orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Designing a Pond - The Permaculture Way

Today I'm going to start taking you through the permaculture design process of a pond.  Since the last helpXers had to rush off early, due in part to the abundance of mosquitoes on our land (Sarai was particularly attractive to those beasts and she suffered what I suspect to have been an allergic reaction after bitten well over a hundred times) I have been looking for solutions to this particular problem and I have come up with two: 1. constructing bat boxes to attract those natural predators and 2. designing and setting up a natural pond.  Now the second point doesn't appear to be such a good idea as mosquitos love just that: some water to breed in.  However a well balanced pond will also attract a greater biodiversity and more predators of the mosquito, and I'm hoping that that will eventually balance itself out, but of all that more later.

The first consideration is where to place the pond and given the steepness of our land (an average 40% incline) I don't have all that much choice.  I could put it at the very bottom of our land where it is least steep.  It would be easiest to construct there.  However there are two arguments against that: 1. it would be at the far end from where the action is, i.e. in terms of permaculture zoning almost in zone 5.  So maintenance would become a chore and it would gradually become part of the far and beyond.  Secondly, permaculture teaches us to catch water, which is a source of energy, at the highest point possible within a landscape.  On a steep slope that is on or just below the so-called keypoint, the point of a slope where it turns from convex to concave, or in other words at the point where the slope is at its steepest and begins to level out.  (For more on keypoints and the keyline system as invented by PA Yeoman check out this link).  Catching the water quite high up it can still be of use to things planted below if there is excess water.

So this where I decided to construct the pond as you can see on the map below:
 The central section shows the boundaries of our land facing in general easterly direction.  the green area is the neighbouring land, which is north-facing and has been totally neglected for the last 10 years or so, resulting in the collapse of the terrace structure and a jungle of brambles and bamboo, which constantly encroaches onto our land.  So our land, together with the land to our south and the land to our north forms a kind of amphitheatre, which traps humidity and heat, shelters from prevailing winds and forms a natural drainage for any water from above, which trickles usually at speed into a small seasonal stream down into the woods below and towards the river a few kilometres away.  The blue blodge is where I want the proposed pond, the little blue blodge with the cross is the nearest water tap, the grey blodge is the caravan at the top of the land and I marked the principle trees in the neighbourhood of the proposed site in green.  This position would therefore also be within my zone 3 and more easily accessible from the key area, which is the caravan.

The other reason for choosing this particular point is that it is the natural point at where the water tends to run down, therefore also being the area that had suffered the worst damage from the landslides of Christmas 2010.  Since then the area has virtually not been touched and is therefore a pretty useless area as it is, so I may as well catch and slow the water where it comes down and make some use of the area again.

Now that we have determined the location of the pond we begin with the survey of the site.  I have given an idea of the greater area above, now we need to look at the specifics of the proposed area.  To start of with it was covered in brambles and bamboo spreading from the negligent neighbours site.  I needed to clear this first to get a better picture of the topography and plant and animal life other than brambles and bamboo.  This is what it looked like after the initial clearing of the worst shrubbery:

To the south of the proposed site, on the neighbours land, there is a gigantic lime tree of some25-30 metres height, blocking off much of the sunlight.

On the terrace below, so to the east of the site, there is an old pear tree, however it does not take too much light away, as it is positioned lower.  Also it was damaged during the 2010 landslides.  In fact there used to be a pear tree standing at the very spot where the pond is to go, but it was one of the victims of the floods and as it fell it also took a fair portion of the lower tree with it:

It may be looking a bit poorly, but it's still producing, so we'll leave it for the time being.  Despite that, the sun does not make too much of an appearnce here.  In the summer we have sun early morning and mid-day, whilst in the winter it would be in the shade for most if not all of the day.

Just above the site is another pear tree, which now sits precariously on a brink, as the landslide took away the soil all the way up to the tree.  This is a problem which needs to be addressed within the design.  I need to somehow extend the soil, building a pathway on the lower side of the tree for access and to extend the soil beyond the tree, and I also need to think of netting below the tree, so that ripe pears and leaves do not fall into the pond.

One other important point is that just one terrace up (did I mention we are on terrace number 6?), there is mains water access, which could be used in times of drought to keep the pond topped up.

Now we take a closer look at the site itself.  The original terrace structure was destroyed by the landslides and the landscape lies around in a hapharzard way as it was formed by the water (we had some 500mm rain in one day back then.  We were lucky to have been spared by the much more publicised floods of October 2011, which destroyed much of the Cinque Terre and other nearby towns).  So next we'll do a PASTE survey: Plants, Animals, Structures, Tools, Events.

Plants: I have already mentioned the main trees and the bramble and bamboo.  In addition there some lime tree saplings emerging, one just above the proposed site.

I don't mind that, as lime has multiple uses, the roots should stabilise the soil, the young leaves are edible, the flowers are bee attractants and have medicinal properties, young shoots are used in basketry, the wood is useful for carving things, so I'm all for it, as long as I don't let it grow to 30m plus...  Furthermore, once I cleared the shrubs, there was little biodiversity.  Species recorded were bracken, campion, sorrel, mugwort, a few undefined members of the asteracea family also know as DYC (Damn Yellow Composites, due to their difficulty to tell one from another) and quite a bit of pellitory-of-the-wall.  A couple of wild vines also creep about the place as is ivy and bindweed.

The low biodiversity point to low soil fertility, in fact just looking at the soil will confirm that.  The types of plants indicate a poor alkaline soil, particularly indicated by fern and sorrel.  The soil analysis also confirms that.  By placing some soil in a jar with water and shaking it you can make a simple soil test.  Different soil types sink to the bottom at different rates.  Sand will settle first, followed by silt and finally clay, giving hopefully 3 distinct layers in your jar.  If the solution is alkaline it may take a long time for the clay to settle out and the water at the top to become clear, as in that case the clay particles will repel each other rather than clump together and sink to the ground.  This point is going to become very important at a later stage, when we are talking about sealing the pond. 

Animals: Animals that we have observed or have seen or heard evidence of on our land include: Mammals: mice and rats, cats from the neighbour, dogs, incl. our own, bats, foxes.  Birds: small song birds, incl. sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, wrens, robins, birds of prey, bee-eaters (seasonally), seagulls, from the nearby sea (just overhead really), cucckoos, woodpeckers, owls, penguins...(oh no, no penguins...), jays and crows.  All manner of waterfowl can be found a few km away in the river.  Reptiles: grass snakes, slow worms, various lizzards and gheckos and a mating pair of T-Rex (or did I imagine that one...).  Amphibians:  I have seen the odd toad, but as there is no water as yet, not much in evidence yet.  Insects:  Bees, wasps, hornets, bumble bees, mosquitoes (did I mention those before?), all manner of flies, those big buzzy, bumbly black bugs which like to live inside bamboo sticks and eat nectar, centipedes, stag beetles, various noisy crickets and far more critters than I care to mention.  Worth pointing out that I haven't encountered many earthworms on the actual site, another indicator of the poverty of this particular spot.

Structures:  By structures we mean imovable (wo)man made features in the landscape.  The only ones directly related to the pond site is the already mentioned water tap in easy reach and a few metres to the north of the site the terrace has been repaired and strengthened with a sloping wall of old car tyres.

Tools: Are really more movable structures with a specific function.  There are none in the vicinity.  I suppose the water tap should really be under tools rather than structures.

Events: These can be both social or natural events.  As this currently is an unused part of the land, there are no social events happening here.  As for natural events, as already pointed out, it is the area worst affected by the landslides.  Also being in the shade for much of the time, especially in winter, frosts are likely to occur there.  We do get through many winters without a significant frost, but this small area would be particularly frost sensitive, even when the top terraces stay above zero.  In the event of a general frost, as seems to be happening more frequently in recent years, temperatures would be even lower here.

I have already mentioned a few of the limiting factors above: a lot of shade, danger of frost, encroaching weeds from neighbouring land, potential catastrophic rainfalls, poor soil fertility, alkaline soils, cats going for any introduced wildlife.  Looking at resources, there is a woodland below from which building materials can be gathered.  Also the local skips are a great source for material, the town of Arcola not being far away from the land.  Another resource, and a welcome one too as my bones are starting to creak, are helpXers or any passing permaculturists (preferably young and fit ones!).

Sooooo, having done our observations and survey of the site we go to the analysis stage of the design process.  As I am being my own client in this particular case it makes interviewing the client a tad monotonous:  "Well Mr. V., what is it you would like us to do with your plot of derelict land?"  -  "As if you didn't know, and stop talking to myself!".  So lets go straight to the column of  

Needs and Wants:

Let's start with needs:
  1. Reducing mosquito population by introducing a greater biodiversity
  2. Prevention of further landslides by slowing the water
  3. Food source by introducing edible pond plants
  1. A tranquil place for meditation and fish watching
  2. A soft fruit garden below the pond
I would like all that built in as natural way as possible and money at this point in time is not available AT ALL.  As for time scale, I would like to have the basic shape ready before the onset of winter rains, so that by spring we can plant the pond and introduce livestock (by then some funds may be available).  For future maintenance, ideally it should be a stable eco-system looking pretty much after itself.  Occasional topping up with water and cleaning out excess organic material is fine.  

Considering all those points I have come up with a rough shape design (the final shape will depend on the contours of the land):

I just realised I put south on top, sorry.  I marked the two pear trees and the way water is running in case of rain.  To the left of the pond, which is below and to the east in real life, there is room for a substantial raised bed, which could be a home for some shade tolerant soft fruit, such as raspeberries and redcurrants, which would get any excess water from the pond above.  The deeper parts of the pond I coloured a deeper shade of blue.  The squiggly shape means there is more edge to the pond and the more edge you have the greater your potential biodiversity, according to the 'edge principle' (more of that in my next blogpost, which is already half written).  The length of the pond will be aproximately 7 metres so as to catch all the bits where water wants to run down.  At it's greatest width it will be maybe 2.5 metres.  The greatest depth I want at about 1.2-1.5 metres, specifically to host some plants, to which I will come a bit later.

To create some lower banks at 30-45cm depth for some of the marginal plants, I'm intending to 'terrace' the inside with upturned glass bottles.  Below the higher pear tree I am intending to build a walk way out of 4 old pallettes, 2 vertical and two horizontal on top.  This space between them can be filled with stones and organic material to create access to the tree from all sides.  During the summer when the pears ripen and in autumn when the leaves fall, a net can be suspended from the pallettes under the branches to prevent organic material from falling into the pond.

In addition a walkway must be maintained all around the pond for full access to all parts, as I am intending to grow edible crops inside the pond and as I also need to be able to get to the far end of the pond to cut back the neighbours jungle at regular intervals.

One more word about the soft fruit bed, I intend to raise the bed in a technique I invented, which I call the reverse hugelkultur.  Rather than building a mound with old wood as with a traditional hugelkultur, I fill in a gap with wood topped by all manner of organic material making for a nice rich and deep soil.  The wood for this can be gathered from the forest below.

I started digging some the last couple of days and whilst I haven't got the final layout this should give you an idea what it looks like at the moment as see from the pear tree above:

Now as for plants.  This is my wish list in no particular order:

  • Water hawthornaponogeton distachyos – Edible tubers, stems and flowers.  Originates from South Africa.  Planting depth: 45cm, but in its natural habitat goes dormant during dry summer months, so can stand lower water table.
  • Golden Club orontium aquaticum –  Edible roots and seeds, but needs to be thoroughly cooked or dried.  Planting depth 15-45cm
  • Buttercup – ranunculus lingua – Not edible but good ground cover for pond edge, removing nitrates and suitable for clay.
  • Bulrush scirpus genus – Various species with edible roots
  • Water Hyacinth eichhornia crassipis – Edible carotene rich leaves and flower spikes, though tasteless.  Cleanses waste water.  Produces biomass, fibre, fertilizer and insecticide.  Beneficial for fish.  Very invasive though.  Plant on pond edge in 15cm depth max.
  • Water Fringe nymphoides peltata – Flowers, leaves and seeds edible, especially interior of stems.  Medicinal uses against headaches, burns, fevers, ulcers, snake bites & swellings.  Prefers alkaline conditions in shallow water.  Can be invasive in rich soils
  • Common Fish Weed lagarosiphon major – Submerged oxygenating plant
  • Water Violet hottonia palustris - Oxygenating, semi-submerged plant with attractive flowers, giving shelter to fish.  Plant in up to 80 cm depth
  • Sweet Flag - Acorus calamus – Edible roots leaves & stems.  Roots as ginger, cinnamon and clove substitute.  It has various medicinal qualities.  Leaves are used in basketry, it is an insect repellent and a fibre for weaving can be made.  Sunny position in shallow water or mud in alkaline conditions.  It grows up to 1m tall
  • Flowering Rush butomus umbellatus – Edible roots and seeds.  Very ornamental.  Sunny position in up to 30cm depth.
  • Watercress nasturtium officinale - Doesn't need much of a description
  • Fool’s Watercress apium nodiflorum –A native plant growing abundantly around here and cleansing water, as well as being edible as described previously here
  • White Water Lilly – nymphaea alba – Edible roots and leaves.  Medicinal uses.  Supplying shade.  Plant in minimum 1.2m depth
  • Arrow Head – sagittaria sagittifolia – Erba Saetta – Edible roots and  leaves.  Medicinal uses: anti-scorbutic and diuretic.  Plant in 30-60cm depth in sunny position
  • Water Chestnut – trapa natans – Castagna d’Aqua – Edible seed.  Plant in up to 60cm depth
I will not find all of those plants and some of them may not be so shade tolerant.  But hey I've grown tomatoes on a northfacing slope and they're doing fine!

As far as livestock is concerned, Goldfish are pretty hardy, they eat vast amounts of mosquito larvae and they are easy to spot if you are just sitting by the pond-side contemplating.  Might add a few more algae eaters or other native fish as well as snails and frogs of course.  There should be plenty of shelter for all of them.  No doubt dragon flies will also be attracted to the pond.

As for sealing the pond I am hoping to utilise the fact I mentioned earlier concerning the alkalinity of the soil. If possible I want to avoid using plastic liners.  I want to try a technique that involves sowing clover on the base of the pond before filling it with water.  As the clover begins to grow you kill it by drowning.  This will then alter the water and soil towards a mild acidity.  As a consequence the clay particles will not repel each other anymore,, enabling them to clump together and seal the ground and leaving clear, unclouded water.  I have not tried this, but it should be an interesting experiment when we get to it.

Here is another couple of views of what it looks like at the moment.  First as seen from the north towards the neighbours jungle:

To the left you can see the curve in the land where I can make a raised bed for the soft fruit.  And next the reverse view:

Right!  All I need now is a few able-bodied helpers.  Any volunteers?

Monday, 2 July 2012

Available to Travel & Wild Food of the Month: Lamb's Quarter

After months of slaving on the keyboard, the book is finally at the printers and should be out by the end of the month.  You never realise how much work this actually is until you read and re-read your draughts until you can't see the wood for trees any more.  And then you keep remembering things you should have added or learn of a new one, that you simply can't leave out!  I'm already working on a second improved edition in my head.  I really just had to tell myself to stop, otherwise this book would have never got finished!

Anyway, now that I'm free for a bit I actually need to earn some money for a change.  It's all very well being able to feed yourself from the wild and what we grow on our land, but occasionally I need to pay a bill too and I'm still looking for that elusive pasta tree, until which time I just have to still buy pasta from the shops.  So inspired by foraging pal Robin Harford in England, I have decided to come with a similar format to him.  I am willing to travel to anywhere you are within Italy to Southern France and possibly beyond to do wild food walks.  I am offering a walk introducing you to whatever is available at the time and place, followed by an evening slide show presentation.  In return I ask you to organise a lively group, a venue, somewhere to put my head at night and a voluntary donation, suggested to be a minimum of €20 a head.  On request (and at extra cost of course), I'll drag cousin Bart along to also cook a gourmet wild food meal.  Apart from in English, I can also do it in German and Italian and at a squeeze (with the help of my wife and lovely assistant) in French and Dutch.  If you are interested or know someone who might be, please get in touch on tuscanytipple at libero dot it.

Now quickly to the wild food of the month, Lamb's Quarter chenopodium album:

 The second half of June and now the beginning of July it has been exceedingly hot and dry and most wild plants are starting to wilt or just bolt to seed.  Not this one.  It's smooth, slightly succulent leaves are holding on to the water and it still remains green and fresh.  In Britain the common name is actually Fat Hen, whilst Lamb's Quarter is what our cousins from across the pond call it.  I don't use the name fat hen, because of the possible confusion with another plant with this same common name, which is also known as smearwort (Aristolochia rotunda) and no relation.  The Italian, as so often, have come up with a much more descriptive common name: farinaccio, which refers to the slight floury bloom on the surface of the leaves, farina meaning flour in Italian.

The plant grows a metre or so tall and the slightly serrated, diamond shaped leaves grow on strong erect stems.  Young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, but it is recommended that you cook them, because the leaves contain saponins, which are the same toxin contained in many varieties of beans, but which are broken down down by heat.  Thus cooked lamb's quarter makes an excellent spinach substitute.  Cooked with beans they are said to lessen ther effect of bloating and f... flatulence.  They are great in vegetable tarts too and they are rich in nutritious value containing high amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fibre as well as calcium, phosphorus and iron and vitamins A, B1 and B2.

It grows abundantly on the side of the road and as a weed on cultivated ground and as I say is quite drought resistant.  So happy foarging and buon appetito!