January 15, 2015

Learning the Land by Observing the Weather

January started off with two and a half inches of rain over two days. We'd had a beautifully mild December with a little under four inches of rain, so the ground was pretty saturated by the time that January rain hit. As it finally began to let up I noticed the puddles seemed larger than usual. I was curious as to where the water was collecting, so I set off to take a look.

Our land is a series of ridges.


The house sits on the highest elevation which is on the base of our triangle shaped property. This is good because it means the house has excellent drainage. It also means that our collected rainwater can be gravity fed where ever we need it, another plus. Going toward the back of the property means going downhill through the woods. Last year we fenced an area of the woods to let our goats do some clearing there. It was loaded with poison ivy, kudzu, saw briars, and blackberry brambles. One year later, the goats have done a good enough job so that we can better see the lay of the land.

Randy getting ready to jump over a ridge long puddle of rainwater.

The same puddle continues along the ridge on the other side of the fence .

The next ridge had collected more water in a wider dip in the terrain, but ...

The water drains from the ridge by running down the path on which
  you can see Waldo and Polly (our pigs) scampering down the hill. 

The water continues to drain down the hill toward the back of the property, where it seems to disappear into some sort of indentation in the ground. I got to thinking that the ridges are almost natural swales. What I need to do is to stop the water from running down the hill.

The ridges are clearly defined with a short, steep drop.

Not a terribly good showing of the ridge. Randy is on the top of it.

I've also been thinking that the downside of the ridges would be a good place to start placing all our tree debris, in hugelkulture fashion. We had to do some clearing for the fence, but most of the debris has been fallen pine trees. These are mature, end-of-life trees that have done their job in forest succession. The pines were the fast growing, light loving pioneer species which gave shade tolerant hardwoods an opportunity to establish themselves. Now more hardwoods are establishing themselves, but the pines are tall and spindly, like light starved tomato seedlings. Because of that their trunks are weak, and it's amazing to watch them bend and sway like tall grasses in strong winds. And a little bit scary. It seems that after every major storm we can find new pine trees falling over. We've tried to clean the area up a bit.

The wood piles are all pine from wind-downed trees

What to do with them has been a concern, but I think lining them up parallel to and below the ridges might be a good plan. Perhaps in the future we could even plant something there. After Dan read Sepp Holzer'z Permaculture he envisioned a orchard on our downward sloping property, if we could ever get it somewhat cleared. It seemed impossible then, but now it looks as though it might actually be a possibility someday.

Two other natural swales are in the front pasture. A small one sits along the ridge where we are planning to plant a forest garden hedgerow.

Surprise & Lily. The fenced area contains our
blueberry bush and is downhill of the ridge.

The other collects at the top of this same pasture.

A puddle collects here anytime we get a good rain, but this was the largest
I've ever seen it. There is another ridge just to the left of the puddle.

I know from experience that these are not a year-round solution to water conservation. But if we can stop the runoff where it exists and build up the soil on the downside of the ridges, we can certainly help.

10 comments:

  1. My first thoughts with your wonderful puddles would be whether it's worth excavating and building a series of small (interconnectged if you can) dams. Even if they dry out over the summer it would mean available water to seep into hugels or water animals etc over the spring and from Autumn onwards perhaps.
    Second thought was hugelkultur beds on the down side of them. The hugels will soak up and hold the water for lots longer too. Although a hugel of pine isn't so great I believe, using some of your downed spindly pines would be ok I would think. Even if you did use pine, the acid soil would be great for blueberries which I have recently heard can be grown from cuttings. :)
    Your photos look lovely, even if things are a little damp. :)

    BTW, saw your blog as a publication of note at restoring Maybery's blog. :)

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  2. Jessie, "hugelkultur beds on the down side" of the ridges was exactly what I was trying to say, LOL. Obviously I didn't make a very good explanation so I've reworded in hopes it describes it better.

    After Dan read Sepp Holzer's Permaculture for the first time he envisioned an orchard there. It seemed impossible then, but who knows? Thanks for reminding me of that (I added it as well). Blueberries is definitely a good idea and I didn't know that about propagating them. Thanks! :)

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  3. Yea Hugelkultur! It is working here. I am a couple of years ahead of you. I had a spot where 55 years of runoff from a school complex had cut a deep gash in the soil. I started with the slash and every downed three I had. Then the Chip Fairy started burying it for me. Now, I am mounded up and ready for the manure covering. I will need about 100 yards of manure to cover this thing. The good news is that it IS slowing down the water. I can walk freely where I choose. The water is still coming out on the bottom side of my boundary wall, but it is coming out from underneath a tree instead of coming overland. The slope abatement through parallel placement of logs also works well. I had it done (very big machine) two years ago and even with bare soil in places, it holds and the water flows.

    Thanks for the tour! We haven't been down there with you!

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  4. I live just below the topographic crest of the mountain. When we get heavy rain, it flows down across the meadow towards the house. I have to have drainage ditches across the flow to divert it off into the woods.

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  5. My hay field is terraced quite nicely so I don't have any issues there but I have a huge erosion problem under my little washed out farm pond I am just now getting around to attempting to fix. One step at a time and all.

    First step is to slow the water down from my neighbors corn field though to stop the erosion.

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  6. Barb, well done. I only wish we had done this previously. Funny how things strike you at particular times. I've already put a small earthworks ridge of my own where the water was flowing down the hill. I'm anxious for the next rain to see how well this worked. :)

    Harry, yikes, did you ever get any flooding in the house before the ditches were done? We had to do that to a place we lived in once, after getting several inches of water in the basement.

    PP, that would be a problem, since the water is coming from your neighbors. I hope it's not too steep or large of an area. Erosion can be such a sad looking thing.

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  7. Hydo-engineering isn't a strong suit of mine. We've spent a good deal of time and energy trying to slow water down and get it to go where it should. Our land is sloped and that is particularly a problem because of our large tilled vegetable gardens. When we were getting the place ready for farming 10 years ago I'd never heard of permaculture. We had great hugelculture opportunities, but missed them because I didn't know about the concept. We've been able to eliminate the gullies and, for the most part, solve the erosion problems. But it's a constant battle. Y'all are wise to think it all through carefully.

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  8. i am ignorant but think about mosquitoes and possibly seeing where the water goes so you don't dry any natural springs or places where wildlife or the neighbor's cattle drink.
    soRry to be pushy.
    deb h.

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  9. Bill, I daresay that if we had started ten years ago we would have done things differently as well. I'm actually probably pushing it as it is, especially for the hedgerow. I don't want to wait several years on a hugelkultur bed! There's always something to learn and something to try, isn't there?

    Deborah, excellent points and easy to answer for our situation, at least. The water does not stand long enough to breed mosquitoes, especially in summer. We have trouble keeping the ground moist because our heat evaporates it right out of the soil. Sadly, no natural springs anywhere near here. That was on our "must have" list when we first started looking for land but had to cross it off in favor of a well. More sadly, we ended up with city water! Our ground run-off goes down to a seasonal creek and then into a larger creek and eventually a river. Our swales may slow it down a bit but the environmental impact is slim to none. No neighbors have cattle or other livestock, so no problem there. Ecologically, swales are a good way of conserving run-off water. They prevent erosion and water the land.

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  10. I've been more conscience of where my water is collecting too, especially since our driveway tends to become a lake, and then drains into the neighbor's pasture. I have been researching swales, and think we will create some between the garden and the driveway. It will help both the garden and the driveway :)

    http://caffeinatedhomestead.weebly.com/

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