Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Tis a Mighty Swale

One of the major assets of our property is a storm water culvert which brings storm water runoff from a number of roads nearby. Water begins to flow through the culvert whenever we have rainfall of more than 8mm. After 25 years of water pouring through, a large gully has been washed away, and this is one of the places in which gorse has found a niche.

This satellite pic shows the course the gully runs and the growth of gorse around it. The main swale bisects the water course and now directs water across the property on contour.
The first priority was to more effectively use the water currently running straight off the property and to slow it down to help with the erosion problem. This led to a design for the mainframe swale, running on contour at the highest point that traversed the longest line across the property. This was partly determined by looking at contour maps, to help decide where we would begin surveying. Online contour maps promised a level line that ran from one far corner to another, beautifully traversing boundary fences and sheds. However, there's nothing like getting outside with a laser level or A-frame... and while pegging it out it began to look somewhat different. South of the gully the swale would run just where we wanted, but on the north side, it ran into the boundary fence. We opted to build the south side swale and come back to the northern paddock at a later date.

Digging the swale at the end of summer, the ground was too hard for the bucket on the little tractor. First the pegged line was ripped a number of times and the loose earth was scooped and piled on the downhill side of the swale.

Scoop and dump ... scoop and dump
Levels were checked by hand by moving along the swale with metal tubing and a spirit level. Constructing swales seems to have a magical meteorological effect... I'm not the first to be rewarded by rain the day a swale is dug. Water is the ultimate spirit level and indicated the need to dig a bit deeper at the bottom end.

The top side of the swale was planted with a variety of acacias - blackwood, black wattle, lightwood and wirilda in the mix. The last thing to do was to make a bridge to the lower paddock.

After years of drought, rainfall this autumn and winter has been constant. The swale has been full since April, resulting in waterlogging in the paddock below. When it came time to plant bare-rooted fruit trees, we decided to mound them up to prevent them drowning. As it turns out, the bottom end of the swale is somewhat higher, which means the ground below is less damp, and a good place to plant cherries, peaches and apricots, which are more susceptible to waterlogging. When things dry out again, the plan is to deepen and widen the swale. Having thought in terms of water scarcity for so many years, I didn't account for how much water would be coming through that culvert. 80mm fell in 24 hours in August, blowing out the walls of small ponds we had constructed to slow down the remaining water that travels through the gully.

This represents a major challenge. We're grappling with how to deal with the force of the water flowing through that small channel in big rain events. There's also a concern about contaminants coming onto the property that have washed off the roads, particularly for the two small dams scheduled for future works. For the time being, the big rains are cleansing, washing up an assortment of rubbish and old bottles that have been thrown in that gully for countless years.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pitchfork Projects

 I've launched a new website over at and am now offering services both on the ground and over Skype. So now you can contact me for permaculture design and advice wherever in the world you are. Designed for people who want to be hands-on with their own projects, and are seeking design advice, solutions or ideas on how to move forward with their objectives. I also offer tools for teachers and parents on using the garden as a tool for learning language, literacy and numeracy.

Business card designed by Andrea Shaw.

P.S. I didn't realise at first, but that's our place on the card! Look at that!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Our Place

In September 2009, I spied online what looked like my dream country place. Low price tag, enough land to play with and most amazingly an old house that looked to be in a fairly liveable condition. Tim and I had agreed upon what we wanted for our budget: a watercourse, even if only running in winter, a shed or basic structure, close to a train line and suitable for m permaculture wants, food growing and a few animals.

What we got: An old house with town water and power connected, storm water outlet running onto property, plenty of sheds, old pigeon coops, a couple of old pear and plum trees.

Challenges: Storm water coming onto the property had created an erosion gully that had been overrun with gorse for the last 20 years. The property had been overgrazed and then neglected for years. Rubbish, car parts and broken glass were strewn everywhere. The first focus was on cleaning up and using whatever resources we could find in sheds and strewn about.

We started work to retrofit the house for energy efficiency, attack the gorse forest without the use of chemicals, utilise the storm water more effectively to tackle the erosion problem and find the pipes that bring mains water to the house.

A lucky resource was the years of pigeon poo that had collected in the pigeon coops over the years. It was old, dry and very dusty, but a fantastic resource. I set to work almost immediately to start composting the pigeon poo goldmine. I used the Berkley method, and made a pile using a a mix of straw, newspaper and pigeon poop. This I turned after four days and then every second day til 18 days had passed. Check CSIRO's publication 'Composting - Making Soil Improver from Rubbish' for a guide to mixing your materials for the right carbon/nitrogen ratios, downloadable here.