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What is going on under the hood of my fast-draining soil?  RSS feed

 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 108
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Hello permy practitioners

I've been meaning to get on here and pose this question to you all for ages.

While the first foot or so of my soil has a goodly amount of clay, when push comes to shove I have what most would refer to as fast draining soil.

Two years ago I built an earth berm in an arc, somewhat similar in ratio to a contact lens, at the lowest point of a gentle crease in my land.

During a really good heavy rain, it temporarily catches a large pond of water above my knees at the deepest point.

Very temporarily.

I've witnessed this happen on a number of occasions, then have gone inside for an hour or two, returning to see the water completely gone.

What I am concerned about is that these occasional substantial rains end up being a zero sum game as far as the plants and trees are concerned. 

Could this water mostly be draining away deep underground out of reach of plant and tree roots?   Or running off the property horizontally on a bed of hard pan?

This is what I fear.   That the vast majority of this water is not being stored locally in the soil, which is the whole point of catching and sinking it in the first place.

A foot to a foot and a half is diggable before I start hitting some stiff rubbery pre-caliche soil that requires a pickaxe to loosen up.   True caliche starts anywhere from 3.5 to 5 feet down.

Could all this water be running off of my property underground on a bed of caliche?

Or draining straight down through fissures in the caliche layer?

There doesn't seem to be any obvious way to tell, or how to approach the situation assuming this is the case.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

Thank you

Paul


 
Roberto pokachinni
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It would be difficult to say what is happening with the water without really observing your soils at depths, and also, perhaps, looking downslope of your land to see if water is springing up somewhere.  It could be that all your efforts to date are simply charging the aquifer, which is to say, a very positive thing for the region.    That said, if you have the means, getting some deep rooted nitrogen fixers in place will help pump water upwards in your land, while providing microclimates to establish other plants/trees.  Trees will also help with evaporation issues, and wind, which will then keep more of the moisture on the ground for longer.  The other best thing to do, besides plant nurse trees, is to incorporate as much organic matter in your clay, and then mulch it substantially.  Well mulched clay soils, particularly with plenty of organic matter will hold a tremendous amount of moisture in your upper layers.  This is particularly true if the clay soil is also shaded from intense sun, and sheltered from drying winds.  Another thing that you can do is bury wood under your soils before you mulch.  Instead of raised hugulkultur, think buried wood beds.  You might  want to check out Tyler Luden's Buried Wood Bed Thread.
 
Paul Gutches
Posts: 108
Location: Taos, New Mexico
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Thanks for your reply.

Oh, the mulch and the trees are there!

On the nitrogen fixing side...   black locust, honey locust and siberian pea shrub.  Plus alfalfa, yellow sweet clover, and goumi. 

I also have hackberry, baby burr oak, currant, sand cherry, nanking cherry, bush cherry, choke cherry, serviceberry, chicory, milkweed, lavender, and others.

I've also dumped contractor bag after contractor bag full of leaves over the entire crease and set up check dams using large rocks and logs to slow the flow of water down the crease.

This is why I'm concerned.  Because the trees are not growing at the rate I would expect for the amount of water that ends up in this area. 

I've seen better and faster establishment in areas at higher ground even with just minimal manual inputs. 

It's got me scratching my head.


Roberto pokachinni wrote:It would be difficult to say what is happening with the water without really observing your soils at depths, and also, perhaps, looking downslope of your land to see if water is springing up somewhere.  It could be that all your efforts to date are simply charging the aquifer, which is to say, a very positive thing for the region.    That said, if you have the means, getting some deep rooted nitrogen fixers in place will help pump water upwards in your land, while providing microclimates to establish other plants/trees.  Trees will also help with evaporation issues, and wind, which will then keep more of the moisture on the ground for longer.  The other best thing to do, besides plant nurse trees, is to incorporate as much organic matter in your clay, and then mulch it substantially.  Well mulched clay soils, particularly with plenty of organic matter will hold a tremendous amount of moisture in your upper layers.  This is particularly true if the clay soil is also shaded from intense sun, and sheltered from drying winds.  Another thing that you can do is bury wood under your soils before you mulch.  Instead of raised hugulkultur, think buried wood beds.  You might  want to check out Tyler Luden's Buried Wood Bed Thread.
 
chip sanft
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:... The other best thing to do, besides plant nurse trees, is to incorporate as much organic matter in your clay, and then mulch it substantially.  Well mulched clay soils, particularly with plenty of organic matter will hold a tremendous amount of moisture in your upper layers.  This is particularly true if the clay soil is also shaded from intense sun, and sheltered from drying winds...


This is exactly what I was going to say. We have fast-draining clayey soil too, but the areas of the garden (where I've been adding organic material for a few years now) retain the water much better than the rest of the yard. Keep at it with the mulch. One idea I've had, though I haven't tried it, is to load a swale with coarse wood chips to catch and hold some water. They could then be moved to elsewhere, say to aroudn your trees and things, already past the initial breakdown.
 
Travis Johnson
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It is possible your excavating punched a hole in the clay layer and that is why you are losing water fast.

This happened to me once a few years back. I had a farm pond, originally dug in 1965 but silted in pretty good by 1998. I happened to have an excavator kicking around that summer and dug the pond out. Well first off an excavator IS NOT the machine to use for pond excavation because a person needs a smooth bowl shaped bottom, and an excavator leaves a pock-marked, crater filled bottom. Somewhere, somehow it was not smoothed well enough and the clay liner was disturbed and water runs out pretty quickly. It was actually better silted in!

A quick fix would be to add bags of bentonite to your areas which is a natural clay that swells to 3 times itself in water thus sealing ponds. On ponds that will not stay filled with water, this is the remedy. It is also your best bet if the area is quite large.

If the area is really small you can utilize earth-crete which is just cement and soil. Just dump in some dry cement (94 pound bags of portland cement...no pre-mixed bags of concrete) in the area you think is leaking. Since concrete is a chemical process and not about "drying out moisture" as most people think, cement will harden up under water or wet conditions. Another method is to use pre-mixed bags of cement. Again even under water this stuff hardens up. Just stack the bags like cement blocks and the bags will harden up. Then you can burn the bags after they are hard and be left with nothing but hardened cement.

These may or may not be means to fix your issue, but a search of youtube will show them all in action.
 
Anne Miller
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This is a great questions and everyone has given some great answers.

Would a simple explanation of what is happening to the water would be that it drains down to the water table?  Or is this understood?  I don't worry about how fast the soil drains as I feel it goes to the aquifer and becomes used by my well. 

In fact I like that my soil drains so well that I don't have to walk in the mud.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I think that Travis' idea that you punched through your water retaining layer might have merit.  Since you have clay soil, it might be an idea to rent a packer and work the bottoms of your catchments a bit so that they form better seals, or gley the surfaces with animal concentrations.
I don't worry about how fast the soil drains as I feel it goes to the aquifer and becomes used by my well.  In fact I like that my soil drains so well that I don't have to walk in the mud
 
I think, Anne, that the difference is that Paul is in high elevation desert, and he has relatively low rainfall. 
 
Anne Miller
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:I think that Travis' idea that you punched through your water retaining layer might have merit.  Since you have clay soil, it might be an idea to rent a packer and work the bottoms of your catchments a bit so that they form better seals, or gley the surfaces with animal concentrations

I don't worry about how fast the soil drains as I feel it goes to the aquifer and becomes used by my well.  In fact I like that my soil drains so well that I don't have to walk in the mud
 

II think, Anne, that the difference is that Paul is in high elevation desert, and he has relatively low rainfall. 


I am at over 3000 ft with low rainfall, also. I have a mix of caliche and clay.  

I think the difference is he is wanting this area to become a pond, though I can't speak for him. 

On the subject of ponds, most folks in my part of the country can't keep water in them without manually adding water on a regular basis using well water.  We put bentonite in the bottom of our 50 x 25 x 10 deep.  It still drains.  It will fill up with a decent rain and stays that way for a few days.  I think of it as a basin to keep our property from flooding as we are in a flood prone area, that is not in a flood plain.

I am not sure if gleeing would work knowing how our soil works.  It wouldn't hurt to try an experiment if someone has animals.

Paul Gutches wrote:

What I am concerned about is that these occasional substantial rains end up being a zero sum game as far as the plants and trees are concerned. 

Could this water mostly be draining away deep underground out of reach of plant and tree roots?   Or running off the property horizontally on a bed of hard pan?

This is what I fear.   That the vast majority of this water is not being stored locally in the soil, which is the whole point of catching and sinking it in the first place.

A foot to a foot and a half is diggable before I start hitting some stiff rubbery pre-caliche soil that requires a pickaxe to loosen up.   True caliche starts anywhere from 3.5 to 5 feet down.

Could all this water be running off of my property underground on a bed of caliche?

Or draining straight down through fissures in the caliche layer?

There doesn't seem to be any obvious way to tell, or how to approach the situation assuming this is the case.


Paul, do you have a lot of rocks mixed into you clay and caliche?  We can't dig without hitting rock in most places.

"Or draining straight down through fissures in the caliche layer?"  I feel this is what is happening.  If you have lots of bedrock then the water most likely would hit the rock and then run to the lowest point.

Though I also feel that the plants get use of the water as it passes by them.  Many native plants have either deep tap roots or tuber type roots.   They take advantage of what is available.. 
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I am at over 3000 ft with low rainfall, also. I have a mix of caliche and clay. 

I think the difference is he is wanting this area to become a pond, though I can't speak for him.
  my bad, Anne.  For some reason I thought you were in a more temperate zone; I must be thinking of someone else. 

I think the pond that he mentions is more of a place to make the most obvious observation (pond filling and then rapidly gone); his main concern is the lack of growth in his trees/plants.

What I am concerned about is that these occasional substantial rains end up being a zero sum gain as far as the plants and trees are concerned
  That's why I suggested gleying the pond, and incorporating as much organic matter as possible around plants.
 
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