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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?


A Healing Reality said...

Wow! You really thought this through! We are currently digging a small pond for our ducks. I hope this takes care of your mosquito problems and provides you with all the added benefits as well.

Heiko said...

Hi Mexican Hillbilly. Sorry I never got around welcoming you to my blog last time, so welcome. This was a bit of an excercise for myself too, to go through the design process in detail. The complexity of every change you make to your landscape is part of what we try to observe and anticipate in permaculture, which is why it is such a difficult concept to explain in just a few sentences.

A Healing Reality said...

Glad I found your blog. I am hoping to learn from your posts :)

Unknown said...

I've just had my first introductory class on Permaculture over the weekend and am pleased to know what you're talking about with your 'zones' :) Good luck with the project Heiko and I look forward to seeing how you get on. PS-we watched a video in class on Sepp Holzer who lives in the Alps - have you heard of him before? He also has land on a steep incline so if not you might want to look him up!

Heiko said...

Tanya, Indeed I have known about Sepp Holzer for some time. He does things at a much grander scale than we do, moving in heavy duty earth moving equipment. He does some really inspirational stuff. Lots of videos of him on You Tube.

Unknown said...

I'd love to visit his site one day...it looks amazing :)

Heiko said...

I haven't met the man, but he has a reputation of being a bit of an odd-ball... bit difficult to get on with...

Mr. H. said...

Speaking of Sepp Holzer, check out 4:32 into this video...kind of looks like the pond you are wanting to make. I look forward to hearing more about your efforts in pond construction.

Mr. H. said...

I must be tired this morning....her is the link - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P81ZLODRQo&feature=plcp

Heiko said...

Thanks for the link Mr.H, It does look similar, but my conditions are still smaller in scale. And I don't think I'll ever be able to catch enough water to make a pond system like that. May Holzer junior is a nicer guy the Holzer senior... ;)

LindyLouMac said...

Those darn mosquitoes, good luck with your project.

Meghan said...

Thanks for another amazing blog post! We live in a part of the United States that has a very similar climate to yours - but very unlike the majority of the US - so I learn a great deal from your blogs! Where did you get information about the natural formation of a clay bottom for your pond?

90%+ of our soil is decomposed granite, so precious little clay naturally. I've been trying to work out if bringing in clay or clay-rich soil and spreading it in the seasonal ponds (dug 15 years ago by previous owners) would work to seal them, but haven't had any luck finding relevant info.

Heiko said...

Hi Meghan, I got the info on the clover sealing technique from my permaculture teacher. After much searching I found a web-site which kind of confirmed it on fish ponds (can't find that site any more), although their method was adding alfalfa or clover hay to the pond every now and then.

If you don't have natural clay, you can line your pond with bentonite, which is commercially available I believe.

Heiko said...

VGPS: Thanks for that useful info, it's what I kind of thought already. The bentonite option actually doesn't have to be expensive. Natural, non-additive cat litter is made from pure bentonite and sells here for about €1 per 10kg. Some 20 bags should cover my area.

Heiko said...

I accidentally deleted a comment by the Village Green Preservation Society. Sorry. Here it is again:
"This may be related to what you're talking about... From Bill Mollison's Permaculture Pamphlet II, p16:
"Or you can do something else. When you see you are getting a fair amount of leakage, you can strew rich hay all around the edges of your pond. When the water turns green with algae, if there is a leak through cracks in the clay, the algae glue it up. You are gleying it, but with algae.
But in midsummer it dries out. Didn't work. So now we are getting down toward the final solution. We put green sappy material right across it, six inches thick. We gather the mowings from the golf course, and anything we can obtain. We pack it down. We chip green leaves and sappy material, second cut hay. We cover all this with sand or plastic or old carpets or a combination of all of those. Then it starts to ferment. You can find out when it does, because it is slimy. As soon as it goes slimy, you fill it with water and it fills without any trouble, and will never leak again. It is called gley. The only reason why it might not work is if you didn't do it properly. So you then go at it again, and find the spots you didn't do properly, and do it properly right there, because the rest of it is permanent.
If it is a very big area and you have a very rich client, you run across it with bentonite, which is a clay that swells up to 14 times. You spread a bit and roll it in hard, and then you fill it. That seals it. But it is costly. This is by far the most satisfactory solution.
There are many solutions that plug small holes, such as a sheet of plastic, or concrete. But gley is the best solution. You can make a dam in a gravel pit with it."

Fix Pond and Fountain leaks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Simpler Thomas said...

I am making a pond and we've decided to use sodium bentonite, commonly and relatively inexpensively available as a clumping cat litter. You mix it in with the local clay/soil, as Mollison writes, then tamp it down and fill it up. I was attracted to doing it with gley, but it just seemed more chancey, and involve a lot of hauling of biomass, which I am already short of in my garden. So...whatever happened to your pond? Let us know what's up so we can learn! The real reason I commented on this blog (apart from my interest in the subject) is that I didn't want the last comment to go to some guy trying to sell a product ('Fix Pond and Fountain leaks') and spouting obvious and crude flattery! Disclaimer: I do not work for the cat litter industry, nor do I even own a cat. I tried to get my bentonite from the local art clay supply stores, but nobody had it.

Heiko said...

Thank you Thomas. I hadn't spotted the spam, but have removed it now. We had landslides refilling the pond and accordingly built terraces this year to prevent a re-occurrence: http://pathtoselfsufficiency.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/terracing-above-pond.html The clover method didn't work, so we have this year indeed resorted to cat litter. Didn't work initially, but we hadn't mixed it with the local soil and didn't tamp down much. So thanks for the tip.