Browning the Desert (or Building a Permaculture Wadi Oasis in Sunny Bristol)


Browning the Desert (or Building a Permaculture Wadi Oasis in Sunny Bristol)

I’ve got a new allotment, one closer to home and a full size one at that – 100ft by 18ft or about 33m x 6m (in new money). It’s a bit of a state but I dug a few spadefuls here and there before taking it (something I’d advise anyone to do) to see what sort of perennial weed roots there are. A teeny bit of couch grass, bind weed and quite a lot of mare’s tail, but much, much less than on my old plot (which I have given up). I’ve got some time off from work and I’ve been digging to remove the perennial weeds.

It is on a slope and I was toying with the idea of what sort of beds, if any, I was going to have but then my plot neighbour turned up and pointed out that I have a winter stream running through my plot and into his. Well not so much a stream as a fast and persistent trickle coming down the hill from a spring on someone else’s plot. I haven’t seen this ‘bourne’- as I like to call it – immediately exaggerating the circumstances, but I have seen the evidence, particularly the swampy ditch at the end of his plot, the ‘elaborate engineering works’ he has fashioned with plastic pipes that take the water around his plot, and the unmistakeable sandy portal of a dry spring coming out of a lump of ground on my plot.

Well, I get carried away a bit, imagining catching crayfish on summer days, watching dicky birds frolicking in my horticultural ‘river’, before realising I now had the excuse I needed to build the ultimate, sandal-wearing, permaculture hippy trap, otherwise known as a swale. A swale is a ditch that is at the same height above sea level all along its length with an earth bank on its lower side. It is designed to catch water in hot countries and hold it in the land, removing the need for irrigation. So its application in a country such as England with its perpetual rain is limited.

But a torrent of water with the massive volume of the Severn Bore – as I am led to believe it has – is a problem that needs removing, a decision resolved upon by my neighbour. Or as permaculturists put it – rather smugly, I might add – it is a problem that ‘can be turned into a solution’. So I resolve upon the latter, because I will:

1. (Hopefully) get to boast if it works and,

2. Get to design my garden beds on contour, slotting them into the same alignment as the swale.

Now Mrs SVG gets wind of this, probably alerted by her husband peering out of the window longingly on dark nights, repeatedly rewatching Geoff Lawton videos and speaking the quasi-scientific babble of permaculture non-stop. She of course takes the piss, texting me such hilarities as ‘have you finished your wadi gabions yet?’ or ‘are you off to finish browning the desert?’, references to Geoff Lawton’s excellent videos:

Greening the Desert:

and Desert Oasis:

It is not so much Geoff Lawton’s expertise she is mocking as my ability to build sustainable plots, with nitrogen fixing support plants, that actually work. The above videos are excellent by the way.

Anyway I have built an ‘A frame’ to mark out the contours and have dug out a ditch and the bed beneath it on the slope. On the bank (known as a ‘berm’) I have planted five nitrogen fixing sea buckthorn bushes, which are also fruit bearers and therefore creep in under the allotment rules (more on permaculture and allotment rules another time). Needless to say, I am a happy bunny today. And more tomorrow!

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