by Charlene Burgi
This past week I had the pleasure of attending a trade show in Florida. On my flight there, mountains, valleys, great plains and bodies of water presented themselves through breaks in the cumulus clouds. The view allowed for a great study of topography seen often by birds, frequent flyers or those employed to fly the airways. However, I noticed most passengers seemed to miss the most beautiful show available as they were lost in electronics, reading material or sleep.
As the plane flew across our beautiful nation, I could envision where water would naturally flow when the rains and snows fell on the land. From an elevation of 33,000 feet, I noticed the patterns of distinct circles made by pivot lines or large rectangles made by wheel lines that irrigated the fields below. I also noticed the course of streams and rivers that fed into lakes or followed close to most of these patchwork-shaped fields.
What came to light was how farmers worked with the land. Many of these fields were in valleys located close to the base of mountain ranges. I could only imagine the soils being rich and fertile from years of humus and rich minerals deposited naturally by erosion from the nearby mountains. Snowmelt and rainfalls fed the rivers below and those waterways provided the life-giving water that plants need to survive.
I also saw vast spans of land laying fallow that appeared far distances from waterways and hills. By natural design, nature provides.
The concept of natural design in our home landscape played on my mind. How can we best utilize what nature provides for us in our gardens? Most of us do not have streams or lake access on our property, but we have rooftops that collect rainwater like the mountains. Our downspouts act as ravines that carry the water to the lower elevations. An old practice was to capture rainwater that collected in gutters and send the precious resource to the Bay thus bypassing our plants. Clearly, we were not taking advantage of what Mother Nature provided!
Mirroring nature, how can we then utilize the rain falling on the garden? The mantra is to slow it down, spread it out, and sink it in. We can slow down the draining water from the downspouts by creating bioswales to move the water through the garden like a river bed that twists and turns through the landscape. The pathway for the water could be a functional dry creek bed, or obscured by digging trenches filled with mulch to carry the water under the ground.
Spread the water over a large expanse of the garden naturally as you slow the stream of water down. The water will have time to perk into the ground and move via capillary action into and through well-prepared soil containing organic material.
Lastly, sink it in. As with the valleys rich in humus and mineral content, so should be the preparation of your garden. Heavy clay that is typically found in Marin will cause water to pool quickly or run off if rain falls on a slope. By adding organic material and compost the pore space created from working the soil will allow water to penetrate and sink in. The organic material will absorb the water and hold it for longer periods of time making it available to the root system of the plants.
Nature is a great teacher. Even at 33,000 feet!