Back in August I hosted a get together of friends that I made on my Permaculture Design Course. We have been meeting regularly, taking it in turns to host it, and using it as an opportunity to throw a lot of bodies into a task that would have taken the host ages to finish. Despite it always appearing as if most people are just chatting, it always amazes me how much we get done. After most of them had left on the Sunday, those of us remaining used a Bunyip (water level) to mark out three lines of bamboo poles on contour, so that I could construct some swales.
Swales are the opposite of drainage ditches, dug level, along the contour of a slope. Instead of taking water away quickly, the swales capture water, and allow it to percolate down into the soil, where it is available to plants. Reducing runoff and evaporation. One of the potential effects of climate change is an increase in rainfall during our Winter, with less during the Summer, with the Summer rain falling in larger downbursts. Here in Lincolnshire we have pretty dry Summers, and I wanted to make sure that the trees that I’m planting will have enough water to sustain them, which will then help to sustain me.
I hired a mini digger for a weekend, and dug three swales, and have since transplanted some of the perennials from my vegetable beds onto them. This is OK, but after I dug them, I had another read of some of the books in my Permaculture library, and I should have propagated the plants for the swale bank before digging it. Oh well, nobody gets it right all of the time.
This is a picture of one of the swales. Because the bank is on the South side (downhill), and the sun angle is so low, there is shadow in the bottom. If you follow it along, you can see that the swale continues on the other side of the fence, and into the trees.
In the centre of one of the swales I dug a six foot deep hole, with the hope that it would become a pond. We are on a thick clay subsoil, so I was quite optimistic that it would work. One of my Permaculture mates, Leon, did some dowsing, and one of the potential water sites was next to this swale so I dug down, and found no water. However, I did bust through an old clay field drain, which will feed water into the whole. (In fact it already has, and there is three foot of water in the ‘pond’ now).
I still have to plant up the swale banks, and will probably sow a mixture of annual/perennial bee plants on them, until I decide what to finish them with. I also have to add organic matter into the bottom of the swales, to encourage worms to create more holes, otherwise water will just sit on the clay, and become breeding grounds for mosquitos. I may also add some wood ash, or lime, which should speed up the process. Rather than wheel lots of stuff up into the field, I’m going to mow the grass uphill of the swale with my scythe, and drop the cut grass into the bottom. That way I do two jobs at the same time.
The second picture shows another swale, which has Welsh Onions, Chives, mallow, Poached Egg plants, and Wild Rocket planted on the bank.
Having completed the job, I was also struck by how easy it would be to deepen the swales into an aquaculture system. the long narrow shape of the ponds created would maximise the effect of edge, one of the principles of Permaculture. As most of the food for a system like this comes in from the land, the increased edge would make the thing more productive. Whilst I don’t eat meat, or fish, others do, and it would allow me to grow some edible aquatic plants too.
Increasing the water surface would also allow me to increase the Winter light levels for some plants, using reflected sunlight, perhaps with a backdrop of stone/rock, although that would mean hauling it up into the field. The downside of all of this water is that it will probably lead to an increase in dragonflies, and they eat bees:-( Still, maybe if I have enough fish, they will keep the dragonfly larvae under control. As I spend more time near the water, I think about more ways to expand the ‘waterscape’, hopefully to increase the sustainability of the Smallholding.
Here is a picture of my pond. To give you an idea of scale, the top of the chicken hutch in the background is about head height. The swale extends beyond the pond, but is not connected to it yet. I’m waiting to decide whether I need to bridge the swale there, leave it as it is, or join them up and walk around. The water level is continuing to rise. I added some shallow ditches leading forward and back from the pond, to increase the amount of edge, and shallow water, and these are starting to fill. There is a pond in the next field, and we used to get lots of frogs, and toads in the field, so I’m hoping that the numbers will increase, especially as I’m planning to move the chickens out in the Spring.
The second image of the pond is taken from the North (uphill) bank, and shows the shallow arms of the pond filling up with water. To the left (East) the other part of the swale runs into the pond. I’m guessing that in the Winter and Spring, this will provide a long stretch of shallow water linked to the pond.
If you want to see an amazing system of water capture, storage, and use, I can recommend the DVD ‘permakultur’ by Sepp Holzer. Although it is in German, with subtitles, it shows what can be done with a bit of forethought.