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  • Ben Falk

Water and Earthworks

By Ben Falk

A resilient homesteader and designer must be a water process facilitator. Through an awareness of how water affects living systems, we must orchestrate the interplay of systems in a manner that is vitalized rather than limited by its presence.

An Agriculture as Diverse as the Landscape

Only about 10 percent of the state in which I live, Vermont, is composed of “agricultural” land, while the vast majority of the state is too wet, dry, steep, shallow soiled, or infertile to reliably support conventional field-based crop production, though it’s been tried before. Vermonters once farmed much of the state’s non–“ag’ land, clearing about three-quarters of the state by the mid-1800s, mostly for pasture. Devastating soil erosion resulted, along with rapidly decreasing yields.

As we enter the twenty-first century, land that is still clear of forest represents Vermont’s most forgiving landscape—generally, low-angle slopes with deep, well-drained soils supporting (usually with constant inputs) pasture and annual row crops such as corn and grass for hay. Currently, nearly all of Vermont’s food production is derived from one-tenth of its land base, and this land’s capacity shrinks in both area and output each year. “Prime soil” lands, having been abused for nearly two centuries, continue to lose significant production capacity each year as mechanized, tillage-based farming compacts soil structure, exposes the soil to erosion, and damages soil health through continual inputs of liquid fertilizer. The actual acreage of “prime soil” land is also shrinking under the influence of suburban sprawl and transportation developments.

As the need to establish a more resilient, sustainable, local, and secure resource base becomes increasingly clear, we are confronted with the need to produce a reliable supply of food and fuel from the vast majority of our landscape that we have not yet managed to utilize productively without incurring significant damage. In a future of diminishing resources and increasing stressors such as climate change, sociopolitical instability, and economic insolvency, we will need to generate value sustainably on the majority of our landscape without depending upon one unit of production’s sustaining nine units of consumption.

How do we produce lasting value on challenging landscapes with poorly drained, droughty, or degraded infertile soil? Fortunately, this has already been done to a large extent in other parts of the world. Both degraded and inherently challenging landscapes can be regenerated and maintained as highly productive, low-input, no-till, perennial agricultural systems offering yields of fruits, nuts, fiber, fuel, meat, milk, and even perennial grains and vegetables.

In America, however, we have few examples of such systems and need to look elsewhere to find truly sustainable cold-climate agricultural systems. Permaculture, with its emphasis on low-input, self-fertilizing, diverse crop arrangements (otherwise known as “guilds”) and no-till approach, is particularly suited to producing food and fuel crops on degraded and sensitive landscapes (which is most of America) that reliably fail under large-scale, mechanized, input-dependent, soil-exposing, tillage agriculture. Land design needs to continually adapt to America’s hill lands, cold climate, and abused soils.

Successful versions of “agriculture for the hills” from elsewhere - such as the oak, walnut, and chestnut pasture agroforestry systems of the Mediterranean - are not likely to succeed here by simply attempting to replicate them. Establishing reliable, sustaining, and regionalized food systems is an innovative process requiring researching and developing techniques that function across the majority of our landscape. Here in Vermont, that means a “new-old” hybrid agriculture for rocky, thin, infertile, seasonally inundated land. This involves at least three primary strategies:

  1. Identifying and breeding new plant and animal varieties (and reviving formerly used heirloom varieties) that are optimized for the diverse conditions of the cold climate landscape

  2. Developing cultivation techniques such as contour swale-mound planting that help buffer both droughty and inundated land conditions to allow the production of a much wider array of plants than would otherwise be possible in the same location

  3. Changing the scale and mechanics of production systems from large to small, and mechanized to human and animal-powered, and making other adaptations in the ways we can produce on the vast variety of land types

Relocalization in the cold-climate regions of the world will involve the skillful use of the incredible diversity that our landscape contains, from the acidic conditions of a pine plantation to the anoxic clay soils of a wet, abandoned field to the thin, dry, dead soils of an abandoned steep pasture.

Utilizing “marginal” lands requires significantly more skill and care than “prime” agricultural lands with erosion, infertility, or simply lack of production easily resulting from their mistreatment. “Marginal” lands also represent some of the most important and sensitive ecosystems on the planet, while containing possibilities for some of the highest crop yields possible anywhere—the largest food staple in the world is rice grown in poorly drained wet soils. Use of these landscapes must be undertaken with careful planning and a great understanding of the existing opportunities and challenges of the site.

Fortunately, gleaning yields from these ecosystems can be done in ways that not only promote the health of the natural ecosystem but offer human yields as well. Site-specific by necessity, agriculture for “marginal” lands must be highly diverse—given the astounding variation in landscape conditions present beyond the typical large, flat agricultural field. Farming landscapes other than typical “ag” land not only require it but benefit from humans working in synergy with the local ecosystem as beneficial members of the site’s living community to support ongoing fertility development and long-term yields. I’ll now outline approaches particular to several commonly found growing conditions.

Droughty and Rocky Land

Land that is dry and sloped presents an interesting challenge for agriculture in the cold climates of the world and elsewhere. Overall strategies for dealing successfully with these conditions involve the following:

Species selections for plants that can not only handle but actually thrive in dry, poor soil and improve the soil for different future plants. Rocky soils, in particular, are most suited to a perennial-focused agriculture. Example species include sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), and various other berry and nut shrubs and trees. All three of these species are nitrogen-fixing landhealing


Earthworks such as on-contour swaling, in which ditches are dug along contour to slow and trap water as it travels across the slope. This allows water infiltration into the soil horizon, where it irrigates deepening plant roots and delivers oxygen and nutrients. Both the swales/ditches and the mounds below are planted with nitrogen-fixing plants and dynamic accumulators, helping to build soil structure and soil biology, creating conditions that eventually support a larger array of plants to thrive in the same location. After an initial establishment period with “heavy giving” plants (as opposed to “heavy feeding” plants), species that would otherwise not be supported on such sites can thrive. These include more sensitive fruit trees, berries, and other multi-use food and fuel trees and shrubs.

Mulching with fungi-inoculated wood chips helps keep soil moisture optimal, build healthy soil biology, and suppress weeds.

Drip irrigation systems that allow a very small amount of water and energy to be applied precisely across a landscape at timely intervals allow the establishment of plants that would otherwise be unable to survive.

Seasonally Inundated Land

An enormous amount of Earth’s landscape is underutilized because of perched water tables and low-angle slopes underlain by poorly drained clay soils. Useful responses to such conditions involve similar approaches: for one, selecting species that are well suited to perennially or seasonally wet conditions and inundated conditions. Species particularly well adapted to wet conditions include currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp.), elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), cranberries (Vaccinium spp.) and highbush cranberries (Viburnum spp.), Chokecherry (Aronia spp.), willow (Salix spp.) and alder (Alnus spp.) for fuelwood and craft wood, and many others. Other useful strategies include grafting non-wet tolerant species onto wet-tolerant rootstock,

such as pears onto hawthorn or quince.

In addition, on-contour swales and island mounds (at various scales) simultaneously lower the water table in the immediate area of a crop plant while raising up the plant itself. Systems in Europe have practiced tree-based agriculture in wetlands for thousands of years under the name hugelkulture, in which they utilize woody debris to help form the raised planting mounds. Gradually, the woody material breaks down into soil, feeding the plant over time while catching leaves and other nutrient-rich debris that circulate via wind currents in the area.

Swales and Mounds

We call the wave pattern of mounds and ditches running with the contour “swales.” They can be made of woody debris (a hugelkulture strategy), earth, or some combination of the two. The effects they have on water movement down a slope are desirable and the same: They check water’s movement as it descends and forces it to stop or slow, allowing it time to infiltrate into the ground below. At the Whole Systems Research Farm, we make swales with the native earth on-site by pulling earth from uphill downhill, forming a mound. We then use these high surface area drier locations for cropping. A swale “waters” the area immediately below the mounded location and, depending on soil type and rainfall amount, can disperse water that would have run off the surface into the soil well below the swale—five, ten, even twenty feet downhill. This “capture, store, and even out” of moisture is one of the reasons swales are such a soil- and plant-regeneration tool.

The productivity of swales and mounds is astounding. We have noticed that all species of plants respond positively to being on a mound, and the increase in growth and health seems to vary from moderate to extreme. On average it can be said that a given plant at the research farm will grow at least half again as fast as the same plant rooted in flat, unmounded, and unswaled earth nearby. Often, we’ve seen plants respond with twice the growth rate, including species such as black locust, goumi, elderberry, currant, gooseberry, cherry, peach, and apple. The pattern seems to exist across all species except truly wet-loving plants such as sedges—and we don’t really want to grow sedges.

Why do plants prefer a swale or mounded location? The answer seems to come in two parts. The first has to do with our wet climate and high water table; in desert climates, a mounded planting would be much more drought stressed because it’s “high and dry”—the land on a mound is more exposed to the drying effects of the atmosphere (wind and sun). Such plants in a dry climate would often do more poorly. In this climate, we have found that getting above the high water table and periodic inundation caused by rainy periods and snowmelt is of prime value.

The second reason is more universal: A flat piece of ground has less surface area than a wave-shaped piece of ground. Biological activity and soil health is concentrated most heavily in the upper layers of the soil at the land-atmosphere interface—this is where organisms have the highest capacity to metabolize, where roots are most perfuse, and where organic matter is highest as a result. So this is where most plant feeding occurs. When we contour a piece of ground and turn a flat patch of ground into one wave or a mound shape, we instantly add surface area and soil-area interface. This relates back to a primary permaculture design strategy: The edge is where the action is. Swales and mounds create edge - highly productive edge, and we get more land from making them: Literally, our acreage is increased when we contour the land. This last reason is profound, and the results we’ve witnessed are surprising.* We now only wish we had contoured nearly the entire farm in the early years. Hindsight is always 20/20, to be sure.

Water Ridges with Valleys: Keyline Agriculture

The concept of keyline agriculture in modern form emerged from the drylands of Australia. Farmers there, most notably P. A. Yeomans, discovered a simple and glaring truth: that aridity limited land productivity over large acreages while, simultaneously, certain areas of the same region were literally swamped with water. While keyline agriculture contains many concepts, its most fundamental is this: Spread the abundance of water from where it is concentrated in wet areas to those areas that are consistently too dry. Keyline is based on the understanding that water is often the most severe limiting factor to plant (thus animal) productivity.

This is such a basic fact that it’s often overlooked. Think of your nearest pasture or yard. In it you will find microvalleys and microridges—areas of consistent wetness and consistent drought. Depending on your location you will most often find that the ridges are poorest in productivity. The drier your location, the more productive the valleys will be. In many climates, there is a sweet spot just uphill of the valleys that is most productive. The goal of a resilient agriculture from a keyline perspective is to make as much of your land be like that sweet spot, hydrologically, as possible. That’s why we spread the water from the valleys toward the ridges.


The rain woke me up this morning, again. Falling now in sheets across my ponds, fruit trees, and vegetable beds, drenching the sheep and the ducks alike, is the seventeenth or eighteenth inch of rain that’s fallen this spring, and we still have more than a month to go.

What do ten-plus inches of rain in a month mean for us? For me as a homesteader and small farmer, it means some washed-out vegetables - my cabbages are looking somewhat poor in their low-lying bed - and slow starts to other vegetables; luckily, many are in a raised cold frame, but my beans may now be rotting in the soil after sitting there for the better part of a week with no sun to warm the soil for sprouting. Yet my rice paddies have just started overflowing, the ponds are brimming, and the ducks are finding slugs and snails wherever they look. This rain is very good for the perch and bluegill in my ponds, for the ducks that make eggs and meat, and for the now fast-growing rice crop that thrives in water-logged conditions. Another foot of rain doesn’t hurt a crop that’s already flooded and liking it.

My pasture also looks great - with every inch of rain, it seems to grow two to four inches this month, and the sword of clover, vetch, and rye is thicker every day. The sheep seem to tolerate the cool rain, thankful for the bounty of fresh grass it delivers. Pasture growth in May is normally about three times faster than July growth largely because of moisture. If it keeps raining the pasture will keep on growing rapidly. The tree and berry crops look fantastic as well. We’ve earthworked the landscape of this research farm so that our perennial plantings are on top of mounds running sideways across the slope “on contour.” These plants have all the access to water they could want in the bottoms of these swales but are free from inundation, being planted up high on each mound.

Since rain pulls down significant quantities of nitrogen from the atmosphere as it falls (washed from the air at greater rates than any other time in the historical record), it stimulates plant growth; it’s literally liquid fertilizer. Accordingly, rainforests, the rainiest environments in the world, have the fastest biomass production. So plant crops that can avoid inundation because of their growing situation, along with those that don’t mind the lack of sunshine and heat, are thriving. Along with the fish, ducks, and pasture, this includes the perennial crops: apple, pear, plum, cherry, quince, peach, walnut, hickory, chestnut, oak, blueberry, aronia berry, seaberry, honeyberry, gooseberry, currant, and a score of other permanent producers. Some aspects of this farm system are actually greatly benefiting from this cool wet weather, while conventional fields of corn and other fragile bare-soil annuals sit mired along the river bottoms, now too soft for machinery to deal with.

Ponds, swales and paddies have been a part of the working landscape since agriculture emerged, especially on sloped lands. Since water is the basis of productive biological systems, retaining and distributing this storehouse of fertility and life within a landscape is key to the success of any living landscape. The climate, topography, and soils, along with the ease of access to machinery and cheap energy (for now), in the northeastern United States offer a particularly timely opportunity to capture, store, and distribute water via ponds on farms.

Ponds, paddies, and swales in this climate can be cropped for a variety of outputs, most established of which are fish, rice, and berries, respectively. Shallow water systems such as paddies have the unique ability to be fertigated easily (nutrient-rich water delivery), which allows rapid growth of heavy-feeding plants in an otherwise poor fertility situation. These systems can also be perpetually productive on account of water being the nutrient delivery mechanism: Witness paddies that have produced a staple rice crop over centuries upon centuries in sloping landscapes. It is likely that other cropping possibilities beyond rice will emerge with continued innovation of fertigation in both paddies and swales in the coming decades.

Ponds, especially, have many uses beyond what can actually be produced inside them, and it is these uses that make them an especially attractive working landscape feature. These include:

Microclimate enhancement: Water bodies capture and store solar energy and release this heat slowly, especially in the autumn, to the adjacent area. In our testing on the Whole Systems Design Research Farm, this effect varies from year to year with the severity of the fall’s first frost: Our three ponds will often not buffer against frost if the first freeze is about 27F or less yet will extend the growing season by weeks if the first frost in the fall is a mild one, which is usually the case.

Wildlife: There’s perhaps nothing we can do to enhance the biodiversity of species in our landscapes than by creating water bodies. In addition, amphibians are in need of particularly strong support, given the decline in the health of their populations in recent years. Ponds with large wetland edges are ideal—and often rarely found—habitats in many areas of the Northeast. Each time we’ve built a pond, at least three species of frog and two species of salamander arrive on-site within weeks. The values ponds offer for beneficial insects, birds, and mammals can also be observed in short order.

Storage for Distribution: Large water storage is invaluable for fire control and irrigation, as well as for drought-proofing a landscape over time. It takes two to three days or fewer to make a pond that can hold a hundred thousand gallons or more, making it the most economical means of storing large quantities of water. Farms with a need for irrigation often recognize the opportunity to gravity feed such water via a supply located high in the landscape such that its water can be fed to the entire farm without pumps or electricity.

Capturing surface water from as many acres as possible is important for farms wishing to be adaptive to shifting climate conditions and the adverse effects of drought punctuated by intense rain events. A well-sited and properly integrated pond can be the most crucial “shock absorber” farms have for large precipitation fluctuations. Ponds in this capacity serve like batteries, storing excess energy (water) when it is abundant so it can be distributed slowly over a long period of time (drought).

Other: Recreation, food storage, and increasing radiative light for crops and building interiors are several other important side benefits of well-integrated ponds, which demand more space to discuss than is possible here but are worth mentioning.

Management over time is more involved than the scope of this chapter permits, but the following guidelines are basic ground rules for ecologically enhancing multipurpose ponds:

Don’t mow to the water’s edge. That’s the best way to wreck the most abundant wildlife habitat a pond offers. If you must make access via a mower, do so in limited areas along its perimeter.

Seed any bare areas that are not greened up every spring through early summer until there are none left—this can take two to three years or more, depending on vigilance and weather.

Keep a watchful eye on overflow spillways (recommended) and drainage fixtures/pipes (not

recommended) to prevent clogging and the waterline from rising to a dangerous point.

Ponds, swales and paddies are some of the most important features we can install today to ensure a more productive, multifunctional, and resilient landscape tomorrow. Well-designed and constructed water-retaining and distribution systems such as these can help homes and farms become more fit for a future that is likely to bring with it adverse conditions, including drought, flood, increased pest pressures, increased costs of inputs, and other stresses that only highly resilient, low-input systems will handle successfully.

Ben Falk started Whole Systems Design LLC which designs landscape and infrastructure systems that become adaptive, resilient, and relatively secure in a future of climate instability and is the author of The Resilient Farm & Homestead.

This excerpt is from Falk's book The Resilient Farm & Homestead and reprinted with permission. Find the full chapter and accompanying graphics in the book, published by Chelsea Green.

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