Friday, March 31, 2017

Natural sequence farming

My thoughts today, are with those who were caught in the crossfire of cyclone Debbie. Those who bore the direct brunt of it, and those who suffered the flooding in Queensland and New South Wales, afterwards. There will be a lot of cleaning up, to put people's lives back together.

I started to write a post yesterday, about Natural Sequence Farming, and wondered if it would be insensitive to post, due to the flooding people are currently experiencing. After all, Peter Andrew's revolutionary way of farming in Australia, uses natural sequences. Specifically, how our land traditionally hydrates itself.

As the classic poem, "My Country", by Dorathea Mackeller says:

"I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains." 

That is our natural sequence...of droughts and flooding rains. I will publish my post in the interests of learning about the forces which shape our landscape. First, a picture of what we started with, back in 2006. A huge sandpit. Or as Peter Andrew's would term it - a recharge area.

 Visiting the property before the house was built

I learned about Natural Sequence Farming, after watching the ABC's Australian Story documentary, on how Peter Andrew's managed to hydrate his horse property, through one of Australia's recent droughts. Then I read his two books, "Back from the Brink", and, "Beyond the Brink. It opened my eyes to the unique sequences, which were already happening on our property.

Andrew's work, centres around water hydrology, first and foremost. Without water, Australia would be more of a desert than we already are. I hope to demonstrate how Peter Andrew's hydrology opportunities work, due to the interventions we've made on our property:

Upstream, of the sandpit - other end of property

Thanks to the generous rain which has fallen lately, it's easy to capture the effects of blocking our waterway with organic debris. We mostly use smaller branches and leaves, with a few larger ones to help lock it together. Like a beaver dam, but not as expertly built!

The path of water hits the debris plug, causing it to back up, then escapes again, on either side. With each rain event, more debris gets caught from upstream. Silt starts to be dropped behind, and eventually creates a plateau, rather than a deep channel. Somewhat like a natural swale.

Important to note from the above image, is how the water is now split into 3 different forces. Straight through (what does manage to get through) and overflow out both sides.

In miniature

In the image above, you can see on a smaller scale, where the water is being held up, in various stages of debris too. This is the main channel, where the water flows the slowest, due to the debris it passes through first.

Notice how the larger body of water is held back by the debris, forcing it to spread out. It overflows at the lowest point in the debris - generally in the middle. Then another pond, smaller than the last is formed, in exactly the same way. This process continues for as long as the water is held up, and there is water to escape. It's a slow and steady release of water.

The aim is all about diffusing the power and velocity behind water. Because with that power, comes erosion. Andrew's theory is, and the evidence of ancient aboriginal paintings (series of connected circles) demonstrate that, water flowed and was stored in an extensive, connected pond system. Not like the traditional, European rivers - which tend to be singular, wide and deep; with the fastest route to the ocean.

Three different routes of travel

A little further past the debris plug, is how these three different levels of water, act differently. Andrews spoke of how water flowed on the high ground. Which is exactly what happens with our gully, thanks to our interventions.

The main channel flows the slowest, because it acts like a swale. It fills completely and stays still, until the water level finds a small overflow point. Most of the high velocity water, however, is escaping quicker on both sides. So it's flowing the fastest, on the high ground.

Which seems counter intuitive, but that's how levels of water work. The greater the water being held back, the higher up, the water will flow to escape.

All pictures taken, after the rain stopped
and the water levels dropped

So where is the fast water running to? It has found a gentle slope, away from the main channel. This is our people traffic route, and no doubt, what the kangaroos use also. We tend to keep it clear of debris, so we can access it. We're just another group of animals, nature uses to create paths for water to travel.

This water is travelling towards a pond we strategically built, to capture this periodic bounty. Of course, the flow met a few obstacles on the way, with another nod to Peter's Andrews interpretation of the landscape.

Old tree stump

Andrews recommends, that tough trees be planted in waterways, to make the water divert around them. It splits the water in two, then collides at the other end. Which effectively, neutralises the two forces against each other. Slow rising water, it better than fast.

This was not a tree we planted. It was a natural bounty, as a result of a former bushfire. It was burnt out and the land developers must have scraped up the top half, and burned it before we purchased the land. Because we've seen hide nor hair of it, since. The blackened, hollowed out tree stump remains, however. It even survived the velocity of water, that was the 2011 Super cell flood.

It's a good velocity breaker, before they merge together again, and drops down to the pond.


The pond acts as a circuit breaker for water velocity too. Although not as effective as a full circle, some water does escape to one side, and meets back with the main flow - going straight through. The kind of rain we have been experiencing lately, is consistent, steady rain. If only we had the luxury of spreading it out, between drier times.

That's where Peter Andrews' interpretation of how water should be treated on the landscape, bares learning about. It uses debris from the landscape, to help capture water from the landscape. In many ways, it resembles permaculture's principles of obtaining a yield, as well as capturing and storing energy. By capturing the periodic abundance, it can be used when it's no longer around.

Overflow from pond

We haven't quite finished with the flowing water on high ground, yet. Because water from the pond, has been backed up, through so many processes before it even reaches it - what water does overflow from the pond, tends to be quite widespread. There are no narrow channels with high velocity water here. The water is now trickling in a wide area.

This is where the grass is exploiting the natural resources - the water is slow enough, to allow it to germinate without being pulled out. Which is why Peter Andrew's next part of the natural sequence strategy, is about the intrinsic relationship plants have with the water.

Grasses, reeds and bullrushes, will rise up around any source of newly captured water, to start filtering the nutrients. Which then get stored in them, until the water levels drop or disappear completely, again. They go to seed and die, on the very ground which brought them to life. Waiting for the next rain event, to kick the cycle back into motion again.

This is how our landscape naturally hydrates itself. Australia needs a lot of flat, open areas, to capture the amounts of water, at the rates it falls. Dorathea Mackeller, wasn't just being poetic. She was recording the droughts and flooding rain pattern, that was endemic to this continent.

Leaving property boundary, in the distance `
bypassing the main sandpit (first image)

Now the water exiting the pond, is flowing at the same rate as the main channel. Which is barely at all. And it's held in another human and animal highway. Another natural swale, not built by us. If water finds it's own level, then so will the silt it drops.

The yards which follow after our property, are always green for months after the rains have gone. Unfortunately, while we like our neighbours upstream, they don't retain water on their land, so we might receive the benefits, we give our downstream neighbours. Maybe one day.

It's why I share on my blog, the importance of understanding how our landscape works. If we have a set of natural sequences, and an indigenous continent formed by them, to protect our future and each other, we need to understand how they operate. What are the influential components? How can we understand them, so we are benefited by the extremes of nature, rather than thwarted?

 Another large rain event, June 2016
Note: different routes of travel, water takes

While local Councils go to great expense to build levees, and State Goverments spend even more, on building dams: they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder. A necessary one, but also a very limited one. If Australia's topography was fashioned by the way rain falls, then we ought to contemplate our strategies, to work with that pattern. We all have to jump on board, and start holding the water back, where we have the influence to.

I want to quote one last stanza from Dorothea Mackeller's poem:

"Core of my heart, my country.
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold"

We are clearly a land of extremes, more than we are a land of stability. But beneficial resources that come out of those extremes (Rainbow Gold) are threefold, and probably even more so nowadays. If you have a garden on your own land or renting, I encourage you to do a few things.

First, get to know the larger story behind that landscape. Research history, borrow books from the library, and learn the regular patterns that have shaped your region. Second, redesign your garden, landscape and even structures like houses, according to what you learn about the history. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money or be fancy - just practical.

A lot of what we have today - taught to us as "options", comes down to what was most cost effective for the generation before us. Rather than, knowing and weighing-up what does influence a particular region, to make specific design decisions from.

Have you noticed anything about your landscape, which connects to a bigger story?


  1. Such an interesting post Chris. When my husband bought this 1/2 acre 40 years ago there was no garden....just lawn. How different it is now although he does hoard more now :-) However there are fruit and nut trees everywhere, water tanks, compost heaps, gardens etc. He did a lot of work after the 2012 floods redirecting the water that ended up flowing under the house so that in future floods it would flow into the garden. You have done so much work there since the sandpit days.

    1. That's a really good adaptation your husband worked on - directing the flow to the garden, instead of towards the house. Much more useful for the water there, and less mess to clean under the house.

      What part of Toowoomba are you located? Half acre blocks are hard to come by, other than the outer suburbs. I'm glad you guys have your 1/2 acre, and have your productive areas. Your fruit and nut trees are incredibly productive.

    2. One of the older suburbs...Rockville. I had never even heard of the suburb when he said he bought the house. We weren't going together at the time.

    3. I know Rockville. We use to live in Harlaxton which is nearby. Are you on Hogg Street? I notice there are a couple of large blocks, up the hill from Mort street.

      That area has really developed though. We use to travel it regularly, to get to the Wilsonton Shops. So many smaller blocks now, where it was once green fields.

  2. Good timing, I picked up a copy of Back from the Brink at an op shop in Toowoomba a couple of weeks ago and am currently reading it. I really like your real time demonstrations of the concepts here. Our place is largely cleared of trees and this is what prompts my interest in Andrews' writings. I hope you review your labours regularly for us. Barb :)

    1. How uncanny - I wonder if that was my copy? I donated it a few weeks ago. It's an awesome book and I'm sure you'll love reading it. I've read it many times! The Toowoomba library has a copy, if I need to refresh up on the details.

      I know a lot of the land in Warwick has been denuded of trees, for raising livestock and crops. We actually had an excursion many moons ago, at school, to study the salinity problems occurring in Warwick at the time. All of that came back to me, as I read Peter's book. Especially, the important role plants play in the hydrology of the landscape. They keep the salt from rising to the surface.

      I think you'll get a lot out of Peter's book, and I'm glad you found a copy!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post Chris. I like the idea of helping natural swales form rather than constructing them.

    1. It definitely saves a lot of work, if you don't have to build swales manually. :) Take a water way, add organic material, and wait for the water to do the rest.

  4. I'm not familiar with Peter Andrew, but he sounds like somebody I need to read. We have a sandy topsoil as well, and have observed that problem with much needed rain also causing erosion. Thankfully our property is a series of ridges with natural looking swales, although in looking at aerial photos, I can't help but wonder if some long-ago farmer created them. Our pathways are the worst culprits for runoff, especially where Dan needs a clear path for the tractor. You've got me thinking about ways to add at least some organic matter to slow the flow.

    1. Wow, I wonder what formed those ridges? Peter Andrews is renown for being able to read the natural landscape. He can tell you, what forces shaped it. A series of ridges, tells of "steps", or natural plateaus which can be formed by water running on high ground.

      If water is running on high ground, then it means it has been backed up by a large body of water, lower downstream. Or it could have been implemented by a farmer. It just depends what the rest of the landscape has on it.

      It would be interesting to research the history of the area. Was it once a swamp region? Because sandy areas are a sign of years of silt being dropped, by water, which has since disappeared. You can only really tell by researching what the first Explorers of that region wrote, about their first impressions of it's features.

  5. Very interesting post Chris, I read that book many years ago and thought it made a lot of sense. My daughter has just bought 28 acres on the outer suburbs of Townsville and as they don't get a normal wet season there anymore I think Peter's ideas and solutions would be a great help in setting up the property.

    1. Peter's ideas certainly make more sense, than anyone else I've read who interprets the landscape. Even with permaculture. Because he can tell you what natural sequences influence an area, rather than implementing them artificially. I hope your daughter enjoys her new venture. :)

  6. Another great post, Chris. I love the way you're not only a doer, but a thinker, too. (You mentioned beavers and my vision of you is, 'beavering away' :-) ) I haven't read Andrews' book, but saw a TV program on him and was impressed by the way he had changed his own landscape.

    We don't have the big rainfall events here that you seem to have up there, so I don't see water flowing over our land because it sinks into the sand very quickly. Even if the swales I've dug do fill, they don't stay filled for very long....the water soaks in very quickly.

    What is your annual rainfall there? Maybe you've said, but I don't remember. For comparison, ours here is 25 inches (about 640 mm), spread over the year at about 2 inches per month.

    1. Haha, yes definitely like little beavers or ants, plugging away at something. :)

      Rainfall averages around the same as yours, only in real time (not averages) the years can be between 400-800. When we first moved here, it was on the lower end, but it has picked up since. The difference is, we tend to get it inconsistently. It won't rain for months, and then it will all come down to make our average.

      Between the mountain ranges that run through Qld and NSW - Victoria receives a lot of underground and surface water, from our intense rain events. The Murray river collects it all, and I wonder if it helps moderate rain events in that region? Along with lower temperatures.

      It's interesting. The history of the Murray River would be worth researching. Imagine if Qld and NSW worked on backing up the water, rather than letting it roll quickly to the sea, how much more water the Murray river would receive?

      Andrews was convinced, most of the water was stored underground, and that's what kept the landscapes hydrated.

  7. This is a wonderfully written post Chris. We're huge fans of Peter Andrews, also seeing him for the first time on ABC Australian Story some years ago, blown away from the get go! We've been lucky to visit properties where he has consulted, just missing out on meeting him in person. :( So we've implemented, where we can, many of his methods, seeing huge improvements in the drought proofing of our property, building "leaky dams" and slowing the water down. Now when we're driving around, we imagine how we would action his methods all over this dry state of ours. When we discover this knowledge from the great man Peter, we naturally want to share it and can't understand why more land owners don't want to learn from him. His books are wonderful, and my most treasured.

    1. We do exactly the same - driving around, and wondering what it would be like if that property owner did it Andrews way. I'm glad you're able to implement his ideas on your own property too. It make such a difference. They're not exactly hard strategies to adopt either.

  8. Just checking to see that you are okay after the cyclone.

    1. Thanks for checking in. We're fine. Nothing bad happened in our region. But it is the first few days of dry, after a few weeks of rain! Full on, daily rain. But it wasn't heavy rain, like the coastal areas received. So we're good. No major damage. Just a little erosion in one specific area, we are going to address soon. :)

  9. Hi Chris,
    We've only been here 3 years and Cyclone Debbie bought the first heavy rain. When I plnted my veg garden I noticed small gullies and wondered about them. I planted the garden to take advantage of these areas. I'm so glad I did as I have been able to capture he water. I think it was more good luck than good management. I too had seen Peter on The ABC and downsized his ideas for my suburban backyard. I think I might have a look at the Library for his books and see if I can improve on what I have already done. Great post.

    1. That's the spirit! I love to hear how people adapt to different scales, because it applies to every landscape. It sounds like you had your own intuition at work too, designing your garden around what you were observing. Well done. :)


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