Per­ma­cul­ture in Prac­tice

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Landown­er­ship comes with re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Some­times it in­volves a snow shovel. Other times it’s weeds. As much as we love them, land ti­tles mean mend­ing walls, rak­ing leaves, and mow­ing grass. Here in New Mex­ico, we are lucky not to have toworry much about the lat­ter. Turf in­stal­la­tion and main­te­nance is not only avoided statewide, but it’s also of­ten scoffed at on pri­vate prop­erty. In pub­lic parks, plas­tic play­ing fields are slowly tak­ing over real-grass ones.

A fewyears ago, I was vis­it­ing with a friend who’d moved to Ohio af­ter a decade in the City Dif­fer­ent. One eerie sur­prise, he said, “was the inces­sant sound of lawn mow­ers.” From dawn un­til dusk, his sub­urb put­tered, buzzed, and moaned. The idea of quiet was an unattain­able dream and, by virtue of its ab­sence, a night­mar­ish symbol of pol­lu­tion. In the midst of all the im­por­tant talk about Flint, Michi­gan, let’s not for­get that runoff from so many chem­i­cally treated lawns in the Great Lakes re­gion has pro­duced enor­mous al­gal blooms that of­ten poi­son pub­lic and pri­vate wa­ter sys­tems.

In­ter­est­ingly, the low main­te­nance, turf-free prop­er­ties of North­ern New Mex­ico come with a pol­lu­tion-creat­ing flip­side, too. It’s called soil ero­sion. In a land of brit­tle ground, ev­ery roof, pa­tio, drive­way, and road is a sur­face that will dam­age the land if left un­man­aged. With­out thought­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of highly lo­cal­ized best man­age­ment prac­tices, de­vel­oped real estate cre­ates se­ri­ous pol­lu­tion. In a pre-devel­op­ment state, veg­e­ta­tion will ab­sorb a sig­nif­i­cant quan­tity of rain­wa­ter be­fore gen­er­at­ing runoff. In a post-devel­op­ment state, com­pacted land and im­per­vi­ous sur­faces de­liver runoff with a sig­nif­i­cantly larger wa­ter vol­ume, an un­nat­u­rally high rate of speed, and con­tain­ing in­creased lev­els of par­tic­u­late. Soon, vis­i­ble quan­ti­ties of soil erode, and this causes fur­ther scour­ing downs­lope. In­evitably, what was called use­ful soil be­comes un­wanted sed­i­ment in wa­ters that suf­fer from tur­bid­ity, wildlife-habi­tat de­struc­tion, aquifer-in­fil­tra­tion chal­lenges, and other prob­lems.

It’s a vi­ciously vis­cous cy­cle of in­creas­ingly gunky wa­ters started by gouged­out mesa-tops. At many points along the route fol­lowed by our rain­wa­ter and stormwa­ter, there are chances to use my three-step motto: Slow it. Flow it. Grow it. First, you slow stormwa­ter down. Next, you flow it to­ward the roots of plant ma­te­rial. Fi­nally, you grow that wa­ter into biomass that re­tains and builds soil.

The ways to fol­low this plan are end­less. If you’re a self-starter and an ef­fec­tive reader of text­books, you might want to look into the Amer­i­can Rain­wa­ter Catch­ment Sys­tems As­so­ci­a­tion’s new 300-page text­book, Rain­wa­ter Har­vest­ing Man­ual. You’ll find that the first of two chap­ters by yours truly fo­cuses on the “slow it, flow it, growit” theme. If you’d like in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, feel free to visit www.per­made­sign. com. There, you can sched­ule a land­scape con­sul­ta­tion, watch a how-to video about straw-book swales, or re­view my re­cently com­pleted archive of this col­umn.

The stormwa­ter that sweeps through our land can be a bless­ing. It just de­pends on whether or not we go be­yond snow-shov­el­ing, weed­ing, and even re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as ba­sic as our bills. We also need to take se­ri­ously our re­spon­si­bil­ity to heal our chal­lenged soils.

Nate Downey, the au­thor of Har­vest the Rain, has been a lo­cal land­scape con­sul­tant, de­signer, and con­trac­tor since 1992. He can be reached at 505-690-7939 or via www.per­made­sign.com.

NATE DOWNEY

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