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Water wise gardening: Frugal ways to capture and store water

When it comes to water, it’s been all or nothing in my garden lately. We had months without rain and then had a couple of huge downpours. There was water everywhere. We even had stranded fish flapping in our back paddock. But just a few days after the rain, my garden was dry. It’s clear I need to increase the water-holding capacity of my garden.

Rainwater barrels and water tanks are probably what most people think of when wanting to catch and store rainwater. But there are other easier and far less expensive options.

Mark Brown from Purple Pear Farm sharing tips for using swales. Little eco footprints

Permaculture practitioner and educator Mark Brown from Purple Pear Farm recently shared a few water collecting ideas with me.

Use swales to catch and store water

A swale is more or less a water holding ditch. They are built on contour and catch rainwater as it runs across the ground. Mark tells me "they make running water walk". The water then slowly infiltrates into the surrounding soil.

I’d always thought of swales as something only relevant to large gardens or farms. But Mark tells me they can be used on any scale, even in a small urban garden. "Swales worked beautifully in a small suburban garden I created. I even had a small decorative bridge over one of the swales. Swales don’t need a lot of slope and can be used even in small, flat looking yards," he said.

Capture and store water in your soil

The most cost-effective and efficient place to store water is in the soil. The key is to add organic matter. Organic matter – such as mulch, manure and compost – will increase the moisture-holding capacity of your soil. The more organic matter, the more water your soil can hold.

Using local spoilt hay as mulch in my garden. Little eco footprints

"Instead of buying a bag of sugar cane mulch from the hardware store that’s been transported all the way from Queensland, make use of what is readily available locally," Mark suggested.

"Here in the Hunter, there’s plenty of lucerne farms. If it rains while they are harvesting, they can only sell their lucerne as mulch. Take a Sunday drive through Louth Park (near Maitland) or Phoenix Park (near Morpeth) and you’ll pass a number of lucerne growers who often sell cheap spoilt hay."

"Mulch your garden with lucerne and the organic matter is very quickly taken down into the soil as it composts."

Another great source of organic matter is stable manure. Here in the Hunter you can pick up stable manure for free from the Broadmeadow racecourse (along Dumaresq Street), and from Maitland and Cessnock showgrounds. There’s also a couple of mushroom farms that sell spent mushroom compost for use in the garden.

Store water in your plants

"An often ignored way to store water is in your plants. Plants take up water and then release it into the atmosphere through transpiration – increasing the humidity of your microclimate," Mark said.

The more plants you have, the more water your garden can store. Having a good coverage of plants also decreases run-off and evaporation of water from the soil.

Purple Pear courses in sustainable living

Purple Pear Farm run a great selection of courses in sustainable living. Upcoming courses include worm farming, sourdough bread baking and cheese and yoghurt making.

They also run their Permaculture Design Course over weekends – making it accessible to people unable to take time off from work or family during the week.

The next Permaculture Design Certificate course starts on Saturday, 16 May. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 12th January 2015.

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