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Water Harvesting swales and Keylines?

 
                        
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Can you use swales for land that isn't on a slope? 

I have a relatively flat yard that I'm trying to improve its water capturing and holding ability.

What exactly is a keyline? 

I've seen that video with Darren Doherty on the beach where he talk about hills and rainfall (the water-cycle really) its not clear to me what he saying about keylines.  Then in another video he's showing off a special plow and how he uses keylines to improve a pasture.  I'm really confused on the topic.

I'm guessing keylines are some sort of water harvesting technique, but I'm not sure what it is or how to use them.  Are they appropriate for flatter land?

 
pollinator
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There's a lot of jargon, and it's a little confusing.

I enjoyed P. A. Yeomans' book The Keyline Plan, and found that it helped Darren Doherty's videos to make more sense to me. Yeomans coined the word.

Doherty uses "Keyline" to refer to the entire body of work that Yeomans did on land management. That's a synecdoche, though, like using "the dollar" to mean the US economy.

In its specific, literal sense, a keyline is a certain elevation line that can be very important to water management. Roughly speaking, it's an elevation at which water would naturally begin to slow down as it runs off a slope. The wettest point on a keyline would naturally be a keypoint. Since water slows down there anyway, and is abundant there, it's a good place to tip the balance against runoff & erosion, it's a natural place to locate a dam, etc.

Without a changing slope, there can be no keyline or keypoint; there's a lot of complex contour stuff that Yeomans has beautifully developed a theory for, and Doherty is beautifully implementing, that won't really apply.

Yeomans talks a lot about management of flat land, though, so you can do Keyline management of land that doesn't contain a keyline (note the capital letter use).

The special plow was named "The Bunyip Slipper Imp(lement)" by Yeomans, but the generic term for such a thing is "subsoiler" and they're used very widely. I would guess that they see the most use in gigantic cornfields, oddly enough.

Swales are slightly different than the berms shown in Keyline management, but the distinction is mostly about the details of contour that don't apply on flat land. They will be useful in collecting water: a complete perimeter of swales will prevent runoff until the whole yard fills up, which might suggest that the swales should be low enough not to cause a destructive flood. Small undulations set perpendicular to the prevailing wind will also help prevent evaporation from the yard.

I'd recommend double-checking the land, though: there's a chance the yard was graded somewhat to direct water toward the street, or that there's a subtle slope to the neighborhood that you would have to measure to detect.
 
steward
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I believe swales and keylines can work without much slope, but they do need a little.  there are a couple other techniques, though, that should work better on flat land.  unfortunately, I can't remember the names.

"net and pan" springs to mind, which could work.  that involves making channels (the net) to direct water into depressions (the pan).

there's another technique that involves dividing your land up into squares.  each square is graded in such a way that the square slopes toward one corner where water will collect.  I've never done this, but I believe it's more commonly used on larger pieces of land than a "yard".  could work just fine on a smaller scale, but I won't pretend to know.  don't remember what this is called, or if it has a common name at all.

you may want to track down a copy of Water for Every Farm for a better understanding of keyline design.  as far as the special plow, I think that's probably a chisel plow or subsoil ripper.  it can be used  to direct water where it will be useful with or without major earthworks.  I've only ever used a subsoiler to remedy soil compaction, but I believe the idea in this context is to move the water just slightly off contour toward a stream or reservoir instead of letting it flow straight down a slope.

maybe that was a little helpful?
 
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The wikipedia article only helped me a little, but at the bottom it has a couple links to the full text of the books.

I guess I have some reading to do

http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010125yeomans/010125toc.html Keyline Plan
http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010126yeomansII/010126toc.html Challenge ov Landscape
http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010127yeomansIII/010127toc.html City Forest
 
gardener
Posts: 1948
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For flat-ish land think rain-garden.  In the following link are some great photos and step by step details on how one couple set up a system for capturing rain water in their front yard through the use of swale/ditches/berms. 

http://www.midwestpermaculture.com/permaculture-125crescent-stelle.php
 
pollinator
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for good information on these go to scribd.com and search permaculture and read up on these things by reading bill mollison's articles
 
master pollinator
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I recommend Brad Lancaster's books and videos.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iQ-FBAmvBw
 
Jami McBride
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Ludi - in the spirit of that youtube vid you offered a link to -  I too believe using simple logic and watching our land and how the water moves onto it and off of it is the biggest part of creating solutions.

In my situation the water mostly runs underground until it saturates and floods in a couple of areas.  For several years I would have flooding into the south side of my house.  I would have to run out in the cold winter rain and dig a trench to move the water parallel along the house to the street.  This water was moving underground from my neighbors higher yard, coming down a mountain side.

One summer I walked that side of the house and pictured in my head the water moving underground toward my house.  The idea occurred to me to bank the side of the house foundation with soil, about 1' out from the house.  So that's what I did, and that year no flood, no trench digging, no more problem. 

Eventually I put a raised bed for tomatoes along the south side of my house guaranteeing this will never be the low-point again.  All the water that used to pool, rise and come over the foundation into my bedroom is not even seen now - amazing!  Since this time I've learned about swales, keylines and such, and now know how easy it would be to dig a swale and channel/capture this water moving in the soil down the mountain during our winter rainy season. 

Working with water is mostly observation and common sense.  You'll get a lot of inspiration from the links in this thread to get you started.

 
                        
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Thank you everyone who posted.
Joel, that description of keylines make perfect sense, it helps a lot.

I've seen that brad lancaster video series on youtube.  It was great!  I love how he took control of the rain water is community.  Not only for harvesting to grow plants but also to protect property from fierce storms.  The multi-function aspects of catching rain water to watering plants for food, shade, wildlife, erosion protection also to protect property from flooding.
 
                        
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Let me give you a little background

I live in Georgia.  In the part I live in we get loads of rain.  A local weather website says average rainfall is around 50".  I just moved out here from San Jose.  That an unthinkable amount of rain after living there for so long.  With that much rain, you'd think we never have to water, our plants would just do well.  They don't.  My lawn and other plants are always begging for water.

What I've discovered is first, the ground is dirt (not soil) with alot of barespots.  It doesn't really have much water retaining properties.  Water normally runs toward the street to the storm drains.  I've been using some the lawn care techniques paul outlines in his article.  Parts of the yard seem to be responding.  The taller grass, the mulch, the less frequent watering seems to be making a difference.  As for the rest, I've been trying to encourage anything to grow.  Weeds have become my best friends here.  I don't even know what 1/2 of this stuff is that is growing.  But, its slowing the soil erosion.  I'm noticing the water doesn't run quite as fast through the yard.

I'm looking for ways to improve this.  I have around 1/2 arce.  That is something like 20-25k sqft. 

Just doing some quick the math on that 50" a year and 20k sq that's something like 600K gallons (us) a year that falls on my yard alone.  Harvesting any meaningful percentage of this would be amazing.  Why do I have to water at all with that kind of rainfall. 

It embarrassing really when I think about it; to pay for water when you get that much for free.  Frankly, I'd be happy to not have to water my lawn, trees and other plants. 

Oh, on kind of a side note. I notice a number of folks seems to like Gaia's Garden.  I've recently ordered it.  Does it cover this kind of stuff. 
 
Jami McBride
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Gaia's Garden focuses more on the plants, but it does address water management through the use of plants.

Areas that get over 30" of rain have soil issues.  Check out the free information at the Holistic Agriculture Library http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/01aglibwelcome.html

 
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Ludi wrote:
I recommend Brad Lancaster's books and videos.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iQ-FBAmvBw


Thanks for the link - somehow I have missed these.

From Lancaster's website, a plant list for their Tuscon, AZ area that is formatted in a way that I wish I could find for many other plants useful in permaculture.
http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/wp-content/uploads/Appendix4PlantLists.pdf

very handy!
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
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You're very welcome!

Jami McBride wrote:Areas that get over 30" of rain have soil issues.



Hot summers probably don't help the situation, either...with that much rain and some hot weather, maybe it would be worth looking into biochar.

Puffin wrote:Water normally runs toward the street to the storm drains.



A swale or hugelbeet along the edge toward the street will probably help quite a bit.
 
Jami McBride
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Thanks Joel - I took your advise, read up on Biochar here at permies, followed links and read some more.  Joined a couple of biochar list groups and researched my head off.

Purchased some hardwood char I'm inoculating right now, which I'll be applying around this fall as I clear off the beds for green mulching and plant garlic, potatoes and winter lettuces.

Thanks for mentioning the biochar, I believe it is going to help me a lot - help me not to work as hard, help me to save some money, time and energy on trying to re-fertilize my rain leached soil all the time   Help me in the hot dry summer with the need for constant irrigation.  And of course there's that sequester carbon thing.  May not be a cure-all, but I'll take every bit of help I can get.

Back on subject - I'm going to be cutting some swales and shallow pounds on the up hill side of my property just to play around with the concept this rainy season.  Should be interesting .... I'll take before, during and after pictures to share.


 
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This is a great thread, i learned a lot! Thanks all. Don't let this thread sink down.
 
pollinator
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Paul and Skeeter talk about keyline systems in this podcast: http://www.richsoil.com/permaculture/422-podcast-072-keyline-systems/
 
gardener
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I live on post glacial landscape and I forget about people with clay and hurricanes. 

1. Your house is a massive rainwater collector that can create localized flooding during rain.  Even though your are on flat land, you end up with concentrated water flow at your downspout that needs a place to live.

2. When you dig a swale you create a berm.  In a clay-soiled heavy rain landscape, berms can be nice places for plants that don't like episodic suffocation.
 
steward
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@Suzy B:  Thank you for bumping this vital thread.

@ Everybody else:  May you turn green w/envy looking @ these Yeoman's plows:
http://www.yeomansplow.com.au/yeomans-plows.htm

Scout around on their site...they have "the Yeoman's Principals" and other info if you click around.

 
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Suzy Bean wrote:
Paul and Skeeter talk about keyline systems in this podcast: http://www.richsoil.com/permaculture/422-podcast-072-keyline-systems/



Here's the kind of video Paul was asking to see; voice is Darren Doherty's:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Nx4I8CYyQI

And a description of the components:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8411281412763349676

And oh: I seem to remember from Mr. Doherty's seminars that the ideal time to use the plough - in the autumn f.e. - is just before the first rain.

 
John Polk
steward
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The autumn plowing makes sense...get as much of the rains as possible into the sub-soil, where it won't evaporate away.
 
Michael Radelut
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Right, but the reason for this precise date is that there's no sense in ploughing when it's dry, and it's also not advisable when the tractor could cause compaction due to too much moisture in the soil.
Therefore, there'll be a rather narrow window when all the shareholders of the buying club that purchased the Yeomans plough will fight for their right to plough
 
Tyler Ludens
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We ploughed when it was dry in anticipation of the rain.  This risked some soil loss to wind, but if we had waited until the rain we would have lost a lot of soil and water to run-off.  Now the soil is far too wet to plough, so even if we did it "wrong" I'm glad we did it!

 
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