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New permie w/swale questions (now with pix and more questions)  RSS feed

 
Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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We are laying out swales in my fenced veggie garden area, which is on a hill. The swales will be the paths, and the berms will be the beds.  I have decided on 4' wide beds and 2'4" wide paths/swales (just wide enough for the garden cart), for a total of 6'4" between contour lines.  However, because the slope is quite irregular, some of these contours, are 6'4" apart on the steep side of the garden, and more like 10 or 12' apart on the less steep side of the garden.

One suggestion from one of my PDC teachers is to do some keyhole beds where the spacing is wide, so that I can access these super-wide beds. My husband's idea is that some of the beds will be shaped like a long Y (across the slope), so that there will be one path/swale that only goes halfway across the garden. (I hope I am describing this in a way that others can picture it.)

In some areas where the spacing is only somewhat "wide", I won't have room for keyholes or Y shaped beds, so it seems that I will lose some bed space to extra-wide paths, as I don't want to increase bed width beyond what I can reach.

Anyone have other ideas to deal with this variably angled slope? How have you dealt with this or seen it done?

The total garden space is 40' X40' with room to grow a bit, so l have not felt cramped for veggie space in the past. However, it truly is the only sunny place and I will need to fit my fruit trees/berries/etc. in here as well. So I want to maximize my use of space.

I am located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, with annual rainfall around 50 to 55". Garden is surrounded by mixed oak/ponderosa pine forest. Rise/run of garden is 1/9 at steepest point.
 
                              
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Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
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maybe posting a map or photo would help?

 
Brenda Groth
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never be afraid to make some of your beds wider than you can reach, I have done that here..you can always place some stepping stones or a few log rounds or flat boards here and there to step on..they won't take nearly as much  space as an entire path, and they will bring benefits to the garden area..one thing..they'll soak in the sun, so they would be a great place to put something that might be a little bit tender, like say a tomato or pepper plant would be here in Michigan..i have rocks between some of my tomatos to hold in the heat of the sun and they also trap some moisture under them..predatory critters will love them to crawl onto to sun themselves..as well.

i have a swing in my garden for small children..and under it i placed 3 side by side flat boards with sedum growing around and between them..that way the children aren't afraid of stepping into the garden like they might hurt something..then i kept the surrounding ares low growing plants.

another suggestion might be just to keep a few spots unplanted but well mulched that you can step into..and make sure that people know that is what they were for.

 
Joel Hollingsworth
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Another option I've read about and seen some videos on is keyline cultivation, where the only perfectly level line is the one that hits the slope's keypoint (or some other convenient/important level, if you don't own the keypoint), and the rest are parallel to that. It sounds like you're working on a smaller scale than Yeomans' methods were designed for, though.

If you have a no-till garden, I could imagine e.g. placing curcubit seed balls out of arm's reach, and using long-handled tools to destroy any blossoms that would lead to inaccessible fruit. The vines would eventually reach nearer to the path, and all the leaves would contribute to (reachable) fruit production.

Another option for the somewhat-wide parts is to have, say, one extra path out of every three or four, perhaps only passable on foot and with a dead end, distorting the surrounding path to give them a slight slope that tends to drain hollows or direct water out to ridges; a compromise between swales and keyline.
 
Trevor Newman
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I am amazed by your description, as it sounds almost identical to a project I have been working on for a client.

She has a hillside that she planted fruit trees on at about 12' spacings, we've done three swales on the hill. The ditch serves as an access path and the berms are being planted with herbs/shrubs. We have space between each swale that we've converted into growing space(via sheet mulch). The space between the swales does get quite wide in some areas(as contour lines are rarely 'straight' as we imagine them to be), we've reacted by making mini keyhole access paths, and we may even add some stepping stones in certain areas. Keyholes seem to make sense,if the hill is too steep then you may not want to have paths running the same direction as the slope..if this is the case you may consider doing level stepping stones, or small terraced steps..I have seen both of these methods work successfully on hillsides. One friend has a small food forest on a hill and he buried some old chunks of concrete to make level steps. I wish I had some images of it to show you. But here is one example of how you can make 'terraced steps' using logs..you could make them smaller or larger to fit your scale: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hardworkinghippy/4610172096/

When I get a chance I will post the video of my clients swaled hillside foodforest, I would love to see some imagery of your project!
 
Irene Kightley
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Hi madronewood,

I'd like to see photos too - it's difficult to give advice until you see the site.

Our garden is on a slope - some parts are very steep and some are gentle enough to walk on comfortably but fast !



I'd say just follow the contours of your land and use something to straighten the slopes making them as you go. The higher the slope, the more you'll need good support but you can plant thing against the supports to grow vertically and use the space to a maximum. This is an 'after" photo of the one Trevor used in his post to show the finished bed which is now planted up. (I'm making the garden in a little wood at the back of the house.)



These are other examples.





For your fruit trees and shrubs maximise your use of margins and walkways and plant the soft fruit as near as you think you can get away with under the trees. Plants the trees to shade paths at midday. You can cram a lot into the garden and once you've established the basic shape, the plants will appreciate the rich flat areas and do well.

Post some photos !


 
                              
Posts: 262
Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
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HI Irene! I read your blog and I think I'm a contact on Flickr, anyways, been really liking in particular how you use branches and small trees etc to build structures on your place. That's what I do too--because it's FREE. Anyways, cheers from a lurker 

Beautiful pix too, thanks for adding those!!! It's cool to see someone else put iris in with everything--that's an oddball thing to do around here.
 
Irene Kightley
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wyldthang,

Thanks !

I love Irises and they fix the edges of the raised beds and grow in the really dry corners really well.

 
                              
Posts: 262
Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
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Irene, what kind of wood is that that you used to make a wall for the raised bed or is it a retaining wall on a slope? it's in your last picture. Also, how long does it last before it rots?

that stump is a cool step too(#3)

 
Irene Kightley
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The wood's chestnut which we cut down to start the garden.  That's why there are so many tree stumps - I don't see the point of taking them out - they're beautiful !

The garden is all retaining beds built on the slope which is south facing.



I've never measured the slope but it's quite dramatic in places.



The chestnut has lasted about seven years so far and still going strong.
 
Trevor Newman
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Irene, It's so nice to see a flickr friend  on here!! Thanks for all of the wonderful images you've posted. Here is the link to the video of the client's swaled hillside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EV7OOXUEE1I ; (kind of a rough video, but you can see what I mean by the swales/beds, will have more updates soon)
 
Travis Philp
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Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
...where the only perfectly level line is the one that hits the slope's keypoint


Joel; By keypoint, do you mean the highest point of the hill?


Trevor; How did you decide the distance between each swale? Is it determined by the grade of the slope?



 
Trevor Newman
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We decided that in the design based on the space we were working with ...we wanted the in-between beds to be as accessible as possible as well as somewhat even and consistant down the hill. I'll have to get another video up as the entire area is sheet mulched now and partially planted! 
 
                              
Posts: 262
Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
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Thanks for your pix Irene!

 
Joel Hollingsworth
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Travis Philp wrote:Joel; By keypoint, do you mean the highest point of the hill?


Keypoint and keyline are terms invented by Yeomans; I shouldn't assume people know them.

A keypoint is something like the heart of a watershed. It's in a hollow on the side of a slope, at an elevation where the slope is just beginning to flatten out, and placed laterally so that it's as far as possible back from the neighboring ridges on the same slope.

More precisely, in calculus terms, it's at a local minimum in the horizontal, and a point of inflection in the vertical. That is to say, if you hold a  straight stick level and try to place its center on the keypoint, the ends of the yardstick will end up in the dirt before you can do so. If you start with one end of the stick on the keypoint, and place the other end directly downhill, both ends will rest on the earth and support the middle with some gap; but if you direct the opposite end uphill, you'll be able to roll the stick along the earth and touch it with any one point, and the ends will be in the air.

The keyline is just a level that runs through the keypoint.
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Brenda Groth
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one of my cherry trees that was about 3/4 down the slope on one of the slopes around our house..was starting to loose leaves in the drought that we are having..and i noticed that any rain was running right off rather than soaking in there..so i built a small swale around the down hill side of the area by the trunk of the tree, and added mulch uphill from the swale and hubby put a few spare bricks we had downstream from the swale to keep the soil from washing away..and then we poured buckets of water behind the swale..and it stayed..didn't run off..so hopefully we are able to save the little sweet cherry tree..it looks so sad.

i think that i'll go around and bring more materials in to the down hill sides of where the other fruit trees on the slopes are planted as well.

in Michigan generally you don't want anything that will stop the downhill flow of frost..so i hope i'm not making a mistake here
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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I'm not at all familiar with the flow of frost, but might it be possible to have a mulch layer that directs the frost around the side of the tree and over the lip of the swale, while letting water pass through it and collect in the basin around the trunk?
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Travis Philp
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Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
Keypoint and keyline are terms invented by Yeomans; I shouldn't assume people know them.

A keypoint is something like the heart of a watershed. It's in a hollow on the side of a slope, at an elevation where the slope is just beginning to flatten out,


So if I understand correctly, it is like a dent in the slope? What if there isn't one of these on the slope (eg. if you have a completely concave hill? Or what if you have a really choppy slope with many bumps and dips? Maybe I'm loading too much onto you here...

I also don't get what you mean when you say "placed laterally so that it's as far as possible back from the neighboring ridges on the same slope. "
 
Brenda Groth
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Joel, that is a great idea..i've always been a little bit afraid of swales and basins cause of the frost..but if the mulch is high enough maybe that would work ..I"m aware that frost flows like water, but maybe not under the mulch..like water would..great..i'll try that..i do not generally have too much of a problem with drought here, but the past several years we have had a lot of drought as the rain seems to be going just about 20 miles south or north of us, splitting the system as it passes over our area..and that just sucks.

right now we are getting some rain, for 3 days..so i'm feeling pretty good about that but we have less than 1/2 of what we should have now.
 
Maddie Bern
Posts: 28
Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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Thanks everyone for the suggestions! I do have some pix to share. Things are proceeding slowly but steadily.

I think I have figured out what to do about the uneven slope. I am going to put the swales closer together on the steep side of the garden and further apart on the less steep side. The downside of this is that access will be rather circuitous for a couple of the beds/berms.  The upside is that we are going to have a small no-berm area in the center of the garden. This will maybe have an herb spiral, or a little pond, and/or maybe a bird-feeding zone, since the cat so far hasn't made it over the fence (it is chicken wire the first 2-3 feet above ground).

In the pictures below, the center is where a few tall fava beans and oats are left from our chop and drop. There are also a few herbs near that area that we want to save.

Got so excited to start that for the first two beds, we dug out the swale before we put the cardboard down for the berm. This is a bummer because, well, things want to slide off of steep cardboard (duh!). However, my daughter figured out how to get the rabbit manure to stick by starting at the bottom and building it up from there. I believe if I can get my next layers on and get something planted ASAP, maybe the roots will start to hold it together. Or maybe not.

If anyone has suggestions as to what to plant that will hold the soil, I would love to hear them. I am not so much needing extra fertility here (N fixers), as this has been a garden for 6 years and has decent soil already. I was thinking about sowing a bunch of heat-hardy lettuces but have no idea if that is a good choice for fast growth. Plus even if they are heat-hardy they won't last all summer...

The third bed we managed to put the cardboard down first, and are experimenting with a short retaining wall. Already wishing the wall was taller, we were just fiddling around and ended up putting it together at this height, but we can always add to it. Some of it is manzanita, which should be slow to rot. Some is oak.

I hope to pick up more manure this week, more straw, and some compost. I am bringing in everything but wood chips and a few old straw bales. I have an old compost pile but it has quite a bit of ashes mixed in and I am not sure how good that would be.

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Maddie Bern
Posts: 28
Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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more pix (can only seem to do 2 at a time)

Third bed with soil on top of cardboard.
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Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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You can see that my daughter is excited about this!
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Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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First one shows the upper bed with rabbit manure and the first swale with wood chips. This is actually the steepest part of the two upper beds, so maybe the rest will hold even if this part does not.

Second one shows the 3rd bed with little retaining wall. So far it just has cardboard and soil.
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Brenda Groth
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looks like a lot of hard, but satisfying work.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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It sounds like the keypoint might lie outside the property.

The books are available for free online, and do a better job than I do of explaining the whole topic. Really, playing in the sand or reading a topo map is the way to convey this kind of information.

It sounds like you have the right general idea though: in that case, the harder the keypoint is to find, generally, the less important it is to the management of that piece of land.
 
Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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Yes, Joel, the entire fenced garden is above the keypoint. The first time I wrote that last post, I remembered to include that. But I accidentally erased it, and had to start over.

I am finding that my upper two beds are just too darn steep to hold manure on cardboard. Seems like that would have been obvious from the beginning, but I kept modifying the angle of the face of the berms til I thought it would hold. It looks a lot steeper once you get the cardboard on it! Not sure of the solution here. Obviously I could start over and make retaining walls like on bed 3, and put the cardboard UNDER the shoveled soil. I don't really want retaining walls, though, because I saw in some permaculture video that planting on the downhill side of the bed, if it is south-facing, essentially moves you closer to the equator for your winter gardening.

Also, I have seen some pretty steep beds that seem to work. (If you are on Facebook, friend Hayes Valley Farm and see the Freeway Food Forest photos. This is a broken piece of freeway left over from the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco. They are permaculturing the old freeway and the embankment!)

So, any suggestions?

 
                              
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Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
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what if you soaked the cardboard really well before you laid it down and put stuff on top of it? so stuff wouldn't slide off so easy?
 
Travis Philp
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madronewood wrote:

So, any suggestions?



What about using rocks to line the downward edge of the bed?
 
Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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I don't have a lot of rocks (except huge granite boulders that poke up here and there), but I did figure out a solution today. I am just piling a bunch of wood chips onto the cardboard at the base of the berm until the angle works. This is definitely narrowing my paths, but they were extra wide to accomodate the garden cart. Now the cart won't fit on those two swales, but that's ok. There's still a wheelbarrow that will fit.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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My first idea would be finding some narrow sticks of some sort (maybe crushed bamboo), using shears to cut each at a sharp angle, and drive these using a hammer to tack the cardboard down to the slope. The tops of these sticks will then help to hold manure, possibly with the help of some other sort of mulch mixed in or applied prior to the manure (green brush might be ideal).
 
Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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I did try really soaking the cardboard, but it didn't work. Like the sharp stick idea, but don't have any handy.

I am still just building out the downhill base of each bed with woodchips until the angle works. I don't mind the paths getting narrower, but of course the beds are getting wider, and that is a bummer. Oh well.
 
rose macaskie
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  i whatched a Darrel Doherty you tube set of videos, with him demonstaring some principles with sand shpaed into model mountians on a beach and i understood that a key point was a point not just where the hill flattened out a bit but where the slope on one side turned into the hill for a while and then turned out agian making like a corner in a room if the walls of your room sloped away from you as they went up then the floor on the corner of the room would be a key point a place like a woman cleavage, a bit less steep if i may be so vulgar.
  I have made a drawing of slopes to explain darrel doherty explainations and i have added a pond to it in what i have understood is a keyhole point i dont know tha t a key hole flower bed bed is not another thing.
      I saw a you tube video made by bill mollison in africa which included a flower bed like a mini berm encircling a space though he did not shut the circle there was a space between the two ends of the mini banks or berms. I think he put vegetable matter in the middle of the built up beds. I thought that might have been a key hole flower bed it seemed key hole shaped.

    I include the drawing of what seems to me to be what darrel doherty calls a keypoint. or key line point or some such. the pond being in the key point. agri rose macaskie.
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Brenda Groth
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you can make earth staples with heavy wire or old coat hangers, not only will they hold the material down, but also when they rust they'll add nutrients to the soil..cut a foot long or so and bend into a U shape and shove through and into  the ground..this works for just about anything you want to anchor
 
2017 Permaculture Design Course at Wheaton Labs
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