Planting on Contour

swale digging tools of the trade

swale digging tools of the trade

We are now into our 5th growing season at Peace of Earth Farm.  In the beginning there were many trees to clear and garden beds to create.  Our initial strategy was to start building gardens close to the house and in areas where the least amount of clearing needed to happen.  This strategy led us to the creation of a lot of gardens on hills and slopes.  On the steepest slopes we did use terracing to prevent erosion and build soil (by utilizing lots of woody debris from all the clearing we had done).  We did not necessarily build those terraces on contour though.  Many of the garden beds we have built on slopes show evidence of some degree of erosion and unequal water distribution.  The importance of planting along a contour line has become more clear as we observe our beds over time.  A contour line is basically a level line across a slope.  At this point any new beds we create we are forming on contour, and may end up reshaping beds we have already created over time.

This past winter when doing the farm planning and mapping we decided we needed more space and hence some new beds.  Winter squash is the crop we often use to break in new beds as they are large plants that are good at spreading and smothering weeds.  So we decided to create some new beds on contour on a slope.  Looking at the pictures below you might ask why we did not utilize the lovely flattish field it is next to instead of the slope that was recently populated by pine trees.  The answer is that the lovely flattish field gets flooded seasonally and we are only grazing animals on it until we have established other flood control measures (more on that in the future).

To form these beds we first found the contour of the land using an a frame level and marked it with stakes.  We then dug out a trench or swale and put the dug out soil downslope to create a berm.  The purpose of swales is to capture water that is running down the surface of a slope, slowing it down and allowing it to sink into the soil down at root level where plants can access it over time.  Swales are used in different ways in different climates and soil types.  The important difference between a swale and a ditch is that we are not directing water down slope and off site for drainage, we are trying to hold onto it and distribute it evenly.  For these particular swales; we dug them, ammended them with compost, gypsum, kelp and greensand, and seeded the concave portion to white clover.  We then planted the squash on the berms, laid cardboard on top (as the sod that is inside the berms is sure to grow upward eventually), and mulched with grass that was freshly scythed.  Hopefully we’ll have pictures of cascading vines and ripe squash to show off in the future.

These images (above) show two other swales we dug earlier this spring before things started to green up.  These were planted to hardy low maintenance bushes like Black Currants, Nanking Cherry, Beach Plum and Buffaloberry (an edible nitrogen fixing shrub).  They are a bit narrower and steeper.  The berm and swale has also been seeded with a mix of clovers, lupines, other annual flowers and some deep rooted radish and turnips.  These hardy shrubs should be able to hold their own once established and will not need a totally mulched and maintained understory, so we will let the clover dominated ground cover establish and hand mow it periodically instead of trying to keep the whole area mulched and weeded.  The bushes we planted were pretty tiny, but are establishing.  I’m sure they are loving the rain that is steadily coming down outside our window.

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2 Responses to Planting on Contour

  1. Pingback: New Garden Pioneers | Peace of Earth Farm

  2. Pingback: Upcoming projects and new ventures | Peace of Earth Farm

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