Monday, April 25, 2016

Permaculture (in a sense)

Over the winter I started doing research into permaculture, learning that we've been using permaculture principles for some time without knowing it. :) Very little organic matter leaves this yard--it's all recycled, one way or another. Leaves and grass are compost, food debris goes in the compost pit. Thicker wood that can't be composted is burned for ash or used for any number of other things. The land is sloped so that there is very little runoff, and xeric plantings deliberately placed where the sprinklers don't reach.

Water is our Achilles heel, but permaculture has a cure for that.

We live in a desert. It rains in the spring and fall, a bare handful of times per year. Snow during the winter mostly runs off rather than soaking in. In all we get about fifteen inches of water per year. Summer temperatures run easily into the 90's and 100's, with near 0 humidity.

This year water prices are going to double or triple, and with more than a quarter acre of lawn and garden that's going to hurt. With that in mind, earlier in the year I invested in a water catchment system to catch water off the roof. It's nearly complete. I also finished one of the drainage systems, carrying water from the downspout on one corner of the house across the grass and into the raspberries.

Two years ago we put in the drip system, and the secondary garden is watered by the lawn sprinklers. I'd much rather water vegetables than grass.

So this spring I ran a test. All of the vegetables were put in the ground--and left alone. The only water they've gotten was the rain two weeks ago. With temperatures in the 70's and 80's, I would have expected the water to evaporate quickly, leaving the seedlings languishing. If that had happened I would have watered, but they all appear fat and happy. As of last night (before the rain) the soil in the main garden was dry only two inches down, and in the western garden one inch. Seedlings are all up and amazing. Two transplants have been lost--one tomato, broken when a wall-o-water fell over on it, and a licorice seedling that something ate. Neither died from lack of water.

Last spring we were watering constantly, and the water just seemed to drain away, leaving the soil dry again within a day or two.

Something has changed.

I think we're working with a combination of things. First, each year early in the spring we till up the garden, which allows air in, fluffs the soil so to speak, but also creates more space for water to evaporate from. All that water that's settled deep in the soil during the winter evaporates off. We then plant into this aerated soil, and keep it watered until the seedlings come up. Because of the tilling the soil is broken up deep, allowing all the water to drain off. This year we didn't till, so the water that was in the soil is staying there.

Second, I mulched the surface as much as possible. Grass went down all last summer, and leaves in the fall. This year we will again mulch deeply with grass and leaves, as well as continuing with the deep compost pit.

By planting so that all soil is covered by something living (or a good thick layer of mulch, or both) we should minimize evaporation from the soil. With the use of consciously recognized permaculture principles (rather than just doing what feels right), I'm hoping that water use will be minimized this year.

The recipe for a water-wise garden:

Soil with plenty of organic matter
Mulch (next year's soil)
Plant densely
Catch and reuse (catchment tanks)
Water wisely (drip lines)

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