Outer Transformation Part 2 – What the Swale?

In Part 1, I outlined the last three years of work my family and I have completed in our yard. It’s pretty crazy for me to put that in a timeline. Those three years feel like twice that, largely because of the amount of effort we’ve put in. This fall I stood back and looked at everything, and felt defeated.  For all of that work, we still have a long way to go.

Compare the way that it began:

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To what it is now:

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You would probably agree the yard does indeed look better. I think being involved in the process, working with it nearly every weekend, you develop tunnel vision. The above photo is a great example. See the cut up tree in the yard? Strong winds this spring cracked the trunk of that tree and it was about to fall. So I spent a weekend cutting it down and splitting the logs.

In fact, we had so much brush from the spring we kept the fire pit burning for almost two days straight. Cleaning up outside, we would occasionally walk over to throw more on the fire. It got so hot things would ignite the instant they made it onto the pile. Still, there were branches and brush left over. We have so many mature trees around our property, we had debris fall every week between February and July this year.

Outside of the regular yard work, cleaning up large tree trunks and branches is laborious. Again, this is something those resources I mentioned in Part 1, the YouTube videos, DIY shows and blogs make sound really easy, or leave out of the conversation all together. Maybe it’s a problem most people don’t have, I don’t know. For us, it’s a reality. While it doesn’t cost me anything monetarily, it costs me daylight.

At first I cut and split a lot of wood to make a pile. Especially that first year. I thought we would use it in the fire pit, or at one point I had a dream of a wood stove to heat our house. We don’t use the fire pit enough to burn through all the wood, and adding a wood stove to the house would be fun, but that’s $6,000 I don’t have to spare at the moment.

To use up some of the logs, I decided to get my daily exercise and split them into rails. Several trees went from this:

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To this:

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To this:

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Using nothing but these:

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It was, and still is, a hell of a lot of work. But remember what I said at the beginning of Part 1? Sometimes it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need and what you have. I didn’t need a split rail fence to go around my garden, but I did need to find a use for all the trees and branches falling in the yard. Yes, I could have hired someone to come in and clean it all up. Yes, I could have rented a wood splitter and made life a little easier for myself. It’s possible I could have gone an extra step and tried to sell some of the wood.

There are two things you should know about me, if you haven’t figured them out yet. 1) I really like doing things myself. 2) I’m really trying to make choices about our house, yard and lifestyle that work with nature, not against it. 3) If I don’t have to pay for it, I won’t. It’s also about using what we have available to improve the aesthetics of our yard. Did I need a split rail fence? Again, the answer is no. Does it look kind of cool to have one around the garden? Sure does. Did it get the debris out of my yard? Sure did. And I get a workout to boot. Everyone’s a winner!

One problem though, I still had a pile of wood and a pile of brush. And after three years of splitting and stacking, this was turning into an eye sore. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so there it sat.

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My wife took to creating a large perennial garden between our two, very tall trees, (I affectionately call it “the bean” because of the shape it took on). It was a good way to develop space we didn’t use. We wanted to attract beneficial insects and support bee populations and so this seemed logical. At the same time, it improved the aesthetics of the yard. It did not alleviate some other issues, though.

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At the end of Part 1 I mentioned some frustrations with our garden this season. Namely, how to effectively collect water. In the spring I bought some barrels from a local farm supply store, cut the tops off, covered them with fine screen to keep mosquitoes out and set them up behind the garden to collect water. I created four rain barrels for $100, compared to purchasing one “real” rain barrel for the same amount. We’d previously used a water trough to collect the rain, and it worked just fine, so I didn’t think we’d have a problem. I was wrong.

It wasn’t that the barrels didn’t collect water, it was the screen I chose. It was so fine, the surface tension was too much and most of the water ran off, rather than into the barrels. By the time I figured it out, we were well into the season. It was pure luck it rained a fair amount for most of the summer. While I did use the small amount of water in the barrels, I still had to haul water from the house. It was frustrating. I didn’t want to remove the screen, mosquitoes are bad enough where we live. I’m on the fence about treating the water with tablets. We have lots of bats, but they can only eat so many bugs. I felt like I’d wasted the barrels. The real trouble came when we’d grown complacent with frequent precipitation, and we realized that we’d gone three weeks without rain showers and without watering the garden.

To say the least I was disappointed with myself for letting it go. We had a great harvest, but it could have been better if I’d kept my focus and not been distracted. I decided we needed a backup plan. A way to improve the soil, water retention, create spaces that didn’t require so much weeding, cut back on mowing and still produce useful resources. Also known as permaculture.

This is not a new concept, but it’s new to me. Folks familiar with permaculture will no doubt already know Toby Hemenway’s book “Gaia’s Garden.” It reads like a book, it’s not a step-by-step outline. But it’s teeming with information and is an easy, one-stop resource for beginners and experienced gardeners alike. The more I read, the dumber I felt. Not because it describes an intense, complicated process. But because it points out the obvious.

Guess what the first lesson is Toby describes in his book? Observation. It all goes back to simply paying attention. Up until I investigated more about permaculture, I thought I’d done a pretty fair job learning the ins and outs of our property. After all we’ve had successful gardens, the work has decreased, the output has increased, and we have a lot of fun doing it. We even added some fruit trees to the yard. I still felt like there was more we could do, and after reading Gaia’s Garden I realized we’d hardly begun to break the surface.

Armed with a pad of graph paper, Toby’s book and a six pack of Irish stout, I went to work.

Part 3

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