Tag Archives: swales

Late Spring Permaculture Update

As we transition from the wet season into the dry season, the importance of water management is clear. We have installed a number of small water management features such as this swale.

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This filled during a 30 mm rain event. The water will feed the pumpkins planted along its length.

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We have also planted a vulnerable hillside with poplar poles seen here with blue protective leaves.

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Meanwhile, here is the neighbouring farm.

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Water management can also be as easy as mulching heavily.

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We’re also having great success tractoring chooks and ducks around the orchard and market gardens.

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Edges tend to be high maintenance so I like to use the birds to do the work.

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Recent signs of spring include pear blossoms.

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I have a real affinity for pear trees.    Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 6.15.38 am

Another sign of the season is Jersusalem artichoke starting to poke through.

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Love this time of year.

Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Update: Part Two

Well, it did not take long for our new “pond” to fill.

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Overnight it filled with another 20-30 mm of rainfall. Now in the last 6 days we are approaching 150 mm (6 inches) of rain. Now I am thinking less about swales and more about drains. This building is at the foot of a slope and has received a lot of water in the past.

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The rubble road we are building also acts as a drain for this building made of steel and wood – neither of which like water.

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The water flows away from the shed and also away from the house, which suffers from serious drainage issues at the moment.

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The swale has actually decreased the amount of water flowing through this gate and down the drive toward the house. That alone is a huge benefit of the swale.

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Closer to home, the drain I finished last weekend is working well. It takes the water coming down the concrete pad next to the house…

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…and directs it under the house…

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…through a bicycle water bottle adapter (no joke) and into novoflow flexible piping under the house and out the other side.        Screen shot 2015-04-13 at 11.27.05 AM

With water it always seems like too much or too little, and the climate scientists warn us that we’ll be getting more of both in the future. Buckle up for a bumpy ride.


Peace, Estwing

Early Autumn Permaculture Update

After an amazingly long summer it feels that autumn is finally here. I wore my winter wetsuit surfing yesterday for the first time since October. I’ve put new fire bricks in the wood burner and it looks like this will be the week to light it.

After a significant dry spell, we have had 100+ mm of rain in the last 4 days. As a result of that we have an unexpected pond on our property.

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Truth be told, it is not unexpected, just not in the space planned for it.

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We have been building a swale in combination with a rubble road and a raised area to plant avocado trees.

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But at the moment the pond is in the excavated area for the rubble road and not behind the swale.

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Just for fun I started digging the pond today. Under about 250 mm of topsoil is a clay pan.

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Ultimately we can line the walls of the pond with the clay so it holds water longer.

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 But it’s all good. The ducks love the temporary pond, and why spoil their fun.

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Peace, Estwing

It’s All About Water

Met Service predicted 15 mm of rain for us last night – we got 3 mm. That just about sums up water – too little, too much, and unpredictable. And the prediction is for more unpredictability in rainfall in the future. With this in mind, we are in the process of trying to ‘climate-proof’ our property with regard to water.

There are places on the property where we want more water and places where we want less water. For example, high on the property we are holding water with a new water tank…

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… and building swales.

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Other places, we are trying to direct water away from structures… Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.27.46 AM

… and in this case away from a fence that is rotting because it has remained waterlogged for many years.

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Here is a batten rotting from the bottom upward.  Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.28.05 AM

The drainage around the house is especially appalling and has required major intervention, such as this.

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And this.

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And this.

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And this.

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Underneath the house looks like this – relocating water from the ‘high side’ of the house to the ‘low side’

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Three drains uphill of the house end up here – draining out and underneath a garden path.

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 Everyone loves Water!Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.29.38 AM


Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different, Part 6 – “Thinking Like a Swale”

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Last month I was invited to give a lecture on eco-design at a tertiary institution. As part of the lecture I provided background on why we should even bother to put the eco into design. Among the reasons was to build resilience to the predicted and observed effects of climate change: including increasingly severe weather events.

During the question and answer time a young woman tried to start a debate on climate change rather than ask questions about eco-design. Even before she said that her parents were farmers I could tell because she was parroting the same statements I’ve heard from farmers many times.

I steered the conversation back to eco-design and how a growing number of farmers are using it to their advantage to build resilience to drought and protect themselves financially. There are two primary examples of how this is done: 1) protecting waterways with fencing and plantings of trees and/or shrubs; 2) constructing swales.

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Bill Mollison’s quintessential swale. 

The young woman challenged these suggestions: “My parents can’t afford to do that.”

“Your parents can’t afford not to,” I replied.

Ask a farmer in California how expensive the current drought is for them.

Predicted and observed impacts of climate change include more frequent and severe droughts as well as more frequent and severe floods. On my farm I am preparing for both and would suspect any prudent, conservative farmer (like me) would do the same.

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Small-scale swale. 

A recent announcement by the UN climate science panel revealed that there are three areas where extreme weather will have the greatest effects, two of which are particularly pertinent to NZ: farming regions and coastal areas.

Here is a good time to pause and remind readers that I do not beat the drum for carbon reductions or engage in campaigns against cow farts. I am happy for others to do those things. In life we choose our battles and my battle is to try to convince as many people as possible that eco-design is smart design and anything else is wasteful and ignorant.

In recognition of River Week I’d like to focus the rest of this column on ecological water management and specifically what I call “Thinking like a swale.” A swale is an earthen berm that runs perpendicular to slope. It is perfectly level and therefore does not drain like a ditch.

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Garden built as a series of swales. 

A swale catches water in times of abundance and stores it in the earth. Instead of running off a property during heavy rains and adding to flooding, the water is held on the property in a giant underground ‘water tank.’ This stored water can be called upon in times of drought either from springs that form lower on the property or by the deep roots of certain trees whose foliage can be fed to stock.

In these ways a swale works like a bank account. Deposits are made in times of abundance and withdrawals are made in times of scarcity.

But “thinking like a swale” is not limited to water management. This type thinking relates directly to passive solar design: excess sunlight energy is collected and stored during the day in thermal mass and released at night as the indoor temperature drops.

What is easily the coolest example of thinking like a swale that I have come across recently is a project undertaken by my friend Sonam Wangchuk, an eco-design engineer and education reformer in Ladakh, India. As a way to develop resilience to the effects of climate change and protect the people of Ladakh, Wangchuk has used eco-design thinking and natural energy flows to develop a working model of a seasonal artificial glacier.

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Prototype Ice Stupa

The ingenious artificial glacier, nicknamed the “Ice Stupa,” takes excess winter stream water and freezes it into a giant mound using gravity and the natural sub-zero temperatures of the Trans-Himalaya. In springtime when water is most needed by farmers to germinate their seed in the fields the Ice Stupa provides early meltwater before the higher glaciers begin thawing in early summer.

Wangchuk is among the top eco-designers in the world, and this project is one of his best. To learn more about this amazing example of eco-design and support Wangchuk’s work, see the sidebar.

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Traditional stupas in Ladakh

To learn more about Wangchuk’s project, follow this link:  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice-stupa-artificial-glaciers-of-ladakh


Peace, Estwing