Thursday, July 10, 2014

Landscape rework

I warn you, this post isn't going to be pretty, and for good reason too. We're trying to improve a piece of land above the house, which also incorporates our large swale. It works okay as a swale/pond in wet weather, but we never were happy with how we left it. We didn't get a lot of plants in, and what we did get in, was kind of haphazard.

So in between our long dry periods, only the hardiest of weeds survived. It's overgrown and I don't really mind that, but its the fact we haven't improved the soil structure which is the most disappointing.

A level strip of land on a slope

This is the Swale presently. We haven't had a good drop of rain for several months, only the occasional drizzle. This is on a north facing slope, so without adequate tree cover, is subject to continual evaporation when the sun is out. The soil is a combination of red clay and sandstone, which we learned while digging the swale by hand.

To give an indication of what it looks like in wet weather, I have to refer back to late 2010, a few weeks before the 2011 Queensland floods.

Full swale

As you can see, the area is quite effective at retaining water when it *does* rain, but our incomplete design didn't cater for better resilience in the opposite conditions of dry. To give an indication how important shade is, there's another part of the swale, directly behind me, where I was taking the pictures above.

This picture was taken on the same day as the first image, but the difference here is, where the canna lilies cast shade onto the grass, it retains moisture longer than the grass exposed to full sunlight: hence the visible green strip of grass. This image is taken in winter, so the canna lilies are capable of casting a long enough shadow to effect the growing conditions of the grass underneath. This is despite the lack of rainfall.

So this living example proves the importance of shade in this particular area. If we want to retain moisture to change the soil structure, we need trees.

Clapps Favourite pear, with falling leafs

We did end up planting trees at the same time we dug the swale, but several have since been removed or died. The grapefruit died, the kumquat was transplanted to a completely different area to save its life. The pineapple quava was removed and put in a pot on the verandah this year. The only two remaining trees were two pear trees (one shown above). Just to show how inexperienced we were in the beginning, we chose two pears of the same variety, with no pollinator. No surprises why we've seen no buds, apart from the abysmal conditions we've raised them in.

Pigeon pea stumps, pear at rear (4 years old)

Pigeon peas did really well here though, self-seeding and then successfully protecting the pear trees. The pigeon peas also became a food source for the kangaroo mamas and their various offspring. Which is why it was very difficult to cut down the trees from this area recently. It had to be done though. I left some stumps in hope they would re-shoot and give them some nourishment. I did plant extra pigeon peas lower down the slope, in anticipation I would remove this lot from the swale.

I laid down all the pigeon pea branches on the walkway, and then David and I carted bark mulch over the top. In the wet season this will break down, then we will have to add more mulch. We anticipate having to do this for several seasons.

Mulching walkway

What's all this in aid of though, but to bring in a better design to connect the areas which are slowly degrading. You'll have to forgive my rough paint skills in utilising GIMP, but this is the design we are hoping to aim for.

A green corridor - click to enlarge

This image is taken at the opposite end, to the very first image. We've got room for a pollinator pear on the berm (closest to the swale) and we'll be planting a row of hardy natives along the walkway, which we've already begun. In winter the natives should cast a shadow towards the pear trees, preserving moisture on the walkway. Which is important, as we seem to be missing the early spring rain more often than not.

Freshly mulched

Behind me, in the image above, is a carob tree. I didn't choose the best spot for it, but I thought it was hardy, so plopped it in the ground. Obviously, it requires more TLC so while I was dealing with branches and the like, I decided to give it a hugelkultur mulch treatment - small broken twigs, followed by bark mulch. It got a good drink and the leafs look less dull now.

Behind the carob is a mixture of natives and ornamental shrubs we've planted to help shield us from the street, and from south, south-westerly winds. To give an indication why its so important to tackle this slope, I need to demonstrate the existing degradation.

 A poorly landscape

This is the north facing slope, above the swale. At the skyline is the street. It gets sprayed once a year by Council. to control the grass near the road. But it's also a sheer drop, so has perfect drainage. Without regular rain, this area becomes brittle and lifeless...

Water repellent clay

This is the red clay which needs some work. We haven't had any rain, so the grass is dying back. It's very susceptible to erosion. Sticking mulch on top isn't the answer, we've found - it just rolls down the hill eventually. It requires a living network of connected systems, to turn this balding red patch into a layer of brown hummus.

I look forward to updating our progress as it happens. I've already got three quick-growing natives on the edge of the walkway. Hopefully we'll get a decent amount of rain in spring and summer too. At the moment, they're predicting an El Nino, which means dryer than normal conditions. But I'm still ever the optimist, and will keep working on this area.

Do you have any land degradation issues to tackle, and do you have a plan?


  1. we are pretty much green here all year, so we dont have to deal with conditions like yours. however our soil is very sandy from all the sandstone up here and unless we mulch, all the water just beads off. i dont envy the work you have to get done, but in the long run the benefits will be great

  2. Definitely a lot of work ahead for us, but I like to think of it as investing in our green collateral for the future. I have patches of sandstone which is very difficult to grow stuff on. It requires a lot of organic matter, so I can empathise with your situation somewhat. You're fortunate to have the green though, so something must be working. :)

  3. We have the same problem, i.e. long hot dry spells in the summer. My beautiful stand of corn is suffering terribly and even though the rainwater collection is a help, it's used up all too quickly. We've discussed swales but have yet to make that happen. There is so much more to do than time to do it! Impressive you dug the swale by hand!

    I'm so glad you're doing updates on this project, because I learn so much from the experiences of others. Permaculture theory is so simple and brilliantly logical, but making it a reality is a lot of hard work! It's comforting to know others are making progress too, even if there are problems and adjustments along the way.

  4. A lack of funds, but small pockets of time, allowed us to dig the swales by hand. A little desperation doesn't hurt the motivation either - our swale being the main defense against water coming down from the street and pooling around the house.

    I hear you about the dry summer and corn though. We tried it for a couple of seasons and then just gave up on growing corn. It just needed too much water. Having said that however, we only grew it in full exposure. I reckon a few tricks could be used to make water go further. Like planting it behind a structure or large shrubs, where it receives afternoon shade.

    That has always been the lynch pin of success or failure around here. If something receives afternoon shade, it seems to need less water and grows much better. Because in hot, dry summers, that scorching afternoon sun is just the final straw for most plants - especially the moisture loving ones.

    If you can find something hardy and native to shield your corn in the afternoons, you may find your water goes a little further. Every little trick helps! I hope your corn makes it through. I found even the small cobs we got tasted far superior to store bought ones, so the harvest wasn't a complete failure.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with Permaculture. It is a lot of hard work. People think its an easy system which takes away the work - which inevitably it does once the system matures - but it takes many years for that to happen. In the meantime, you've got to roll up your sleeves and work the system a little yourself.

    I don't mind though. Work in the yard doesn't entirely feel like work. Most of the time it feels like a reward. But that's me... ;)

  5. What a great and educational post. Its giving me some ideas now. I wonder if the photo of the planting plan is not deceptive but it seems like the spacing for your new plantings is tight. What is the spacing going to be in approximate terms? Is that important to the technique at all?

  6. I meant to reply to this yesterday, but I got involved in an outside project and ran out of time. I look forward to posting about what I got up to, but its still a work in progress at the moment.

    Do you mean the spacing between the pears and the proposed line of native trees: ie the walkway? It's somewhere between 2 - 3 meters. It's a squeeze, but I'll prune back what interferes with using the walkway and it should give me some tree mulch while I'm at it.

    Or did you mean the spacing between the native trees? The spacing is roughly 2 - 3 meters again, between trees. In our extreme summer climate, close spacing preserves moisture, because it doesn't allow the sun to hit the ground. In wetter climates they may have to be spaced further apart to allow air circulation, in case tree rot becomes a problem.

    I'm mixing it up a little in my native plant selection, with shrubs and ground covers going in between the trees. I propagated most of these myself, so if it gets to cramped when they grow and something has to come out, I won't have lost any money.

    I've got more to write about this particular area, because its a trouble spot for me. I've struggled to grow anything here because its so dry, but I'll write more soon. :)

    I'll pop over to your blog today and see what you're up to.

    1. Chris, I didn't get notification that you had responded. You answered my questions-I meant spacing in both directions. I wasn't sure if the photo had foreshortened the depth or not. Some do plant closer when it comes to trees here in the wetter part of the U.S. I just saw a mini orchard in somebodies front yard in town-5 apple trees in about 20 feet. Maybe they are dwarves but I don't think they were. I think they had planned on keeping them well pruned-that is the only way it could work in that tight of spacing here. Pruning fruits in this area though means that a bird can fly through the tree easily. Thats the goal.

    2. Every location is so different. The one constant for success, has to be air flow though. Which may be why pruning works with the close plantings in your area. So long as plants can get some air circulation, it shouldn't allow rot or bacteria to become a problem.

    3. Exactly though our apple tree rarely gets that kind of heavy pruning since its been neglected for so many years-we take it nice and slow with it. It has no issues with molds or fungus at all. I met a tree doctor recently and will see if I can't get him to come out and take a look and teach us a thing or two. I'd like to continue to add more fruits but I have never learned much about growing them.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. I love reading what you have to share. Gully Grove is a Spam free environment though, so new commenter’s only leaving hyperlinks, will be promptly composted.