When watering her spring garden, editor Carleen Madigan follows the permaculture mantra, “Slow it, spread it, sink it”: catch the water, hold it on-site, and get the water back into the ground.

reservoirs around individual strawberry plants to stop erosion and hold water

Reservoirs dug back into the ground around strawberry plants capture water that feeds plant roots gradually.

Like a magpie collecting shiny objects, my brain is always gathering random facts. Mostly, they disappear into the folds of the old grey matter, elusive when I actually need them, but surfacing unbidden when they’re not at all relevant. Other times, luckily, a lesson from a book I’ve been working on presents itself in a situation where I actually need it.

This spring, I was fretting over my newly planted strawberries. Because I had planted some of them on the sloping sides of the raised bed, I’d made a little curved retaining wall for each plant, to hold back some of the water. We hadn’t had rain in weeks, and our already-sandy soil was so dry, it felt like dust in my hands. The strawberries, even with their little terraces, were struggling.

Retention wall with no reservoir

My old way: a downhill retention wall (here, to the right of the plant), with no reservoir.

When I turned on the hose, the retaining walls caught some of the water, but it didn’t take long for the rest to burst through and flow downhill. Frustrated, I found myself scooping and patting more soil around the plants, reinforcing their little buttresses. The force of the water flowing downhill was too strong, though. What should I do? It was going to take forever to water all 50 plants if I had to deliver the water in a slow enough trickle to keep the walls from bursting.

It was then that a very helpful landscape-design lesson from our upcoming book, The Permaculture Promise by Jono Neiger, came back to me: “store water uphill.” The idea, as I was witnessing in miniature with my strawberry beds, is that instead of just trying to stop the flow of water as it streams downhill, it makes sense to sculpt the land (or garden bed) to slow the flow of the water. On a large scale, this can help prevent erosion; it also helps keep water higher in the landscape, so that it can benefit plants uphill, rather than just collecting in the valleys.

For my strawberry beds, I ended up digging back into the hill and creating a little reservoir uphill from each plant. Now, the water collects in the reservoir and slowly percolates into the soil around the plant, rather than running straight down to the garden path to irrigate the weeds. Voila!

Reservoir uphill from the plant

The better way: a reservoir uphill from the plant.

Carleen Madigan

Before becoming an editor at Storey Publishing, Carleen Madigan was managing editor of Horticulture magazine and lived on an organic farm outside Boston, Massachusetts, where… See Bio

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