Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ponds of water

One of the strategies we adopted early, was cutting a swale halfway down the lower front slope, to divert water coming down towards the house. For the most part, this strategy has worked extremely well. Or at least it has when we've had time to dig better trenches.


Above is a picture of what happened in our first year living here, with no swales to divert the water away. It was our first summer storm and all that water ran down to the front of the house, where it pooled, before it could get away.


We've since erected retaining walls and a garden, as seen in this photo today. This was repaired after the subsequent flood in 2010-11. The flood itself, wiped out a large chunk of this garden, and we're still moving the silt (and mulch) which got dumped underneath.

And in case you're wondering (because I know you are) that is a rock statue made with the various bits of rubble we've been collecting to build the drystone retaining wall with, out the back. David always likes to do interesting things with rocks, so I cannot take credit for it.

Despite the flood, as we've been able to work at digging the swales above, the water has been less of an issue near the house. In fact, it's quickly becoming an asset. But first we've had to adopt several strategies, fashioned from the three valuable lessons the flood showed us - water brings life, shapes the earth and has a relationship to plants.

Cana lilies, pruned foreground~
not pruned in the background

Here is the very top of the garden where the water used to spill down towards the house. We planted a natural barrier of cana lilies on small earth mounds. It's not designed to stop the water overflowing from the swales, but rather to slow the speed at which the water spills over.

As the trees, shrubs and ground covers grow bigger in the garden below, the cana lilies will probably be shaded out and have to be replaced with more shade loving plants. With regular pruning of the cana's and dropped where they are now though, there's always a constant source of decaying humus for gravity to take down to the plants below.

Succession planting, is natures original blueprint for building resilience into degraded systems. We're just duplicating that here. The cana lilies offer some protection to the younger plants below (from running water) then once the trees and shrubs grow, they'll provide shade for a more diverse range of delicate plants to grow in their place.

Early 2010

But of course, water plays an important part, and digging our swale trenches over the seasons has become another lesson in water management.Since swales (trenches) are rarely even when digging them by hand, we noticed water pooling at certain points. Noticing these pools, we came up with the idea to make a series of ponds.

The above picture is very early days - see all that exposed dirt! There's also two pear trees, and notice the log in the very front of the picture. I will speak about the role of that log later.

 Late 2010

There's quite a lot of difference 11 months later when the summer rains arrive. We have a full pond and it's irrigating everything around it.

Middle of 2011

As the seasons passed, we started to add more plant material, as the shallowness of the ponds could easily evaporate quickly in summer, just as quickly as they could fill. To the left of this image is new lomandra grass to prevent soil erosion, and to the right of this image, you can see the shade of the pigeon peas we planted to shade the ponds.

The pigeon peas were a bit of an experiment, since we noticed they built up microbes in the soil wherever they were planted. They've done wonders for this little patch too.

This morning we saw a flock of 30 or more cockatoos, in the area, feeding from some of these (now fully grown) pigeon peas. The little wrens and finches love to bathe in the ponds and then perch on the branches of the pigeon peas too. Many a bird in these parts (including the larger ones) use these ponds multiple times a day.

Early 2012

The above image is a better portrayal of what the pigeon peas look like now. Although their long branches hadn't quite reached over the pond yet. The reason these ponds keep their water without draining away (apart from evaporating in summer) is they're built on a natural clay shelf.

Way back when we first noticed the water pooling as we dug the trenches, there were certain places which took weeks to dry up. These were the clay layers. There are sandstone shelves as well, along the same strip of trench, which absorb pools of water much quicker.

Middle of 2012

This is what the same pond looks like today. There's quite a lot of overgrown, dead grass, but this is all part of nature's succession planting at work too. This grass, when left to it's own devices, is capable of creating topsoil within a few seasons.

Leaving the long strands of dead grass to naturally clothe the naked slope, means I don't have to purchase mulch to clothe the earth. When I was planting my trees on the slope yesterday, instead of pulling the grass, I folded it over, to act like a barrier as I poured soil on the top. When you pour soil on a slope, it rolls down it without a barrier to stop it.

Well that decaying grass was awfully helpful yesterday. And remember that log I referred to earlier?

Looks can be deceiving

Here it is 2 years later. Not much to look at huh? Well it's a wonderful haven for skinks (small lizards) to get to the water's edge without being gobbled up by a carnivorous bird. I saw some skinks recently - running as quickly as they could to the water's edge and then darting back to the safety of this rotting log.

These logs came from one of the trees that were removed during the building of the house. Fallen trees are also part of nature's succession planting. I figure when we remove them, we have a duty to keep them on the property to carry out the rest of their natural decaying process. Fungi, lizards and other insects use rotting logs as part of their life cycle too.

Front yard 2012

The picture above, takes in the cana lilies (front, right) the pigeon peas in front of the ponds (centre, left) and that grass line on the left side, which runs from the lilies past the pigeon peas, is where our swale/trenches divert water away from the house, which is to the right (the house that is).

It's nice to know while we're protecting our dwelling and family from deluges of water, we can create valuable habitat for the animals and ecology, utilising that resource too.

Apart from the plant material (and the cana's were a gift that just keeps on giving) we didn't have to purchase a whole lot to duplicate nature. Everything was done with a hand tool - including a wheel barrow) and the pigeon peas were even planted from seeds on the property.

New plants

Yesterday when I planted that tree, along with another and some more lomandra grass - I was starting to move the plants up the slope (above the ponds). While it's not a lot of fun carting dirt up hill in a bucket, it's comforting to know when these plants become mature, they will be assisting in stopping soil going down hill with a storm!

Of course it doesn't end there - no - what would a garden be, if it didn't keep on growing. We have plans to build another pond near the existing ones.

Future pond

Not much to look at now, with all the unkempt grass, but this is where our next pond is going to be dug. The red earth is the existing trench we made, which will now be turned into a pond.

It's important to remember when digging ponds, there are some very important ground rules you need to observe. In the beginning when I wrote about the three valuable lessons the flood showed us - water brings life, shapes the earth and has a relationship to plants...well they also signify the rules to keeping water on your property. It has a relationship to many elements and it needs to be observed as such.

Water brings life, but it also has an effect on the earth, which is why you need to introduce the plants to manage that relationship. We learned not to dig the ponds too deep - we aren't growing water lilies and it's always important to surround the pond with plants. Why is that?

This is a very involved answer, to which I can only point you to read Peter Andrews two books again (Beyond the Brink, and, Back from the Brink). Water has power to displace the mineral composition of earth underground, this is why we don't dig too deep - we don't want our ponds causing issues lower down the slope. But the plants are also a filter to avoid a lot of mineral imbalances from beginning in the first place.

Water, earth, plants; they are symbiotic as a whole. To view any of these without the other, is messing with the natural balance nature put in order. And my passion is learning from nature, not displacing it.


  1. I like that you are embracing a problem as an asset. 'The problem is the solution' is written on the dunny wall at Purple Pear so I assume its from permaculture literature. I love that idea and think of it often especially now that were starting to design our home. After taking into account waterways and fire there's a whole lot of 'problems' - but what we are ending up with is better than what we had initially thought of.

  2. It's great you're taking in so many ideas - it can only help your finished design. And if things get delayed in the process, think of it as more time to contemplate new solutions. ;)

  3. It's all looking lovely, Chris. Swales are the greatest thing since sliced bread!

  4. They're very handy and don't even need to be too deep either. Thanks for stopping by. :)


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