Water for the Food Forest

Water for the Food Forest

2015 was an exceptionally hot and dry year here.  The 2014/15 winter was dry and the only rain we had until November was on our Beltane Retreat.  At one point in the summer we thought our deep well had run dry and we became very conscious of the water we were using. We are even more conscious of our water usage now, as we are going off-grid this summer and we aren’t on municipal water – we need to pump our own water.

I used to take water for granted when we lived in London, but water awareness was one of Gaia-Sophia’s first lessons here.  First, the well ran dry in the house we rented, even though the roof leaked into our bed when it rained!  Then when we moved here we had no water in the cabin for a month and that summer, 2013, the gravity well ran dry.  We had another month of driving 10 miles to fill up at the public font that brings water down from the mountains.  Many people in Spain still use mountain water for drinking that comes from the public fonts that are all over Spain.

The gravity well is our reserve well as it doesn’t need electricity to run.  It’s up the hill from the house and the cabin and we laid a pipe so it flows down the hill when we need it.  It’s all we had until we put in a deep well and it only ran dry because we lost a lot of water when we put in the pipe.  It just doesn’t have enough pressure to support all our needs when we have guests, or to water the garden.  So, last summer we opened up the other well that is in the barn.  This is about 15M deep, so we could put in a less powerful pump and the plan was to use that to water the food forest.  That well ran dry too!  The new plan is not to water the food forest.

Most farmers around here don’t irrigate their fields.  They grow potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins and corn and every year they plough in cow manure to get rid of weeds and keep in moisture.  We are not ploughing and we’re not using cow manure.  Cow manure is full of weed seeds and creates more work than benefits.  Our strategy involves swales, ditches, woodchips and trees.

The Lie of the Land

Our food forest is on a gentle south facing slope.  Two years ago we cleared the straggly pines that were there there and began the process of laying out beds and terracing the slopes.  We had the use of a digger for the initial clearing and to lay out the old chestnut beams that were in the house to make the terraces.  The terraces are not formal and not dug out; we are just using the beams to support the downhill side of the beds as we slowly build them up over time with mulch and wood chips.  The aim is to retain rain water and minimize soil erosion from water running down the slope. We’ve done most of the rest of the work by hand, mostly just Dean and I, with a few hours here and there from various visitors.

We get around 100cm of rain in a year, which should be plenty to keep the garden growing throughout the year – if we can keep it in the ground!  The wettest months are November and March, but we can get showers throughout the year and cloudbursts in late summer.  This province, Lugo, is named after Lugo the Celtic god who wielded a spear of lightning.  Lughnasa, the first week of August (thereabouts) is when he brings lightening and thunderstorms to recharge the earth.  Lugh is a Bearer of the Grail.

Our soil is mineral rich, because no one has farmed here for generations.  Before the pines were planted about 20 years ago it would have been cleared pasture for cows and before that it would have been native oak and chestnut woods, that still exist in these parts.  If you turn your back for five minutes in a field around here, an oak tree will shoot up!  However, the soil is solid clay and without the pines providing shade and a constant supply of mulch, it turns to concrete in the summer when the sun beats down.  It’s a beautiful and sheltered location, but it’s very hard on seedlings.

Trees

We have planted about 50 fruit and nut trees so far.  We lost all the hazelnut trees last summer, as the hosepipe wouldn’t reach them, but all the other trees survived.  Mature trees are expert water managers.  A mature fruit tree can drink nearly 200L of water a day and our aim is to keep as much water in the soil as we can, so that we can minimize watering in the dry months.  It might take us a few years to get to that point, as the trees are still young and not rooted deeply enough, but that’s our aim.

Trees are intelligent beings.  You might not be able to hold a conversation with them, but that is just as true for many human creatures.  If you plant a tree in the right place and support it when young, with the minimum intervention, it will adjust its needs to whatever the Planetary Animal Mother provides.  So last year many of the trees dropped their leaves to conserve water because of the drought, but their roots were safe and they are already budding this year, after a mild wet winter.  Trees collect rain and transmit it into the soil.  It has been shown that broadleaved trees intercept blowing rain and conduct it down the branches and trunk to the soil.  The roots then provide a path which carries the rainwater into the deeper soil layers very quickly.  Our indigenous species like ash, alder, chestnut, willow, birch, oak, elm and many hedgerow shrubs are known to be particularly effective even in heavy clay soils, like ours.  Coniferous trees are less effective at catching rainwater.  Trees reduce flooding and prevent soil erosion, as well as providing shade and evening out the temperature extremes.

Ditches and Swales

Everyone knows what a ditch is and a swale looks like a ditch, except it runs across the contour of the land, rather than down it.  A ditch moves water away from where it’s not wanted and a swale retains water where it’s needed.

Swale diagram

 We are using a combination of ditches and swales, to move rain water away from a very waterlogged area and into the swales.  The swales hold more water than would stay on the surface and allow it to gradually percolate downhill below the topsoil, reducing evaporation and encouraging strong plant roots as they reach down for the water.

A full swale
A full swale

We have dug three rows of swales across the slope, fed by the ditch, so that the parts of the food forest that were dry now have water leeching below the surface.  Initially, we put old wood in the swales, as I’d read that the wood preserves the moisture and prevents more evaporation.  I thought it might mean less mosquitoes in summer too.  But the swales are so full that with the wood that they overflow all over the beds, so we are making adjustments.  It also encourages brambles to fill the swales, as they love old wood.  We will probably shore up the downhill side with planks over time, as this will prevent wood chips and mulch from filling the swales.

Mulching and wood chips

If you walk in the woods anywhere around here, the earth is protected by a thick mantle of rich, dark leaf mulch.  This is what the food forest was like before we cleared the trees, which stripped off and compacted the mulch layer.  Mama does not like to be seen naked, so the weeds then grow prolifically to cover the bare soil.  We laid thick layers of hay from the fields when they were cut, to keep the earth covered and some of the weeds away, but it doesn’t work as well for growing as wood chips and mulch, so we strip it away when we make the beds.  Hay works well to cover empty beds over winter, to keep them weed free and warm ready for planting in spring.  It tends to get fungus easily, so I prefer wood chips.

Mulching reduces evaporation so that the soil stays moist in summer.  You can mulch with almost any natural material that you can lay down in layers, like cardboard, old wool carpet or straw.  However, some materials take longer to break down than others, so if you want to plant shortly after mulching, wood chips are hard to beat.  We haven’t got all the beds covered yet.  There’s no tree-cutting service anywhere near us and Dean has to drive to the wood yard 10km away and load up the truck, then we have to wheelbarrow it into place.  It’s laborious, but the earth and the plants will thank us for it.

Our aim is to minimize our work in the garden and maximize our enjoyment and yield.  It’s a two hour job to water the garden with a hosepipe and when we go off-grid that means two hours of running the pump!  Working with nature to manage our water makes so much more sense.

 

 

 

 

 

Gardening with Woodchips

A couple of years ago we watched a documentary called Back to Eden.  It is an excellent permaculture documentary, that pioneers the use of woodchips in the garden.  If you can get over the Christian, Bible quoting dsitractions, the natural farming methods of Paul Gautschi are truly Goethean, based as they are on observation and contemplation of nature.

Our land is clay, and most people around here are dairy farmers. They grow potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage and corn and not much else.  The permculture sites always reference talking to your neighbours as a good source of information, but that’s only useful if you want to do as they do.  We do not want to plough up our land and cover it in cow shit.  Cow shit is full of seeds and you have to leave it for years before you can use it and ploughing destroys the mycelium network, through which the plants communicate. The Gautschi approach immediately appealed because this area is naturally temperate woodland – blink and an oak tree grows.  So do, brambles and weeds on any bare patch of land – the Planetary Animal Mother does not like to parade around naked!

We started the food forest in January 2014, by cutting down about an acre of straggly pines that had been planted too close together on a gentle south facing slope.  It took most of 2014 to clear the area and lay out some chestnut beams that came from the old house.  We covered the whole area with straw for the winter of 2014/15 as we didn’t have enough chips the and we needed to keep some of the weeds away. We have made raised beds that form terraces down the slope.  We put in swales and planted trees for the canopy layer in 2015.  The earth got terribly compressed by the wood cutter’s truck and the tractor for clearing the branches away.  We left most of the stumps in place as they will gradually break down and they keep some of the moisture in the ground.  As the land is south facing and there are no longer any trees there, it’s really muddy in winter and rock hard in the summer.

The biggest challenge was getting enough woodchips.  We bought a Titan chipper from the UK, which works well, but we still have to drag in the wood to chip. We have oak woods all around, but these are wild woods, full of brambles and it takes a couple of days to get enough wood to chip for a day.  Most of the permaculture sites that talk about woodchips are based in the US, where there seem to be an endless supply of tree surgeons wanting to offload their chips on anyone who wants them. Not so here.  Finally, after having bought thousands of wuros worth of chestnut beams from the local wood mill for our house, Alberto happily agreed to let us have as many woodchips as we want for free.  Although Dean still has to drive over there, load up the truck and bring them back here.  It’s still more efficient than chipping our own.

Straw v woodchips? Straw makes a good layer to suppress weeds and to keep in the moisture, but it’s not good for growing in.  I don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, so everything has to be grown in place from seed and the straw makes an impermeable mat that is too tough for the seedlings to get through.  I moved the straw away on some of the beds as they grew, but it’s more work than woodchips and not as successful.  With the woodchips I just move the woodchips aside to expose the bare earth, sow the seeds and push the wood chips back and the seedlings germinate and grow.  I keep straw for the paths.

So, we are still building our wood chip beds and have many. many weeds.  I leave most of the weeds, many of which are wild herbs and medicinal plants, as well as food for pollinaters and predators that would otherwise eat all my plants.  We haven’t used any fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides and everything that survived the drought of 2015 grew just fine. The thistles, gorse and brambles are the only weeding that we do – sometimes plantain, which is plentiful around here.  My aim is to keep the garden work to a couple of hours a day; of course it doesn’t work out that way because of the weather and the fact that we are still setting things up.  Still, in the first year we’ve had: carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, peas, chard, peppers, onions, radishes, beetroot, beans, broad beans, courgettes, squash and we would have had sweetcorn, but the wild boar got it all!

 

  • Minnie the Mulcher

 

Food Forest

We cleared about an acre of pine trees for the food forest.  We decided to clear the trees because they were planted too close together and very weak and spindly.  We’ve left the stumps in the ground as they will rot within a couple of years.  The site slopes gently and is a southerly aspect.  The soil is clay, but very rich under the pines.

We used the ancient chestnut beams from the old house to lay out terraces.  The aim is to hold some of the rain that will wash down the slope.  The rain is plentiful in spring, autumn and winter, but we need to keep the moisture in the soil for the summer months.  We are working with the Fukuoka method as much as closely as possible, so we have cut the brambles to the ground with a brush-cutter, but we haven’t done and ploughing or weeding and we’re not using any chemicals.  We’ll have to eal with the brambles as we go along.

We then covered the whole area with a thick layer of straw from the fields.  Our neighbour cut and rolled the straw, but he doesn’t need it for his cows as he has over 750 rolls from his land apparently!

We will be planting fruit tees and shrubs on the upper terrace and vegetables lower down.  We debated using a cover crop or green manure, but the land is so rich that all we really need to do is cover it to prevent as many weeds growing back as possible and to keep in the moisture.

Luckily we had guests here for the Equinox retreat who were happy to help out and roll the straw bales from the well field to the food forest area.