Rainwater Harvesting Contradictions

Winter… finally time to sink into gardening theory and read all the books you didn’t have time for in the spring. (Also, for me, back to fiber arts, but that’s off-topic.)

What’s really fun about reading gardening books is finding contradictions. Permaculture hasn’t been around long enough for its published material to agree on everything (if that is truly even possible in any field…) The great and amazing Edible Forest Gardens advocates planting your trees on a slight rise of soil with a small bulwark around, so while rain falling within that bulwark can be caught for the tree’s future use, further rain will not collect and drown it. It is geared towards the Central/Eastern areas, Ohio and eastwards – in a more clay-y soil, higher rainfall area. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands advocates planting trees in depressions to capture all the water possible. It is written for the sandy soils and lack of rainfall of the American southwest. So where does North Dakota fit in? In the central and eastern part of the state, we have  clay soil that takes ages to drain; and in the central and western part of the state, we USUALLY have an arid-climate type of rainfall. How do you resolve these contradictions?

USUALLY arid climate, I said, USUALLY

Moving in the second direction here, the North Dakota Extension Service has lately been advocating the creation of rain gardens . The concept is a basic permaculture principle, namely, “why do extra work yourself when you can use existing natural functions to do the same thing”:  We should store water directly in the earth that will be using it. Why pay extra money for plastic rain barrels to store your roof water until the garden beds need it (and have to guard them from mosquitoes), or, even worse, why let excess water drain into the sewage system and pay for new water later? Soil has a large proportion of open “pore space” that is filled with air; a great deal of water can filtrate in and occupy these spaces before soil will start to seem soaking wet and hurt existing vegetation.

The key to the  rain garden concept  is to increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture, by compensating for its speed of intake. During a good rainstorm, the rain falls faster than the soil can absorb it, so excess water drains from the surface. If you design an earthwork with a valley to collect the water, the water will stick around long enough for the soil’s rate of absorption to catch up to the volume of water and capture it too. This solution doesn’t scale indefinitely – you only want your water-collecting earthwork to hold a volume that can be fully soaked in by a day or so, with the aid of wood mulch to help keep it covered. Standing water, whether in plastic rain barrels or  in puddles, = mosquitoes.

The Extension Service’s brochure is a good first step, a good concept demonstration, but it doesn’t take things as far as it can. It addresses the Mosquito Objection, but not “I don’t want to store extra water in my soil, I already have basement leakage problems in storms.”  Properly designed, a rain garden can channel water quickly away from the foundations of your house towards specific areas in your landscape. Combined with a thoughtful planting layout and perhaps supplemental watering capability, you don’t have to stick to the ornamental “Mediterranean” plants that can tolerate wide variations in moisture levels – you can use a rain garden as a vital component in raising a “forest” of your favorite fruits and vegetables with a minimum of external inputs.

Bill and Becky Wilson of  Midwest Permaculture  have gone in this last direction. Check out their photo-account of a rain garden design that nurtures fruit trees and edible perennial and annual plantings, but is robust enough to handle their entire property flooding.

If this interests you:

  • Read the NDCRS brochure for a quick summary and how-to, and check out its resources section – especially the link to the City of Mapleton, which has done some nice design plans for ornamental gardens.
  • When you’re ready to progress from ornamental gardening to food-producing permaculture, read Gaia’s Garden to get inspired about what simple earthworks and swales can do to transform a dry-baked property into a self-perpetuating green oasis.
  • Then, when you’re ready to actually Do It!, read Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands for the actual methods of transforming your property into a water-harvesting machine.

Sidewalk Fruit

Permaculture examples from my travels #2 

Of course, being me, one of the coolest things about my week in southern Spain was seeing the orange trees  lining the sidewalks. Although I didn’t get a decent picture myself, I was impressed by how ornamental they were while remaining productive – even though heavily pruned into tiny round poofs on top of lollipop sticks, many were still covered with fruit. (What is it with European cities and heavy pruning of street trees?? I realize if they didn’t pollard so heavily the canopies of trees this age would extend halfway through the second-story apartments, but it looks so silly!)

The U.S. would do really well to emulate this example. Nowadays, it’s much more likely to see a street named Mulberry, than a street planted with mulberries. While enlightened localities have street-tree planting programs that offer discounts for homeowners choosing to plant trees, the varieties offered are usually really restricted. When the trees do have some food value, it’s usually inadvertent (I was completely unaware of the wonderfulness of Linden till I read Toensmeier) or seen as annoying – resulting in the development of new ornamental crabapples that don’t fruit at all, or honey locusts with no pods. (Honey Locust used to be a great forage crop for large hoofed animals, along the lines of mesquite in the southwest, and could easily be again if we changed our priorities. Again like mesquite, the pods are reportedly tasty to humans too.)

Trees are vital parts of a successful city plan – they offer many useful outputs like shade, water management, air purification and beauty. But permaculture principles point out that just by careful choice of species we can achieve an additional output from the same space – food. How great would it be if we could supplement the high costs and low availability of fresh produce in the inner city, with fruiting plants located directly in the area they serve?

Of course, this is much easier said than done. As the trees mature, you need to have the time and energy to harvest the fruit; you need to know what to do with it once you’ve picked it; but almost most importantly nowadays, you have to WANT to do something with it.

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Churrasco – A Brasilian barbecue menu

 Fifth (and my favorite) in a series of archived food columns.

 I recently spent almost two months in Brazil on business, which provided a wonderful opportunity to experience a very different cuisine close-up. Most of what I saw was pretty simple to make, and took advantage of the abundant (and cheap!) fresh fruits and veggies. There were quite a few dishes I liked well enough to bring home for the family, and I’ll share five of them with you here.

 The city of São Paulo is stuffed with restaurants called churrascarias, which serve churrasco — a style of barbecue descended from the gauchos (cowboys) of the pampas (a prairie covering the south of Argentina and Brazil).  Brazilian barbecue doesn’t use sauces — instead the meat is marinated, then grilled on spits over open flame. As the meat browns, the servers whisk the spit off the flame and bring it to your table, where they slice off thin portions of the crispy browned exterior directly onto your plate. When they’ve run out of crispy brown exterior, the spit is returned to the flame to grill again. These places are very popular, because it makes for a leisurely dining experience – you have some meat, socialize a while, have another serving, and continue for the rest of the evening. Plus this way you get a high proportion of crispy brown exterior, which I consider the entire point of grilling.

 My coworkers at Unisys São Paulo always brought me to the churrascaria Fogo de Chãu, a very famous place that recently started expanding into the US. They’ve just opened a branch in Minneapolis, which I intend to visit as soon as possible…

 Recipes follow:

  • Marinade for Churrasco

  • Feijoada (Brasilian Tangy Black Beans)

  • Pão de queijo (Cheese Breads)

  • Creme de Abacate (Avocado Cream – yes, really)

  • Brigadeiro (caramel candy)

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Summer Food

Third in a series of archived food columns. 


Thursdays this summer, the 400 block of Broadway will be cordoned off to create the second annual Bismarck Urban Harvest market. In addition to hosting the Thursday gathering of the Capital Farmers’ Market, each day will feature local craftspeople, prepared food and entertainment – ranging from preschool story hours to evening concerts. The market will run from 10 am to 7pm, for eight Thursdays starting July 13; see www.bismarckurbanharvest.org for more info.

This market is a great example of the small but growing movement towards “localness” – choosing to eat locally-produced foods and buy locally-produced products, as a way of strengthening community.

I’m sure people here are familiar with the Great Wal-mart debates, as they happened so recently in our community. The Local Food movement is pretty similar (but tastes much better!) Food is pretty much a fixed expense. If you have to buy food anyway, why not keep the money in our community? Buying directly from the farmer means that the full value of the purchase price goes to them, rather than the meager 7-25% they receive under the standard supermarket supply chain. In the Bismarck farmers’ market’s case, I have found the prices to be pretty comparable to the supermarket. Also, produce picked the same morning is more nutritious than something that had to travel 1500 miles to your table (the actual national average, as of a couple years back.)

The real reason I try to buy local is that it just tastes better! No one can argue the superiority of an August backyard tomato over a January supermarket version, or how farmers’ market sweetcorn tastes so much more alive than the stuff found prepeeled at the supermarket in April. Yes, the market only offers seasonal things – but that practically guarantees the food you find will be at the height of its flavor and goodness.  

The local food movement points out that if families chose to spend $10 per week on food grown nearby, the effects on the community would be enormous. I frankly find it hard to spend less than that, especially once the muskmelons arrive…

Here are some of my favorite recipes to help celebrate the long-awaited arrival of summer, and North Dakota produce.

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Preserving fruits with less sugar

Second in a series of archived food columns.

 It’s harvest time again – my grandfather’s plum tree is turning a blushing pink, and daring me to pick what I can through its surprisingly sharp spines. I love eating all the marvelous fruits and vegetables that are available during this time, but one can only eat so many peaches in one sitting!

 This time of year, my thoughts turn to the question of preserving that bounty – to try and capture some of the harvest taste for blizzard time, when I miss it most. With fruit, I first think of jams, preserves and fruit butters. I love the glowing jewel tones of jams lined up in a row in my pantry, but when it comes time to eat the stuff, I’m always disappointed. The beautiful jiggly stuff in the jar tastes more like sugar than the fruit it’s supposed to be. In fact, store-bought jam has to be between 55% and 65% sugar to legally carry that name. 

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Healthy Breakfast recipes on the go

First in a series of food columns from the company newsletter, 2004-2007.

Both of the following recipes indulge my love for oats – and my love for sleep, as they can be prepared ahead and taken with me on my daily activities. Unlike the vending-machine pastries that leave you hungry again 2 hours later, these breakfasts combine the fiber of whole grains to help you feel full with the protein of nuts and dairy products to sustain you through the morning.


Beyond the fold are recipes for Crunchy Granola and Molly Katzen’s Muesli.

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