by Kelda Lorax.
Contours and key line design help to work with the natural shape of the land rather than ignoring or misusing it.
Honoring the Slope of the Land, with Keylines and Contour
Working with contour/slope is like seeing the naked shape of the land and appreciating it, rather than ignoring, or worse, misusing it.
When we ignore the contours of the site:
It’s a crazy idea to make land flat without good reason! Sure, we want it flat for building foundations, terraces, tent camping, etc, but if we make land flat just for the heck of it:
So, how does one appreciate the natural shape of the land? By building, gardening, working “on contour”. Contour is a line along one elevation measurement. It is a line directly perpendicular to the slope (up and down) of a site. If you think of your standing body as a hill, then contour lines run across your body like a belt, bracelets, or a neck scarf. If someone were to pour water on your head, the water would travel downhill, but when water hits the belt (if you and the belt were made of earth), the water would slow and spread along that line.
We slow and spread water on a site by building on contour. This decreases the speed with which water runs off the site, decreases the amount of erosion that running water can cause, and is stored in the earth (which holds it like a sponge, which leads to massive increases in fertility).
What exactly is “building on contour”? It’s placing a path along one elevation line, or garden beds along an elevation line, or swales along one elevation line. They could all be on different elevation lines than each other, but if a garden bed starts at certain point, it then also ends at the same elevation, above sea level, as it started at. This is much easier to understand in pictures.
The land slopes down from bottom right corner of picture to the big compost piles at upper left. Some of the beds were built by guessing contour (yellow) and the others were built by measuring contour (red). The yellow-lined beds were always losing soil and depositing it on the left side of the lines (downslope), so they were quickly fixed for the following year.
There are many ways to find contour on a site in order to design for it. The easiest way to learn is to play around with a carpenter’s level on somewhere cleared, like a lawn or parking lot.
So, how do you find contour on a site if you don’t have a level with you? If you can make a very secure “A” shape of sticks out of any materials, and some kind of string and weight, you can find level. The frame doesn’t need to be perfect, just sturdy (not going to slip out of the shape you make it). Hang a string from the top, making sure it goes past the horizontal stick, and then add a weight to that string.
Now stand it up, and somehow mark the spot where both legs touch the ground, and mark on the horizontal stick where the string hangs past it. (Nevermind level! You’ll find it if you do this exactly). Now, turn the A-frame around so the legs are switched and in exactly the same spot as each other just were. Now mark on the horizontal stick where the string now goes past it again. Exactly in between those two points on your horizontal stick is where the weight will hang when the two legs are on exactly level ground with each other.
In the picture below, the carpenter’s level checks what the string and weight are already showing.
Here we’re practicing finding the slope of the land with an A-frame level. Everywhere the legs have found level is marked with a circle, and connecting the circles creates a contour line which shows that the site slopes from the left side of the picture to the right. Would you be able to guess that from just eyeballing the site? Photo credit to Butterfly Kiss Photography.
These tools do the same thing on a faster/bigger scale, though with less accuracy to tiny undulations:
Article about using the Bunyip Water Level.
What method you use depends on your scale, the degree of exactness you need in measurement, and of course access to different tools/materials.
Here’s a free, cool online contour mapping tool
Contour and Keyline Design
Keyline design is a step beyond working with contours if you need regular spacing of earthworks of any kind. If you’re working on a scale where you need all your tree rows exactly 10 feet from the next tree row downslope (or garden or terrace or animal fence, the exact component doesn’t matter), you’d quickly be in trouble if you start assuming you can do it on contour. Contour varies too much. At some points your tree rows would be 10 feet apart, and then 8 feet apart, and then 15. This matters if you’re using equipment and those variations will give you a headache.
For example: if you want just one pass with a lawnmower or tractor between rows instead of sometimes one, sometimes half, sometimes two. What also happens is that if the initial row is on contour and the following rows are exactly 10 feet (or whatever) downslope, is that the lower rows get more and more off-contour until they are potentially causing all the erosion problems that we’re trying to avoid.
Thus, the keyline system. The basic idea is that the starting row is on contour, but starts at a place called the keypoint on the slope's valley. First find the inflection point, where the slope goes from concave to convex, and the keypoint is just below that where water coming down a hill would naturally start slowing.
Check here to see how close you were:
And correct, the inflection points from one valley don’t necessarily match up on the same contour line as the ones from the next valley. They all erode and deposit in different ways.
Going from your map into the field is when you start to see the keypoints just downhill from the inflection points. It is a greener area that is hard to guess exactly from a topo map alone. Once you've identified your keypoint, this is the place to put your first marker. Then find your contour line (using any of the tools listed above) and map that line on the landscape.
It’s called your Keyline because it’s a contour line starting at the Keypoint. Then, from that keyline you can figure out rows (other lines) at regular intervals upslope or downslope. For example, if you want tree rows 20 feet apart, stand at your first Keypoint marker, walk upslope 20 feet and place a marker for your first upslope row (leave a friend behind on the keyline, holding the dummy end of a tape measure).
When you’re making that new row, don’t find the contour, simply walk with your friend and always be 20 feet upslope of her. Repeat for lines further upslope or downslope of the keyline. You can see that keyline also lays out faster in the field, though it may take some time to find the keypoint.
Instead of creating erosion, what happens is that all of the lines (though many of them are ever slightly off-contour) will slow and spread water from the valley to the ridge. This technique is known for sinking water into arid landscapes, thus the original intentions of the designer to hydrate landscapes to avoid wildfires.
Why would you use keyline rather than contour to set up your earthworks?
#buildingoncontour #contourandkeylinedesign #permaculturewomen
How to Learn Permaculture for Free, a Handy Guide from Somebody Who Learned Permaculture for Free...
by Heather Jo Flores.
Suggestions for learning permaculture for free, and also for finding ways to fund your permaculture education.
My goal with the #freepermaculture project is to give people access to the resources I wish had been available when I first started learning permaculture, way back in the 1990’s. We didn’t have much in the way of internet then, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. So we used the library and good old fashioned hands-on trial and error to figure stuff out.
If humanity has a snowball’s chance at survival in the coming climate cataclysm, it will be permaculture tools and techniques that get us out of this mess. But we need to get on it, NOW, and it pains me to see finances preventing people from experiencing the joy and fascination that comes with learning permaculture. So I’m doing something about it.
Here you’ll find suggestions for learning permaculture for free, and also for finding ways to fund your permaculture education. I only make suggestions based on what I, myself have done and continue to do.
I hope you enjoy the work, and thanks for being here,
7 ways to learn permaculture for free
1. Enroll in our yearlong online permaculture course.
Designed specifically for folks who don't have a lot of time or money, this course will give you one bite-sized class per week for a full year, taking you step-by-step through a permaculture design process, focused on your own home, garden, and community. Check it out at
www.freepermaculturecourse.com. Tell all your friends!
I know, this is so obvious. And you already know there are a bunch of amazing permaculture books that you can get at the library. But did you know you can download a ton of excellent reading material, including some full-text PDFs of the best books about permaculture? Ok maybe you know that too. But where do you start? It’s overwhelming.
To help cut out the noise, I’ve selected a handful of super-value texts to get you started.
3. Form a study group.
Food Not Lawns was born out of the “Sustainable Horticulture” study group we had going at our house in Eugene. We met up every week and discussed texts--like a book club, but with more dirt! We often had our meetings in somebody’s garden, where we could discuss ideas while pulling weeds. Stacking functions! Now that we have the internet, there are so many excellent study groups online. Again, it’s overwhelming, and some of the Facebook permaculture groups aren’t really that helpful. (In fact, as bizarre as it seems, several of the largest Facebook permaculture groups are run by internet trolls, unfortunately! So be careful!)
Here are the ones I recommend (and help moderate!)
4. Find a local mentor.
If there is someone in your community whose work you admire, approach them and volunteer to help. We can learn so much from help each other, and through respecting and seeking out the wisdom of our elders.
And, if you are are a wise elder, consider looking for an young’un to pass your skills on to.
Maybe you know alot about something besides permaculture, but you want to learn permaculture? How about setting up a skillshare with somebody?
Most of the permaculture teachers I know LOVE doing exchanges like this. If you can’t think of anyone in your own area, start hanging out at the farmer’s market. Or, check out our faculty and see if one of those folks inspires you to reach out.
5. Trial and error.
This one is obvious too, but it cannot be overstated. You can take a dozen expensive design courses and still have no idea what you’re talking about. You have to get out there and start designing! Beyond designing, it’s important that you get dirty and do some serious implementation. Only through years of hard-won experiential knowledge will you ever truly master the fine art and science of permaculture design.
The good news is, implementing permaculture design projects is pretty much the funnest thing ever! This #freepermaculture blog is packed full of hands-on ideas to help you find new ways to get your hands dirty with permaculture. Type any keyword into the search box and see what you find!
6. Raise funds in your community to do a Permaculture Design Certification Course together.
In 2001 the Food Not Lawns collective raised enough money to pay Toby Hemenway and Jude Hobbs to teach a permaculture course for our whole neighborhood. It wasn’t very hard to raise up the money, and the results were completely awesome.
Ok, I know this whole article is supposed to be about learning permaculture without having to attend an expensive design course. And I’m a very critical, skeptical person myself. But I have to say, a good permaculture design course, taught by knowledgeable people who have taken the time to learn not just how to do permaculture but also how to teach it...well it can completely change your life.
And there are ways to pay for it. I’ve known tons of students who did a gofundme with friends and family to come up with tuition money, offering the reward of teaching free workshops to funders afterwards.
Others, like myself, leveraged existing community projects to get funding from the local municipality. Back in 2001, after two years of being super visible and growing gorgeous gardens all over the neighborhood, Food Not Lawns got a grant from the City of Eugene to pay Jude Hobbs and Toby Hemenway to do a 72-hour certification course for myself and twenty neighbors. It was awesome!
Most cities have little bits of funding for stuff like this, and if you frame it right, you can raise money to hire top-quality teachers and still be able to offer training for free to yourself and your friends.
What I am saying is: think outside the box!
You’re a designer now, you can do this.
That being said, I recognize that not everybody has access to the time and resources to attend a PDC, regardless of the cost. Not everybody can get ten whole days (plus travel time) to go to an immersion course.
So, just in case you didn’t already know, I’ve collaborated with 40 women to create a low-cost, go at your own pace online permaculture design course that includes an extra certification in advanced social systems design.
We offer the entire first module for free, PLUS, we offer discounts for survivors of abuse and for women of color, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support and want to get serious about becoming a certified permaculture designer.
7. Write for the #freepermaculture blog.
This blog is a hub of skills, resources, and information, brought to you by a collaboration of some of the brightest minds in the movement, and it might just help save the world.
And, as you learn, what better way to solidify your knowledge than by writing about your experiments?!?
We’d love to feature you on our blog and get to know you better through your designs. So, if you fancy yourself a writer, come on! And if you already have your own blog, I’d love to do a guest post there as well.
Also, connect with me directly if you’d like to do a writing work-trade for a partial tuition waiver in our online permaculture design course.
And check out this program for Permaculture Women Writers. It’s not free, but it’s focused on helping you turn your garden writing into a cash crop!
P.S. Does the idea of writing for publication terrify you?
If it helps, I can share that when I wrote Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, I had never published a single article! And honestly, sometimes I cringe when I read my writing in that old book (it was published back in ‘06), but it has changed a lot of people’s lives and empowered them to grow food and build community, so I am glad I pushed through the apprehension and just shared what I had with the world. And now that I’ve spent the last 13 years honing my professional skills as a writer, we’re doing a new revised edition! It’s due out in Spring 2021.
Alrighty? I hope that’s enough to keep you busy, and if not, then check out more resources for learning permaculture for free, right here.
by Kareen Erbe.
Recommendations for gardening on a budget that not only allow you to save money but also have the added benefit of building soil, conserving water, cutting down on pests, and creating a more ecological garden.
At the end of the growing season last year, one of my volunteers remarked, “I think you have given us hundreds of dollars worth of vegetables this fall.” Indeed, growing your own garden often means that you are saving money on produce that would normally cost a lot of money in the grocery store, especially if it’s organic.
However, with the money you invest in compost, seeds, and plants each season, not to mention the time, sometimes the vegetables or fruit that you’re harvesting from your garden seem like they are worth their weight in gold. Granted, there are so many intangible benefits to having a garden and I would never give up gardening because the ‘numbers don’t pencil.’ But, it is also possible to grow delicious and healthy food without breaking the bank.
In my video below, I go over my Top Ten Tips for Gardening on a Budget. These are recommendations that I practice myself that not only allow you to save money but have the added benefit of building soil, conserving water, cutting down on pests, and creating a more ecological garden.
Want to see more gardening and permaculture related videos?
Go to Broken Ground’s youtube channel here.
Also check out Broken Ground’s online gardening courses here.
#gardeningonabudget #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #permaculturedesign
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