My housemate is convinced that there isn't anything that can be done until he can afford to spend a huge amount installing a complex french drain system, but I thought I'd see if anything one here any suggestions.
My housemate owns about 11 acres of mostly native species plantation woodland. It's a very clay soil, rather steep, and often receives far too much rain. Plus, we are on the bottom of the hill so get the run off from the grass field above (which is horse grazing). It has some drainage ditches but when there's been heavy rainfall it just can't cope and everything turns into nasty slippy mud. Some of the worst ground is where is already lots of birch, ash, hazel and hawthorn already planted and fairly well established. Sometimes the water table gets so high that the path next to the biggest drainage ditch becomes flooded. I think the worse problems are the water that comes up from the water table, and keeping paths usable (day to day it's low level, but at times there can be heavy footfall due to having up to 10 people in there for a few days at a time).
The safety issue comes from the slippy mud. My house is a craftsman and has his workshops sited in his woods. Last September he was tidying up some rubbish out the front and slipped over, landing on a broken strip light lightbulb. He cut through to the bone, severing the nerve but thankfully sparing the tendon. It took him a couple of months to get back up and working properly again. He's still only got limited feeling in that finger.
Having done some reading around here this weekend I've had a couple of ideas that I'd like to bounce off others before we start experimenting. I've brushed against permaculture many times over the last ten years but am only new really starting to investigate and learn. Possibly because it was only in 2011 that I finally bought a house and have my own land to look after (as opposed to renting houses or my housemate's land, even though I'm talking about my housemate's land here).
I'm thinking that some hugelkulture beds uphill from the main work area (which is mainly flat) might help mop up some of the water.
About the paths, we're tried laying wood chip mulch in the past but it's a massive investment to produce that much woodchip. We've tried brush paths but again it was a big investment and they didn't survive well when they got really wet and were being used lots. In order to lift the path above the clay and produce a drier path surface, how well do you think it would work if we used larger pieces of wood (say firewood size for example?)?
Last bit of information. We don't live on site. It's visited most days, but sometimes is left for a week here and there. We have rabbits, hares, squirrels, deer, mice, and badgers. We have tried to grow food there in the past, but all attempts have failed. At the moment the woods are mainly used as a location for courses, camping and are also used to produce firewood and charcoal.
Don't know if this would help, but I've been on more than one drenched homestead where planks were laid on blocks or bricks to use as walkways. In Oregon it was common to nail asphalt shingles onto these to improve traction..... This might make a good temporary move for the most trafficked areas while a longer term solution (gravel, woodchip, etc.) is slowly sourced and brought on site.
On one of the Georgia homesteads, the driveway was a continual problem with mud. Anything and everything was thrown into the potholes and ooze....rubble, bricks, rocks, firewood, tiles, bags of cement, even old carpets. It all gradually helped. We made a point to never bring a vehicle back empty, and were always looking around town for piles of broken pavement, brick, gravel, etc. to scrounge, and kept extra plastic pots and buckets in the car to transport it....
Seems like the hegels and some shallow swales would help to divert the water to the deeper wood.
I know some folks used firewood rounds for a while, they will eventually decompose. but you can use them to establish heath or heather or thyme to stabilize the rest of the path, and should help it dry out quicker too.
I like the idea of watching for when they tear up sidewalks, and scrounging the broken pieces to use as cobbles for a path. Will take a long time, but is good re-use.
Cobbles will keep the gravel in place, and keep it from getting pushed down in too quickly.
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What if you got some free wood pallets and laid them out to make a path? You could layer branches on top of them for even more height above the clay. They will eventually rot but at least they're biodegradable and will add humus.
As for the slipperiness, we've put hay/straw on our slippery clay from when the barn was built. AS long as it's several inches thick it gives great traction. In the barn where water pools your feet sink and water squishes out making your shoes wet but you don't slip and slide. Spent hay from a dairy or horse barn would work fine, but probably break down a little faster (but it would be free).
For hugel beds, start at the top (as high as you can go without getting on someone else's land) and direct the water away from where you want it going mostly along the contour. As time and money allow, make more down the hill. I've been wondering if I could start some cheaply by using those fabric and wood stake flood barriers to trap sticks, grass and leaves and eventually clay, etc. as the water carries it downhill.
Are your paths on the lowest part of the land or is there somewhere lower you can drain the water off to?
can you get waste woodchips from local utility companies or municipal governments? woodchips really work great to neutralize the clay and make nice paths that slowly break down into humus over time. of course, it requires a lot of material, and needs to be added to every few years. that's why if you could get the local utility company to drop their loads of woodchips at your place when they are clearing the power lines or utility easements, it could be a great solution.
Sorry for the delayed reply - my computer died for a while.
We're not the lowest ground, there's a little further to go between our land and the stream, but we get a bit of a basin effect of water coming through and with much of the last year having double or more the average rainfall for our area the water table itself as gotten a little high.
Thank you everyone for all the suggestions. We'll start experimenting and report back on what we manage. We can't get much in the way of deliveries because we don't have direct road access (have to cross someone else's land, and that someone else doesn't like us much (he's a NIMBY who does like the fact that the woodland just off the bottom of his land that was ignored for most of the twenty years that he's owned the place now has someone who's there most days and trying to do stuff with it).
Henry, you might also consider the idea of a "corduroy" road/path, as used formerly in logging areas. As I understand it, the idea is to lay down logs (or log pieces, for a path) cross-wise of the path, maybe with a pipe or culvert to let excess water through to a pond or swale, then wood chips or other mulch could be laid over the logs to make a smoother surface. As Geoff Lawton said, if the path is on a level contour, it helps to avoid erosion that otherwise can make the path into a drainage ditch, but there would likely need to be a swale an berm uphill of the path, to direct water to where you can use it or let it pass without harming the rest of the design.
if you dig out a pond or some ditches for drainage it will be helpful..but the mulch and hugel beds will also help..my area is very high water table and heavy clay but I don't have a hill draining down on me really..just the entire neighborhood..
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Hi Brenda. We already have three ditching running down the land, plus connecting ditches running with the contours at the top and midway down our land. We have a pond, but ironically it's one place the clay is thinnest so it tends to fill and then drain fairly quickly. Blasted clay. It's proper scooping it up and make cob stuff for a few feet down. We're planning more but we don't have the hours to dig ditches by hand so we're waiting until we can get a digger in again (some of the ditches we have re-cut with a digger).
Have you tried planting some water-hogging tree species? Something like willow, that will suck up all the water and transpire it to the atmosphere?
In the American South, we have two species, water tupelo (Nyssa Aquatica) and bald cypress (Taxodium Distichum) which are recommended for stubbornly wet areas that can't seem to dry out. They are swamp trees and never have a problem with root rot or overwatering. If they are planted over poorly drained spots, their root systems will stabilize and dry out the soil.
we did put some french drains across our property to carry off the excess water..we have the ditches and pond, but we still have standing water eveyr spring and if we get heavy rain, that is just the way with clay..you learn to determine the drier areas for your fruit trees etc..and then allow the rest to be pasture, water lovers, ponds, swamps, woodsy areas of water lovers (here we use red maple, alder, ash, aspen and wild cherry for the woodsy areas as well as some black spruce,hemlock and cedar.
Bloom where you are planted.
I too live with clay.
I have lived in different climates and always seem to get nice prices on land that has clay issues.
Two problems generally follow clay.
1) The ability for water to drain through the clay.
2) Soil compaction.
For the slippery issue that is very easy to fix. I just line my trails with burlap coffee bean bags.
You can then put wood chips or mulch on the bags. This will work into the clay and provide a solid footing.
For the compaction issue I am experimenting with a broadfork and adding expanded materials like biochar, expanded shale, perlite, etc.
If I can get pockets open then roots can go deeper and help open the clay.
The hard part of clay is doing anything in the wet spring.
The solution to this is to prepare beds in fall or late summer and plant a cover crop that will die in winter.
Creating hills and raised beds to keep plants from being flooded in spring.
Then in spring you no-till plant using a jap-planter.
Do the bags not slip in the mud? If they don't then that's a very good idea.
Thinking about it, I do think compaction and wearing away the natural mulch is the problem for the foot paths. Keeping our paths safe is the big thing at the moment because we have guests and visitors so we need to keep them safe. Not to mention ourselves.
What I found over the years is the burlap works into the clay. If you burlap and mulch you reduce the pounds pressure on a given area and you push the burlap into the clay.
As you continue to add burlap and mulch to maintain the trail you keep working organic into the clay and they clay up into the organics. You will at a certain point start to optain structure as critters start to feed on the organics. What the burlap does is to provide a base to keep the mulch on the tops. The clay will work into the burlap slowly and the burlap will decay over time.
This is similar to using geotextile fabric to hold gravel over a area of clay.
The nice thing about burlap coffee bags is that you can make wood branch stakes and stake the bag into the soil so it stays in place. Most of the time this is only needed on a slope or where there is errosion.
You can solve compaction by adding 30 percent porous material to soil.
I have done tests over a decade proving this.
There have been decades long studies using flyash on trails.
So items like perlite, course biochar, expanded shale, ground brick, etc. You are just looking for material with alot of pore space to added so the roots can grow.
Another option a friend in Alaska did back in the 80's was to mix cement into the clay on the paths.
He did this with his driveway and believe it or not it did firm it up enough for him to work with.
In another location they put in a board walk because the amount of traffic was damaging to the ecosystem.
In yet another they put in cedar, loctus, osage orange, etc. boards that had slates. Think of wood that resists decady cut into one inch wide strips. The boards are then bound together with a half inch spacer every foot between the boards. These are created about three foot wide and six to ten feet long. They are then put onto the clay as walkways and plants can growup between the opening.
On another farm they there was alot of large flat rocks along a area that was blasted for a road. They would go to the side of the road and pick up flat rocks to make a path.
I have also seen this done with old concrete slabs. Look for any recycled brick, cement, concrete, river rock, etc. that can be used for steping stones.
In yet another farm they had alot of wood. So they simply cut four in rounds and planted them in flush with the ground along the trail. They decaded over time and were simply replaced.
Finally alot of people simple lay down a none woven fabric like a geotextile or weed barrier and put some type of gravel or crushed rock on it. This tend to keep the rock in place. It does work best with crushed rock.
I grew up in a heavy clay area and I've gotta say that wood chips work incredibly well. The clay will eat the chips so you need to keep applying it, or put down a really thick layer. Either way, it will break down and form a wonderful, well draining top soil over time that also retains moisture.
I would personally put up with a few years of "youthful untidiness" and take as much chipped / shredded wood and mulch as I can get dumped by the local arborist companies. I'd mulch everywhere, feet thick, and heavily plant on that slope if it isn't already. You'd be surprised at how much organic matter can disappear into clay...
Thanks Alex. I'll pass all of that onto my housemate who actually does the bulk of the work in the woods. I think next winter we'll have to do a load of chipping and a couple of burns of charcoal. We use a lot of charcoal on the primitive forges and when my housemate is demonstrating iron age blacksmithing and can't actually produce all that we need, so we haven't done a burn for a couple of years. Each burn always produces a certain amount of waste dust and small bits that can be added so some of the wettest bits of paths.
Diego Footer on Permaculture Based Homesteads - from the Eat Your Dirt Summit