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:
* Affiliate link through IndieBound
I know that permaculture is a huge part of your goal for your homestead and using water sources already available is a great goal. My question is why not save and have a well dug. Sure, wells are pricey, but a great investment and a better guarantee that the water is clean and you will have to do less work purifying water to drink. Hand pumps are inexpensive as well. Sure, you can still work with the pond especially for livestock, but have you thought about having a well dug?
We have a well and it has been amazing!! I test the water a bunch of times a year.
Teri Page says
Hi Miranda, It’s not out of the question for us to look into a well, although they don’t seem to be used very much in this area. But honestly, the cost is a hugely prohibitive factor. We would more likely build a cistern first to catch rainwater, as it is less expensive. We had a well at our former homestead and it was amazing!
We would love to put a pond on our property. We have a deep “trench” running through our property. However it is a drain to keep the neighbor’s fields from flooding. It sounds ideal to develop something to divert some of that water to a pond on our property. However, our neighbor uses pesticides and herbicides on his crops. We’re not sure how much of that washes into our property. Any opinions?
Teri Page says
You could probably mitigate some of the toxicity by planting wetland species all around the pond, but you’d always be living with pesticides and herbicide run-off in your pond. Would you feel comfortable swimming in your pond? Or pulling water from it? If not, it still would have value as wildlife habitat. You may be able to consult with your extension service to see if they offer grants or cost-shares to help. We were able to have a conservationist come out to our property and assess different sites. Ultimately, we decided not to build one at this time, but we would have qualified for a cost share because we would have been preventing soil erosion on a vulnerable hillside.
Brandon Sutter says
Just out of curiosity, could you not use a windmill to pump water from your pond up to a cistern on the hill? Essentially you would set up just like you would with a well, but the piping would just run down the hill and into the pond. I don’t know if wind power is an option for you, but here in Texas we get more wind than you can shake a stick at lol. It would take some tweaking but it might be a good option for you. 🙂
Teri Page says
Yes, wind is definitely an option for us. We are planning to explore using wind for power, and certainly could apply that to a water pump as well. Thank you for writing!
Can you check those links in the first paragraph? I do enjoy anything about how you get water and keep it working for you. Hard work but I’m hoping it pays off for you.
Teri Page says
Hi Jon, Thanks for reading. I checked the links and they appear to be working fine on my site. Do they work now?
Ed Brown says
Surprised the word “terrace” does not appear here. Terraces act like swales and can be incorporated with water catchments of varying size. Small terraces can increase the surface area of a hill slope and create ecotones for more plant growing diversity. See “land imprinting” too: micro topography divots can catch more water than ponds.
Home Power Magazine has done many articles concerning solar pumping, water catchment and storage and filtration and purification, even distillation.
Teri Page says
Terraces would also be a great option for our land. I’ll look up Land Imprinting and see what I can learn.
Christopher Robin Paquette says
Love your posts. One important item that i feel should always be discussed when dealing with water on slopes, and in ponds, is erosion control. The importance of not leaving soil bare cannot be left out. Our company loses a lot of work to contractors who dont factor these controls into thier costs. And we uaually get called in after the damage is done. A good rule is, if you break the ground on a slope, above, or in a pond, you must use erosion control, or your material is going to find the bottom land. Not doing this control, means big water quality issues for any body of water. We have many suggestions and techniques for water harvesting and erosion control, and are more than happy to share.
Teri Page says
Thanks for bringing up this important point. That is exactly the reason that we are going to wait to build a pond until we can do it right.