How Does Permaculture Create Water?
Can you actually create water? I’ll leave that question for another time, but you can definitely find water where it doesn’t seem to be. You can also make a smaller amount of water go farther. How can you create water with permaculture? By observing and doing earthworks.
What are earthworks? Earthworks are simply the molding of the landscape into forms that achieve certain results. In the case of water, earthworks can help you to slow it down if it is moving too fast so that you can utilize it before it escapes. In Old Town Pasadena, California, I observed gushing fountains of water being lost to storm drains when it rained. I wondered then why the city, indeed the County of Los Angeles, wasn’t proactively capturing that amazing volume of precious H20 streaming across the vast landscape there. Why weren’t those placed in charge of such things using that water to irrigate the landscape and green L.A.?
Well, let’s just say the system in place in cities across the United States is NOT geared toward water conservation. Instead, it is set up to carry as much water as possible as fast as possible out to sea!
Using earthworks, you can essentially create water with permaculture and reverse that madness. As the African man who transformed his patch of desert into a towering food forest did, you can dig pits and swales in the ground. This simple act allows surface flowing water (think rain falling on compacted or nutrient-poor dirt and sheeting off overland) to infiltrate below the surface.
How To Make Earthworks Work For You
It is difficult to wait, I know. But if you can hold off on digging your pits and swales, you can take advantage of a good rain and avoid putting them where they won’t help. The next time it rains hard enough for water to travel across your landscape, go outside (and thank the Maker for that life-giving water). Watch where it flows. This will give you a good idea of the direction of the slope of your property. Even a flat parcel often has subtle dips and rises where water collects or sheds, respectively.
When you have established the direction that water is flowing across your property, dig your pits and swales at an angle perpendicular to that direction of water flow. If you take the time to observe and then add earthworks, water running over your land will be captured by the dips in topography you are creating. This will give the water time to percolate down into the subsurface.
What To Do With All That Water You’ve Saved
Because water is life, this infiltration assist (thanks to you!) will help your dirt or soil support more life forms. These in turn will then have more to work with. The jobs done by miriad microbes and other soil organisms include improving soil texture and organic content. Moisture held in the soil longer will also allow seeds lying dormant to come to life and sprout.
Pioneer plants (the ones who move in ahead of other plants to prepare the way) are often seen as weeds but perform awesome ecosystem services. Adding certain nutrients to the soil, creating microclimate conditions to support an expanding diversity of plant species (cooling the soil, offering shade, etc) are just a few of the benefits of allowing the plants that move into and around your earthworks to grow.
You can add plants you like as well. For a desert environment like far west Texas, for example, I would recommend starting out with nitrogen-fixing trees and then inter-planting with shrubs and fruit trees over time. I am experimenting now with various techniques, including seed bombs, dew-collection, drought and heat/cold tolerant species, wick irrigation, and clay pots. My fruit trees have all survived months without any added water following the initial input. A plum tree didn’t make it but was already on its way out by the time I got it in the ground. Plants are like us, and trauma or other experiences can cause them to withdraw their life force from their physical forms. I am on the hunt for a black plum to replace it but haven’t found any in stock at reasonable prices yet. I have peaches, apricots, hazel nuts, walnuts, pecans, apples, pears, pomegranates, maples, pines, and sycamores in the ground so far.
I did a lot of observation ahead of starting my earthwork. The more I add to my earthworks, digging pit swales and piling berms in strategic locations, the better off my land (and plants) will be when the monsoon really hits. Yesterday while I was visiting a friend, we got our first downpour of the season. It was torrential, and we dragged our chairs out under the deluge and gazed at the mountains to the north. I’m hoping I can get at least a few more pits and swales in before the next rain, but I know I can’t do it all in one season.
I hope this helps you turn around all the water loss happening on your site. If you live in a dry climate your land will spring to life as a reward for your efforts. If you live in a region that gets more precipitation, such as Corvallis, Oregon, you’ll use less city water on irrigation. Have fun, and don’t forget to observe the flow of water and then dig your pits and swales.
To get a professional master plan for your property that includes earthworks as part of a fully-integrated permaculture ecosystem recovery, book a discovery call with an expert designer.