One of the first challenges a modern homesteader is faced with is poor soil. In rare instances, soil may not be your immediate issue, but you should be looking downstream to make sure this does not become a future concern. This challenge is easily overcome in the short term, but without sustainable systems and a balance of plant life, this can become a continuing problem. To address the poor soil issue and to become a more resilient homesteader, it is essential that we deal with those things that affect soil quality and provide long terms solutions to maintaining and improving soil fertility.
One of the easiest things we can start doing to build rich soil is to begin composting. Compost is easily made from table scraps, cut vegetation such as weeds and grass clippings, and other debris such as paper, cardboard, sawdust, coffee grinds, and lots of other household wastes. I won’t go into the details of how to compost, but it is important that you start transitioning as much of your household waste into enriched usable compost for your garden beds. We are currently composting about 40% of our household trash, which is 100% of our food scraps and about 20% of our other waste. I am hopeful that we will be able to compost 100% of our paper trash as well, so the only thing we are paying for removal will be our plastics, metals, and sewage.
The next thing we can do to enrich our soil is to increase the moisture levels. Our soil is very dry and clay colored, which is pretty common in the eastern range of Colorado. The soil consists of some decomposed granite, but mostly clay and dirt, which is a term I use to describe dead soil. There is little to no moisture in the soil and any moisture put into the soil quickly dissipates. This is usually due to the lack of biological material in the soil. Biological material becomes depleted through farming, and over grazing. Farming, or more accurately plowing, turns over the soil, causing the under soil to become exposed. The UV light from the sun kills all the micro-organisms that have surfaced, reducing the fertility. Repeating this process each season further depletes these micro-organisms, which, in turn, further reduces the amount of nutrients that can be retained within the soil. Let’s think of the soil as a lake that is teaming with all sorts of micro-organisms, and if we want bigger organism in this lake, then we need to identify and correct the problem at the smallest level to have the greatest impact over the long term. If we can provide an environment within the soil directly conducive to maintaining and growing these micro-organisms, then we can begin to build fertility back in to the soil, and have our soil produce fruit and vegetables for us. How do we get fertility back into our soil? Let’s continue and examine the water situation and determine if there is enough rainfall, and at those specific times needed by the plants and trees we intend to grow. It is not our intent to just turn on a garden hose and water the garden if we go a week or more without any rainfall. That puts us at a deficit, as we have to pay for those utilities. We may also decide to implement a gray water solution to be able to provide for our water demand in times of drought. We should address this issue through known techniques for water retainment, and maximize our retainment strategies for snow and rainfall, to either store that water or divert and spread that drainage over the backyard.
There are several techniques that we can use to provide moisture and fertility back into our soil. Let’s start analyzing the possibilities and determine which work best in our situation. Our backyard has a standard down slope away from the house, which is approximately a decline of 1 foot per every 15-20 feet, but, over time, a channel has formed from the gutter downspouts and created a valley where most of the water travels. Unless we plan to plant our entire garden into these valleys then we need to start spreading the water across other areas of the backyard.
To determine the amount of rainwater, you can use a simple calculation found at: http://rainwaterharvesting.tamu.edu/calculators/. This will give you a reasonable estimate for your storage solution. There is a really nice spreadsheet you can use at the above link to calculate your total annual rainfall catchment system. We then will include a pond at the end of the swale system to retain any run off that may be leaving our property. This will serve us in watering our vegetation, and perhaps a place to grow fish and experiment with some aquaponics. Aside from providing a rain water or gray water storage system, we need to look at how we can provide water across the whole area. The options I’m considering are: a drip-line irrigation system; several soaker hoses; mini or micro swales; hugel beds; or a combination of some or all these.
This system will require the purchasing of tubing and hoses that connect together and are placed in the garden beds. This system is a good way to regulate the water for a specific area and to move water to areas that may be difficult to irrigate by other means. These system can also be put on a timer and can be controlled for plants with specific watering needs. These systems are relatively low-tech and are easily set up by the typical homeowner. The materials are relatively inexpensive compared to a full on sprinkler system, but can incur additional cost if you intend to put the system on some type of environmental control system to control watering. These systems are extremely useful for greenhouses, perhaps cold beds, and raised garden beds.
These are typically for smaller watering requirements, such as a tree or small stand of trees, that you intend to continually water throughout the day. Though these can be more effective if placed on a timer and are set to water periodically. These connect directly to a typical garden hose and are used to saturate an area.
Swales can be constructed to slow the water as it moves over the land after the rains. By constructing a swale, you can channel the water and slow it down so that it has a greater chance to be absorbed by the landscape and increase the soil fertility. Swales are typically 10-12 feet wide, are a couple feet deep, and have a 3-4 ft berm on the downhill side. They are constructed on contour to allow the water to fill the swale and slowly trickle down through each swale system. Swales can be scaled down to most situations. However, I have a concern of building one that is less than 3 feet wide, as I am not certain they will be as effective at allowing a reasonable amount of absorption into the berm.
These are a great way to retain water in a specific area, and are great for creating a rich soil planting environment. Typically these are to be constructed on contour and are used for water retainment. The concept is that you dig down about 2 feet into the soil, then several feet wide and as long as you desire. After moving all of the soil to the side, you place hard wood into the channel you just created. Using logs, branches debris, cut wood, and other slash, until you have about 2 feet above the surface covered. Then you pile on mulch and other trimmings and clipping before returning the soil back onto the mound. You are free to mix in manure, compost and other enriched soil as you continue to build the height of the mound to approximately 6 feet tall. The concept is that the wood in the hugel bed will soak up the run off and will provide an environment that will enrich the soil as the wood slowly decomposes. This happens in nature when a tree falls over, the ground lays claim and begins to break down the fallen trunk. We can accelerate this process by covering the wood with soil, creating a mound, and then further planting on this mound. This is made more effective when placed on contour so that, as water moves over the area, it will be retained in these hugel beds.
Which systems are the best water retention, and provide the most fertility to the soil? Well, I think I may be employing each of these in some facet, though I don’t have a need to construct a 6 foot tall hugel bed or a 10 feet wide swale. I will probably be cutting these down to size and perhaps building hugel beds and swales on a much smaller scale. The biggest thing that concerns me with constructing swales is that I am removing top soil from an area, and that area is not very permitting for a path, as it may contain water during certain times, i.e. after it rains. I will probably need to experiment more with this idea, and make that determination. The next question is where do I use drip-lines, soaker hoses, hugel beds, and swales. It should be fairly easy to move the water to the outside edges with either a drip-line or soaker hose. To determine the others may be a bit more difficult, as I also have seven fruit trees to plant, so it may not be effective for me to decide where the swales, and hugel beds will need to go in until I map where the trees need to be planted. It seems that I may be grid-locked, so let me review the situation. Looking at the diagram above shows the optimal water movement across the backyard. If I plan the swales to move the water in these directions, then I should be planting my trees on the downhill side of the swale or hugel beds. I will be planting the trees in two clusters and then three single standing trees. The diagram shows the tree placement and selection, based on the sun requirements and other concerns. I want to keep the trees within the fence line so as to prevent fruit from falling in my neighbors yard. Now we need to overlay the two diagrams and determine where the swales and hugel beds need to be placed. Tree #4 will probably need to be moved to the south to be planted on the downslope of the swale cutting through that area. The hugel bed should work in place of the existing raised bed just to the right of the patio. The raised bed can then be relocated to the other side of the patio along with expanding a few more beds into that area. Placing a small pond at the end of the swale system will allow the catchment and redistribution of water throughout the entire area. Eventually, we can make the determination to keep fish or other aquatic life in that small pond, if there is to be water present year round. This will give us another opportunity to provide an enriched water source for the garden plants.
I am still undecided about the swale system, as of this writing, and will be repositioning the trees, as needed, within the vicinity of the diagram above. The water retainment system, though still a sketch, now has a plan and we can start taking necessary actions to shore-up this design. The soil should be well nourished throughout the system and some of those dry areas should be made more fertile through the use of the hugel bed, drip-lines, and swale systems. I am confident that this is a strong design and will allow us to plant more varieties into different areas. I will be working on the next article in this series so, if you have suggestions, comments, or see omissions, please feel free to include in the comments section below. This is a working plan, and though we have a direction, there is always room for improvements and considerations along the way. Thanks to all those that have expressed such a high interest in this topic, it is through your feedback that I have decided to carry on this series of articles.