DesignEarthworks & Earth ResourcesGeneralLandPlant SystemsSwales

5 Fun and Fruitful Techniques for Small-Scale Earthworks

I’ve spent most of the last two years volunteering on farms throughout Central and South America, as well as a three-month sojourn through Spain, and in that time, I’ve learned a ton from the people I’ve worked with and, I like to think, shared a lot as well. I’ve been introduced to trees and plants I’d never encountered before. I’ve pruned and harvested in new ways. I’ve played with different composting, fertilizing, and bug deterring recipes and combination. It’s all been a blast.

But, for me, without a doubt, my favorite part of working in the garden is design, both the conceptual and menial, which I believe shouldn’t be exclusive. I like to come up with different ways to catch, hold and distribute water. I like scheming in easy solutions for delivering nutrients to the plants, providing habitats for wildlife, and grouping crops together into sensible guilds. I like to have a shovel in my hands, especially to improvise a bit as the design comes to fruition, as well as get a true feel for what the earth is like where I’m working.

Swale Paths on Contour (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)
Swale Paths on Contour (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

The whole thing just makes me feel like a kid again, building castles and moats, playing in the dirt. But, it’s much more than that. There’s nothing like seeing something work as planned, getting a good harvest off your design. Along the way, I’ve managed to pick up some techniques that still make me giddy at their cleverness, both in design efficiency and—something I can’t help but consider—appearance. I find myself mix-and-matching these techniques all the time, ultimately combining them into bigger interactive systems.

Swale Paths

I’ve never worked with a tractor, backhoe, or anything of the like, so when it comes to swales, it’s always been relatively small, such as one might find in a backyard food forest or kitchen garden. That means maybe ten or twenty meters long and rarely over half a meter wide. In other words, they are just about the size of typical garden path.

As is the protocol, I’ve learned to put my swales on contour of the land, such that the water runoff catches and fills evenly into the trench to permeate the soil. Digging out the swale provides a berm or sometimes, depending on the slope, a flatter but raised garden bed on the lower side. In essence the design is super efficient because the swale and the garden bed are created with the same energy output.

For paths, I toss in a good layer of slow composting stuff like palm fronds, small branches, and coconut shells in the hopes that, below the pathway, it will absorb some of the water for later use and provide nutrients as it breaks down. On top of that, it’s a matter of what’s readily available, cheap (or usually free) and functional. Paths have been made out of good few layers of leaves. They’ve been made out of sand and gravel, separately and together. I’ve also considered shells from a nearby macadamia farm, old broken tile from discarded tile roofs, and even just dried grass or straw. Done correctly, the swale path could be dug out every year for a layer of compost on the garden beds it created. A cycle.

Magic Mulch Circle (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)
Magic Mulch Circle (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Magic Mulch Circles

Mostly, I’ve used these for big, fast-growing and water-loving fruit like papaya, banana, plantain and coconut, and this is fairly standard practice. Essentially, a magic circle is a large, circular compost pit, about two meters across and one meter deep. The excavated earth is piled in a ring around the pit, roughly 25 centimeters high, and the hole is then filled with organic material. The hole catches water and traps nutrients for a guild of plants that are cultivated in the loose soil of the ring.

What I like to do is created a combination of magic circles, putting several of them in an area, such that they hydrate and feed the soil between them. It also makes for a wonderfully thick canopy of leaves and vegetation, and even just using the typical magic circle guilds, a nice layered forest is created. The coconuts outreach the papayas that are outreaching the bananas and plantains. A moringa tree or another legume can be thrown in the mix here and there. Cassava, perennial pepper plants, possibly coffee (on the outer reaches) and vanilla vines can fill in the middle space. Sweet potatoes and mint can cover the bottom layers. If spaced appropriately, larger canopy fruit trees, like maybe a jackfruit, can be planted between them.

Despite being large for many suburban lawns, I call them small-scale earthworks because they are something I do with a shovel, and in an afternoon, I’ve built one from start to finish, on more than one occasion. I would say that they do severely change what is happening to the earth around them, and if they are too close (only a meter apart), they’ll easily prevent the sun from reaching the ground. What’s more is that I’ve used the surrounding mounds to direct passive overflow for ponds and swales systems.

Pond & Raised Bed

For frog and lizard habitats, as well as a birdbath and water hole, I always like to include at least one pond—hopefully more—in a small garden design, and where there is digging there is likely to be dirt. So, just like the guys with tractors do, I skim off the fertile and valuable top layer for safekeeping. That generally means directly adjacent to the little pond makes for a rich and raised planting space.

These ponds are no more than a square meter and maybe half that deep, and in order to maximize the edge, they are always shaped rather amoeba-like. I try to treat them a bit like a keyline damn, locating them at a high point of water drainage and letting the overflow feed either a swale or another pond further down the line. All I do is add some passive overflow spots along the rim of the pond, using stones to help with preventing erosion. The low sides of the pond can be built up with earth excavated from below the topsoil.

Then, with the topsoil, I like to make a raised bed that either surrounds the edge of the pond, using something to prevent the soil from falling back in and leaving a channel for overflowing and incoming water. A good bed of rocks coming in and leaving makes for great hiding spots for animal, and the rocks protect soil from erosion so that the bed can actually help direct the water to the pond. This, of course, means there is a garden bed with a doubly-thick layer of topsoil with plenty of water for plants to enjoy, and in turn, they’ll provide great shade for the pond and more habitat for the animals

Keyhole Hugelkultur (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)
Keyhole Hugelkultur (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Hugelkultur Keyhole Beds

Like many folks in permaculture, I’ve at times found myself completely enamored with the hugelkultur technique, and likewise, I’m a man who appreciates long-winded edges and microclimates, which is how it came to be that I got into these sort of miniature hugelkultur keyholes. Actually, I was in Spain, and for some reason, every property I worked on seemed to have an abundance of trimmed and pruned wood lying about. So, seeing the resource and knowing that dry season would soon be around, I started preaching the word of Mr. Holzer’s hugelkultur.

The first one of these I made was in Orgiva, Spain, for a little Indian lady who was older and unable to tend to her land after her husband had passed. She’d let the property get overgrown, and returning five years later, she hired some local guys to prune everything—oranges, mandarin, walnut, pomegranate, lemon, fig, and more—way back. There was wood everywhere, something like arboreal carnage. Concerned about wildfires in the dry season, she wanted to burn it. She became convinced otherwise.

What I love about this design is that the high rising hugelkultur in a keyhole formation yields loads of microclimates to play with. It worked well for Jas (my host) because it was easier to harvest, with such much at the fingertip from the inside and no need to do a lot of bending over on the outside. I also lowered the bottom of the woodpile to use her existing irrigation system—the ancient Moorish acequia—to help it collect water and have it wick into the mounds. A month later, I did it on another property. Now, it’s officially in the repertoire.

Worm Buckets

I—as it would seem, despite modern farming techniques, anyone would—always enjoy design elements that make work less, so it’s no wonder why things like magic circles, hugelkultur and this following method feature in things I find myself doing. Essentially, in situ worm composting is getting the job done without having to move things around too much. If the worms live, eat and defecate in the garden, there is not much need for carting around heaps of compost and jugs of worm juice around everywhere.

Instead, I like to take a large bucket or tub with some sort of lid, dig a spot in the topsoil for the container to fit in, and use that earth, again, to build a bed around it. Drill several holes in the sides of the bucket before putting it in the ground. As would be the case with a typical vermiculture set-up, put a nice thick layer of shredded paper, cardboard or straw in the bottom of the bucket, a second layer of mild manure if available, and then just feed the worms with scraps and organic rubbish thereafter.

In general, the worms will happily reside in the buckets as long as there is food being added. (If they leave, they are in the garden—great!) The lid will keep them safe from would-be predators and prevents drowning them with rainwater. Meanwhile, the worm juice is permeating straight into the garden, the population is multiplying for making more worm hills, and eventually the compost can be applied to nearby plants without carting it around.

Garden Buckets (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)
Garden Buckets (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

For me, these techniques have proved easily accessible for farmer’s unaccustomed to permaculture, a way of explaining low-energy, high-output design methods. The concepts get people excited. Plus, they are simple examples that can be done from start to finish in a short time, and later, as the project progresses, they mix well to create entire and interactive landscapes, both fertile and interesting. Experts always suggest starting small and building up, and these have been a great combination for doing so.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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