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How dry and how steep for novice?

 
Posts: 13
Location: Portland, OR
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I'm on the prowl for property. I live in Portland, OR and want to be not too far from friends and family. Some of the more affordable properties are a bit east of here in the "high dessert". 13-16 inches/year. mostly dry in summer. Snow in the winter. 1k-2k feet elevation.

I'm new to the idea of permaculture. I'm about halfway through Paul's podcasts, I'm looking forward to the earthworks DVD. I've watched a bunch of the Holzer youtubes, greening the dessert. Exciting times. My brain's been infected.

I want to grow a ton of fruit and nut trees. I want berries galore. I want to raise enough chickens to supply my family (~50) and some pigs (3?). Paddock shift, Paul style.

For the dryer parts of OR and WA, I'd dig a bunch of swales. I'd like a pond or two or three. Hugelkulture mounds. The stuff in Dessert or Paradise looks awesome.

I don't intend to live there year round. Half the year, perhaps.

Grand visions

I know that folks have done great stuff in really harsh areas, but I don't know that I quite want to struggle that much. I've been to Jordan and I'm amazed that Lawton could get anything to grow there. Paul's talked of greening the Sahara.

What can a mere mortal achieve? That's the crux of my questions, two of them. As a novice, how much annual rain is needed to do something awesome? How steep before I'd have to worry about things "visiting the neighbors"?



If this has already been covered in other threads please point me there.

Excited,
Miles
 
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Hi Miles and welcome to permies!

I share your enthusiasm regarding dryland situations and wanting to work with them. Here's what I've had to learn in working with drylands (I live in Phoenix and grew up in various parts of Africa)

One of the biggest challenges that I think permaculturists come up against when they first work with a dryland is that they don't adequately assess the carrying capacity of their land in whatever state they originally find it in. They immediately move to plant what they WANT to grow without taking into consideration that by doing so, they may be adding further stress to the land and taking precious resources from other areas (ask me how I know!). The resources they overtax are usually water and organic matter in soils. Both of these are scarce in drylands.

The second issue is knowing the techniques that are appropriate for your climate, soils, rainfall, seasons, etc. For example - in the hot desert where I am, I won't do raised beds, herb spirals or raised hugelkultur as anything raised will tend to shed water (gravity) and expose that much more surface area to our intense heat and extreme evaporation. Appropriate technology here is sunken beds, heavy mulch - anything that can buffer us from heat and evaporation and conserve water as opposed to shedding it.

The third issue is we tend to miss is the pattern of succession in time - this is especially critical for drylands. By this I mean, one has to build up the water harvesting and holding capacity of the land as well as the organic matter in the soil. Fortunately these two things often go hand in hand. So the first step in the succession is to build in water harvesting features appropriate to the climatic factors involved. Swales or mulched infiltration basins work well for drylands. Ponds tend to expose a lot of water surface area to evaporation. Over time, you may be able to develop the site so that it soaks so much rainwater that it naturally forms springs. That would be the time to think about ponds. Even then, ponds should be smaller and deeper and thus less prone to evaporation. Adding shade over a pond is another way to go. In the initial phases, many more native legumes should be planted than food trees - both because they are adapted to the local climate and water availability and because they build the soil. As soil fertility increases it can hold more water. When it holds more water (carrying capacity is increased) a few legumes can be replaced with fruit trees. This goes on like this until you have a balance of food production trees and native legumes that works for your particular situation. This is a multi-year process as you can imagine.

The thing is, it's super easy to import a bunch of water to a dryland area and grow things - all you have to do is fly over the Western US and look down onto that brown landscape with those bright green circles of irrigated cropland in it. Water changes everything. But bringing in more water from somewhere else to grow what you want to grow right away without building up your site's carrying capacity is just as degenerative as monocropping or pivot farming the desert.

Geoff Lawton has had experience with people not following his succession plans for growing food in drylands. A classic example is the Wadi Rum project - an organic farm in Jordan. Although Geoff laid out plans to interplant hardy legumes with the fruit trees and veggie gardens, the client disregarded these instructions as they found no value in it. So they went straight for all high water fruits and veggies without building in organic matter or increasing water harvesting. Not surprisingly, the project initially failed because they were overextending the carrying capacity of the land. They tried to blame Geoff and when he went to evaluate the situation, he saw exactly what the problem was and took steps to correct it. Now the farm is producing in a more sustainable manner. It is still reliant upon some outside water, but they are on the road to sustainability instead of degeneration now.

 
miles mccoo
Posts: 13
Location: Portland, OR
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thank you, Jennifer, for an excellent answer

I have some followup questions.
On ponds. I really want some water on the property for my kids. I'd like to go to the eastern parts of the state because I can get more acreage and there are more available choices. If a pond really is out of the question in the OR/WA dessert areas, then I'll have to look more at the western parts.

Also on ponds, it seems from watching Holzer stuff, that his first answer is always "gotta put in ponds". Ask him if I should get a an Adobe house or a Craftsman, his answer will be "does it have a pond". It is just because he's way more talented at the pond thing than I would be?

fruit trees vs support species. I'm happy to do the 10:1 thing. I also know it would take a couple years to get to bearing age, so I wouldn't want to wait to even plant. Is it enough to plan similar sizes seedlings (or seed as Paul advocates) in these ratios?

last, Arizona climate is a bit different from what we have here in WA and OR. how much does that factor? Portland area gets 39"/year; way more than is needed to grow anything. 13" is about a third of that. 8" is 50% less again.

I suppose my question is a matter of how much is enough for most things? 39" is more than needed. maybe 30" is on the threshold, but you can go down to 20 if you do swales. 8 is enough if you've spent some years adding organic matter and shade. Adding a berm against the wind would give some more margin. Probably not linear. My point is not that I want an exact formula. I'm looking for an idea of how challenging the OR/WA dessert areas really are.


I grabbed these screen shots from usclimatedata.com
vs


Phoenix gets 8 inches, one of the towns I'm looking at gets 13. Also Phoenix is hotter by 20 degrees in the summer. Given that, does the problem change from "a real challenge", to "it's not too bad if you follow some basic principles"?

Miles
 
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Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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In semi-arid places you dont want to have anything raised it needs to be sunken.
Everything else being equal a raised planting area will drain water faster and that is not something that you want in the "desert"

12 inch seems to be the minimum needed to farm without pumping/importing water.
The fact that you get more of that water in the winter is a good thing.

At the top of Holster property is a natural spring, all he did was create a series of embankment to make ponds.
So if you have a natural spring on your property you can build a series of pond, most likely you dont.
Also with a pond storing water, vs a wood chip covered swale storing water you are going to have a higher rate of evaporation.
In the desert you dont want to have surface water instead you want to keep the water just below the surface.

ON the east coast you might be able to have apple trees 15ft apart and you still get a full harvest.
With just 13inches of rain you are going to have to scale the spacing to 3x.
So even though your "apple tree" only get to be 15ft tall and wide you have to space them 45ft apart vs just 15ft apart on the wet east coast.

Seeing as how your summer temps are not that hot, you really need the heat/full sun to hit the plant.
So you are going to have to shade the soil with shorter plants.
Groundcover such as clover would be awesome (nitrogen fixing), daikon radish (3ft roots for water infiltration).
Being in the "boonies" mean that it might be hard to import biomass, so plant alot of winterrye, winter wheat, etc.
That way you can make your own mulch "wood chip".
I would also look into importing biochar. It cost about I would get about 4 ton per acres that will cost you $4000.
You could make your own too, I have hear that it only cost $200 per ton but I have not been able to find a selling for that price.
If anyone know of a cheap biochar seller let me know (PM or comment)

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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miles mccoo wrote:
thank you, Jennifer, for an excellent answer



Miles - thanks for posting the questions - it got my brain working!

miles mccoo wrote:I have some followup questions.
On ponds. I really want some water on the property for my kids. I'd like to go to the eastern parts of the state because I can get more acreage and there are more available choices. If a pond really is out of the question in the OR/WA dessert areas, then I'll have to look more at the western parts.

Also on ponds, it seems from watching Holzer stuff, that his first answer is always "gotta put in ponds". Ask him if I should get a an Adobe house or a Craftsman, his answer will be "does it have a pond". It is just because he's way more talented at the pond thing than I would be?



I can appreciate wanting water in the form of a pond for the kids - what a beautiful feature to grow up around! On the rain shadow part of the state (east), you may have a harder time with a pond than on the western side of the mountains. One of the reasons why you can get so much more land for the same price is because of the water situation, as I'm sure you know. I would definitely ask some longtime locals in the area you want to buy into what their impression is about putting ponds in. Where is the water coming from, what kinds of problems do they have (if any) with ponds, what kind of evaporation rate do they have, etc. And I guess the most important factor - where's the water coming from? If you're on a slope, is there somewhere uphill that you can catch the water? Do you control it or is it owned by someone else? I know Geoff says to start swaling as high in the landscape as you can. As you get lower in the landscape, more and more water is available due to gravity, so the most likely places for springs popping up and having enough water for ponds available is lower in the landscape.

Oh, and I'll admit right now that I do not know Holzer's work very well so I cannot speak to what he does. I've read Fukuoka and while I greatly admire what he did, even he admitted that some drylands were more challenging than others. Mostly he worked with areas where there was an existing stream or river and swaled out from them (at least this is my understanding). Lawton takes it a step further and looks to the landscape to find out how the water flows. He actively seeks out good positions in drylands - one with some kind of catchment he can build on like wadis or even road surfaces. I know our own local expert, Brad Lancaster, does the same. Not all positions in a dryland are going to be favorable for production like you speak of - you'll want to choose carefully.

miles mccoo wrote:fruit trees vs support species. I'm happy to do the 10:1 thing. I also know it would take a couple years to get to bearing age, so I wouldn't want to wait to even plant. Is it enough to plan similar sizes seedlings (or seed as Paul advocates) in these ratios?



Drylanders have a saying, "Plant the water before the trees". This means using water harvesting techniques appropriate to your situation.

miles mccoo wrote:last, Arizona climate is a bit different from what we have here in WA and OR. how much does that factor? Portland area gets 39"/year; way more than is needed to grow anything. 13" is about a third of that. 8" is 50% less again.



Yep - our climates are different - which is why it's so critical to talk to the locals. Also you might enjoy this podcast done by Paul and Geoff Lawton where they talk about high deserts: https://permies.com/t/33750/podcast/Podcast-Geoff-Lawton-Part

miles mccoo wrote:I suppose my question is a matter of how much is enough for most things? 39" is more than needed. maybe 30" is on the threshold, but you can go down to 20 if you do swales. 8 is enough if you've spent some years adding organic matter and shade. Adding a berm against the wind would give some more margin. Probably not linear. My point is not that I want an exact formula. I'm looking for an idea of how challenging the OR/WA dessert areas really are.



I get what you're trying to ask and it's a really valid line of inquiry. And to use the old permaculture stand-by - "it depends" (dontcha love it?).

One of the things I teach my students is that they need to first identify their limiting factors and then design for them by using appropriate techniques and strategies. So it sounds like where you are, your limiting factors are going to be: low rainfall (especially in summer), probably a fairly high evaporation rate due to altitude and wind and some heat, the wind itself, possibly your soils are more alkaline and may lack organic matter. I'm not familiar with that area so there may be other factors as well.

The profile of the land will also matter - is it sloped? If so how steeply? Usually anything above 18 degree slope is not good for swales and should just be put into forest (according to Lawton and Brad Lancaster), unless you want to spend the time and money to terrace it. Or is it flat? Or some of both? You might have a combination of the above so your techniques would vary depending on the land profile.

I think one of the questions you're asking is how many inches of rain do you need to grow stuff successfully. It depends on what you're trying to grow. I'm going to give you some stats from the Tucson/Phoenix area for comparison. I don't have these numbers for your area but maybe your local Ag Ext office will have them.

Brad Lancaster has classified plant water usage into 5 categories depending on how many inches of rain it needs for 1 square foot of planting area.
--Very High = 65" of rain per square foot. This includes vegetable gardens, specifically sunken and mulched vegetable gardens (the most water wise in our climate - if you do raised beds, this number will go up)
--High = 43" of rain per square foot of canopy. For us in southern AZ, this includes all citrus varieties and loquats.
--Moderate = 30" of rain per square foot of canopy. This includes most deciduous fruit trees and date palms.
--Low = 16" of rain per square foot of canopy. This includes pomegranates and jujubes.
--Very Low = 7" of rain per square foot of canopy. This includes mostly native legume trees.

With only 8" of rain per year, only native trees would survive without additional water. By catching water, holding it in the soil in infiltration basins (flat land) or swales or keylines (sloped land up to 18 degrees), we can start upping our game to some of the "low" water use trees. Keep in mind that you have to have surfaces to catch water from. Once we have water soaking into the soil (sometimes even getting it to soak in is challenging here), we do everything possible to stop it from evaporating off. Our evaporation comes primarily from heat and very dry air. Wind is not that much of a factor for us. An open area like a pond is just asking to be evaporated.

Another thing to consider is that if you plant trees, they act as pumps for the water in the soil. Having trees is critical for the hydrological cycle but keep in mind, it will slow down the formation of springs and ponds. Consider that when people clearcut forests, suddenly the streams are overflowing and the ponds and lakes overflowing their banks because a lot of water was held up in the "hydraulic pumps" we call trees. This abundance quickly recedes though, and then the land starts to become desertified because a critical element is missing - trees. So by planting trees that are appropriate to the amount of water you can harvest, you are benefiting your watershed, BUT it may take longer to build naturally occurring springs and ponds.

miles mccoo wrote:Phoenix gets 8 inches, one of the towns I'm looking at gets 13. Also Phoenix is hotter by 20 degrees in the summer. Given that, does the problem change from "a real challenge", to "it's not too bad if you follow some basic principles"?



It all depends on your limiting factors, land profile, exposure, access to water, what you want to accomplish and how much patience you have. Drylands take longer but the net results are probably the most stunning of any permaculture application.

Sorry if I rambled and repeated - too many interruptions! Hope this made some kind of sense.
 
miles mccoo
Posts: 13
Location: Portland, OR
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You've both given me some new angles to think about. On the one hand, I feel a little bummed that the cheap land wouldn't be straight forward. On the other hand it doesn't sound so overwhelming.

I have a library copy of Lancaster's book. I will probably buy a copy. Same with Desert or Paradise. I hadn't noticed the water usage categories, but I get it, I think. If I can divert X square feet of runoff into 1, I have a higher effective rain. Seems obvious, but I hadn't thought of it that way.

Perhaps one thing you can comment on. Paul continually speaks of adding texture to the landscape. Hugelkulturs seems to be his equivalent of Holzer's ponds. Even though a hill drys out up top, it has a portion down below that is shielded from the wind. That is in the shade for a portion of the day.(depending on orientation). Maybe what's needed is digging hills and plan in between?


I'll surely have more questions. Thank you both for what you've provided.

Miles

I do think one would have to be crazy to live in AZ. I passed through there last year on a hot day, just the airport. Nuts. I grew up in Los Angeles, where it's not as hot, but here in Portland, I start complaining when it hits 80. MA is nice, I enjoyed my 4 college years there very much.

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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miles mccoo wrote:You've both given me some new angles to think about. On the one hand, I feel a little bummed that the cheap land wouldn't be straight forward. On the other hand it doesn't sound so overwhelming.



No need to feel bummed - all permaculture is a process and pattern over time. More time = more observation and more elements that can be put into place as favorable macro/micro climates develop. It definitely doesn't all happen at once in ANY climate. I think a lot of people feel daunted by drylands (and tropics) because there is less written about them and they are more challenging than other climates.

miles mccoo wrote:I have a library copy of Lancaster's book. I will probably buy a copy. Same with Desert or Paradise. I hadn't noticed the water usage categories, but I get it, I think. If I can divert X square feet of runoff into 1, I have a higher effective rain. Seems obvious, but I hadn't thought of it that way.



Yep - that's pretty much it. It does seem obvious but it is not something I ever considered either before reading Brad's books.

miles mccoo wrote:Perhaps one thing you can comment on. Paul continually speaks of adding texture to the landscape. Hugelkulturs seems to be his equivalent of Holzer's ponds. Even though a hill drys out up top, it has a portion down below that is shielded from the wind. That is in the shade for a portion of the day.(depending on orientation). Maybe what's needed is digging hills and plan in between?



As I recall, something like that is discussed in that podcast of Paul and Geoff. There are climates where the strategy is different depending upon the season. I'm not sure what Paul means when he talks about "texture" - but I have a feeling he means adding climate-appropriate elements so that there is more "edge effect". Hugels may well work for you during certain seasons for the reasons you mention.

miles mccoo wrote:I'll surely have more questions. Thank you both for what you've provided.

I do think one would have to be crazy to live in AZ. I passed through there last year on a hot day, just the airport. Nuts. I grew up in Los Angeles, where it's not as hot, but here in Portland, I start complaining when it hits 80. MA is nice, I enjoyed my 4 college years there very much.



Miles - thanks again for letting us noodle our brains around your questions. Hopefully some high desert permies will chime in as well on what has worked for them.

And I agree that you do have to be a bit soft in the head to live in AZ But I seem to gravitate towards deserts because this is where I feel I can make a difference. I've lived in MI and WI - super easy to grow stuff there, abundant water but COLD AS HELL. No thanks. I like the hot drylands.
 
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