An area of our homestead infrastructure that we spend A LOT of time thinking about, worrying about, and being creative about, is water. As we are living completely off-grid, we have to figure out ways to source water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, cooking, watering the garden, watering fruit trees, and watering animals. Over the past year we’ve developed some homestead water systems that were very successful, like our summer rain water catchment; some that were fairly unsuccessful, like our buried winter water catchment system; and some that work, but require a lot of effort, like carrying buckets of water from the pond to our home.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by an amazing homesteading book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead by Ben Falk (which I will review in detail in a future post, but check out his website for a preview!). In his book, Mr. Falk writes at length about designing and creating homestead water systems. He writes:
“The resilient farmer and homesteader needs to be aware of how her site developments affect the movement and storage of water on site….The designer must always be asking the same question: How can I slow it, spread it, and sink it?” (p. 80)
For our home water use, we are planning to construct an underground cistern. But we still need to consider collecting and storing enough water for irrigation and livestock. One common way of storing water in this region is with the development of farm ponds. The heavy clay soil packs well to create ponds for livestock watering, swimming, or wildlife. We have a gorgeous pond on the community land, and we spend much time enjoying its beauty and cool, relatively clear water.
A problem our specific site faces is that we built upon a hilltop (mostly to avoid flooding from the creek in the bottomlands, but also because we love the view and being tucked into the forest). We could (and may) install a solar pump to move pond water up in elevation to our land, and there are also potential pond sites mid-way down our slope. But properly constructed ponds are expensive, so we’re also exploring some other techniques of slowing and spreading water; namely the use of swales.
Swales, often talked about in permaculture circles, are ditches, human or man-made, that run along the contour of the land, and work to slow the movement of water down a slope. Often permaculturalists will combine the water catchment properties of a swale with a mounded planting immediately below, where water from the swale will slowly infiltrate into the mounded soil.
Swales are definitely in our future, as our property is almost entirely sloped, but they require either extensive hand-digging, or earthmoving. In retrospect, perhaps digging a pond and swales should have been the very first thing we did on our land, but we were too focused on building a house to take that action.
Today, we planted 10 Elderberries on a slightly sloped part of the land. Ideally, we would have first prepared the site by digging a swale and mounding the earth, then planting into the mounded earth. Instead, we planted the elderberries along the contour line, and are wondering if we can add swales later. We’re going to try it by adding brush, sod, leaves, and other organic materials to create mounds, and later digging out swales.
Flags mark our new planting of 10 bare root elderberries along a contour line.
Brian is also experimenting with sod mounds. Any time we dig sod out of the garden, he lays it along a contour line and builds a raised bed. It is small-scale earth moving, and we have a lot more shoveling to do to create an accompanying swale, but it’s worth experimenting with!
The beginnings of a sod mound.
Our dream homestead is lush with the green growth of thickly planted mounds full of edible, native, and medicinal plants, abundant gardens, and thriving livestock. Creating a homestead dotted with farm ponds and swales is one exciting step closer to this dream.
Ben Falk’s book: