Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster


April 27, 2010

No-Effort, No-Cost Water Harvesting

By Julia Fonseca

Whew, digging swales and basins is hard work!  Gutters and tanks are expensive.  And as the skimpy summer rains of 2009 demonstrated, how do you harvest rain when the rain refuses to fall?

Fortunately, there is a way to harvest water, even during droughts.  It costs nothing, and requires no expenditure of energy.  Can this be true?  Grab yourself a cool drink, take a seat, and let the litter fall.  Leaf and stem litter, that is.

A handful of mesquite leaf litter, delivered free of charge by the canopy overhead, can help retain water on your landscape. Photo credit: Julia Fonseca

You’ve been spending too much time raking and bagging those leaves, seed pods and twigs.  They could be working for you, if you don’t throw them out.  No, I’m not talking about composting.  Composting is work too! But if you just left the litter where it fell, it would in time form a nice natural mulch that would slow erosion, build up the water-holding ability of the soil, and help make the soil easier to dig, if you do decide to dig a swale someday.  Be a litter harvester!

Plant litter is so important that it is one of the three key measurements that the Natural Resources Conservation Service uses as a measure of watershed condition.  Plant cover, litter, and rock all help stem erosion of sloping land.  If it’s not raining, only litter and rock can retard runoff, and shade the soil, AND retain moisture.  (But see my rant against crushed rock landscaping.)

A layer of litter will work for you every time it rains well enough to penetrate the litter layer, making it more difficult for the sun to evaporate moisture from the soil below. So, if you do need to rake up litter, then consider moving it to areas where it can mulch a plant.

A young purple aster seedling emerges from a protective layer of leaf litter. Photo credit: Julia Fonseca

Even when it isn’t raining, a layer of leaf litter recruits workers to improve your soil. Unlike rock, leaf and twig litter is readily colonized by tiny organisms, and those attract others and pretty soon you have unpaid laborers tunneling into your soil, creating “macropores” for better, deeper infiltration.  In urban Tucson you can also get thrashers, cactus wrens and towhees tilling the ground and scratching for goodies!

All work together to decompose your litter into smaller pieces, and that helps pump extra carbon into the soil.  Extra carbon in your soils is part of the magic.  Soil carbon boosts the ability of the soil to hold water for later use by plants, resulting in a healthier and more drought-resistant landscape.

5 Responses to “No-Effort, No-Cost Water Harvesting”

  1. Lee Einer Says:

    Leaf litter is great! It’s the original mulch.

    And good permaculture design will ultimately have your space self-mulching in a glorious dance of cycling biomass as your soil becomes richer and richer.

    Things will move much more quickly towards that goal if we help Mother Nature along by mulching densely before we even plant.

    I have seen folks plant trees in bare, baked ground and wait expectantly for paradise to come. Those poor trees aren’t even able to generate much leaf mulch for themselves, as that unconditioned soil does not hold much water and there is no organic matter on the ground building fertility. So even several years out, their trees are sickly sticks barely clinging to life. Had they done some heavy sheet mulching around the trees, that mulch would now be augmented by leaf litter, and the trees would likely be doing well.

    My back yard was a dirt parking lot when I moved in five years ago. Neighbors said the only way anything would grow is if I trucked in topsoil. Today, the soil compaction is largely reversed, visitors ooh and ahh over the forests of walking onions and lovage beneath the fruit trees, and I have never tilled the soil, just sheet-mulched it and composted in place.

  2. Anna Says:

    That is really good information. Everyone here wants to scrape their soil so they have no weeds. I do my best to mow my weeds but leave the cuttings on the soil. I’m doing much more with composted mulch this year as I really want to improve my trees. I’m also planting vining plants around my trees for ground cover and to help hold in moisture.
    As for thrashers ( birds ) they are a mixed bag. I’ve had them go down a row and pick out all the seedlings. Like chickens you have to protect the young plants from them as they love what you plant. Anna

  3. Lee Einer Says:

    A weed’s just a plant we don’t know the use of.

    Up here in NE New Mexico, field bindweed is all over everywhere, it’s insanely tenacious, and people curse it. But it turns out it contains an antiangiogenesis drug that may well be the ticket to cure certain types of cancer.

    It’s a funny world.

    Of course, many if not most weeds are pioneer plants, successional species, that exploit environmental niches not generally found in a mature ecosystem. An example would be (again) bindweed, which thrives in alkaline, compacted, calcium-poor soil. I have found that bindweed naturally tends to retreat as the soil improves. And weeds like bindweed can be doing us a favor – if we know what niche they exploit, then their presence tells us what problems exist in our soil.

  4. Ginger Says:

    Hello, We are getting ready to move to a very windy,cold in winter, hot in summer, High desert area of Wyoming. It use to be a grazing ranch, but drought has stopped that. There are 2-3 weeks of the year that have a huge gully washing flood of spring melt runoff and then hardly anything the rest of summer. The gullies in the area are atleast 8-10 feet deep. I need to figure out how to redirect that water without using heavy equipment. Any suggestions?

  5. Megan Says:

    Ginger, sorry for the late response. The best folks for your situation—if you are still looking—would be Craig Sponholtz of Watershed Artisans (http://watershedartisans.com/) or Owen Hablutzel (http://www.permacultureglobal.com/users/47-owen-hablutzel). All the best! -Megan (Brad’s assistant)

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