Most of the time when it comes to mainstream permaculture design, the land is water starved, hilly, and has a plethora of problems to work around. While no place is ideal, I found a nice property that fits my goals, was within my budget, has great access, great neighbors, and abundant water...maybe too much water at times? This is why I am reaching out to see if anyone has experience/advice they would like to share with me concerning transforming worn out flat farmland (that potentially floods), into an abundant system for my family as well as the community. My goal is to steward this property by working within it’s characteristics/natural tendencies and shying away from what it is not so great at. Fruit/nut trees, perennial root crops, pond creation and more are all goals I would like to make a reality.
Overview: 11 acre property located in the Ridge and Valley province region of Virginia near Roanoke. The area is fairly flat (for the mountains), is bordered by a nice size stream on the north side and has easy access from a small one-lane road to the West. Water appears to be a huge blessing here as the stream provides abundant water year round and comes from forested mountains surrounding the land. On the flipside, the fragipan subsoil makes it impossible for water to infiltrate more than 1-5 feet below the surface (varies throughout the property). This creates a challenge when trying to grow anything that does not appreciate water logged soils (fruit trees) in these perpetually wet areas.
Location: Alleghany Mountains of Virginia near Roanoke
Cold Hardiness Zone: 7
Precipitation: 45 inches
Mean Annual Temp: 57 degrees F
Frost Free Period: 160-190 days
First Frost: Oct 15
Last Frost: May 15
Elevation: 1,080 feet
Terrain: Almost “perfectly” flat (small undulations due to past farming practices)
Along stream (14a) soils is Derroc Cobbly Loam, 0-4% slopes, occasionally flooded. USGS classify these soils as very deep, well-drained, derived from sandstone, shale, and limestone. This area is visually
identifiable by a terrace below the Ernest Silt Loam (17b).
Rest of the property is Ernest Silt Loam. Ernest Silt Loam, 0-7% slopes, footslope, toeslopes, colluvium derived from sandstone and shale, depth over 65 inches to bedrock, 25-35 inches to fragipan, moderately
well drained to wet
History: From what I can gather from locals, it has been used as a hay field for many years 10+ and was a cornfield 2 years ago but now fallow
Current Flora: On the east and west border, loblolly pines were planted for privacy 30 years ago. Along the stream on the north side is a mixture of black walnut, red cedar, large sycamores, American persimmon, black cherry, butternut, tree of heaven, catalpa, spicebush, and speckled alder. Johnson grass, numerous sedge species, rushes, grape fern, burdock, dandelion, Japanese honeysuckle, pokeweed, ironweed,
Floodzone: According to the accompanying picture below, you can see the FEMA flood zone map of the property. Notice the southeast corner is the only place outside the floodzone on the map. According to locals, there has been 1 time in the past 40 years that the land has flooded the area and the water was gone within 1.5 days. Depth of flood is unknown but a guestimate would say 1-3 feet deep.
I am confident this property has the ability to be turned into a fantastic homestead that grows an abundance of food, fuel, fiber, medicine, and more. The past two previous properties I grew up on were all on hillsides away from water so this is a new and exciting opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and experience. Although at the forefront, this property has some set backs (high water table in some areas and potential flooding at times), we can work with this land to make something special. I will not be able to afford any sort of housing for at least 5+ years and when I do, it will be a shipping container tiny house (I have built two before and love them) on pillars.
I am putting all of this info in a forum to see if anyone has been in a similar situation – where their land (or land they have worked on) was fairly flat, wet especially in winter due to thick clay subsoil, and could flood in very severe rain events. What strategies did you find helpful? What plants did you use and so on?
I will be renting an excavator come spring and will be creating raised beds on contour in addition to adding several small ponds in the very wet areas. Thanks for your input and I look forward to seeing what has and hasn’t worked for people in similar situations!
I also wanted to share a visual of the USGS soil map. The 14 area is the cobble loam and floods potentially on an annual basis ( I just do not know the frequency since I recently bought the property). 17 is the Ernest silt loam. The other map is from the county website indicating the potential FEMA map flood zone. I will be taking steps to protect plantings and future tiny house buildings by lifting them off the ground several feet. At this time, I have no idea how deep a catastrophic flood like this would be but its good to be safe than sorry. From what I can gather, its not so much the flood waters that are life-threatening, its the velocity of them with carrying debris and so on. Do you find this true or no? I want to be planting thick, deep-rooted trees from the stream outward to the field to help calm the water in case it floods at this level.
I would love to have so much water! Aquaculture is the most productive use of land. Raising fish and other water critters is much more efficient than raising land animals. You can grow plants by raising the soil above the water level (research "chinampas").
Two guys to look into are Ben Falk and Shawn Jadrnicek. They have accomplished a lot with wet land.
Tyler- I have not heard of Shawn so I will definitely look into him! Thank you also for reminding me of all the great things Ben has done on wet land. I couldn't agree more with the raised bed/chinampa system. With this amount of water, this would be the only way to try to incorporate fruit trees and chestnuts. Next week when I am on site, I would like to begin finding the contour in order to mark out where to mound the soil up for raised beds.
Eric and Phil- Thank you! It was over a year in searching for the right place to put down roots. Appreciate your kind words :)
Hi Scott, I too have a place with 28 acres about an hour Sw of Roanoke in Floyd county with an abundance of water. It has a farm pond of about 1/3 of an acre with very steep sides and an island in the middle. There is also a creek that cuts the property in half and runs for around 1,200 ft. Several very small branches join up just inside my property line and all the water that flows here originates no more than about a quarter mile away so my creek is very near the headwaters. I also have at least one seep that originates on the land and eventually makes its way down to the main creek.
Although I retired here more than a dozen years ago I only began to learn a bit about permaculture a few years ago, just at the point when I learned that my very generous pension could be cut by 60% or more. So I have spent the past 4 years working hard to save as much as possible as I wait to learn if my income will eventually be drastically cut. It will probably be at least another year before any decision is reached by the folks who administer my plan. If it's not cut I'll have plenty of funds to go ahead with lots os work, assuming that I can find a few good people to hire since at age 70 I do have some physical limitations on how much I can manage by myself.
In the mean time I hope to come up with a detailed plan on what to do, plant, etc. I am hoping that I can at least get a good foundational planting of trees going, since about 20 acres is open pasture and that someone else can carry on when I'm gone.
Wishing you great success on this rainy, rainy day and going forward into the future.
I also have another question, would it be better to have swales/mounds that are perpendicular to the potential flood waters or parallel to them? On the soils map, you can see that the left of the photo is west (in the direction the stream flows) and obviously the east side is on the right of the photo. Any ideas on this? I get mixed advice from JMF in his garden approach, and Ben Falk's designs.
It looks fairly well-drained in the pics. Small ponds in the low spots, with dirt stacked in mounds for planting (as the others mentioned) should drain it somewhat. I'd think any aeration through tilling, cover crops, daikon radishes, etc would help with water infiltration. Also looks fairly flat, so wouldn't water evaporate fairly quickly after a big storm? Obv make sure you have good erosion control on the stream, perhaps using bamboo or elderberry along with your trees.
You might be able to connect your ponds through drain pipe (laid with a trencher pretty deep) so you can drain your field faster after a big rain. Just an idea, no clue if that would work or not.
Great land. As to your question about parallel or not, i'd suggest renting a laser level set with sticks for a day.
Flat amd almost flat are different enough to matter quite a bit in a hundred year flood. As you think about contour and terraforming, id encourage you to plan for the hundred year flood. They seem to be coming more often these days. From a permie perspective slowing the water down and spreading it out is the goal. But doing so in way that won't wash out in a flood is critical. Finding your inflection points for heavy flow in a big event and maybe even adding plants or rocks to prevent erosion duringbthose events is a useful strategy.
I put in some ponds two years ago and decided to take it on the chin to dig a substantial spill way connecting them in case of super high water. Its already seen a good flow.
Btw, sycamores are thirsty trees. People sometimes plant them to dry up soggy spots.
Thanks, JD and everyone. I did not know about inflection points till you mentioned them and I looked them up today. I did notice previously that there was evidence of local flooding near several areas of the stream. After finding out more on inflection points, it makes a lot of sense as to why these areas had recent flood deposits. I also rented a laser level so when I pick that up, I will be able to find contours and map out where to plant things. Reading a ton about swales on here and elsewhere, I am less enthusiastic about doing them but perhaps we can do one or two. Due to the high water table and saturated soil conditions through winter into spring, making long mounds (maybe on or close to contour) will certainly help plants survive that are not fans of soaked feet. When I get some time, I'll have to do a sketchup of my plans and show them here so its easier to understand. Thanks guys!
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