Permablitz at New Leaf Agriculture

January 25 and 26, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition

In January of 2019, Earth Repair Corps had the good fortune to host a permablitz (or volunteer perennial garden installation) at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) New Leaf Farm near Elgin, Texas.  

The property where the farm lies is in the Blackland Prairie natural region of Texas and has black clayee soils.  Typically, corn, soy beans, cotton, wheat, and sorghum are grown in this region.

The property is owned by John Beal who leases it to MRC.

Our relationship with MRC began when I received a phone call from Steven Hebbard, their farm manager at the time, during the spring of 2018.  I went out to New Leaf Farm for a site visit and was shown a 3.4 acre field where Steven told me that they wanted a terraced orchard and a perennial food garden with the possibility of row cropping annual vegetables and fruits in between the terraces.  Steven had been working with Jamie Soma on an overall permaculture design for the entire farm and so I did my best to honor their existing plans and create a system that worked well within their design.

Wandaka Musongera is New Leaf Farm’s current farm manager whom we worked with extensively during the design process and permablitz.

Aerial view of the terraces at New Leaf Farm.

The Design Process

The first thing I did was find out how long and how wide the field was.  It was about 500 feet long from top to bottom and just a little over 300 feet wide.  Since New Leaf Farm wanted the possibility of row cropping between the terraces we were about to install, we laid out 4 terraces exactly 100 feet apart from top to bottom, with each terrace being about 280 feet long.  This is the part of the design process that I call identifying the “known-knowns”, which is a process of elimination. This part of the design process entails answering a few basic questions, such as: What are the objectives of the client? How big is the job site? What is the soil like? Where are the roads? Where is the water for irrigation?

It took us 5 days of surveying, however, to figure out how to lay out the terraces on this field.  Steven told me that he would like to have the terraces slope a bit in order to prevent water standing for too long, so initially I set the first terrace on contour in order to establish a baseline and went parallel and down from there.  The three successive terraces below the top terrace all have a 0.5% grade to them draining water very gently to the riparian area where the water would naturally leave the field. It was like laying out the terraces on a giant lump of kneaded bread dough though, with lots of humps and bumps, and dips and drains, and was not a simple process. With the help of Lacey Proffitt, we must have laid out those terraces at least 4 different times before getting the design up to my requirements.

Terrace Installation

Once the layout was complete, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design arrived and spent a week on a mini-excavator installing the terraces.  I have lost count now of how many times Pete and I have executed such designs and installations together. Five level sill spillways, where the berm of the terraces stops but the swale continues, were installed in order to allow excessive water out during major rain events.  The swale, or below grade part of the terraces, is about 7.5 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The four terraces combined can hold back about 5,040 cubic feet of water, or 37,800 gallons of water below grade, right at the feet of our perennial agriculture. It requires a 2 or 3 inch rain event to fill them up. The berms are about 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and offer the fruit trees we planted a broad tithy garden bed on contour giving the trees a real “leg up” on that clayee soil.

Volunteers digging irrigation ditches.

Tree Selection

The next design parameter I was given is that New Leaf Farm was interested in perennials that could possibly be used as natural dyes, had market value, and fell within the spectrum of low to moderate maintenance and upkeep.  Shortly after the terraces were installed and before the permablitz, MRC was given nearly 30 pomegranate trees that met those parameters and which were planted on the lowest terrace about 10 feet apart. 16 mulberry trees were selected for the highest terrace which are extremely hardy and can be used as a natural dye. 16 pears were selected for the terrace second from the top, and 16 Asian persimmons were selected for the terrace second from the bottom.

Golden ball lead trees, considered a farmers tree, were planted at a ratio of 1 farmers tree per 4 fruit trees between the fruit trees.  Farmers trees are native leguminous trees that may offer some or all of the following characteristics – native, leguminous, sugary bean pod and fodder for livestock, deep rooted, dappled shade, and mine for minerals by their root system and deposited on the ground’s surface through their leaf litter.

The mulberry and pear trees were purchased from Flavor Farms out here in McDade, Texas just a couple of miles from where I live. The Asian persimmons were purchased from Bloomers Garden Center in Elgin, Texas. The golden ball lead trees were purchased from Far South Wholesale Nursery.

The Weekend of the Permablitz

Saturday the 25th was a partly sunny and cool January morning.  Very fortunately the terraces had already been installed so the main 2 jobs for the permablitz crew was getting 4 water supply lines, each about 100 feet long, to the 4 terraces, and planting about 60 trees.  Nearly 30 people showed up that day including the Wandaka Musongera’s mother and younger siblings. Wandaka’s mother provided us with lunch on both days of the permablitz.

To get the water supply line to the middle of the terraces we had to dig nearly 400 linear feet of trenches at least 6 inches deep.  This was by far the hardest task we had, and it was interesting to see how the crew got better and better at digging as the day progressed.  It also really helped when I spray painted the trench lines for everyone to see and follow more clearly.

Woody Welch, a board member of Earth Repair Corps, had his drone up in the air taking pictures of the property, and was himself also taking some really great pictures on the ground.

During lunch on Saturday Steve Moakley, a MRC board member, spoke to us about their mission, Tim Miller gave a presentation on how to plant his heirloom leaks, Wandaka spoke, John Beal spoke, and I also gave a brief presentation on permaculture design.

Tim Miller of Millberg Farms giving a presentation on his heirloom leeks.

That Saturday night and early Sunday morning however, it rained hard and limited our access to the field where we were working.  We basically had to cart in wheelbarrows all of the trees and soil amendments about a quarter mile along very wet and muddy farm tracks to get them to the terraces.  It never ceases to amaze me though how well and how carefully the permablitz crew can plant trees. All of the trees were planted before lunch on Sunday, and by the end of Sunday most of the supply lines had been set and the trenches back-filled.

The permablitz at New Leaf Farm was a great experience and hopefully the beginning of long friendship between Earth Repair Corps and the Multicultural Refugee Coalition.

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