How to Replace Irrigation With Permaculture
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Save water, time and money in the garden! Learn how to replace irrigation with permaculture design and let nature do the work for you!
This is a guest post by Sunflower Craig of Permies.com
When we think of irrigation systems and food production, we typically tend to think of large-scale farms with equally large-scale sprinkler systems. But even if all you have is a small garden plot, a couple raised beds or a few container plants, if you’ve ever used a backyard sprinkler, drip line, hose or even a watering can to water your plants, then you too rely on irrigation to grow your crops.
You’re probably thinking “um, ya… How else would I grow them? All plants need water after all!” But there are downsides to conventional watering and irrigation systems, and there is also a better way to ensure that your soil and your crops stay hydrated without costly, input-intensive irrigation methods. The answer (like so many things in the gardening world) lies in designing your property or garden with permaculture principles in mind.
Read on to learn how to reduce the need for irrigation or even replace it entirely by applying aspects of permaculture design to your garden and save water, money and time in the garden!
The problem with irrigation…
Irrigation (aka. “the watering of land by artificial means to nurture plant growth”) is an ancient practice dating back to around 6,000 BC. The introduction of irrigation allowed for mankind to grow and thrive by bringing water to the plants (crops) rather than having to grow crops right next to a water source or relying on the weather to provide adequate rainwater. Some of the very first irrigation systems in Ancient Egypt and China involved a network of irrigation canals, dams, dikes, and water storage facilities. This was a huge advancement in technology and laid the foundation for the agriculture and irrigation systems that have been in place ever since.
So, if irrigation helped propel the world forward to what it is today, what’s wrong with it?
For starters, irrigation can wash away vital nutrients from the soil, which means your plants aren’t able to absorb them. This can affect the overall health and yield of your crops and the quality and nutrition of the food that is harvested from them. Crops that are over-irrigated are also at greater risk for bacterial and fungal diseases. Over-irrigation of a raspberry bush, for example, will produce fruit that has little flavour. Over-watering of tomato plants can result in yellow leaves, root rot, blossom end rot and cracked fruits, among other things.
On the other hand, when you rely on irrigation systems you also need to ensure your plants are getting adequate water and that the soil isn’t drying out too much as this can be equally problematic for your crops. All of this fussing over setting up just the right irrigation system or remembering to water by hand and water just enough but not too much can be a lot of work and requires a fair amount of mental energy. Not to mention it can be expensive too!
The overall goal of permaculture is to create ecosystems that can run themselves without much help from the outside, eliminating some of the inputs necessary for more traditional approaches to farming and gardening. Doesn’t it make sense then to use less traditional irrigation methods too?
Permaculture design is based on nature: Nature isn’t waiting around for someone to water her. Nature uses dozens of techniques to make sure all of the plants get the water they need. Observing these techniques and seeing how they can be applied to your garden or farm is well worth the time and effort up front as it will save you time, effort and resources later on.
To achieve true sustainability in your garden or on your homestead, it is necessary to work with nature rather than fight against her. This is the basic tenet of permaculture, and so swapping out conventional irrigation methods for those inspired by nature is just one thing you can do to implement this aspect of permaculture design to your farm or garden.
How to replace traditional irrigation with permaculture
Step 1: Observe and analyze
When switching from traditional irrigation to permaculture methods, the first step is to analyze your site and choose the most suitable spots to collect and store water.
Some examples of these measures are the construction of a pond or cistern, or the installation of swales (contoured ditches that catch and divert runoff water, slowing the flow and keeping water on your property for longer). The shape of your property, as well as its slope and contour, will determine the most efficient method of water collection and storage.
Step 2: Establish plant guilds
The next step is to utilize plant guilds to establish a community of plants that are mutually beneficial and can maintain themselves.
Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, as well as animals and fungi can all coexist in a plant guild, each playing an important role in maintaining the ecosystem’s balance. Shade-providing trees like oak and pine, which are also drought-resistant, and nitrogen-fixing shrubs like black locust and acacia work together to prevent soil erosion and keep water from running off.
Step 3: Consider adding or converting existing garden beds to hügel beds
If you have the space, I highly encourage you to investigate installing a few hügel beds on your property. Hügel beds (or hügelkultur beds) are raised beds that are built on top of rotting logs and plant debris. As the logs and debris down they not only feed the soil and provide slow-release nutrients to your plants, they also retain and release moisture much better and for much longer than the soil in tradition garden beds. They are the ultimate raised garden beds!. This helps to make hügel beds more drought resistant as well.
Step 4: Mulch, mulch, mulch!
Mulch is a covering of organic matter used around plants to prevent water evaporation and weed growth. In addition to these uses, it may act as a home for beneficial insects and microbes, whose presence helps keep the soil at a comfortable temperature.
There are many different kinds of mulch, from wood mulch to straw mulch, grass clippings to leaf litter and even living mulch in the form of cover crops. Regardless of what kind of mulch you choose, mulching helps the soil to retain moisture and is one of the best defences against soil erosion. It can be used on its own or in conjunction with plant guilds to reduce water usage and enhance soil quality.
Step 5: Monitor and make changes as needed
Finally, to guarantee your permaculture system is working efficiently, it must be periodically monitored and assessed. While the beauty of permaculture design is that it requires much less input on your end, you do still need to manage a permaculture garden or homestead to some degree.
You’ll still need to make sure the plants are healthy, check the soil moisture levels and make changes to the watering schedule as needed. You may create a more resilient and self-sufficient ecosystem on your property by following these steps and switching from traditional irrigation to water management strategies based on permaculture practices.
How to conserve water in the garden through smarter irrigation methods
While replacing traditional irrigation systems with permaculture is a noble goal, it’s not always feasible to completely dismiss irrigation, especially if you live in a particularly dry or drought-prone area.
Drip irrigation, also called soaker hoses, is an important part of permaculture-based water management in this case. Using drip irrigation at the base of plants rather than overhead watering helps to ensure plants only get watered where they need it: at their roots. This not only saves water and lowers the chance of evaporation, it can also prevent blight and other fungal diseases, as well as sunburn in plants.
Conserving water through irrigation is also possible with greywater and rainfall collecting systems. And you don’t need some fancy, expensive setup to get started. You can even make your own rain barrel out of an old garbage can and a few basic pieces of hardware. A little ingenuity and resourcefulness go a long way when it comes to both traditional homesteading and permaculture design!
Do you have any other tips for conserving water or doing things more efficiently in the garden? Comment below!
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