Homestead Happenings: Earthworks

You know that saying “make hay while the sun still shines”? Well, the urban homesteading version of that for someone with clay soil is “dig while the ground is diggable”. earthworks

If you’re new here, let me paraphrase all of the issues challenges my land has. If you’re well versed in the saga, feel free to skip ahead.

My ground is adobe clay. My half-acre of ground has less than an inch of gradient. That means that when it pours, for an extended period of time, our yard floods. Standing water isn’t good for plants in the ground, for our wood fences or garden beds, or for the fact I have to forge a lake to pick kale.

The “solution” of “just get it off the property” doesn’t work for me, because I follow ecological and permaculture principles, and I want to infiltrate the water into my soil to replenish the water table. My solution has been to increase absorption of my soils by amendments and earthworks- or basins and swales. Right now, I’m big on calling them a ‘rain garden’, but whatever the name, there the water can infiltrate back into the soil, but in a more convenient spot. You can read about my flooding issues and my ideas on solutions here, here and here.

So back to making hay. The earthworks I have designed could be quickly dug with a tractor, but all of the quotes I had for tractor work were out of our budget. So the only other solution- dig by hand. I’d say 9 months out of the year, this is impossible. The before mentioned clay sets up like a brick, and you can’t dig more than 6″, even with a pickaxe. But thanks to the rains we got, our ground is now soft, and I’m busting ass to get it done before my digging window is shut down.

Which is why for the past few weeks, starting the first day after the last rain, any free time has been spent digging. Digging a swale 3 feet wide, starting at 1 feet deep, sloped at 1% grade, approximately 160 feet long, with periodic wider infiltration basins, and meandering with a natural stream like-pattern. Digging a larger infiltration basin, approximately 120 square feet at various depths of 3′ to 6″, that the long swale will lead into. The soil being removed is then raked over the lowest areas, in order to raise the soil level to direct the water into the swale. digging back basin chickens help with dumping dirtdigging on a drier day

The back area is the ‘high’ spot of the yard, so we started with digging that basin first. It quickly filled up from water present in the soil. Digging wet soil, into a wheelbarrow, and then moving the wheelbarrow over wet ground is near impossible. We had to lay paths of scrap wood so we didn’t sink. Once the flood subsided, I started to dig the long swale. Now that the ground is relatively dry, it is easier to grade to the correct 1%, and make adjustments, like the curves.  IMG_3281 grading to 1Stella oversees

I’m really hoping our region will get another big storm so I can see if this will work. Eventually, all of these earthworks will get planted with plants that can handle fluctuations of wet and dry periods, and accent rock pieces. If this doesn’t solve my problem, I will pretend its a stylish dry-creek bed, totally intentional in my landscape design! If you have a better idea of what I should be doing or how I should be doing it, please don’t tell me. I get discouraged easily. This is not easy work.


8 thoughts on “Homestead Happenings: Earthworks

  1. We have very hard red clay with a kind of white clay under it, so it is very hard to dig at all times. We also don’t get much rain so there isn’t even that help. I ended up buying an inexpensive electric jackhammer and that has helped a lot. Now I can actually get a hole 4 feet into the ground.

  2. Have you considered getting some old half pipes (guttering?) or something like that… Filling it with woodchips and letting it go at that? The water will flow out using the gradient.
    Like this…

    If you avoid the guttering and just fill with woodchips then the water will still soak in it will just follow the course when it gets too much. This will still allow SOME water to run into your garden.

    The other idea is to put in land drains. Dig out a trench… Put in a pipe and back fill it. You work the soil loose and the pipe will take the water away.

    The second idea is worse because it will REMOVE the water from your garden rather than allow the water to soak in and only take out the excess. The chips will hold onto a certain amount of water and only allow the worst of it away.

  3. We’ve dug pits, filled them with gravel, water from our downspouts is directed to them. We also have a drainage ditch–water from properties up the hill from us flows through our property through the ditch. We are now digging pits, to fill with gravel, in the ditch to try to retain some of that water. We use drain pipe–the kind with holes on one side–to redirect from the pit to an area above a large cypress tree, to help it out. We also employ a lot of wood chip–a lot. Over time it does break down and influence that clay. Thanks for your good suggestions, your hard work will pay off.

  4. Your story looks familiar. I dig big pits, which I call retention basins, to hold water until it infiltrates. Until plants can get their roots into the soil, I have to use a rock bar to make dents in the soil. I can loosen about 1/4 inch or less per rain storm. Then I rake in as much gypsum as I can. After the wildflowers – or even weeds take root, I can get a shovel into the soil. Even then, I can only manage after a rain storm when the soil is wet. Yea, slugging a wheel barrow with saturated soil isn’t easy work, eventually it is worth it.

      1. I live in the Mojave Desert, East of the San Bernardino Mountains. I live in a the Town of Apple Valley where growing apples proved to not be economically viable. Home owners grow them anyway.

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