Applying Permaculture principles

The house is one important project but equally important is the cultivation of our land. The soil is very degraded after years of only growing oats.

Since late summer, we just left it as it is. Letting the weeds grow. Weeds are an indicator of poor soil health but they also help to recover the soil.

Learning permaculture design and planning

I have been intensively studying permaculture design by Bill Mollison. While we don’t have the time or money to attend a Permaculture Design Course (PDC), we are reading the book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual and watching a long video series on YouTube.

There’s so much to learn! And it really interests me, too. This knowledge is directly applied to our situation.

Mapping the land

As a first step, it’s important to know where and how we are located. We know that our house faces south. But where does the wind blow from? How much does it rain? Is our land sloped? What are the contours? What is the weather like throughout the year?

Climate

Getting historical climate data is simple, climate-data.org is really helpful here. But it could not tell us what a really large rain event is like. It just so happened that a really large rainstorm hit Catalonia. It poured up to 200 mm per square meter. That’s 200 liters! It was quite disastrous for the region, but luckily we were not that affected ourselves. But now we know what to expect.

We learned that wind blows usually from the west in the northern hemisphere. I experienced this myself many times already when we were working on the land.

An almond tree shaped by the prevailing winds

Topography

We know where south is because we explicitly wanted a house that is facing in that direction. But where is the water flowing when it rains?

This is an important question because water is a precious resource and we want to take hold of it as much as possible.

In order to catch water efficiently on the land, we need to know what the contour lines are. Then we can start digging up so-called swales.

A simple A-Frame. This one is missing the plumb.

There are many ways to measure contour but in the end, I went for using an A-Frame.

Because it was always so windy when I went out to measure contour, I stopped using the plumb and put my smartphone with the level app on the frame instead. Most people don’t realize, but smartphones have more functions than just playing games and communication.

To mark the contour lines, I laid sticks on the ground. We have two big piles of tree branches, and I think this way we fulfill multiple functions: mark contour lines, reduce wood from the pile to avoid fire hazards and create potential future mulch.

After a few weekends spent on our land measuring, we finally know what our most important contour lines are and where our swales will go.

Seeing the sticks lying on the contour is also interesting to look at. Sara said it looks like a ritual site. I think it looks like an art installation.

Harvesting water

A majority of people think water can only be held in tanks, completely ignoring the water storing capacity of the ground and trees. Because we don’t have many trees yet, we start with groundwork. We now know our contour lines and can start digging the swales.

Swales are a simple and powerful way to hold water on site. Because degraded soil cannot hold much water, it will run off instead. The idea, therefore, is to create a barrier for the water and hold it in place until the soil manages to absorb it. Once underground, water progresses downhill much slower and does not evaporate as much since no sun or wind can reach it.

This is especially important for our semi-arid climate. Most of the rain happens during the winter and we want to hold on to it throughout the drought season.

We began with our first small practice swale. Hopefully, we can dig the rest with a machine.

Establishing a food forest

Our dream is to have our own food forest. It is feasible and we already have a plan on how to achieve it. The first step is to build up good soil. We are not going to use synthetic fertilizer, we’ll go the natural way.

The first plants we will have are going to be pioneer species. They are mostly leguminous plants such as Tipuana Tipu, Prosopis, Acacia aneura, Ceratonia siliqua, Gleditsia triacanthos and many more. Their function is going to be to build up the soil and grow fast. Most of them are drought resistant and can tolerate a lot of sun. Once they are grown they will also provide shadow and reduce evaporation during the dry season.

Some seeds I found myself in the area; I discovered that where we used to live in Barcelona, we have a lot of nitrogen-fixing trees. I wonder whether that’s the case for a lot of cities! Keep your eyes open for such trees!

We also ordered many many seeds from rarepalmseeds.com. They are supposed to arrive next week and I am really excited!

The base is already dug.

We will then go ahead and build a small greenhouse to sprout our saplings a little earlier.

It’s going to be a polytunnel where we will hopefully sprout around 800 tree saplings which we will then plant in spring on half of our land.

To save time, our strategy is to grow more and reduce later instead of growing little and have to replant later.

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