first workshop of 2017, featuring Alden Hough of Sky Mountain Permaculture. Alden is a master at creating earthworks, and he spent three hours here at Finch Frolic Garden teaching a class of sixteen people how to install swales correctly. The project was a small pond that overflowed and flooded when heavy rains hit. The soil is heavy clay and therefore the small pond doesn’t percolate. It is kept filled by the well, and its overflow feeds the bog and the big pond. Right now the little pond is full of native Pacific chorus frog tadpoles, which will evolve into small frogs that will go out into the landscape and eat bugs the rest of the year. He created a urbanite (cement chunks) spillway into a twenty-foot swale. The class learned what a bunyip was and how to use the water level, and how to use a laser level. The swale will hold about 300 gallons of water that would have overflowed into another area, spread and sink the water.
The swale was measured and marked on contour. Bermuda grass was pulled from it and set into trash cans to cook in the sun and hopefully be destroyed. The swale was then dug by hand. Old wood – branches, logs, boards and old posts – were laid below the swale, and covered by the dirt. This hugelkultur will absorb seeping water, aerate and enrich the soil, and provide food and water over time for the trees downhill.More dirt was needed to cover the wood so we emptied the first rain catchment basin on the property of silt and hauled it down the hill. This was a lot of heavy work, and several of our attendees worked extremely hard with the wheelbarrows. Miranda and I have a lot of experience doing this heavy work, and we are glad that this swale project also emptied this basin.
Our wonderful workshop attendees worked very hard in the heat. The end result was a swale of beauty. By creating level swales dug on contour, you can see how right it looks. It hasn’t been dug deeper into the ground at one end to force the swale to be level. If you measure on contour your swale can be of any size, and it will collect, passify, spread and sink rainwater into the landscape. Earthworks are the best way to hold water, and are imperative to reestablishing water tables, keeping wells running, keeping trees alive and maintaining springs and streams. A little earthworks will make a huge difference.
What needs to be done now is to create a dedicated overflow from the swale into the main pond. As this area receives a lot of foot traffic, we’ll also need to haul more silt to make the raised walkway more gradual and blended with the paths around. Once the tadpoles have grown and left the pond, we can drain it and use that silt. Two projects in one.
Prior to the project Miranda carefully removed a lot of healthy creeping red fescue from the work site. After the swale and spillway were dug she replanted some of it. Native yarrow will also be planted to help hold the swale.
A huge thanks to the many people who came to learn and work on site. No matter how many movies you watch or books you read, having hands-on experience makes the education click. And an extra huge thanks to Alden Hough for his expertise and hard work. Please visit Sky Mountain Permaculture in Escondido for more classes – earth bag dome building included – coming up there.
Our next Finch Frolic Garden workshop will be in April: April 22, 2pm – 4pm: The Many Benefits of Trees: Care, Nurturing and Pruning . Roger Boddaert, the Tree Man of Fallbrook and professional landscaper who planned the original garden that would evolve into Finch Frolic Garden, will talk about trees. So many trees are dying due to the drought, and we need to replace them to help shade and cool the earth and hold onto moisture. But what to plant, where and how to care for them? Roger will take you through tree care based on fifty years of experience in landscaping. Visit https://www.southernpalmetto.com/services/ and get all the details.
Go forth and dig swales!
Happy March! Finch Frolic Garden is officially open, and the trees are bursting into leaf and bloom. Birds are twitterpating and the ten inches of rain we’ve received since October are slowly working through the soil thanks to our earthworks.
Here’s an opportunity to learn just how to create accurate swales and hugelkultur so that they work. Saturday March 11th from 1 -4 we have the privilege of having Alden Hough from Sky Mountain Permaculture hold our first monthly workshop here in the garden. Alden has years of experience with building earthworks on all scales, from guiding excavators across hillsides to hand-dug. Alden will describe how to build swales and hugelkultur beds, show off equipment, and then its hands-on in the garden. You’ll learn how to use a laser level and a bunyip, and get the feel of how to build on contour. Bring your gloves and be prepared to have some fun creating earthworks, so that you can do it properly on your own property.
The workshop fee is $20/person. Please RSVP to email@example.com. Wear appropriate work clothes and sun protection. Complimentary vegetarian refreshments will be available. Attendees may stroll Finch Frolic Garden as well. Don’t wait!
This 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. For 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. That 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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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. )
With this configuration the risers are resistant to damage from being kicked, from having 100-lb. tortoises crawling over them, etc.
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.
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.
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.