5 FUN AND FRUITFUL TECHNIQUES FOR SMALL-SCALE EARTHWORKS
POND & RAISED BED
For frog and lizard habitats, as well as a birdbath and water hole, I always like to include at least one pond—hopefully more—in a small garden design, and where there is digging there is likely to be dirt. So, just like the guys with tractors do, I skim off the fertile and valuable top layer for safekeeping. That generally means directly adjacent to the little pond makes for a rich and raised planting space.
These ponds are no more than a square meter and maybe half that deep, and in order to maximize the edge, they are always shaped rather amoeba-like. I try to treat them a bit like a keyline damn, locating them at a high point of water drainage and letting the overflow feed either a swale or another pond further down the line. All I do is add some passive overflow spots along the rim of the pond, using stones to help with preventing erosion. The low sides of the pond can be built up with earth excavated from below the topsoil.
Then, with the topsoil, I like to make a raised bed that either surrounds the edge of the pond, using something to prevent the soil from falling back in and leaving a channel for overflowing and incoming water. A good bed of rocks coming in and leaving makes for great hiding spots for animal, and the rocks protect soil from erosion so that the bed can actually help direct the water to the pond. This, of course, means there is a garden bed with a doubly-thick layer of topsoil with plenty of water for plants to enjoy, and in turn, they’ll provide great shade for the pond and more habitat for the animals
HUGELKULTUR KEYHOLE BEDS
Like many folks in permaculture, I’ve at times found myself completely enamored with the hugelkultur technique, and likewise, I’m a man who appreciates long-winded edges and microclimates, which is how it came to be that I got into these sort of miniature hugelkultur keyholes. Actually, I was in Spain, and for some reason, every property I worked on seemed to have an abundance of trimmed and pruned wood lying about. So, seeing the resource and knowing that dry season would soon be around, I started preaching the word of Mr. Holzer’s hugelkultur.
The first one of these I made was in Orgiva, Spain, for a little Indian lady who was older and unable to tend to her land after her husband had passed. She’d let the property get overgrown, and returning five years later, she hired some local guys to prune everything—oranges, mandarin, walnut, pomegranate, lemon, fig, and more—way back. There was wood everywhere, something like arboreal carnage. Concerned about wildfires in the dry season, she wanted to burn it. She became convinced otherwise.
What I love about this design is that the high rising hugelkultur in a keyhole formation yields loads of microclimates to play with. It worked well for Jas (my host) because it was easier to harvest, with such much at the fingertip from the inside and no need to do a lot of bending over on the outside. I also lowered the bottom of the woodpile to use her existing irrigation system—the ancient Moorish acequia—to help it collect water and have it wick into the mounds. A month later, I did it on another property. Now, it’s officially in the repertoire.
I—as it would seem, despite modern farming techniques, anyone would—always enjoy design elements that make work less, so it’s no wonder why things like magic circles, hugelkultur and this following method feature in things I find myself doing. Essentially, in situ worm composting is getting the job done without having to move things around too much. If the worms live, eat and defecate in the garden, there is not much need for carting around heaps of compost and jugs of worm juice around everywhere.
Instead, I like to take a large bucket or tub with some sort of lid, dig a spot in the topsoil for the container to fit in, and use that earth, again, to build a bed around it. Drill several holes in the sides of the bucket before putting it in the ground. As would be the case with a typical vermiculture set-up, put a nice thick layer of shredded paper, cardboard or straw in the bottom of the bucket, a second layer of mild manure if available, and then just feed the worms with scraps and organic rubbish thereafter.
In general, the worms will happily reside in the buckets as long as there is food being added. (If they leave, they are in the garden—great!) The lid will keep them safe from would-be predators and prevents drowning them with rainwater. Meanwhile, the worm juice is permeating straight into the garden, the population is multiplying for making more worm hills, and eventually the compost can be applied to nearby plants without carting it around.
For me, these techniques have proved easily accessible for farmer’s unaccustomed to permaculture, a way of explaining low-energy, high-output design methods. The concepts get people excited. Plus, they are simple examples that can be done from start to finish in a short time, and later, as the project progresses, they mix well to create entire and interactive landscapes, both fertile and interesting. Experts always suggest starting small and building up, and these have been a great combination for doing so.