Article by: Kyle, Sunnyside Acres
Continued from: Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 1)
Once we’d come up with a plan we were ready to start putting into action, it was time to start digging! But let me back up a moment..
We’re fortunate enough to live in a time where we have the knowledge readily available to understand how these natural systems work, and what conditions are required for them to flourish, while also having access to modern equipment which we can use to reshape the land itself for it to be more efficient as far as retaining moisture and fertility.
One common theme you’ll find in researching Permaculture is the use of contour line swales as a method of harvesting rain water, and that was the next item on our agenda.
What are contour line swales? They’re basically trenches dug in to a field along the same line of elevation. They’re not necessarily straight lines, but the trench should essentially be flat. Not sloping in any particular direction. So if it rains, water will run into that trench and be forced to sit there and percolate into the soil rather than running quickly along the surface and off the property, lost forever! Here’s a good example:
Water is an essential piece to the puzzle when you’re talking about sustainable agriculture, so we want to maximize the use of any rain water which will come down rather than letting it run off the property. Swales slow the water down and force it into the ground. Not only does this provide much needed moisture to the soil, but it can help to recharge ground water supply as well! Always good news if you’re dependent on a rural dug or drilled well for your water supply.
These systems also help act as a buffer against extreme weather patterns such as torrential downpours (mitigates flooding and erosion by capturing large amounts of water in the numerous swales), or periods of drought (storing water in the soil for future use during extended dry spells).
So that’s the basic idea behind the swales we were looking at putting in. It was time to start marking our contour lines in the field we were going to be planting.
One of the best and easiest methods for marking out a contour line is by using an A-frame level. This video illustrates the general process of using an A-frame to mark out contour lines pretty well.
For our part, it took all of about 15 minutes to throw this one together with some wood pieces we’d found laying around and a small carpenters level set in the middle to gauge the balance point. Then we were off to the races!
So, off we went. Marking one foot of the A-frame with a flag, finding the balance point with the other foot and then marking it with a flag too (refer to the previously-mentioned video for a better example), and then just kept on going until we’d marked out all the swales we’d had planned.
It can make it a bit easier to use some marking paint to identify the contour lines once you’ve got them flagged when it comes time to do the digging so you’re not dealing with all of the flags being in the way as you move along…
With that done, NOW it was time for us to start digging the swales in to place!
It turned out to be a pretty big job. The field we were working on for this part of the project is about 2 acres and we had 7 swales we’d planned out to dig of varying lengths.
I can’t imagine having to dig these swales manually with a shovel. It would have taken forever! I’ve never been so glad with our decision to get a tractor that had a backhoe attachment, though if you’ve got a choice I’d highly recommend renting a mini excavator for projects like this. The work would go much quicker without having to continually reposition the backhoe.
And voila! The finished product ready to harvest rainwater! Our formerly flat, sloping field was now nicely contoured to capture rainwater and feed it into the soil. Turns out we picked a good year for it, too, as Eastern Ontario has been experiencing a half decent drought for the past few months with less than half of the historic rainfall so far this season as of the time of my writing this post.
But what’s it going to look like??
So, where is all of this heading? Well, the system we’re trying to get established looks like this, here below:
I know the picture is really small, and probably difficult to make out. Best I could find to illustrate the concept short of my drawing one…which really wouldn’t be any better! Basically, you end up with lines of productive perennial crop trees planted on the berms of soil from your swales, and open laneways of field in between the rows.
If you then bring in grazing animals like goats or sheep, for example, they’ll chew down the grasses, weeds, and other fodder from the trees that can be found along those laneways. You can restrict their movements with moveable fencing and box off a new area for them to “mow” each day and move them along the laneway in a controlled fashion to ensure that each area gets a thorough working over.
As they move along, they deposit nutrient-rich animal waste (insert poo emoji here) in those laneways, which then gets washed into the swales and fed in to the trees the next time it rains. That fertility input allows the trees to grow strong and healthy and allows them to produce better, more nutrient-dense food which the animals will snack on the next time they come through, and around and around it goes recycling resources and improving the overall health of the system.
Animal benefits – Ongoing access to a fresh variety of healthy, chemical-free food sources to graze upon plus shade to escape from the summer sun via the tree canopy overhead. Life is looking pretty good for these guys!
Plant benefits – Regular rainwater harvesting to keep sufficient moisture in the soil, regular injections of good, recycled fertility (💩) via grazing animals allowing for overall improved plant health and vitality.
Environmental benefits – Trees act as carbon traps, certain trees add fertility to the surrounding soil for others to use, trees begin to mulch the ground around them by dropping leaves each year, helping to retain moisture in the soil and eventually building up new soil as that mulch decomposes.
This soil building can also be accelerated by adopting a regular pruning rotation to plants which coppice easily (like black locust). The biomass you “chop and drop” in place gets broken down over time by fungus,which act like the teeth of a forest, eventually recycling it into new soil. This concept is extremely important in areas where mismanagement of the land has allowed for widespread erosion of our topsoil over the years!
Human benefits – Access to an abundance of nutrient-rich produce created by various crop trees. Access to healthy animal byproducts (meat, milk, eggs, etc). Reduced costs for inputs like fertilizers and pesticides (especially if you bring in other animals like chickens and ducks behind the grazing animals to scratch around and eat those pests in their wake) and reduced labour in the form of taking care of those things yourself manually. Let the animals do the work! They’re generally better at it anyway. It’s what they do!
I think that gives a fair overview to this piece of the work we’ve done, and where we’re hoping to get to. The next portion I’ll try to cover will be about the different trees and plants we’ve decided to experiment. More to come as I get a chance to write it up!
To be continued at Guest Post: Building a Food Forest (Part 3)