Outer Transformation Part 3 – It was an Accident

Read Parts 1 and 2, to learn more.

I’m going to go ahead and warn you that if you’re familiar with permaculture, some of this will make you groan. I do not proclaim to be a professional or expert when it comes to this sort of thing. All I have are books, lots of time on airplanes and self-motivation. Anyone can hire a landscaping company to come in and design their yardscape. It takes a lot more effort to try and pull it off by yourself.

Actually, that’s not true. A lot of people can’t hire someone to do this for them. So for those of you reading through my trials and tribulations, I hope this serves as some sort of inspiration to work in your own space, or remember what it was like to get started. And I’m willing to bet you didn’t get it all perfect the first time.

That’s honestly one of the things I love about this kind of work. Unless you’re trying to build some kind of permanent structure such as a patio, plans can change. It might be tough, but it’s possible. Keep in mind I bought Gaia’s Garden in September of this year. To be specific, it was delivered on September 17th. Today (the day I’m writing this) is October 31st. I spent six weeks with my nose buried in a book and throwing sheets of paper with sketches on them around my living room.

The second lesson in trying to create a landscape, is planning. While I stand by what I said just a second ago, things can change, but it’s important to be as organized as possible. We are fortunate in that we have not tried to shape our yard, so much as maintain it. For the most part it remains a blank canvas.

As I sat trying to figure out where to begin, I decided to tackle the first problem. Water. Sure, collecting rain water is fine and I’ll worry about the rain barrels in the spring, but I wanted to find something else. I needed something that didn’t require collecting runoff from a roof and moving it. Enter the swale.

Yes, a swale. When I asked some friends who also enjoy working outdoors if they’d ever tried such a thing, they had to ask what a swale was. Even my mother-in-law, who spends all of her spare time working on their property, who knows everything about everything even when she doesn’t, didn’t know what I was talking about. This made me nervous. If no one else knew what it was, maybe trying to build one was a silly idea. But I was convinced that if Mr. Hemenway thought it was a good idea, surely I could find a way to implement it.

There are a few ways a swale can work, but this is the most common. The most natural way is to find a contour on a landscape. This is where water will naturally drain on the property. It might be steep, it might be shallow, so long as it slopes. On the slope, a trench is dug out. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it should be fairly level. The dirt removed from the trench is piled on the downward side of the hole. This will act as a barrier, trapping rain water in the swale. The pile of dirt is referred to as a berm. Lots of other books and blogs refer to this, and so I won’t go into any more detail. Check out this blog for some great pictures. Suffice it to say, I’m now obsessed with swales.

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Image from Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. This is a larger depiction of a swale. The premise is the same, regardless of the size.

I knew our property had slope, but what I didn’t know was if it would be enough. The short answer is, yes. But what did the contours really look like? Building an A-frame and measuring sure sounded like fun, but if I wanted to get things done this fall, I needed a time-saver. I used an overlay tool on Beacon that showed general topographic data for my area. It isn’t available in all states, so it may not work for you. Since I was interested in general contours, it worked just fine.

As I examined the images, through luck, coincidence or divine intervention, I realized the landscaping we started with could not have been a more happy accident. That notion I had about our sloping yard was spot on. Though it’s not the lowest point in the property, our 600 sq. ft. garden sits right next to it. No doubt it’s why our harvest continued after the rains had stopped. It was a natural reservoir. As an added bonus, the fruit trees we planted are perfectly aligned with a natural contour. Rain water naturally drains parallel to the fruit tree line. I was elated!

Say what you will, there’s something about being in tune with the Earth that just makes me happy.

Constructing swales on contours was fine, but what to do about the garden itself? It is suggested that over time, a swale will allow a more natural pool to develop underground, behind the berm. Supposedly they will grow tens of feet behind a swale. My problem wasn’t developing a natural reservoir for the garden, that was already happening. My problem was how to capitalize on what already existed, and expand the resource. Hugelkultur to the rescue!

Hugelkultur is a German word that means “hill culture.” Logs, branches and brush are buried under topsoil. Wood absorbs lots and lots of moisture naturally, and as it decomposes creates hummus in the earth, releasing nutrients out to plants. Think of it as an underground sponge.

Remember this mess?

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I had perfect hugelkultur material already cut and ready to be laid out! And, I’d get to clear some of the mess that has become this obnoxious wood pile.

Most hugelkulturs are built by laying out logs, then adding soil on top of them. That wasn’t going to work for me, because I didn’t want to lose the natural low point of the garden. I also didn’t feel like hauling in massive amounts of topsoil. This is again one of those moments when cost is not discussed on all those DIY shows. Yes, I could’ve hired someone to do the work for me, which would have been really expensive. I could have gone the cheapest route and dug out the garden by myself, but my back just didn’t think that was a good idea. Not to mention, digging over 600 sq. ft. of garden down eighteen inches would have taken for-ev-er. So I rented a mini-excavator and went to town. About six hours and $300 later, I had buried a third of the wood pile in swales and underneath the garden.

It was raining and cold, so I had another moment where I wasn’t taking photos. But, here’s what it sort of looked like.

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The excavator made quick work of it all. I’d done a fairly good job in preparing for the operation, so I’d previously laid out branches and raked leaves where I knew one of the swales would go.

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As I dug the swale out, I simply dumped the soil on top of the leaves and compost to make a hugelkultur. The leaves will compost under the soil over the winter, and the wood will absorb more water, making an excellent berm to be planted in the spring.

To get ready for our future fruit tree guild, I dug a trench along the contour next to our existing fruit trees. Then I added some smaller swales intermittently, like fish scales, between the trees. We filled those with logs and straw to retain moisture. These too should provide excellent starting points for planting in the spring. The long trench will be a great resource for tree roots to feed from over time, with less watering.

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It’s not exactly pretty, but that’s not the goal right now. All I care about is what I’ll have ready in six to eight months for planting.

Update 11-3-17: It’s been exactly one week since we finished this part of the project. It was just in time! We’ve had quite a bit of rain the last few days and I’m happy to report that our swales are collecting water nicely. The straw and leaves we filled the trenches with are absorbing the excess moisture very well. I look forward to updates in the future.

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