Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Never rains but it pours.

Here in New England droughts are rare and a dry spell is downright damp compared to other parts of the United States.  That hot "dry" day with 80% humidity is hardly dry in absolute terms and the plants, soil, and I (especially I), notice.  Nothing quire like sticking to everything you touch and feeling like you are underwater.  But I digress.

Mostly this leads people to not think about water at all, even to take it for granted.

I feel like I am always noticing the rain. That makes it sound like I think most people are oblivious and that's not quite it. Saying I pay more attention to the rain is probably more accurate. I love nothing better than to be outside running around in the downpour. This is also good since there's almost always something that needs to be protected from the rain or brought under shelter which I invariably only notice after the storm gets going and things are getting soggy.

All the plants look happier in the rain.
After all the running around to check that the chicks are out of the rain, that the tools were put under shelter, the dry feed isn't getting wet, and that nothing that will get ruined in the rain was left out the real fun starts. I go hunting for puddles.  Often there are no puddles, especially where the soil is worst or when the rain is light.  There is just too much sand and not enough clay or organic matter to hold water on the surface.  That translates into a large amount of the water that lands on the surface soaking in which is excellent, except for where it doesn't.

When the rain is coming down faster than the water can infiltrate, or where runoff is gathered (off of hardscape surfaces) flows start moving fast and that fast moving water will strip and erode any topsoil or nutrient that is there.  It was noticing this precise effect that caused me to realize why so much of the soil around the house was so poor.  Severe rains (though infrequent) would strip this soil near the high point on the property and cause it to collect in a bowl lower down where the grass was always greenest and tallest and the topsoil was several inches thick.  So I could stand on soil that looks like a sandbox and appears bone dry 20 minutes after the rain stops and look over, only about 20 feet away, into a section of soil that behaves like a swamp days after the rain where the grass growth explodes because all of the topsoil and nutrient ended up down there.

What to do, what to do?  Answer: nothing.  There's something conspicuously absent when you find yourself standing in a sandbox. Usually, it is plant life.  Turns out that many plants willing to go to work under overly sandy overly dry conditions don't tolerate mowing well... so when treating such a spot like any other section of "lawn" one of the unintended consequences of mowing is to disadvantage and often kill the very plant life you need to reduce erosion and help build organic matter in the place where you need their help the most.  In just the brief year we have been here we have already observed major improvements.

Unlike the previous landowner we do not mow to the shortest mower setting, and in the areas where there is the most damage often I do not mow at all.  Turns out most of the volunteers in those areas are happy to oblige me for that decision by staying at a reasonable height and flowering profusely, which aids my local pollinators and satisfies my desire for wildflowers. Keeping more, taller, plants there increases shade, reduces evaporation, builds organic matter, and reduces erosion also.  Between those advantages and the application of manure by the chickens last year I have doubled the amount of healthy green lawn in my yard.  Lawn which becomes part of the feed ration for all the critters on the farm at some point. More free feed means less expense and everyone knows a thrifty farmer is a happy farmer.
A (poor) picture of the ducks.  They would not stay still and insisted on mocking me for being out in the rain.

Watching for puddles and seeing where the water goes also leads to the installation of swales and other more involved plans for water on site.  I will discuss that, and provide more pictures in a future update.

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