I saw an interesting article today in the London Telegraph that talked about the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwestern United States. The headline is somewhat alarming, as expected … ‘US Farmers Fear the Return of the Dust Bowl‘
Feel free to go read it, but the gist of it is that the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the worlds largest underground fresh water lake, is running dry. The Aquifer may run completely dry within ten years, though if conservation methods are used, it could last another sixty years.
Oh wait … that estimate also requires crops that are genetically modified to do well in drought conditions. Go Go Gadget Monsanto!
While you may not be located in Texas or Oklahoma, it’s probably a good idea to think about how an ongoing water shortage could affect you. Luckily there are ways you can help cultivate your land that will help out.
Enter Permaculture, Stage Right
Permaculture is a way of creating sustainable systems in land use. Based on ecological and biological principles, someone who practices permaculture leverages patterns and systems that occur in nature to maximize results a minimize work. It leverages the wastes from one system as an input to another system, ideally creating cyclical relationships between systems.
Permaculture can be practiced in rural or urban environments, and is highly effective at creating long term stable environments, especially when coupled with food producing perennial plants. It is particularly useful when you pair it up with classical gardening techniques for annual plants.
So How Does Permaculture Help With Water Shortages?
In its simplest form, a swale is a filled in ditch that runs across the terrain contour as opposed to purely up and down. Swales occur naturally but you can absolutely create your own.
When you build your own swale, you dig a ditch on contour. Dig as deep as you like, and take some of the dirt from the ditch and berm up the downhill side. Fill up the ditch with mulch and top off with the rest of the dirt. You may end up with a bit of a sunken, depressed top, but that’s ok.
A mulch will soak up and retain a huge amount of water, creating a bit of an underground lake. When it can’t hold any more water, the excess will flow down the contour of the land. If you have multiple rows of swales, they will eventually all fill up, leaving you a whole lot of water that sticks around for quite some time.
You can create swale like structures around specific plants and trees using this concept on a small scale which helps to keep them hydrated even in dryer times.
On A Side Note
There’s something interesting that is vaguely related called ‘hugelkultur‘ which I heard about on Jack Spirko’s Survival Podcast. It’s a fascinating concept that uses wood to fortify your raised beds to act as a water and nutrient sponge.
Jack has a few podcasts on the topic here, and here, and you can find a nice article with some pictures over at Paul Wheatons website.
If you’re in an urban or suburban environment, don’t miss this podcast that talks all about how to downsize the swale and hugelkultur concepts for urban or suburban environments.