A solution for the swamp

So, I haven’t written for a while. …It’s complicated, let’s leave it at that. But in the mean time, things have been trundling on over here, and I’m ready to start a brand new year. Complete with all the frozen mud, snowmelt, and endless spring rains that the change of seasons brings every year.

If there is one enemy I have in this garden of mine, it is water. Water, water, everywhere. And no place worse than in the back corner, which we simply refer to as “the swamp.” I mean, look at this picture of it in mid-June, still mostly mud:

Poor muddy chickens.

Covered in wide, shallow puddles all year round and too squishy to walk on, much less plant, it’s been a thorn in my backside since I decided to farm this area. I’ve been adding most of our Fall leaves to it every year in the hopes of building the soil up – and it has worked, though too slowly. When we first moved in it was all standing water:

Ground level water right at… ground level.

But it’s going too slowly for my tastes. Grow rice, everyone tells me. Ha, ha.

In a fit of winter-amnesia-induced garden optimism, this spring I bought a bunch of berry bushes to colonize that area – gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, marionberries, $$$berries… yeah I don’t know what I was thinking. Long after my purchase, when I finally laid it out precisely, (thanks, Google satellite), I realized that the whole row I had marked for the blueberries was waterlogged swamp and any perennial stuck in that muck would drown right away. It was a pretty depressing reality check – for a minute.

See, over these past 4 months, whenever I wasn’t busy nearly dying of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (yeah, that was fun) I’ve had little to do but read, and learn, and pine for gardening season. Between researching how to build a goat shelter out of straw bales and drawing up plans for a greenhouse made entirely out of reclaimed waste materials, I stumbled onto permaculture: the movement towards building agricultural systems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. I was hooked.

I watched every single one of Geoff Lawton’s videos on permaculture landscaping. His most famous project, perhaps, is “Greening the Desert,” which is an amazing documentary about how he turned an arid, salted, barren landscape into a paradise (and is well worth taking the time to watch). His approach deals mostly with  desert regions, though, so while I was fascinated I didn’t see how his techniques could apply to my swamp problem. But something must have clicked… some understanding about working with the contours of the land, expanding and directing what it already naturally wants to do. Because this spring I saw the swamp in an entirely new light. Suddenly it looked like an opportunity instead of ruinously stubborn piece of crap land.

Work with Nature, huh? How do I learn to accept the swamp, live with the mud – and maybe even turn it to my advantage? How about:

  • Instead of chickens in the swampiest corner, I’ll keep ducks there instead. They’ll be happy as clams and eat up the obnoxious mosquito larvae in all the puddles. And if I expand their fenced run into the berry patch at the other end of the swamp, they’ll happily gobble up any weeds & slugs while leaving my perennial thornbushes alone! Plus, they are cute.
  • The area is not entirely flat – from both corners it slopes towards the center as if a stream once flowed right through the middle. I can use these slight slopes at either end to direct the water with swales (or swales’ cousin, the ditch) towards the lowest point. Instead of a flat, wide marshy area I’ll have a little pond and two areas dry enough to support deeper-rooted plants.
  • With the water concentrated at the bottom of the slight slope, I can now grow plants like basketweaving willows, fiddlehead ferns, black currants and other pond-edge plants that I couldn’t grow before.
    • While I’m at it, I’ll dig that lowest part good and deep so the ducks can have somewhere to swim and play while fertilizing our new riparian food garden.
  • If I need more access to the beds, I’ll build simple bridges instead of wrestling and cursing with load after load of woodchips that just sinks into the mud instead of making a stable path.

And the very first step:

  • I’ll take advantage of the marshiness by building hugelkultur beds instead of trying to plant into the wet soil itself. (Hugelkultur is a system of raised beds based on principals of forest decomposition. You lay down big logs, then smaller brush and sticks, then leaves, woodchips, grass clippings, newspaper, whatever compostable materials you have; then a layer of soil on top.) What it boils down to is (eventually) a gigantic pile of perfectly beautiful compost that wicks up just enough water from the soil to stay moist, but not waterlogged. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, I’ve been familiar with the concept for years!

Hugelkultur cross section, from the http://www.permaculture.co.uk/ article, “The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur”.

Big logs, I had plenty of. During our last snow day I had been exploring with the girls back in the woods and come across the remains of the dead trees we’d had cut down last year, sliced conveniently into 5-8′ logs. I hadn’t known the tree company had left them there, but I knew I could find a use for them somewhere. As soon as the weather unfroze them from the ground, I lugged and heaved a dozen of them into a pile closer to the garden gate. (Who needs Crossfit when you have a garden?)

It took all the logs but two to build a bed about two feet high, 4′ wide, and 15′ long. (Once again I forgot to take a before photo, sigh.)  After covering these 12-15 or so logs with all the brush I could find easily, I mixed and spread several wheelbarrowloads worth of woodchips (free, from tree companies) mixed 50/50 with overwintered chicken bedding – that ought to get the composting processes jumpstarted!


The soil layer on top came from the deep pond/trench that I was digging anyway. Beautiful black mucky swamp goo, just teeming with nutrients and decomposed organics. When it’s not completely waterlogged, it’s supposed to be very fertile stuff. I hope.


I sprinkled it all with bee-friendly flowers and clover seed (found in the garage from last year’s lawn treatment, still good!) and mulched it lightly. My hope is that the clover will grow thick enough – and quick enough – to crowd out weeds and act as a perennial, nitrogen-fixing mulch. You’re supposed to be able to plant right through it, according to the author of One Straw Revolution.


They say you can plant into it right away, but I think I’m going to wait a few months, maybe a year. Or maybe plant annuals into it this year? I’m not sure, I’m new to the whole idea, but I’m excited!


4 Responses to “A solution for the swamp”

  1. Sam Says:


  2. Diana Guillermo Says:

    Ha ha ha, HIIII! 😀

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Wow, you’ve been overdoing as usual. What about planting bee-friendly flowers for the first year?

  4. Diana Guillermo Says:

    I did plant a “bee mix” I had on hand, but it was a couple years old. I’m definitely planning on some bee friendly herbs like dill, parsley, etc. too!

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