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Transforming 4 Acres Into a Food Forest: Starting with Water

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Back in 2007, I was living on a friend’s property North of Los Angeles, when I got offered the opportunity that would change my life.  They knew that I had just spent the last few years working on farms and they were interested in getting a garden going of their own.  That initial garden grew into a 4 acre food forest. Once they tasted fresh produce grown from their own garden, they were ready to take it to the next level.

The landowners (my friends) and I sat down for a talk, initial consultation if you will,  and we spoke of their goals for the project, interests, timeline, budget, etc. Essentially I came out of that meeting with a mandate to do whatever I could to get their property to supply between 60%-80% of their food and water needs, while doing it in an earth friendly way without importing fertility.  Could you ask for a more dream project!

In order to grow food, you must Plant the Rain!

Before we dug any hole, or cut any tree, we spent some time observing the site.  Paying special attention to the landscape, climatic patterns, plants, animals and humans that all interacted with the site.  As we began to formulate our strategy for the site, it became clear that water would be the backbone of our design, because without it, there is no life.

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This part of CA averages 16″ of rain/year and has some of the fiercest Santa Ana winds you have ever experienced.  The Santa Ana’s can turn a rain soaked property into a brittle landscape in just a few days.  Creating windbreaks from these winds would act as a core strategy to drought proofing the landscape.

We also took an audit of the usage of water within the home as well as for all present and future landscape plantings.  Once we figure out our water usage, we will know what we need for our water storage.  The trick really isn’t if there is enough water, but do you have enough storage.  Its expensive to store all of your water needs in fabricated tanks, especially in our area where we can see up to 8 months of no rain.  You would need a heck of a lot of storage and that is not cheap.  To tackle that problem, we took a couple different strategies.

Water Tanks

First off, we installed over 100k gallons worth of water tanks, which was about $1/gallon installed.  Above ground plastic tanks, metal container tanks, underground tanks, we installed a tank wherever it made sense, always accounting for where the water was coming from and where it was going to. The water is caught off of every roof, even off of every driveway drain where it made sense. The overflow goes on to fill another tank or out to one of a couple ponds we constructed or into water harvesting swales.

Water Revolution System

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Clay Ponds

We dug a couple of different ponds.  One clay lined and 3 that were lined with pond liner.  The thought was that the clay lined pond would be more seasonal and provide a longer period of water seepage into the landscape than the swales would provide and the three lined ponds would act as a more cost effective supplemental water storage to the tanks.  The clay lined pond performed as planned, it even produced a spring further down the hill for almost 2 months after a rainfall, that did not happen before.

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This pond was constructed at the top of the watershed, allowing its harvested water to hydrate the soil downslope. When this pond is full it overflows into one of the swales.

Lined Ponds

The lined ponds proved interesting.  In order to keep the water clean we learned that it needed to go through a biological filtration process, which pretty much means water circulating through gravel with plants.  Well, when we began to circulate the water we had huge evaporation loss.  So we experimented with other ways.  We introduced algae eating fish, snails, & aquatic plants covering most of the surface.  This helped, but I would still have to say there is more learning and experimentation with the ponds.

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In hindsight, lined ponds may not be included again if we got to do it all over. It is just too dry for too long and the water evaporates. Now you have a problem on your hands, you don’t want it to drain completely because you now have a biological habitat, so you top it off every now and then. What you thought was going to be a water source for the garden, became a water sink keeping the aquatic biology in check.

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Hard at work building one of the ponds lined with pond liner. It takes some resources, but these ponds are a lot cheaper than water tanks when you compare carrying capacity.

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This angle shows the pond almost done but not yet filled. It shows the overflow which comes down from the water tank that was installed in the ground

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Finished water harvesting pond with plantings. Note the pond liner showing. That is evaporation causing the water level to recede. Not a good thing. We do get small fish out of here big enough to eat sometimes.

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Swales

To round out our water harvesting strategy for the property, we installed 4 swales that harvested water from tank over flow as well as runoff over the roads and landscape.  The clay lined pond even overflows into one of the swales.  The swales were fun to build, because they were challenging.  I had never really seen a swale in person nor had I ever driven an excavator before, but I read all about them (that made me qualified right?).

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However, I never did feel too confident that I was really comprehending what I was reading. Intuitively it made sense though, so I followed that instinct.  Lucky for me, my client was a contractor himself and he gave me an excavator & a laser level and told me to get to it.  I hung out with a local backhoe operator for a day to get some tips and then I was let loose.  I flagged out four swales with the laser level, placing the flags in the uphill side of the proposed swale and dug just below those flags.  I’ll tell you, when I made that first scoop with the excavator I knew I was in for some long days.  It wasn’t as easy as it looked, but eventually over the course of 4 weekends I constructed 6 swales about 500′ long each.

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Swales just finished. They draw water off the road to the right, down the natural spillway in the middle and from the overflow of tanks, ponds and houses further upstream.1

3 Years in. Hard to see the swales in this shot, but they are there. Trees are quickly filling in. Understory crops slowly getting planted.

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One of the swales filled with water a couple years after construction. You can see it planted with Olive, Citrus and Nitrogen fixing acacia.

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Crater Garden
At the bottom of this hill that just got swaled out was a sort of bowl.  It was created a while back when the owner carved out and filled the canyon to create a horse corral.  It was time to honor that destruction by returning the site to some sort of regenerative usage.  While trying to figure out what to do in that section of the project, I took a course with Sepp Holzer in Washington where I got inspired by his Crater Garden concept.  Initially it was a water harvesting crater that produced a variety of microclimates to produce a variety of food with very little maintenance.  The bowl was a perfect spot for one.  I had to build it!  After some convincing, we transformed that old horse ring into our crater garden, the center of our food growing activities. More on that later.

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The Sepp Holzer inspired Crater Garden freshly created. New pond installed with pond liner exploded with frogs weeks later. Cover crops are recently sprouted to help build the soils’ fertility and water holding capacity.

To add to the water supply, we took all of the greywater from the home, all the laundry, all the bath water and sent it off into the yet to be planted food forest that trees would eagerly soak up.  Much of the greywater that we were using in the garden was recycled rainwater that was caught locally onsite, plumbed into a few select house fixtures with much red tape and then reused a second time out into the landscape.  This increase our water savings by 40%.

Lastly, but most important to our water harvesting strategy, was through the improvement of soil structure.  We employed cover cropping strategies, chop and drop of our trimmings, mulching, etc.  By improving our soil structure and organic matter, we increase that soils capacity to harvest water.

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Other useful resources:


Alive After The Fall (Advice onto handling crisis situations )
US Water Revolution (Have Plenty of Water when others don't have any!)
Blackout USA (EMP survival and preparedness guide)
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Backyard Innovator (All Year Round Source Of Fresh Meat,Vegetables And Clean Drinking Water)
Liberty Generator (Easy DIY to build your own off-grid free energy device)
Backyard Liberty (Easy and cheap DIY Aquaponic system to grow your organic and living food bank)
Bullet Proof Home (A Prepper’s Guide in Safeguarding a Home )
Family Self Defense (Best Self Defense Strategies For You And Your Family)
Sold Out After Crisis (Best 37 Items To Hoard For A Long Term Crisis)
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