March 26

Flow in permaculture

If you know the TV programme The Fast Show, you will be familiar with Jesse and his sayings “This week I have been mostly …” I am looking a bit like Jesse at the moment because I really need my hair cutting and we have very strong winds so

This week I have been mostly looking at flow and pattern!

We have already covered the flow pattern called succession and are now concentrating on the flow of energy in wind, water and I am also going to include people in this because they are relevant to my site. The main focus of our work has been what happens when the flow meets an object – how it moves around it and how that differs depending on the speed or velocity of the flow and applying that to our patch of land.

Because my patch of land is right by the sea, flow has had a very obvious impact on it, creating the dunes in the first place but wind, water and people continue to shape it. It starts at the eastern end at the entrance/exit to a temporary car park which is necessary for the influx of visitors in the summer. The beach, however, is the other side of the road so most people that come out of the carpark need to cross the road and the quickest way to do so is walk up the patch of land to get to the edge of the road. These shortcuts, known as desire lines,  usually show designers where they have got things wrong! They are the paths or flows of least resistance and the land can become quite eroded depending on the number of feet that pass by on them. The path also  doesn’t go straight up or down but comes in at an angle.

It would be quite possible to build a set of steps here that flare out at the bottom, mirroring the erosion but would what happened in this picture happen because we know it is just quicker to walk up. Actually, in this instance I would formalise that path as well so that people have a choice about which to use.

In fact, desire paths are so common, and in some instances so fascinating, that Reddit users document them.

 

I have talked about the wind and the impact it has on this patch of land and some of its edges before but this patch has one difficult, solid edge where a wall and pavement meet. In a southerly blow, the sand hits the wall and drops to the base where one of the road sweepers that keep the beach area looking neat and tidy sweeps up the sand and puts it in his cart to empty it else where I am presuming.  I have often wondered what would happen if they didn’t. Would that paved area fill up eventually and join up with the dune/land at the same level?

Contrary to most edges, I think this is one of those edges that does not increase yield or create a third space that is richer than either side of it.

Are there any lines or paths of desire on walks you do?

March 18

Patterns on a plot of land

We’ve been studying patterns and all of a sudden, they are everywhere. It really is about looking through a filter and although I am not very good at it yet, I am definitely noticing more than I did before.

The plot, outlined in red here, is across the road from the beach and is part of a big pattern of sand dunes created many years ago. From the 1880s onwards the land was used as as a links golf course and some of the bunkers can still be seen.

A road then divided the course from the beach and with pavements and play centres built, the dunes became part of the built environment, parts often becoming separated from each other.

But whilst the sand dunes no longer have access to the sea, they are still building and being blown away in minature on the plot of land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sand dune that constitutes this plot of land is at the end of the yellow dune and the start of the grey dune phase. It is definitely no longer mobile but the main plant growing on it is grass which is stabilising it.

The first pattern obvious when you move down onto the lower pavement is one of a wave alongside the edge where the sand meets the pavement. Whilst edges are some of the most productive places, this one doesn’t seem to be but I think that is probably because people walk on it because the pavement is not wide enough for groups.

 

 

 

In order for sand dunes to be made, you need two media, sand and wind, where the wind  blows sand, deposits it and then blows it away again. In geographic terms, deposition and erosion. Whilst the dunes behind the beach are quite stable, this piece of land has mini dunes on it. The wind blows the sand which gets trapped by the grass on the land and is then eventually blown off, hitting the wall opposite it and deposited at the base of the wall. The ripples in the sand come from the patterns on the base of trainers rather than anything nature has created. Although hard to see, the pattern is again a wave pattern.

Here, the sea beet is moving out from the fence post which offers some protection from the wind in a scatter pattern relating to how the seed has fallen, almost in an explosion pattern.

A book I am reading to gain more knowledge about reading the land is How to Read the Landscape by Patrick Whitefield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 14

Using nature’s patterns

In nature there are a limited number of patterns but an infinite number of variations. Take a snowflake: there are no two snowflakes that are the same although they are all formed in a similar way.

The air temperature and the humidity, to some degree, determine the basic shape of the snowflake. We get needle-like crystals at -1.6°C and flat, plate-like crystals at -15°C. The shape of one arm of a snowflake is determined by the atmospheric conditions as it falls; the temperature or humidity might change as it falls and this affects how the water crystal grows and also explains why the six arms are identical. They all experience the same conditions at the same point. Anyway, these patterns are symmetrical and fascinating, so what about others.

In nature we can find waves, lobes, spirals, clouds, branching patterns and scatters all of which are patterns of growth, and nets which are patterns of lateral tension, distribution of weight, storage of energy and shrinkage.

I am going to look at three patterns in a bit more detail: branching patterns, explosion patterns and spirals.

Branching patterns

Orchid flower

Alocasia sanderiana

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’

 

 

 

 

 

 

With thanks to Meghan Rocktopus

Branching patterns (sometimes called dendritic or fractal patterns) can be one of the easiest patterns to spot. They can be found in leaves, roots, rivers and our circulatory and nervous systems to name but a few places. Looking closely at the three photos taken of plants inside and outside my house, I can see that they have slightly different ways of branching. A little research on the internet suggests that there might be 19 different branching patterns. The Alocasia looks more like a distichous or pinnate branching with the orchid more of a dichotomous branching and the Cornus a trichotomous. This isn’t really important knowledge for permaculture purposes, just of interest to me.

Branching patterns are found where there is a gathering and dispersal of materials or energy. At a micro level they are essential for the efficient exchange of  gases and fluids with the environment due to the maximised surface area.

So how could we use these as permaculture designers? Branching patterns are well-suited to roads and paths where something needs to be distributed across a wide area. Branching patterns can also relate to the organisation of people such as a large, hierarchical company where who line manages who is depicted. For an example of a branching pathway (cervicorn – branching like antlers) used in a permaculture design see p11 of Mobile home garden design by Aranya. Look on the right-hand side of the design next to the decking.

Exploding patterns

Weeds in my garden!

Back to the snowflake patterns which would fit into this category. The image shows two weeds in my garden that both have an exploding pattern in 2d with the leaves lying flat on the ground. You can see how they layer over each other in the weed on the right (I’m not sure what it is called) and in fact it is almost symmetrical with 10 leaves on the lower layer. It is obvious how the arrangement of leaves allows it to gain maximum sunshine and I do wonder if it does well in slightly shady spots where this photo was taken. There is a very direct route between the central point and each external point  in complete contrast to a spiral where the central point is a long way away from the end point if you follow the spiral around.

This explosion, however, is the dried flower of Allium x ‘Globemaster’ with some seeds left in the seedheads. The flowerhead is made up of hundreds of little flowers in a beautiful purple during late May early June.  It is an excellent example of a pattern within a pattern within a pattern because it is an explosion making a sphere with some branching at the end of each individual flowerhead. You get a really clear picture of how the seeds are dispersed all around the plant, some near and some slightly further away.

 

Some towns and cities have an explosion pattern built up over time. They may well have started off as a nucleated settlement but then have grown over time, spread out along main roads finishing with some isolated housing which eventually becomes part of the main settlement. Lisbon is one city that shows an explosion pattern of settlement.

 

So, how can we use this pattern in design? This is an image of La Ferme du Bec Hellouin in Normandy, France. Below the polytunnels can clearly be seen an exploding pattern set of beds all coming off a central point. Often in walled gardens there would be a well or water store in the centre of this type of pattern, making it quicker and easier to water the beds – or nowadays a tap on a standpipe from a gravity-fed reservoir on higher land. This link gives a closer view of the bed.

And finally, spiral patterns.

These are another type of fractal pattern frequently demonstrated through a snail shell, sunflower head, climbing tendrils on sweet peas and in weather systems.

Euphorbia myrsinites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The euphorbia above has a spiral in a spiral. First the leaves spiral around each stem and then each stem spirals out of a central point. I did wonder if the whole plant was an example of an explosion but the stems curl round rather than being straight so I am putting it in the spiral group, not unlike weather patterns. The spiral arrangement of leaves on a plant is to ensure maximum exposure to sunlight and for the seeds. Spirals are able to capture and slow down energy such as in a herb spiral, that ubiquitous permaculture plant bed. To be fair, they are space-saving and allow for different types of herb to be grown, making use of the different amounts of moisture in different parts of the bed.

 

Photo from Olds College, Flickr

https://www.tomatocages.org/tomatocage/tomato-spirals.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So how else can we use spirals?

I have a number of spiral plant supports which I use for tomatoes in particular. They are tall, narrow spirals which you can twist the stems around as they grow. But there are also other spirals that can be used as plant supports. The third image shows a support that allows climbers to go up and the final one supports flower heads. I use one of these on a peony.

A vortex is a spiral where the air or water swirls around and anything caught in the motion is pulled into the centre. One place where this can be used in the garden is in free flow water features to aerate the water. They are based on an idea from Rudolf Steiner and shown through Drop Test Pictures developed by Theodore Schwenk. Water moves in patterns down a river and creates patterns when a drop is released. Pollution in the water will change the patterns formed so tap water gives a different and lower quality pattern to water fresh from an unpolluted stream. The free form fountains mix water and oxygen together providing support for organisms to break down pollutants and is reported to increase and stimulate plant growth.

Do you use any patterns from nature in your garden?

A book I have bought to read as a result of this module on patterns in nature is Patterns in Nature: Why the natural world looks the way it does by Philip Ball.

March 7

Where does it come from and where does it go?

Whatever we take, we must return.

Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison p12

Everything we use comes from somewhere and goes somewhere after we have finished with it.  The permaculture ethic, Earth Care, demands that we consider how we live and the impact that we have on the planet. If we eat food that we grow, it is easy to say where it has come from and where it goes afterwards. There seems to be a saying in permaculture that in nature there is no such thing as waste; the leaves that fall break down and provide nutrients for the micro-organisms in the soil, broken branches eventually rot and do the same, bird droppings provide fertiliser for nearby plants. Everything is in a large and sometimes complex loop where nothing is wasted. And in permaculture, we are using nature’s systems to learn from and replicate where appropriate. We know that we need to reduce our waste and so this task is about making me more aware of the issues involved in every day products that I use. Just the sort of activity for a wet afternoon.

I have chosen bubble bath to look at in more detail because I do love bubble bath and it does make cleaning out the bath after use much easier. In fact, if I think about the water, I should be having short showers rather than a bath but will leave that aside for now. I won’t name the bubble bath because it is not about the manufacturer but more about me, my behaviours and what I know about products that I regularly use. I have chosen to use Milkwood’s Life Cycle Analysis Tool to guide me through this process.

What are the ingredients of the product?

Aqua (do they  mean water?), sodium laureth sulfate, sodium chloride, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Parfum, styrene/acrylates copolymer, DMDM hydantoin, Glycerin, Disodium EDTA, Citric acid, sodium hydroxide, polyquarternium-7 

Cosmeticsinfo.org has really good information about many of these ingredients as well as the individual sites I have linked to.

All of the ingredients are chemically made and many of the websites I looked at said that they were safe in the quantities allowed in cosmetics. Something to think about.  Because they are made chemically, there will be waste products as a result of manufacture of each item and then the bubble bath itself.

The bubble bath is made in the UK so whilst there will be quite a few miles before it gets to me, it isn’t as bad as some items.

There is waste produced as a result of using it – contaminated water that will need more cleaning than if I hadn’t used it. The packaging is recyclable and contains 25% recycled plastic. I did read that the supermarket’s own brands are cruelty-free and this blog provides excellent lists about products sold in the said shop that are all cruelty-free. Bubble bath isn’t included but many other hair and skin products are if you wanting to make a more informed choice.

So, on reflection do I think I should be using bubble bath – I don’t. I have looked around for products that are more ethical and the best I found is this from a company that is very transparent about ingredients, how they are made and with reduced packaging but now I think it is a product I should refuse. Blimey! I expected to go through this process and come out the other end changing the product to a ‘better’ one but still using it. Not the case!

Give the process a go yourself.

And finally, should ‘Repair’ be on the diagram used at the start of the post?

March 5

What’s in the local environment – permaculture activity

Having finally decided on the space for my online Permaculture Design Course activities, today on my walk I focused on the plants, including the big trees that I missed.

I have already mentioned the grass that is growing on the land which is doing a sterling job of preventing erosion and stabilising the soil but there are a couple of other things as well.

 

 

The first plant is yarrow, Achillea millefolium, wrapped around one of the fence posts at the west end of the land. The picture of it demonstrates how it creates more soil as the leaves that blow around and get caught in it rot down along with the plant stems. The Wildlife Trust website states that this is a plant that can help to restore arable land to grassland which it is doing here as well as stabilising the soil.

This next plant I am less sure about.

Again, its clumping form helps trap soil/sand, leaves etc. At first I thought it was a crambe which edible seaside plants but the leaves don’t look quite as kale like as most crambes do.  I wondered about dock, it looks like horse radish that has gone wild on the allotment next to mine. As there are no flowers it is hard to say. However, after using PlantNet I think I agree with them that it is Sea Beet, and edible coastal plant.  I will be more secure with the identification when it flowers.

On the other side of the road around the new development, there has been some planting and I thought it might be worthwhile noting what has been put in and look at how they do over time – you never know. There might be something that would do well on the bit of land I am looking at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First we have a cistus and what I think is a cotton lavender, Santolina chamaecyparissus. I’ll be able to tell more when they flower but here the landscapers have dipped into Mediterranean plants. They are planted someway behind the buildings and so are probably somewhat sheltered from the southerly winds. The santolina can be used to create low hedges and that might be useful on my plot to trap leaves etc to build up the soil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is also an eleagnus and a sisyrinchium which likes hot, dry conditions but will also tolerate some shade and damp and our winters are damp.

One plant has already died – probably the Beast from the East saw if off with desiccating, cold winds. It was some sort of fastigiate small tree – yew/pine.

It is still behind the buildings but at the edge and probably is just not protected enough.

As more plants appear, I will add them to this list.

 

March 3

Permaculture Learning Activities 1 – Exmouth seafront

Part of the the online permaculture design course I am taking are the activities to embed learning. We have been asked to choose a piece of land, probably not the one that we will use for our final design, to explore and develop the skills that we need.  I have finally chosen my piece of land – a strip of sand on the seafront opposite a new development of cafes, shops and a watersports centre. I pass it two or three times a week depending on the route I take for my morning walk so can track it regularly throughout the seasons. It isn’t a place of peace and quiet but it is a place that looks a bit sad and unloved and I have often thought that it needs a design to improve it rather than just planting.

Observation and reading the land are key skills in permaculture design. They are what we use as the basis for our work and these activities are designed to start to develop those skills.

What follows are my answers to the questions about the place, firstly using Google Earth.

What about this place stands out or draws your attention?

Mostly what stands out is the fact that it looks so uncared for. It is a scruffy bit of land sandwiched between two pavements, one lower down and one level with the road. It appears at the end of the fencing for a carpark. Parts of it are walked on frequently enough to stop anything growing and where plants do grow, they are not very tall.  As they start to landscape the new water sports centre across the road, this forgotten scrap of land looks more and more unloved and yet has the potential to be quite exciting and a visual attraction for what is a key tourist spot for the town.

The land is quite steeply sloped down to the pavement and the pavement has a slight slope towards the land. What this means is that when it rains, a large puddle builds up because the one and only drain fills up with sand over time. I am also pretty sure that the drain leads straight through to the beach and the water is not spread throughout the patch of land ready to be used by the plants that are there.

What doesn’t stand out when you are there is the large tree that is so obvious in the Google Earth images. I need to go and look at it next time I walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are there plants and animals in this place that you recognise?

There are plants although at the beginning of March, not a lot (apart from a great big tree I missed when I was there!).  One thing that has colonised the land where it is not walked on is grass which has probably stabilised the area due to the matting roots of the plant.  Where there is a fence at the end of the land, presumably to stop people walking on it, there are a cluster of plants around the posts. Soil/sand will have built up around the posts and so plants have found their way there and I suspect the posts also offer a modicum of protection from the wind. One of the things that I intend to do over time is look closely at the plants growing there, on the nearby car park and those that are being planted in the new development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What yields is this system generating already that most people walking by would never notice?

The yields are so invisible at the moment that I can’t see them! What I see in the land is a potential for yield but I am struggling with this one. At a stretch I could say:

  • Because the pavements aren’t wide enough, it provides extra space for people to walk side by side.
  • It is a water-collecting system even though that does get in the way of people.
  • I am not sure if you can have such a thing as a negative yield but one I think we have here is that it is a barrier to where people want to walk and there is nothing to stop them trampling all over it.

How is the system acting in ways today that will help it survive and thrive tomorrow?

This is really about succession, the idea that all land really wants to move towards a stable ecology, that is often a forest, and that there are steps to get there.

First of all there are the annual weeds that cover the land which when they die back, provide organic matter for the soil. This then encourages plants with net-like roots to establish, grass, to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion. This is the stage that we are at and is one that the patch of land may never really move away from because it is trodden on and because of the wind from the south and south west which blow through particularly in the autumn and spring. Other plants are colonising around the posts of the fence where there is more protection and build up of growing matter and this may prove to be one way in which we can support plants to survive and move out. They are creating their own windbreak which then allows other plants to succeed.

Design by map overlays

Design requires mapping as a way to share what you know about the land and what might have an effect on what you want to do. Below are a series of maps that show information about my chosen site.

First we have windy.com which shows the way the wind is blowing in real time. The plot being right on the seafront, wind is a real issue for the site.

This small chart shows that the wind we get is not just south westerly but can be from all directions, although the south and west make up the majority and October to the start of March is when it is the windiest.

Using Verge’s Contour map generator is not totally helpful because although it shows the contours, the slope of the land is against the contours.

The best mapping for the site is to draw it by hand because it is too small to map using apps.

February 19

Permaculture Design Course Modules 1 and 2

As a lockdown present to myself, I signed up for an online Permaculture Design Course (PDC) to keep the brain cells ticking over and to provide another activity whilst we are limited in where we can go and what we can do.  This is a 28 week course and there is a lot of content and so I needed somewhere to reflect my thoughts and learning that is more than just a notebook and that place is here.

There are lots of PDCs available online and I decided to go with the Geoff Lawton PDC because he trained with Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture. The course is not cheap – none of them are and it does make me wonder about how those who do not have the money access such training but that discussion is probably for another day.  The participants are from all over the world, mostly Canada and America although Geoff Lawton lives on Zaytuna Farm in Australia.

Module 1 – What is Permaculture?

The end assignment for the first module was to explain what permaculture is in about 30 seconds. Every time I have been asked this question, I give a long rambling reply as it is so difficult to sum up in a short space of time. However, I’ll give it a go and then come back to the definition at the end of the course to see how the intervening weeks have changed what I think.

Permaculture is a way of working ethically to design a space to develop and support stable planting, food abundance and communities of people. The systems are designed around the way nature works and are used to regenerate the soil and everything which flows from that.

Module 2 – Concepts and themes in design

One of the big ideas in permaculture is the idea of designing to store the energy that comes onto your land (no matter how big or small it may be) and keeping it there for as long as possible. The example always used is water and gravity. You always store water on the highest part of your land so that you can use gravity to run it down to where you want to use it. The idea of store it, spread it and slow it is very apt here because it is what you want to do.  So, digging extra ponds to store the water, collecting rainwater from roofs and then channeling it around the land all helps to produce an abundance of whatever you are growing and slows down the rate at which the water leaves your land.

Everything gardens. This concept raised one of the larger, more animated discussions. If you observe nature closely, and that is what we have to do on our own land, we are not the only things that prune, cut grass or dig. Sheep, cows, horses etc will mow the grass and other vegetation, goats will prune small trees and shrubs, chickens and ducks will find and dispatch pests and rabbits will dig. But what these all also do is provide manure which can be composted and returned to the land. If we recognise this, we can make the land more productive and integrate animals into the systems to work for us. Of course, the animals add more than just manure. They add food, company, hard work, pleasure if we design their natural behaviours so that it benefits all.  In fact, many permaculture farms include animals and I can see how this is of benefit. With three allotments, I struggle to create enough compost to mulch all of the beds because I have no animal manure to use. I have to buy it in.  If there were chickens, their bedding could be used which would increase the amount of material to compost and the composition of the compost.  There are many people farmers who understand that animals are a key part of soil regeneration such as Gabe Brown. The plant-based eaters and vegans were not all necessarily happy with this message.

Yields – these are the surpluses that are created after the system’s needs have been met. Forcing a system to produce yields results in over supply, pollution and depletion, e.g chicken farms with caged animals fed antibiotics and grown as quickly as possible. In Permaculture the yields can be much broader than just one crop and we should be designing so that the work reduces over time but the yields increase.

Cycles – niches in time. Cycles as recurring events are the way that permaculture looks at time and increasing cycles increases yields.  We are designing to increase and improve the cycles so for example, after cows have grazed the land, you can wait a few days and then introduce chickens to scratch over the manure, spread it and eat the fly maggots that are around before leaving the land to grow for a while. This introduction of the chicken cycle increases diversity and yields. Somewhere in there you could also probably introduce pigs. What you choose to do is dependent on the context, climate and landscape.

The food web – this is not a pyramid with a human at the top but a complex, web of relationships. If we remove any element, the whole web collapses. A good example of this is the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park – or closer to home – the reintroduction of beavers to a local river.

We also design to ensure complexity and connections between elements. Industrial farming removes and simplifies connections leaving them unstable and reliant upon a lot of time, resources and energy. Our role is to replace the connections which know are missing and we can measure this by the yields, happiness of the system and its stability (the means of providing what it needs to be successful with as little input as possible).

Order and chaos – we are designing for order which is stability but there are a number of things that can create chaos: too many inputs, a natural event such as a flood, trying to keep things neat and tidy such as a lawn where the energy inputs are enormous. Nature’s systems may look ‘untidy’ but are in complete order according to nature. Take a rainforest. Every niche is filled and it may look untidy but it is a self-sustaining system that needs no inputs from us. That is what we are aiming for and we know it is working or not through observation of the system/s and what they tell us.

Diversity – we design for this but not for its own sake. We are not after diversity on its own but for diversity of functions (everything has more than one function) and here information gathering as a resource is crucial. The more information we have, the more we can adapt and develop what we are doing. The example used is polyculture where different species are grown together in guilds where the connections ensure that the sum is greater than the parts. The more information we have, the more likely we are to try different plants in the polyculture and to eventually create greater yields. As the guilds mature, more animals enter and cause disturbances which can again create greater diversity.

Stability is where a system self-regulates and where our intervention can increase yields where there is constant feedback and readjustment. We can intervene with a nutrient response, introduce fire (hmmm!) or prune to let more light in. Stability is also created through the connections between elements, e.g. growing corn, squash and beans together where all benefit from each other. This mind-map demonstrates stability well.

So, when I look at the land I have, these are all the things I need to think about to come up with the best place to have each element and why. It was quite a lot for the first week!

Bill Mollison from his book Introduction to Permaculture– “It is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work.”

January 10

Harvesting rainwater part 2 – observations

This is the second in a series of four posts about harvesting rainwater on my allotments using the permaculture phrase of sink it, slow it and spread it. You can read part 1 here with this post following on by sharing the observations and research I have done regarding my specific site and strategies that might be successful.

The first thing I looked at is the average rainfall for the area in the last row.

 

 

I recently started to use a rain gauge at home and our rainfall in October was exactly 80mm but December 20 had 145mm of rain which reminded me of the wet parts of my plot and garden. The chart shows that we get approx. half the rainfall of the winter in the summer. So, where are the wet parts on the plots? The first is behind my polytunnel.

Most of my paths are woodchips and some have black woven plastic underneath them to stop the weeds.  This path becomes very soggy in winter, it is now, and sometimes water can sit on it after a heavy rainfall. This is because the guttering is only on the ends of the tunnel and the middle has none so  rain slides down onto the path.  The rest of the allotment slopes gently down from this point to the fence at the end which separates the plots from the gardens of the houses behind us. In his book Harvesting Rainwater Vol 2 by Brad Lancaster, Lancaster mentions that soil beneath plastic becomes anaerobic and you don’t get the soil organisms you are after for good drainage so it probably does need to go.

As you can see, I have a water butt on each corner of the tunnel but two of the gutters need to be replaced. I would do it now but actually they stick better when it is warmer so that job will need to wait. The warmth also means that the guttering is easier to straighten. It comes in a coil and needs to be manipulated to ensure that it makes a good contact with the plastic sheeting and flows over the hoops smoothly.

There is capacity for more water storage by adding another water butt linked to each of these and this would capture more water in winter but I don’t know if they would fill during the summer.  A few calculations about surface area and rainfall would help me decide that.

The second damp place is behind my polytunnel on a bed which I don’t use much with a path into the tunnel. I only use this path if I have to get water from the tap. I recently decided to put these beds back into use. They are shaded for most of the day so I will need to plan carefully what to plant there. To get the beds ready, I covered the ground with cardboard, watered it and then put compost on top. When I watered the cardboard, I watched it run straight down, across the path into the tunnel and onto the next bed so there is definitely a slope there which could be used to slow the water down and sink it into the ground.

The wind can be quite strong on the plots because we are towards the top of a hill that comes straight up from the sea (both land and wind).  Wind maps show that we get wind from all directions with most coming from the west and certainly at home we have a large sheet of glass (window) at the end of our lean-to which stops the westerly winds hitting us.  I would say that most of our winds are southerly to westerly and I particularly like this little widget which shows what the wind is doing now – strength and direction.

As I write this post, the wind is southerly but has quietened down from earlier this morning.

The final thing I needed to do was to find out how steep the slope is on the allotment. I used an app on my phone and just put it on the ground at various points. Not  very accurate but it will do for my purposes – the slope averages about 5%, more in some places and less in others. This measurement is important because certain water management involving moving soil is not recommended for slopes that are more than 5% such as swales.

So, my plan of action:

  • Remove the plastic from the path alongside the tunnel, dig a small ditch towards the beds and then put in a mountain of shreddings. This will mean the water from the tunnel will drain into the ditch but I can still walk on it. The water can then work its way down the slope in the soil. Over time, I will remove the plastic on all the paths.
  • Add a second water butt to each one with a hose pipe to siphon the water between the two. This stored water will be used during the dry spells and will probably last me 4-6 weeks if I only water the tunnel, but far less if I have to water plants outside, which I do some years. The allotment shop is open again in February so I will get three more water butts.
  • To explore the best times to water fruit and vegetables so that if I do have to water them, I get maximum bang for my buck (or water)
  • Continue to mulch the beds each year to increase their water-holding capacity. The soil is sand on a bed of stones and so drains very quickly and retains little moisture or goodness.
  • To remove the black plastic under the plum tree, clear the weeds and plant a guild around it so that it can access more water. I don’t irrigate the tree but I know that other fruit trees on the plots perked up and grew more vigorously when I removed the black plastic underneath them.

I’m off to dig a ditch!

Are you able to store enough water so that you don’t have to use tap water?

January 5

Managing water on the allotment – part1

Winter is a quieter time on the allotment in terms of sowing and planting but not in terms of planning.  After a couple of hot summers I know that I  do not collect enough water when it does rain. I have 4 water butts on my polytunnel, one at each corner and one water butt behind my shed and can empty these in about two weeks if it is very hot.  Water butts are not the only way of saving water and I can’t have the plots covered in blue butts so need to think about other ways of too.

This is the first in a series of posts about  water management on my allotments.

I like the permaculture phrase about water of slow it, spread it and sink it as it rains with this being the number one way of managing water. The cheapest method of storing water is to store it in the ground.  The secondary aim is to capture as much water as is reasonable to use during dry periods. How you use these strategies completely depends on the site.

Things to think about are:

  • How and when does your water fall? Is it consistent throughout the year, during the winter or from large summer storms?
  • How does water move across your plot? Does it sit anywhere during rainfall? Do you have slopes on your site?
  • What type of soil do you have? This will affect how much soaks in and how much runs off. A sandy soil has a lot less run off than a water-logged clay soil.

We also need to consider all the ways in which we can sink, slow and spread water across the allotments. The following are a list of things we could do – some may not be appropriate but at this stage I don’t want to rule anything out.

  • Swales. These work best on a slope of 5% or less where a trench following the contour of the land is dug out and the soil piled up on the downhill side to make a raised edge or berm to hold water back.  They don’t work particularly well on small watersheds, sandy soil and forested areas as there won’t be much run off.  If you are still not sure about them, the video below explains them clearly.

  • Hugelkultur. This is a bed built out of waste woody material, and other things, that is drier on top and wetter lower down the slope.  I built one of these in my garden last spring and it definitely does not need as much watering as well-mulched beds built on the flat. I watered those at least once a week throughout the dry spring and summer but only watered the hugelkultur bed twice during the whole season.
  • Stones.  Sepp Holzer uses stones, probably more like rocks, to provide microclimates on his farm. They reflect the sun and enable him to grow crops that wouldn’t normally grow up in the mountains in Austria, such as lemons, but also keep the soil moist underneath and around them. It is true that if you turn over a stone/brick on the plot it is usually damper underneath. The downside is that you can also find slugs and snails there too.
  • Ollas. These are unglazed  pots sunk into the soil near the roots of plants that are filled with water. Because they are unglazed, they gradually release the water or actually, the plant pulls the water from the pot and grows around it. An olla has an opening at the top which is slightly proud of the soil where the water can be topped up. This short video shows a container being planted up with an olla or as we might know it, a terracotta plant pot. All it needs is a lid on top and the bottom hole sealed up.

How do you store water in your soil so that you can make the most of this resource?

Useful resources

  • Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway: Chp5 is an excellent overview of water and how it can be managed.
November 8

18 day compost – really?

I love a trial and so my big trial for the next 12 months is about making compost in 18 days and whether it can be done here in the UK. It is called the Berkeley Method, developed in California and explained here by Geoff Lawton in Australia.

Now, both of these places are warmer in general than here in November so I am not sure that it will only be 18 days before I have compost. I think it will take longer but I would like to give it a go so I am going to make a heap each month to see what happens. I will also make a cold heap and turn it out in March to use just to compare the two because the 18 day, hot compost is a lot more work.

I don’t really have the space to make more compost heaps so I have decided to make them on the beds and then turn them out and use them where they have been made. That way I cut down on the amount of barrowing around that I need to do.

The materials I have used are cow manure, carbon to nitrogen ration 20:1, grass clippings 25:1, shredded raspberry and blackberry canes 400:1, chopped up leaves 150:1 and weeds 25:1.  These are approximate ratios and I wouldn’t normally bother with this but it just shows that I need to add more of the green stuff to try and get nearer to a 30:1 ration. I have layered them and guessed that I have about the right volume. In the middle I have put an activator of comfrey leaves, about 2 litres because it is November and may be slower to get going.  I am interested in the idea that we are not aiming for a drop in size of the heap but really to get the carbon to lock up the nitrogen to be released for organisms in the soil when it is finally spread.

I will be back in 18 days with the results.

An update on the heap 20 days later can be seen here.  See the results from December.