In Drought, Food Forests, Land Degradations, Land Design, Permaculture, Plants & Living Systems, Rainwater Harvesting, Regenerative Solutions, Resilience, Rob Avis, Soil & Compost, Water

It’s been a number of years since we moved from our first homestead in suburban Calgary, but we still love to hear the gasps of awe and admiration as we show its Before and After pictures: from a sparse, dry lawn to a lush, thriving food forest!

The After photo of our front yard in Calgary: luscious, nutrient-dense food for our family and neighbors.

after of michelle and rob's place in calgary

And the first question we’re always asked is – how did you do that? Where do you begin?

Our answer, based on years of experience? With the water, and the soil. 

As we mentioned in our post on How to Design a Permaculture Food Forest, these two elements are key to the success of any forest garden; they need to be your first consideration. 

One of the biggest mistakes that we see with permaculture projects and landscaping in general is that people just fall in love with plants, impulse-buy, and put them in the ground without thinking about how to supply the water they need over the long term. 

And this is the single biggest factor that differentiates a conventional garden from a food forest. Where the conventional garden requires endless tending with water and fertilizer, a food forest is designed to function as a self-regulating, self-regenerating ecosystem. 

To show how this works, let’s look at two permaculture principles: Produce No Waste, and Capture and Store Energy, as they relate to these two types of projects. 

Rob Avis explains how to transform stormwater from a waste product to an asset.

Creating Dead Dirt…or Living Soil

In most conventional neighbourhoods, both leaf litter and stormwater are treated as waste products. Yard waste is raked up into bags to be taken away with the garbage, starving the soil ecosystem and eliminating habitat for pollinators and other insect life. As a result, stormwater sluices unimpeded over the land, carrying off nutrients and soil before it’s funnelled into storm drains. The storm drains run into sewers, getting rid of the nutrient-laden water as quickly as possible. 

The result? Homeowners wind up treating their eroded, depleted soil with fertilizer to replace its lost nutrients – further damaging the soil ecosystem and the ability of the soil to hold water – while they pay the local utilities for purified water to pour on their lawns and gardens. 

Eroded soil in a lawn.

depleted soil on a grass lawn

The truth is that this is the short road to desertification! With fresh water an increasingly scarce resource, an increasing number of nations around the world are experiencing years-long megadrought conditions. And the conventional Western property model only exacerbates the situation.

By contrast, how does a permaculture property manage the water that falls on it? By strategic design: valuing organic matter and water as resources, keeping them on-site (producing no waste), and putting them to use as nature would, nourishing the soil ecosystem while hydrating the land.

To see the model we’re replicating, take a look at this quote by Douglas W. Tallamy, from The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees:

The water from a 2-inch downpour, for example—more than 54,000 gallons per acre—is captured almost entirely by an oak forest’s leaf litter and the organic humus it creates. Litter and humus don’t hold this water indefinitely, but they do corral it on-site just long enough for it to seep into the ground, replenishing the water table on which so many of us depend. In areas with no leaf litter, the same 2-inch rainstorm causes a flood.

This is where the next permaculture principle comes in: Capture and Store Energy. If you look at water as a form of energy, how can you capture and use every drop that enters your property?

Rob and Michelle explain the pinball principle of keeping water and other forms of energy in play on their property.

So I’d like to share how we accomplished that on our small suburban homestead in Calgary, and how you can use these same principles on your property. 

Where Does Your Water Come From?

The first step is identifying each point where water enters your property: how much can you collect on-site?  (Learn how to do this, using our Essential Rainwater Harvesting book and tool). For most urban and suburban properties, roof runoff will be a leading source of stormwater. Runoff from adjoining properties usually comes second. 

In our case, we identified five sources of runoff. We set up three to irrigate the plants in our passive solar greenhouse and backyard vegetable and herb gardens: 

  • On the east side, 3,000 litres per year ran off the hip roof of our house and our outdoor kitchen. 
  • Another 20,000 litres sluiced off the west side of our roof. 
  • From the downspout of our garage roof, we gained 15,00 to 16,000 litres of water yearly. 

Between these three sources, we ultimately didn’t need to use any Calgary municipal water to irrigate our greenhouse or backyard gardens! See how we did that here:

Rob explains how he and Michelle harvested thousands of litres of water for use in their gardens.

14,000 Litres of Roof Runoff per Year for a Case of Budweiser

That left the question: how to provide water to our front lawn, where we planned to put our food forest? And here, we needed to get a bit creative…

The fourth source of water was our next-door neighbour’s roof: roughly 13,000 to 15,000 litres a year flowed onto their lawn toward the east side of our front yard. But as on most suburban properties, all that water rolled off toward the street and the storm sewer, and was lost to use.

Fortunately, we were blessed with really great neighbours! So I bought a case of Budweiser and went over one day and asked them if I could harvest the water off their roof, and they happily agreed. 

Rob tells the story of trading a case of Bud for thousands of litres of rainwater per year.

We connected their downspout to a non-perforated weeping tile, which we directed over to flow into a mulched pathway system of swale trails in our food forest. As that pipe entered the forest area, we dug a swale about 12” deep and connected the non-perforated pipe to Big-O perforated weeping tile

We ran the Big-O pipe along the length of that 12” deep swale; then covered it with wood mulch to create the pathway, combining our access and water. 

Setting up the swale trails this way set the food forest up for success in two important ways: 

  • First, because the food forest is being watered passively, at a deep level, the water reaches the roots directly with little to no evaporation en route, unlike the conventional means of watering via hose or sprinkler, where much of the water evaporates in mid-air.
  • Second, the swale trails hold the charge of water they receive from every rainstorm, making the forest resilient against drought, even in years without a great deal of precipitation. The mulch trails basically act like rotting logs in the forest, holding water to supply the ecosystem over time.
  • Finally, keeping those 12 inches of mulch damp with rainwater speeds up the decomposition of the wood, which leads to incredible mycelial networks. This is exactly the sort of fungal-dominated soil that the trees and shrubs of a food forest need, setting them up for success over the long term.

Setting Up a Water Supply for All Seasons

Our fifth water source was the west front quadrant of our roof, where we set up a system for storing the roof runoff to water the west side of our food forest. We hooked up the downspout to a 1,000-gallon IBC tank, with a Y-joint switching system that allowed us to adapt it to winter and summer conditions. 

Rob explains how he adapted our rain tank to cold-climate conditions.

So, in the winter, we’d direct roof runoff through one side of the Y joint and out into the swale trails. In the summer, we’d direct the water through the other side of the Y to a first-flush diverter and into the tank for storage. When the tank was full, it would overflow into the swale trails. 

A couple of important points here: 

First, when you’re using this sort of setup to water your food forest, you don’t want to start infiltrating water within 10 feet of your home’s foundation. To avoid doing this, we ran the swale downhill away from the house for at least 10 feet, then levelled it off to run like a typical swale. Learn how to keep your swales level:

Rob explains the use of a builder’s level or transit to set up swales correctly.

Second, if you set up PVC pipes to provide overflow from your IBC tank, you want to be sure to include an anti-siphon hole to break the suction and prevent massive amounts of water from flowing out of your tank into your food forest. 

Want to Learn More?

This has been just a quick peek at some of the permaculture techniques we used in our Calgary homestead!

If you’d like to learn more about food forests, sign up for our newsletter HERE and be the first to hear about the launch of our brand-new Food Forest course. 

For more information on water harvesting, urban swales, and more, check out our YouTube videos, starting HERE with the full story in THIS PLAYLIST.

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