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Desert permaculture question/mixed methods for a permaculture noob

 
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I watched a video a long time ago that I am interested in. It was a video of a Muslim man with a planting method of digging holes in an offset pattern. The rains would collect in the holes and be evenly distributed among the trees planted in the future forest. (I can't remember where the video is or what it might be called. Can anyone tell me?)

Basically, micro-swales, right?

My thinking is to make paani foundation-type continuous contour trenches, and to put micro-swales between. I'm also thinking the Back To Eden method or the Ruth Stout method for planting in the micro-swales would be a good way to keep moisture on from the top, as well as from the ground.

Would it be advised to mix these various methods together? They all seem to work well enough independently from each other.

I don't want to do too much work, because I'm lazy. But I think I might be able to manage these methods to get a garden started reliably.
 
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You might be thinking of zaï or tassa, an agricultral system of pits from the western Sahel in Africa. This thread discusses a very similar strategy and this one goes into zai pits a bit. There are other strings around Permies that mention it here and there if you do a search.

I think the original idea is to put compost and other organic matter (manure, whatever you have) in the pits, and you can plant trees in them if you want, or let nature do that for you. The book Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman, has a break-out column on zai that is very interesting. It tells the story of Yacouba Sawadogo of Burkina Faso (in the Sahel, where zai or tassa is traditional), who in the 1980's facing severe drought and deforestation filled zai pits with manure and compost "to attract termites, whose tunnels further decompose the organic matter." The pits helped his millet and sorghum grow, and native trees started to grow out of the zai, "anchor[ing] the soil, buffer[ing] the wind, [...] help[ing to] retain soil moisture[..., and] provid[ing] mulch for the crops and fodder for the livestock. As others adopted Sawadogo's technique, water tables across the Sahel began to rise for the first time in decades" (pp. 80-81 in the Kindle version, which I got through the public library).

I hope that's helpful! What more can you tell us about your project, where you are, and what kind of desert you're working with?
 
Nathaniel Swasey
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Yes! That's what I was looking for! Thank you!

To be honest, I just wanted the name of the documentary, but I didn't expect for so much information to be so quickly obtained.

Also, I'm not really in a desert. I'm in Missouri. I just want to entertain the idea of doing the work to plant something one or two times and then expect it to work.

I figured with how much moisture the paani method shows, and with the passive watering from the Ruth Stout method in smaller, more manageable areas (rather than a big field or series of fields) in the form of zai pits, that I'd be sure to rely on not needing to fret over my plants. On one hand I would be collecting moisture from the water table, and on the other the rains would be most efficiently stored.

It should work, right? Maybe?

If not, I hope that someone would recommend an alternative they are willing to convince me of.
 
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I have tried the zai and demilune techniques.They definitely help and work.Also try the one rock wall technique to slow down the water.swales and berms help too on contour.(using the a frame level)You may need to water in extreme drought.Look at the leaves of your trees they will give you a good indication if they our extremely thirsty.After the first year of planting the roots will establish themselves and you should be good.Look up Sepp Holzer if you haven't already.Hugelkulturs are also a great way to store water.Mulch Mulch Mulch definitely helps.You may need to put in some work the first year or two but after you establish your trees they should be self sustaining.Good luck on your planting.
 
Beth Wilder
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Some back-of-the-napkin thoughts (so, if I'm getting things wrong or forgetting things, please correct and/or add in, folks!):

In my experience and from what I've read, if you're not in a desert situation, techniques like hugelkultur that are raised rather than sunken may work better for you, because you're likely to see a lot more precipitation in a year than the 13 inches that we see here in southeast Arizona, for example. How many inches of annual precipitation do you get there, and how are they distributed through time?

For us, dams and seguias (channels to direct water) from Middle Eastern foggara systems (more great traditional techniques from the Sahel!) combine well with sunken beds full of organic matter -- like modifications of Zuni waffle beds as well as smaller indentations like zai, in different applications -- because we rarely get rain. In certain seasons, though, we get daily rain and some torrential rain, which we need to be able to control and then hold against the long dry times.

For you, you may well need more and better drainage lest you end up with things too soggy. That's where raised beds, especially when full of organic matter, come in.

In various parts of Africa (even some arid parts, if I understand right), this is accomplished by mounding with a hoe in combination with adding organic matter, then planting into the mounds. This may be simpler and more easily accomplished for you than building hugelkultur beds, for example.

From the Penniman book I cited before, there's a good section on "bed forming" that describes a process of smothering existing vegetation (like with tarps temporarily applied, or cardboard or other biodegradable material you intend to remain there and break down over time) and then moving soil from your pathways to your beds. If the ground is currently thick with vegetation like sod, cutting and flipping it, then seeding a cover crop, then coming back and turning all that organic matter into your new raised beds could accomplish much of the addition of organic matter (pp. 130-131). The Ovambo of Northern Namibia add "manure, ashes, termite earth, cattle urine, muck from wetlands, and other organic matter to increase the fertility of their mounds" (Penniman, pp. 74-75).

Your pathways should also help drain and move away floodwater when necessary, functioning like the systems of dikes and canals built to move water away from waterlogged soils e.g. by farmers in the Rio Nunez region of Guinea (p. 141). You could mulch them or plant a cover crop like clover there.

One shared thing here is adding organic matter. The more organic matter you can add to help retain moisture, the less you should have to pump and add groundwater to the system in between rains.

Keeping the ground covered with plants and/or mulch is also important in both situations, to prevent topsoil loss and excessive evaporation as well as to help any floodwater sink in rather than rushing across the land, carrying everything away with it.

Also, what kind of slope are you on? That will help to determine what solutions will work best for you as well.

Sorry for the current obsession with Penniman's book, but it is just so good and inspiring. Highly recommended.
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