March 24, 2022

Interesting Things I've Learned With a Shovel

Once upon a time, I thought of shovels as simply tools for moving things like dirt, compost, or mulch. While it's true that they are, I've also come to understand that they are invaluable learning tool as well. It's my first tool for soil analysis; a carefully removed shovel depth of soil reveals its physical structure: type, texture, color, and presence of organisms and organic matter. Then there was poking around in the dirt where I put my first forest garden. That was almost like an archaeological dig.

This particular episode in my ongoing learning adventures started when I planted two quince seedlings in the goats' browse area. I'd ordered four seedlings, of which two went above the annuals garden. Then I started learning about swales and wondered if I could help those little trees by digging a small trench-like swale between them. What I learned changed everything.

Digging the trench led to an interesting discovery,
which led to transplanting the little quince trees again.

While digging the trench, I observed water seeping through the clay subsoil and filling the trench. Odd, I thought. Even odder was that water sat in the trench for weeks afterward. Unlike our garden swale, which soaks up the water in about two days, the water here was very slow to soak into the ground. 

The next good rain we got, Dan and I walked the land to observe what the water was doing in this area. Our property is a series of ridges, possibly man-made in the 1930s when swale making was one of the government projects to give people work. The remnants of these are less obvious on our treed land, but easy to see on our next door neighbors' places.

Ridge and old swale above where the quince trees were planted.

Two ridges below where they were planted.

We discovered a series of puddles both uphill and downhill from where I planted the quince trees. However, there wasn't observable overland runoff. Coincidence? Or is something else going on?

After it dried out a bit, I dig another small trench below the first one.

If you can spot her, Meowy is squatted down near my 1st trench.

I dug about this deep and then something interesting started to happen.

Water started to seep through the clay and fill my little trench.

It filled quickly enough to make ripples in the water!

The water fill pretty much stopped when it reached this level.

I dug another trench a few feet over, and it too
started to fill, though not as quickly nor as much.

The next time it rained, I was curious to see what was happening.

This shot was taken looking down on my trenches.

The two lower test trenches had filled with water too (top of the photo).

The trench on the left not only filled, but overflowed.

Where did the overflow go? Both around and under the old pine stump.

From the fence I could look below the next ridge, and this is what I saw.

The hole was made by an uprooted pine tree and
is in line with the flow of water I'm following.

I've been observing the trenches daily after it rains. My observations are that the two lower trenches drain before the top trench does. And while my garden swale holds water for about two days, the top trench holds water for several weeks.

  • There is a lot of water moving underground here, even when it's not raining.
  • Soil conditions are right to retain water here for a longer time than elsewhere.
The unanswered question is where does it originate? From rain, of course, but there's more water collecting in my trenches than is visible to the eye. 

Looking uphill. That's the old swale in the foreground.

Continuing uphill. The green is one of our goat
paddocks. My forest garden is uphill from that.

Over the years, Dan and I have talked about putting in a pond, although we never thought about putting one here. Yet thanks to a shovel, we've made some interesting observations about our land and how it responds to rainfall. Will we ever actually dig a pond? I have no idea. When I took my online permaculture design course, Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton had really interesting things to say about what happens after the land is re-hydrated by swales and ponds. They also discussed how productive aquaculture can be. So, a future pond for us? It's definitely something to consider.


daisy g said... interesting. It's great that you have water where it is not a problem. What a great asset a pond would be!

wyomingheart said...

Water is so very important, and capturing it is very valuable! We are fortunate that we have three springs and a running creek. We have a pond which has always been dry since we bought the farm. We are exploring solutions for fixing the leaks, because we feel that having a pond stocked with fish would be an excellent addition to our self sufficient life style. Please do update us on your decision, as your project could possibly assist with ours. Great post, Leigh!

Leigh said...

Daisy, we used to think in terms of drainage problems, and how to get the water off the land as quickly as possible. Now we try to think in terms of water capture to facilitate slow soakage into the ground. It took awhile to make the mental change, but now it makes a lot of sense!

Wyomingheart, we'd certainly like to turn that into a pond, but "how" is the big question mark! I'll certainly do updates as we tackle that.

tpals said...

Very interesting. I keep getting distracted by how red your clay is; that illustrates how different gardening is in different places.

Ed said...

Around our farms are many places that seem to be perpetually wet. My grandfather called them buffalo "wallers." My dad always pointed them out so that we didn't get stuck in them as they weren't always obvious until it was too late. I'm guessing the same phenomena that you are seeing is what caused them to be wet all the time, and like you, I always wondered where the water was coming from.

Leigh said...

Tpals, yeah, that red is certainly rather blinding! But, it's clay, so it retains water well.

Ed, did you ever wonder if they'd be good places for ponds. Not that you probably needed them! I probably wouldn't have thought much about ours, if it wasn't for my permaculture design course.

Mama Pea said...

Gracious! Who knew all that water was running under there?! Does the standing water provide a breeding ground for insects such as mosquitoes? I, too, am amazed by how red your clay is. The clay we have in many areas here is called "red clay," too, but looks nothing as vivid as yours.

Leigh said...

Mama Pea, the water hasn't been there long enough to know about mosquitoes. I suppose it will depend on how wet or dry our summer is. That would be a good thing to research, though. A proper pond should be an ecosystem, which would include mosquito larva eaters like tadpoles and dragonflies.

Ed said...

The trouble spots on the farm are generally somewhat out in the open with little drainage heading to them. To me it almost seems as if the water table is just high in those spots.

GiantsDanceFarm said...

How interesting! I too am fascinated by how red that clay is. I’ve spent time in areas of the country where the soil is red, and remember on one rainy vacation in GA having to buy 2 extra pairs of tennis shoes because I couldn’t get the red off the ones I’d taken!

Wondering if you’ve ever had pigs? I understand that turning pigs loose in an area with some standing water frequently earns you a “sealed” pond. No clue how that works. I’m not a pig fan, but we were thinking of researching that, and maybe allowing someone to raise some here on our new farm if the water in a section of our woods doesn’t recede. It’s an area which was dry when we walked much of the property before bidding on it last summer. It was dry last fall when we moved here. We’re hoping it’s just a combo of the snowmelt and that we’re having an incredibly wet last few months, and the ground is still frozen below the top 4-5 inches so nowhere for melt to go yet.

I’m looking forward to building some terraces for my garden troughs and raised beds. Not sure we’ll go the swale route because the garden will be located inside a fenced area inside the dog/backyard. That’s 3 acres and the external fence we put in protects about 1/2 the fruit trees on the property from the many, many deer and even elk we have here. The yard is quite sloped, and the trees make much of it too shady, but until we cut down some trees outside the yard we have too little area which gets enough sun to grow as much as I want to.

So interestingplanning this stuff and discovering as we go!

Leigh said...

Ed, you're probably right about the water table. I suppose some things we can only observe and wonder about.

Shelley, yes, we have had pigs. We had American Guinea Hogs and really liked them. Pigs are supposed to be excellent for gleying (sealing) ponds, although I don't know much of the actual how it's done. But, I'm glad you mentioned it; we might have to get more pigs if we ever get that pond dug!

Sounds like you've got some great plans. I'd love to see pictures!

Rosalea said...

Very interesting, as always, Leigh. Will be watching your journey with interest. We believe the pond here was dug originally to dry out the area to the east of the house. It is full of minnows, frogs, and the occasional turtle, and we saw a mudpuppy once. It fluctuates with the water table, and because our soil is so sandy, it goes down fast in the heat of the summer. I love watching the reflections in it, early AM's and late PM's.

Leigh said...

Rosalea, that is so neat about your pond! After we dug out our old swimming pool (and discovered a big crack in the wall) it collected rain water. Then we discovered tadpoles in it and have no idea where they came from! We and the cats enjoy the frogs, although in summer it evaporates and gets pretty low.

Cederq said...

Leigh, I am not fascinated by your red clay, had enough of it when I lived South of Troy... I wonder if you have an underground river under that part of the property. I had one on my property as it too was swaled and contoured back in the 30s. I lived at the bottom of a ridge and found at one corner an artesion (sp) spring and had about 30 gallon a minute flow. I ponded it and it became a nice water hole for my goats. I just had to keep the water moccasins away...

Leigh said...

Kevin, lol. I don't find it fascinating either, but then, I've lived with red clay for more than half my life. What never fails to fascinate me, is the beautiful black soil of the midwest!

An underground river is indeed an interesting idea. In his permaculture design course, Bill Mollison mentions seeing springs and ponds recharged after swaling and damming the land. I can't help but wonder if we would have a permanent pond if the land was hydrated properly. The water moccasins I could do without! But who and what moves in isn't exactly our choice!