Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

We thought it might be interesting to the visitors of our website to see how we progressed as we have been applying permaculture design principles and ideas to our property.  Wish us luck.  This is an ongoing process…!!!     –Bill & Becky Wilson

A Permaculture Ideal:  Hold the water where it falls…

-Creating the Rain Gardens-
Water%20Garden%20(0) Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
The first project we decided to undertake was the transformation of our front yard into a beautiful, but fully productive garden.  We want to create something that looks good, feels even better to be in, while at the same time, producing food and herbs for our own consumption. 

Our first task: to find a way to hold the thousands of gallons of water that roll off our roof when it rains and find a way to hold it on the property.

The answer:
Rain gardens and swales.

Our students at our fall 2007 permaculture design course volunteered to help us do the digging.  We marked out where we wanted our rain gardens to be with these little flags.  A garden hose works too.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
2. 

Every time we get an inch of rain, over 1,200 gallons of water comes off of our roof.  When water flows down the drain spout it will now flow into three-shallow-retention ponds or ‘rain gardens’ by way of a swale or ditch, rather than just flowing off of our property.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
3. 

The purpose of the rain garden and swales is not to hold water year round (although we could build them that way) but rather to hold the rainwater on our property just long enough until it has slowly soaked into the ground.

Doing so will allow us to store the water in the subsoil beneath our gardens for long periods of time.

The excess storage capacity will significantly reduce our need to water or irrigate this garden area.

 

 

Digging the main swale or ditch that takes the water directly from our down-spout.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
4. 

Our students learned to use a simply constructed ‘A’ frame to check the level of the swale and ponds.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
5. 

What would have taken me the better part of two days (and a sore back no doubt) was completed in 3 hours by the students from our October Permaculture Design Course.

In the permaculture world, when a bunch of folks get together to transform someone’s yard, this is called a ‘perma-blitz’.

 

This picture taken on 10-29-07.
Many Thanks to all of our students.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
6. 

The first good rain following the digging of our rain gardens came about three weeks later on
11-21-07.

These next few pictures were taken early, however, it rained most of the day just about filling all three rain gardens to the top.

I estimated that we collect over 1,400 gallons of water, all of it being held on our property.  By the next morning (Thanksgiving) it had all soaked into the ground.

Simply constructed, these rain gardens will support our ability to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers for decades to come.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
Looking at it from the side. 

7.

The mounds next to the impressions consist of the dirt we dug out which we have covered with a wood chip mulch.

The raised beds will give our garden some contour, making it a bit more interesting to the eye. They will also, as part of a permaculture design, diversify the micro-climates around the garden. The sides of the mounds facing the sun will be ideal places to raise sun loving plants, the back-side, cooler-moisture-loving plants.

The long dark strip to the rear is a berm made from the extra soil. It is a second catchment feature that will hold excess water on our property as the ponds overflow.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
8. 

The mulch on the mounds will prevent erosion, hold down weeds in the spring, hold in moister, and provide organic matter (food) for the micro-organisms in the soil that build fertility.

The swale/ditch next to the sidewalk not only connects the rain garden ponds, it also helps to drain the water off of our sidewalk. It has slowly sunk into the ground over the years, collecting water and making it an ice hazard in the winter.  That problem now seems to be solved as well.  Another permaculture principle at work -
“Stacking Functions”.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
9. 

The narrow trench (center) connects pond #2 to pond #3. Water can be seen at the bottom of it.

We raked the yard leaves into the back ‘pond’ already so it is hard to see it and the small amount of water it is holding.

The leaves in the bottom of the pond/water gardens will minimize erosion over the winter while providing nutrients to the soils as they break down in the spring.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
10. 

At the down-spout, we attached a 5-6 foot drainage tile and buried it slightly into the ground, the fresh dirt, now covered with leaves.

The drain tile disperses the downward pressure of the rushing rainwater thus minimizing erosion at the base and leading the water more-gently into the swale that feeds the ponds.

 

 

 

Becky and I want to thank all of our students from our August and October design courses for their great work and ideas.
Bill (11-23-08)

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
This next set of pictures posted 1-24-08 

 

11.

Well, we’ve had a couple of winter months to see how our ‘rain gardens’ perform with snow, freezing and thawing.

So far, we have had 3 pretty good snowfalls this season and following each one, the same succession occurs in the gardens.

First, the roof and yard fill with snow, almost eliminating any visible evidence of the rain gardens.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
12. 

Then it warms up and the snow begins to melt.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
13. 

All the melting snow from the front half of our roof makes its way to the one gutter that feeds into our rain garden swale.

From there it eventually fills all three of our rain gardens.

The water now follows in a horseshoe shaped path around the entire front of our yard.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
14. 

What is interesting however, rarely does the water make it all the way back to the side of the house. The rain gardens hold an estimated 1,400 gallons of rain water. They fill and drain with every rain or snow-melt, rarely overflowing.

I am guessing that 80% of the water that used to leave our front yard now stays on the property, charging the subsoil with moisture that we will be able to use all summer long.

Sometime over the next several weeks Becky and I will be deciding on many of the plants that we will put into our newly formed rain-garden beds.

We’ll share some of that with you after we do some of the research.

   
Bill –
This is one thing I don’t understand:  I can see the point of swales on a hillside such as in the excellent video you have here, where the swale catches water that otherwise would have headed down a hillside, and retains it in the soil.  It’s a variation of traditional terracing methods.  But  you estimate that the swales in your rain garden catch 80% of the rain that normally would have left your property.  Why do you think that the swales in your rain garden catch and absorb any more water than the grass cover that was there originally?  The rain can’t roll off a flat yard, can it?  And it’s not like the grass is an impermeable surface like a parking lot. 

Also, if in fact the swale IS catching all that extra rain, aren’t you going to have water seepage problems in your basement from all that extra water retained in the soil?  Again, the result of living on a flat savannah landscape and not on a hillside.  Is it really appropriate for a flat suburban landscape?

This is really basic stuff, I know, but I can’t figure it out.  I am eagerly awaiting the result of your experiment.  I love the idea of rain gardens but these points are eluding me.

Thanks — Edie

(3-14-08)

Here is an email from Edie(subscriber to our emails from Connecticut)
who had some questions.

<<<————————-

They were so good that I asked her if I could post them along with my reply…

Good to hear from you Edie, 

What great questions…!  If you don’t mind Edith, I would like to post your questions right on our website along with my answers.  If you have these questions, I bet there a many others who do as well.

Almost all surfaces have the ability to absorb some amount of water.  A concrete parking lot for example might be able to absorb up to an inch of water over the course of two days if it comes as a mist over that amount of time. My yard might be able to absorb 1 inch of water over an hour period if it comes down evenly and the ground is really dry.  However, if it rains cats & dogs giving me an inch of rainwater in 10 minutes, there is no way my lawn can absorb it fast enough, so the excess rain runs off my yard to the low spots between our neighbors homes, into the street, and into the storm drains.  In a dense forest, this same inch of water in 10 minutes is no problem.  The leaves and bark from the top of the trees and all way to the ground will absorb a tremendous amount of water (approximately an entire inch of rain) and then the ground litter and soil will absorb even more.

What the rain gardens, swale (ditch really), and berm do in my yard is to collect the excess rain water that would typically run off, holding it on my property until it has time to soak in slowly.  The key here is the word ‘slowly’.  With typical rains (and snow thaws) only a certain amount of water will penetrate into the subsoil while it is raining. Create a way to hold it on the landscape for awhile and you can store much greater quantities of water in the subsoil – much, much greater quantities.

Now, if I had a basement, then having excess moister would be something to seriously consider, however, I have seen suburb home owners actually use swales and rain gardens to pull excess water away from their foundations but still soak the water into their lot away from their foundations. They claimed that it solved their wet basement problems.  A basement can also be constructed to handle almost any amount of excess moister and have it wicked away to a low spot where a sump pump will remove it to a drainage area.

All this being said, not all yards or landscapes can benefit from swales or rain gardens.  Some property is already very low lying, even boggy and really needs some draining to increase its use and productivity.  One again however, a permaculturist would take land like this, plant moisture loving trees and shrubs that will wick away excess moister (harvesting multiple benefits from these trees and shrubs in some way), and contour their land with slightly tipped swales, raising some places and lowering others, which would allow excess moisture to more quickly drain away, while planting their edibles and other useful plants on the drier berms created by the swales.

The idea behind doing earthworks in permaculture is to create more ideal growing conditions from whatever you started with.

Does this make anymore sense Edith?

Warm Regards… Bill

This is my reply… 3-14-08 

<<<————————-

 

 

 

 

 

Grade Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

Thanks for your quick response!  Yes, that helps! And please feel free to post this. 

One thing, though — I don’t think we would want to depend on sump pumps to get rid of basement moisture — that’s using fossil fuel most likely, and we don’t want to do that.  Better to have the land scheme organized to wick the moisture away from the houses foundations and toward a more useful spot.

I appreciate the personal response!  It’s always great to hear from you and see what you are doing.

Best wishes, Edie

And her response… 

<<<————————-

Right she is,
about the sump pumps.

  Mark
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

Springtime Permaculture Transformation
in our Front Yard

Newer Postings
7-2-08

Pictures #15 – #31

 

15.

The big rains finally came in March and April which completely filled our permaculture rain gardens several times, causing them to overflow.

Here you can see that both rain gardens #1 and #2 are full, as well as the connecting swale.

The reason they are not completely filled is evident in the next photo.

As you will recall, the source of most of this water is the rain that comes from 2/3rds of our roof.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

16.

In the foreground is rain garden #2 connecting to rain garden #3 through the narrow ditch.

As you can see, rain garden #3 is completely full, overflowing into the grass before it once again is harnessed by the berm we built along our property line.

This is as high as the water will ever get in all three rain gardens for the water is perfectly level at this point and overflowing.

Bottom Line:
Whereas most of the rain water from our roof used to flow quickly off of our property from the gutters to the low spots on either side of our home,
today, it now takes a horseshoe shaped path from our gutter, along the sidewalk to the front of our home, across the front from rain garden #2 to #3, and then flows into the berm as it returns toward the rear of our lot. We are capturing all of our rain water now, allowing it to soak slowly into the ground.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

17.

Spring was a bit slow to get here this year due to cooler than normal temperatures.

The rain gardens however continued to fill (or partially fill) with each rain, and typically within two days, all the water would slowly soak in.

You can see just a bit of water remaining in the bottom of rain garden #1 to the left.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

18.

Berm

This is the berm which catches the overflow from rain garden #3. The excess water hits the berm and either soaks in or if there is enough, it works its way back toward our home and the rear of our property.

I thought you might like to see some progressive photos of its development. This photo was taken in late February following a thaw.

The berm was built directly over our property line from the topsoil we removed by digging the rain gardens.

The arrangement we made with our neighbors is that we would build the berm centered on our joint-property line so that half would be on our lot, and half on theirs.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

19.

We also agreed that together we would plant gooseberries, currents and raspberries along the center and as the plants develop, care for and harvest our side of the berm.

Here you can see that the berm has been mulched with straw after our neighbors covered the entire mound with some dried horse manure which they located and brought in.

We now have a very deep and increasingly fertile soil within which to plant some perennial and annual crops.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

20.

Here’s is the berm a bit later as it is beginning to green up.
What has been planted
thus far are:
Gooseberries
Currents
Raspberries
Strawberries
Green beans
Onion
Comfrey
and White clover

(As a cover crop, white clover fixes nitrogen, holds in moisture and helps block out weeds.)

All are perennials (except for the beans and onions) and will produce year after year.

With all of these plants and the clover there is little room left for weeds so we have also minimized the work to maintain the area.

   
FYI …Comfrey is a favorite plant of many permaculturists
for its multiple benefits.

(As quoted from Wikipedia)
” Comfrey is a particularly valuable source of fertility to the organic gardener. It is very deep rooted and acts as a dynamic accumulator, mining a host of nutrients from the soil. These are then made available through its fast growing leaves (up to 4-5 pounds per plant per cut) which, lacking fibre, quickly break down to a thick black liquid. There is also no risk of nitrogen robbery when comfrey is dug into the soil as the C:N ratio of the leaves is lower than that of well-rotted compost. Comfrey is an excellent source of potassium, an essential plant nutrient needed for flower, seeds and fruit production. Its leaves contain 2-3 times more potassium than farmyard manure, mined from deep in the subsoil, tapping into reserves that would not normally be available to plants.” 

 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm
Comfrey (7-2-08)
(There is a young currant plant to the immediate left of the comfrey)

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

21.

As spring pulled us outside we were feeling the pressure to start planting around our newly dug permaculture rain gardens and to do so ‘by the book’ as a demonstration site for others to learn from. We knew there would be some interest in what we did and how we did it. Feeling the pressure to ‘do it right’ we did research on plants and plant guilds and came up with list upon list of possible plant combinations. Personally, we were also very busy in our work and family lives.

The truth be known: We became paralyzed with too many options. We didn’t really know where or how to begin to ‘do it right’.

   
PermacultureYared%20(8) Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

22.

So, we began anyway. We decided that we would just do our best, do what we knew how to do, experiment a bunch, and begin to lay out our yard into likely areas of interest and production by putting in a path system.

If we were going to eventually minimize our lawn and develop permaculturally designed beds, we would need a way to navigate the yard with a wheelbarrow and tools. So we laid out the paths with the use of garden hose and rope and began to remove the sod.

   
PermacultureYared%20(9) Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

23.

Removing the sod was something we decided to do for several reasons but just so you know, it is not necessary to remove the sod in order to create paths. One can simply lay down cardboard or 4-5 sheets of newspaper and cover it with mulch.
Presto! You have instant paths

We chose to remove the sod down to 2-3 inches so that we could harvest the topsoil to build up a berm in our back yard. Why bury perfectly good topsoil beneath a path when we could be growing more plants in it instead.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

24.

After the sod was removed we backfilled it with a hardwood-shredded mulch.

We selected and purchased a full truckload of this material because of its ability to take a good pounding from the rain without dispersing (chipped wood erodes more easily but is still a good option) and because it is fluffier and airy, it allows the rains and oxygen in while still holding down weeds and reducing moisture loss.

The hardwood mulch also breaks down relatively slowly creating an ideal environment for soil microorganisms which in tern, feed the plants.

We also used this mulch all over the yard on newly made and established garden beds and around our young and established fruit trees.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

25.

Slowly the yard begins to take shape as the paths and beds are created.

Becky kept her eyes open for stray and extra plants around the community and we purchased some as well.

The main criteria for selecting plants was that they should be mostly perennials, edible or good for the soil, and relatively easily available.

The plants that go into the bottom of the rain gardens would have to be water/flood tolerant as well as able to withstand some very dry periods.
Native prairie plants fill this bill.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

26.

Along the edges of the rain gardens and connecting ditch, Becky planted a few flowering plants for color.

Planting on the edges gives them access to plenty of moisture without drowning them when the area is filled with water.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

27.

In this area of our front yard (opposite the sidewalk from the rain gardens) where we have several fruit trees planted, there was a barren spot where last year we had stacked up some straw bales for mulch.

On either end of this bare but now fertile patch (the biological activity exploded under the rotting straw) are a young apple tree and a 6-year old peach tree.

The ground was ready for planting so Becky just started putting things in.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

28.

Here is the same spot 6-weeks later. A few leaves of the peach tree are visible in the upper-right-hand corner of the picture.

In this bed there are now:
Tomato plants
Peppers
Marigolds
Rhubarb
Parsley
Basil
and Bush green-beans.

Lambsquarter and purslane showed up on their own (as they usually do in our open soils) which we chose not to ‘weed out’ but rather ‘pick out’ and add to our salads for flavor, color and nutritional benefits.

There are 11 edible plants in this guild If you add in the apple and the peach trees. The bed has been covered now with the shredded wood mulch to hold in moisture and continue to add organic matter to the soil.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

29.

As a comparison, this is our yard (in the background) as viewed from our neighbors traditional lawn and yard. Our yard looked just like this several years ago.

 

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

30

Here it is as of July 2nd, 2008, with the rain gardens, the mulched beds and paths, and the planted berm near the rear. Those are sweet potato and cabbage in the beds.

The total cost for plants this spring was about $150. Digging the rain gardens and paths didn’t really cost a thing. If you count up all the labor of our students and ourselves I estimate it comes to 24 hours of digging.

Our biggest expense was the shredded hardwood mulch which we saw as an important investment in soil building, water retention, labor saving (fewer weeds to pull) and overall aesthetics.

   
 Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

31.

It is a priority of ours that if we are going to turn our front yard into a food production area, we also want it to look nice and be inviting for ourselves and our neighbors. The cost for a truck-load of mulch was $325.

That’s it for this posting.

Bill & Becky Wilson

 

Home of Midwest Permaculture Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

Filling in…Summer 2012 – We love spending time in our front yard.  There are 53 species of edible or useful plants now. There used to only be three….tree, grass and bush.

 

Peach Tree Guild 2013 1 year for guild Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

EXAMPLE OF PLANT GUILD  -  A 1-year old guild planted around one of our young peach trees includes comfrey, gooseberry, currant, mint, strawberry, clover, garlic chives – volunteer dandelion and creeping charlie (kept as nutrient accumulator and groundcovers–chopped and dropped occasionally).  The comfrey is ready to be cut back so it won’t take up all of the sun.  The guild is positioned next to one of our compost piles which naturally provides nutrients.

 

 

2 Responses to Front Yard Rain Garden and Berm

  1. Hi, your peach tree plant guild looks awesome! I have one question….how do you keep grass and weeds from taking over the bed where you have the mulch? I live in South Florida and started a permaculture garden in our backyard. Our biggest problem is weeds and grass taking over the beds.

    • We just don’t have that problem Jen now that the bed is established. We did some weeding at first but now with the mint and comfrey they create too dense of a cover and shade out any other ‘invaders’. Hope this helps…. Bill

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>