Sunday, May 8, 2016

Natural fertility

I believe in using what we've got on our land, to improve the land. Nature is doing that part automatically anyway, through natural processes - which I will demonstrate, shortly. But as stewards, we can help this process along, by taming and stabilising, the features we want to use on the land the most. Rather than remove, dump, poison or burn these resources away: we sequester ours, back into the landscape instead.

Nature builds a pot-plant

It's important to make that mental shift in thinking: from this is just rubbish, constantly in my way, and an eyesore - to this is a free resource, replenishing itself naturally and how can I use it? Because this shift in mind, can engage the natural processes your land is already using, to replenish its natural fertility.

Why is this important to recognise? Well, for all the books you can read about gardening strategies, there's only one way nature is going to work on your patch of land. That is through pre-existing natural sequences. You can tweak the landscape, here and there, but if you don't learn to regard what's pre-existing, how can you improve it without inadvertently, working against it?

Our natural fertility isn't that rich here, but we're slowly working on it and noticing the difference.

2006 - the sand pit, pre digital camera days
Click to enlarge

Before we even built on this landscape, ten years ago, there was a pre-exiting system. Our house was destined to be built on the mid-slope, its not the one under construction, on top of the hill. Did you notice, the enormous sandpit on our property though? As a toddler, it was our daughter's favourite play area, when coming to visit the property. It also gave us a flat spot to stand on, and survey what was around us.

This was the lowest point on our property, and its where all the water ran to - as well as receiving run-off, several properties, uphill from us. The sand is silt, dumped from upstream (and our own property) because there was a plug we hadn't learned to recognise yet. This plug of thick foliage and fallen trees, near the boundary of our property, was forcing the water to dump its silt behind it, instead of taking it downstream.

2006 ~ grass growing on the edges of the sandpit

We were fortunate to have this enormous sandpit on our property. Several other properties we had visited on either side, didn't have such features. They had narrow channels where the water flowed in downpours, instead. We didn't think too much about our sandpit, until we moved here though.

It's only when I stumbled across Peter Andrew's book, "Back from the Brink," and his follow up book, "Beyond the Brink," I started to understand how that sandpit had formed. But more importantly, how it could help us improve the landscape, naturally. We had a pre-existing natural feature on the lowest part of our property - a dry, wide, gully bed, that would seasonally fill with water and nutrients. How could we work with that?

Same sandpit, 2016, with a new toddler

Well, its not exactly a sandpit any more, but that's because we've encouraged the natural system which was already working. The strategy was to hold back water, before it actually reached the sandpit, by creating more debris plugs, upstream. Which has since, allowed the grass to move into the sand pit. Now becoming one of David's regular mowing chores.

We're not mowing for the sake of a pretty lawn though. We're mowing to discourage snakes from venturing to the house, but more importantly, we're "using" that natural fertility, where it can help.

Partly filled

Same sandpit, with a slight incision, caused by the 2011 Queensland floods. But we've been assisting, to repair it since. We're filling it with vegetative matter, to create the same plug effect.

Vegetative matter will break down, but it can act like a filter too, catching twigs, which catch even larger ones. When they hit a fallen tree trunk, this filter, really comes into its own. It slows the water flow, catches even more debris, and reduces the erosion. It gradually fills up the channel with silt and debris, instead of carrying it downstream.

 Completely filled with vegetative matter

When David brush-cutted recently, he raked and dumped the vegetative matter, into the water channel. This stuff is growing in such abundance, it helps us to move around the property better, if we manage it. These natural sequences, are only irrigated by the seasonal water flows, which arrive between spring and summer. Mostly summer.

By holding the water back though, we also allow the water to sink into the soil, for longer. Which is why you'll find, this lowest part of our property is always the greenest, and the coolest. This is the epicentre of fertility. All the forces of nature, converge here and transforms our predominantly harsh conditions, into somewhat of an oasis.

So much of an oasis, in fact, it can easily convert into a jungle. Which is why its David's regular summer chore (when the rains arrive) to maintain the paths we use on the gully floor. These paths help us move around with relative ease. But they also help the kangaroos seek safe passage from wandering domestic dogs. They can feed without fear of being spotted from afar. Which is why the mothers will always raise their joey's here.

There's yet another purpose for these paths however. It directs and captures excess water, when it overflows from the channel. Which is why some of the debris cut, are always left on the paths too. Not only does it help keep moisture in the ground longer, but it also acts as a brake, when water comes rushing through. Instead of taking bare ground, it has to pass through the vegetative filter again. These natural resources and systems were already here. We just had to figure out, how to work with them.

I imagine if we were attempting to raise livestock, we'd feel the pressure to have to do something different with this landscape. I believe it can carry animals, but at this point, its predominately native animals, and our single, free-range chicken (Matriarch) above, who get the benefits. Because we don't need the financial pressure or guilt, of having to maintain animals in a system, which is not yet stable enough, to sustain them.

At some point, I hope to introduce herbivores, possibly in the form of goats. Because I would like them to help convert fertility for us. I believe animals are meant as part of the natural sequences we see at work, here, but domestic animals are what we choose to enter the equation. It's up to us to determine when the right time is. Or else we can end up with a pressure load, the land cannot maintain. Resulting in selling off livestock, or spending money on buying external inputs to keep them.

In the meantime though, we continue our work on the gully floor - learning to appreciate where nature is directing the cues. Such as, a small tree, fallen across the water channel, and into a lantana thicket. It grew successfully, but then one day, just fell over.

This is the origins of how plugs, naturally end up in the water channel. We did not orchestrate this feature. Nature decided its form. You can see the silt which has built up over the years, and made the water channel, barely noticeable. The trees upper branches (not visible in the picture) are what's helping to plug the channel.

It's shallower here, than down stream. This shallower depression makes it easier to cross the channel, to the other side of our property. The wildlife uses it too. So nature builds multi-purpose, species neutral, features, to ultimately benefit the landscape.

Even further upstream, the vegetative barrier which has built-up, by the force of water, shows the natural filter at work too. It slows the water down, dumps nutrients and debris from upstream, and makes it available for plants to feed from. We can then cut down that fast growing, vegetative matter again, and so on and so forth.  But here's what it looks like, just a few meters, upstream, from this debris pile.

Green grass, is growing on the nearly filled-in with silt, water channel. It's almost flat ground now. In fact, this is where the water will spill over the edges, on both sides, when the flow is too much for the almost non-existent channel.

This area has not been irrigated by us. Its purely maintained by natural rainfall, which I have to say, has not been as impressive as other years. Yet we still have green grass. Which cannot be said for the slopes, higher up.

New toddler enjoying a new sandpit. This is the remnants of our sandpit now. Only, due to all the biological plugs we've encouraged along the spanse of our water channel, its migrated to the opposite end of the property now. That former sandpit you saw at the very beginning, has been choked out with vegetation. The only reason we have a sandpit, at the very border of our neighbour's upstream property, is because they don't utilise the same plugs we do. So we get all the silt from all the upstream properties.

At the edge of our upstream, neighbours property

There's a completely different story, for the downstream neighbouring properties, from us, who have benefited directly from our plugs. There are no sand pits downstream, only extremely green grass, which we quite envy. Only because the slopes which encroach on our narrow gully floor, widens up for them. It's like the delta, where fresh water meets the ocean. The nutrients have accumulated and been release into a wider pool. So everything flourishes on a wider scale.

But you have to work with what you've got, and that's what we continue to do.




I have more to share about capturing natural fertility on your property. If you're not recognising you have it, then observe where water flows on your landscape. That will give you some clues to start from. Because there's always more to observe, than meets the eye.


  1. Great post, Chris. You've obviously benefited from reading Peter Andrews. My permaculture teacher was always raving about him. You're also reading your land a good deal better than I'm reading mine. :-(

    In my area though, I'd be concerned about all that debris on the ground being a fire hazard, as I'm in a bushfire zone. Just out of interest, what's your rainfall there and which season does most of it fall?

  2. I think you were very fortunate to get Cam Wilson as your permaculture teacher, because I don't believe he teaches permaculture courses any more. Somewhat of an apprentice to Peter Andrew's work now, in Natural Sequence Farming - he designs land and water restoration projects on other people's property. Which I think is pretty exciting work to be involved with.

    Debris and bush fires are an issue for us too. The parts of our property, we haven't managed the vegetative matter to capture water with, they grow the driest, spindliest, and most prone to go up material, if a bushfire came through. Where we farm nature's vegetative matter, back into the environment it grew from however, we're seeing greener belts emerge.

    All our significant rain comes during Summer. We get the occasional shower at other times, but not really enough to drench the ground. It quickly gets lost through evaporation. Even in autumn. Average rainfall is 600mm, which can vary from 400 to 800mm, depending on the year.

    At 400mm we're very close to desert conditions, which tend to get less than 300mm per year. But we've learned if we want moisture to stick around longer, we have to exploit those drenching rains when they arrive, by finding ways for it to stay on our land.

  3. That's interesting...our rainfall here is about 600 mm too, but autumn/winter/spring. I would love it to be in summer, so that the bush would get a drenching occasionally, but then I suppose I'd be complaining about fungus on all the veggies. We've never had below 400 mm and a couple of good years over 1000 mm. Mostly it's pretty average.

    I've dug mini swales behind all the fruit trees (they're on a slope) and it's very satisfying to see them fill up with water in a downpour.

    1. Oops forgot to reply after I read this one. It sounds like you have a good rain fall. The weather site says, we've had around 220mmls of rain this year. I suspect "we" didn't see much of that here though.

      I really should get us a range gauge. I guess part of me is worried about confirming my fears, that we actually get less rain than reported!

  4. That is a trully amazing transition. The amount of work, time and money you put into it certainly paid off!

    1. Thanks Linda. The only money we paid on the gully work though, was the mortgage and repairing the mattock and wheelbarrow. Our tools get a hard life here, lol.

      What I like about this particular work is, the land is doing most of it. What we do in comparison, is very small. :)


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