Designing Your Farm - The Urban Farming (2015)

The Urban Farming (2015)


Designing Your Farm


“You can solve all the world’s problems in a garden.”

—Geoff Lawton

Planning with Efficiency and Permaculture in Mind

Although permaculture principles are a super helpful ideology before you start farming, designing the actual growing space for efficient production on an urban farm using permaculture is a lot more difficult. There’s often not a lot of choice in where things are in a city, and you can’t do the long-term development that permaculture requires. However, permaculture is a useful tool in the initial planning stages using a system of elements.

These are the elements of urban farms:

  • intensive production beds or containers
  • light source
  • rainwater collection
  • waste disposal
  • food processing
  • small orchard
  • greenhouse
  • duck, chicken, and goose area
  • goat shelter and grazing
  • beehives

Kinds of production:

There are also different categories of production that determine the location and type of bed or container that you use to grow it:

Human food: The options are niche market crops or straight-up vegetable production.

Cooking and medicinal herbs: These are often hardy perennials that deter pests.

Animal food garden, or forage: Rather than letting a field lie fallow, a space-saving and cheap solution can be to plant a cover crop such as alfalfa and allow the animals to forage. Alternatively, you could plant a garden that not only feeds chickens, but attracts insects away from your vegetable garden so that the chickens eat your pests.

Soil fertilizing, green manure: A ground cover like alfalfa not only saves topsoil, it adds nutrients to the soil. Microgreens are a profitable way of creating green manure.

Insect control: There are a variety of plants that deter pests. Rimming your gardens with them is a vital method of increasing the yield of your vegetable production. Many of these are also edible herbs.


Animals: Birds should be located near a vegetable garden because they can help keep away pests by eating them. However, they will munch on your vegetables, too. So if you use this method, plant a lot of extra food. Goats should be located away from gardens you eat from, but near grain sources that they can forage on. Fish go in the pond, and bees go near gardens that flower, such as the orchard.

You: If you are using borrowed suburban yards, your most intensive crops (that is, the ones that require the most work) should be located nearest your home.

Water: Rainwater will most likely be harvested off shelters and living areas, and so will be near where it is needed. Water can also be used for passive solar reflection in greenhouses.

Orchard: Orchards are rare in the city, but if you do have one, it should be used as a windbreak and to prevent soil erosion.

Waste: Manure from animals should be covered, and in its raw form should not be allowed to leech directly into the ground next to food crops. It needs to be composted first.

Measuring Success

For the land to be considered sustainable, it needs to produce at least as much as or more than it consumes. In a permaculture system, success is measured by the energy that is available in the system and the intangible benefits that are reaped. However, urban farming must, by necessity, measure success through pounds of food the land can put out. There are some other measurements that urban farmers can enjoy:

  1. Production increases when irrigation is steady and the soil is healthy. Roots can then penetrate deeper and get essential nutrients.
  2. Using gravity-fed water saves energy and can be used to recycle water. Electricity usage is a measurable energy (and money) expense, and the less you use to pump water, the better.
  3. Providing tree windbreaks and forests for animal forage over 20-30 percent of the land will increase production simply by providing shelter and microclimates for plants and animals. They will also provide food for themselves, and homes for predators that eat pests.
  4. The farmer, despite nothaving a tractor, has to perform less physical labor because of the interconnectedness of the system.
  5. The land has recreational value for people to enjoy.
  6. Future generations can enjoy the land.

One way in which I would suggest deviating from true permaculture is in cultivating ecological succession. Typically, a permaculture system would recommend creating a self-sustaining growing pattern that would mimic the pattern of the forest, or creating an ecological succession. The end goal would often be a food forest, which takes ten years or more to develop. Since we don’t have the luxury of that much time, we will still use the commonsense design approach permaculture provides, but without the focus on some of those long-term projects.

Permaculture Words to Know …

Here are some important words that are unique to permaculture design. Other systems use some similar words, but permaculture uses them differently.

Polyculture: Monoculture is the type of picturesque farming that one typically sees in North America, with long rows of a single crop grown over a large flat area. The “amber waves of grain” in America is monoculture, and the complete opposite of polyculture. Polyculture is when varieties of plant and animal species are mixed together for mutual benefit. Orchards can be clumped closely together rather than spread out in neat rows, and they may have herbs and ducks under them. A climbing plant can be grown with a tall plant, such as corn.

Aquaculture: Water systems have the potential to produce much more protein per square foot than an equivalent area of land. A successful aquaculture system is patterned after productive land-water edges such as swamps and coral reefs. Although a permaculture ideal would be a natural pond, urban farming necessitates an aboveground tank with plants growing off the dredged fertilizer and looks very similar to hydroponic systems: in fact, these systems are called aquaponics.

Elements: Any feature on a piece of land is an element, whether you intentionally placed it there or not. This could be a clump of trees or herbs, a pond, or a pile of rocks. These elements are part of an overall design, each one thoughtfully used to make the land more productive. Each element is also connected to everything else in as many mutual beneficial relationships as possible. This wide variety of connections, or diversity, increases efficiency and places value on elements that formerly might have been seen as annoyances. Every “problem” can be turned into an advantage. For example, weeds are simply Stage 1 plants (or pioneers) and can be turned into mulch (if they haven’t gone to seed yet).

Design Problems

Almost no urban agricultural land is ideally suited to farming. You will be presented with many design problems, but nothing can totally deter you from using a piece of property for farming except for extremely high levels of toxicity. While traditional farming would say that gravel or hills would exclude the land from being farmed, urban farmers think differently. Some of the most common urban land issues include the following:

Gravel or covered in asphalt: Many successful farms have been placed on former parking lots or former gas station lots. This has been solved by using growing boxes filled with soil from somewhere else.

Hilly: Hillsides all over the world are farmed through terracing.

Cold climate: Winter growing in North America has become a standard practice even in temperate zones thanks to plastic high tunnels.

No water: This is the one issue that is hard to fix. Traditional farms would drill a well or put in irrigation lines, which you can’t do in a city. Rainwater collection and gravity-fed irrigation from tanks can solve this.

Toxicity: Some soil has lead in it. The danger from this often has more to do with tilling and breathing dust than lead poisoning from vegetables, but lots of compost is the solution.

Elements as Goals:

Before you move on to the next phase of design, you should first think about your goals. What do you want the land to do for you? What do you need to live? Write these goals down, and turn them into elements:

A way of growing food in winter = a greenhouse

A solution to drought and irrigation = water storage

A way to stay organized = a tool shed

A place for animals to live = a barn

A place to grow food = a garden

A place for food and yard waste = a compost pile

A source of protein and manure = a chicken coop

A way to stop the winds = a windbreak

Inventory of Elements

Now that you have a list of goals and elements that you want to have, you need to take an inventory of the elements you already do have. Any characteristic of your land, whether you see it as positive or negative, must be written down. This includes large rocks, hills, marshy places, existing structures, trees, etc. Of course, to create a map like this you will have to carefully inspect every corner of the land and use every sense you have to observe the finer details. This may mean taking notes for an extended period of time. First, walk the perimeter of your property and measure how many square feet you have available. The easiest way to do this is to measure the length of one of your normal steps with a tape measure, walk the length and width of the property, and multiply those paces by how many feet one of your steps is. Then take note of these things:

  • temperature changes from one area to the next
  • how much effort it takes to go from one place to another (for example, from your home to the plot)
  • where prickly plants tend to grow
  • where insects seem to group or swarm together
  • where different species of trees are growing, and the conditions
  • how water moves across the land when it rains or snow melts
  • which trees have been shaped by the wind, and the direction the wind comes from
  • where the sun is warmest and where shadows move
  • signs of animals moving, eating, and sleeping
  • plants that produce fruit before other plants
  • poisonous or unpleasant plants
  • erosion or ditches caused by erosion
  • damp or boggy ground, which may yield peat or clay
  • dead wood or logs that can be harvested
  • slopes and hills, their height and which sides are sunnier
  • cliffs, rocky places, and rough areas

Categorize all the resources you have mapped and list them in three groups: life, energy, and social. Life resources are the plants, animals, and insects growing there. Energy is the potential wind, wood, water, or gas energy you can use. Social resources are the teaching, recreation, and gathering possibilities for people. There are also resources off the land, such as restaurants and markets for selling products, sawdust from sawmills, schools, and a population of people who might be a potential market for your farm produce.

Take time to analyze each element. Think about what it needs to live and what it needs to be useful. What are its characteristics, its behavior? What does it produce and what beneficial functions does it provide?

Categorize these by characteristics, input, and output. Input is what the element needs to function; anything that allows it to be useful or keeps it alive. Output is what it can provide to other elements. Characteristics are the attributes that make that element what it is. Make sure you number the element for reference later. It is easiest to write each element on a three-by-five card:

  1. Rock Pile

Characteristics: Dark slate

Input: Sunlight (to radiate heat), human labor to move the rocks around

Output: Insulating and passive solar properties, structural support, roofing, flooring, wall for passive solar heat, windbreak, shelter

  1. Herb Garden

Characteristics: Variety of perennial herbs (comes back every year)

Input: Sun, water, mulch

Output: Medicinal herbs, cooking herbs, bee forage

  1. Chickens

Characteristics: Barred rock chicken, dual-purpose breed for both eggs and meat

Input: Food, water, grit, shelter, other chickens

Output: Eggs, meat, feathers, manure, methane, foraging

  1. Deer

Input: Food, water, forest, other deer, marked territory/path

Characteristics: White-tailed deer

Output: Meat, manure, methane, foraging

Once you have taken an inventory of all the elements you have and that you plan to build, you will need to match the outputs with the inputs of other elements. For example, if bees need to eat and the herbs can provide food for them, they should be planted in proximity to the bees. The chickens need food every day, so the coop should not be too far from the house. At the same time, they produce manure, so the coop should be near the manure pile. The trees can provide forage for chickens, so their pen could open out into the trees. Lay the cards out next to each other on the table, so you can visualize these connections.

If you can’t leave the cards undisturbed as you go on to the next phase of design, draw a flowchart of how the elements are organized and connected.

Working with Cycles

Many of the cycles of nature will continue around you without your notice, even as you become more attuned to your gardens and the various creatures that inhabit them. However, some awareness is necessary. The water cycle is the most obvious, with the wind and rain reminding us frequently of its processes. The soil goes through cycles that are evidenced by the plants that grow—the pioneer species fixing the nitrogen in the soil and preparing the way for other plants. Then there is the nitrogen cycle itself, which is just as crucial as the water cycle for life on Earth. The atmosphere is ripe with nitrogen, but plants are unable to use most of it. It must be chemically altered by bacteria (like rhizobium) or by lightning. Once it changes, it is fixed. The volume of fixed nitrogen in the soil decides how much will grow, and when those plants die, they release the nitrogen. There are also cycles of harmony between species. The ducks forage in the gardens in the fall after the harvest, which fertilizes the soil, removes pests and weeds, and feeds the ducks. They live and grow, providing eggs and meat for people.

The Ideal Farm System

When your garden is in its best working order, the soil will be completely mulched and the soil rich with organic matter. When you harvest a plant, as much of it will be eaten as possible and the rest composted in the compost bin, while you replant as many times as possible. Some of your dill, fennel, and carrots are left to go to seed (allowed to produce flowers and seeds rather than being harvested) in order to attract parasitic wasps. In the winter, a green manure crop is grown and turned over to return precious nutrients to the soil. Any volunteer tomatoes and cucumbers from the compost heap are replanted in an empty spot.

In a permaculture system, beds often take on a spiral, wild shape that flows with the contours of the land. This is where we need to talk about scale. There is an efficiency of scale that tips when we talk about the difference between urban farming and urban homesteading. Urban homesteaders should absolutely follow this permaculture ideal. It is easiest and requires less work. It becomes inefficient when you increase the size from several hundred square feet to several thousand square feet. A farmer interested in intensive production should have a standardized bed size and shape. This makes harvesting and replanting easier when you are planting on a weekly basis throughout the season. By the same token, in some cases bigger is not always better, which we talked about in the previous section.

If you have strong winds and need to protect the garden, you can build a barrier instantly with tires, which also act as a thermal mass that absorbs heat. The ground should be prepared first with newspaper and mulch. Then the tires can be stacked and filled with earth, compost, hay or whatever scraps you may have. At the top you can plant a species that is wind tolerant. This is all less than beautiful—straight, row-cropped beds rimmed by tires and plastic tunnels. But it is a proven system that produces well in almost any climate.

A Word about Animal Housing

You can look at the animal chapter to see the individual needs of animals, but in an urban setting you often can’t be picky about animal location. Animals aren’t sheltered in barns but rather in sheds, shelters, and pens. Here are a few tips:

  • Orient the shelter at a forty-five degree angle to the prevailing wind so that it won’t act as a wind tunnel. If this is not possible, build entrances from two different directions.
  • Put it close to the manure pile and have it opening into the animal run. Water and feed should be nearby and it should be easy to remove manure.
  • Use natural lighting as much as possible, and if you need lights make sure each pen has its own lightbulb with its own switch.
  • The feed room should be rodent-proofed with sheet metal. Mucking equipment should be kept somewhere other than the feed room to prevent contamination.
  • The floor is probably the dirt or grass of your yard. A thick covering of hay or sawdust is the solution to keeping animals’ feet clean and making cleanup easier.


“For the man sound in body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather; every sky has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously.”

—George Gissing, “Winter,” The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, 1903

Climate as an Asset

Weather is one of the top complaints of all gardeners: too much sun, too little sun, too much wind, and too much rain. Conditions are never perfect. North America has almost every climate represented, from the driest places in the world to full tropical rainforests, which not only increases the difficulty in growing plants but also provides tremendous opportunity to grow just about anything.

Most people cut a square out of their backyard and plant perfect rows of the same varieties of species that you might find at a grocery store, which is a very narrow view of gardening. Not surprisingly, they often meet with failure and give up. Not only are those species developed for a specific type of large-scale commercial farming, the chance that those species were designed for your climate and weather is very slim.

The real extremes of weather and climate can be used and defended with a little planning. The importance of choosing the right species is emphasized throughout this book, and it starts with climate. A hardy species developed specifically for your climate is likely to do better, obviously. You must set up microclimates using trellises and water diversion, either to retain moisture and coolness in the desert, or to reflect heat and store water in a colder climate. The key to this is remembering that weather isn’t a problem; it is an asset to be used.

Climate Zones

Most people are familiar with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. These zones are useful in a general sense, but in that case we might as well consider our land in relation to the whole climate, rather than through plant hardiness. There are three general climate zones (at least, three that humans live in):

Temperate: The temperate zone is where most people in North America live. In the winter the temperature drops below freezing, and in the summer it gets hotter than 50°F (10°C). There is a polar zone as well, but since it never gets warmer than 50°F, not much grows.

Subtropical: In North America, there are very few true tropical areas—at the bottom tip of Florida and some parts of Mexico. Instead, the humid, warm climates are subtropical, with winter temperatures that never drop below freezing. Unlike the tropics, temperatures do drop below 64°F (18°C).

Arid: There are many arid regions of North America, with an average rainfall of less than twenty inches (50 cm), or even desert with rainfall under ten inches (25 cm).

These zones are also at the mercy of the weather, and with the very real effects of climate change, people will experience greater extremes. Rain will fall more and create flooding, or rain will fall less and cause droughts. Temperatures will break records for heat or cold, and wind will become violent. More frequent deadly storms will occur. This means that a humid, subtropical climate may have even more hurricanes, or maybe the normally humid weather will be uncharacteristically dry. Even if these changes are subtle, they have very far-reaching effects on ecosystems and plant growth. What may have worked in a garden for many years may not be as successful in the future. This is why plant hardiness zones are somewhat useless. Being flexible and smart in creating microclimates is a better strategy.


Rain may be one of the most important sources of water that you have, but it’s not the only source of precipitation. Snow and hail fall from the sky, and condensation or dew collects on the earth. Water is a recurring subject in this book because it is the single most critical resource necessary for survival.

  1. Awareness of the yearly average rainfall is important, but what is even more useful is being familiar with where it rains the most and how much of it you will get at one time. If all the rain happens in the spring and none in the summer, you will have to plan accordingly.
  2. Trees planted above the house on a slope shouldn’t need much water and should be able to thrive independently. Their purpose is to stop erosion due to rainfall.
  3. Too much rainfall also limits the amount of sun. Cloudy skies block the light, and this is much more difficult to counteract than dry conditions that can be solved through adequate water storage. Reflective plants and surfaces can be used to increase the sunlight that falls on sun-loving plants like tomatoes or peppers so they will ripen.
  4. Dew is most easily collected in the desert where there are clear skies and a gentle breeze. You can stack some stones, which will collect moisture for the ground below. Several stacks surrounding a plant can keep a grapevine or small tree alive.


Frost happens when the land loses heat rapidly, usually just before the sun comes up. You need to understand your region’s yearly frost dates and the lowest and highest temperatures the plants and animals will have to tolerate. Mulching the soil can prevent heat from being lost, and the frost will settle on top of the mulch rather than on the soil. But if there are plants coming out of the mulch, this can also cause them to freeze. The best way to prevent frost is to stop water vapor from condensing by keeping the air moving. Try not to create any blockage that would cause cold air to pool in one spot. In the southern hemisphere the south side of a slope is usually colder, and in the northern hemisphere the north side is usually colder. Situate your gardens on the other side.

  1. Some plants require frost to produce fruit, and frost also adds water to the soil. It’s just not possible to stop frost everywhere on your land, nor would you want to. If you are situated on a slope or hill, you can locate the gardens above the frost line (an area known as a thermal belt). This is important because cold air settles on the tops of hills, causing frost, and also flows downward, pooling in valleys. This leaves the thermal belt a little warmer.
  2. A wall built with dark stones absorbs heat and can prevent frost by radiating heat at night. Plants will grow faster next to a wall like this, but a light-colored wall will assist some sun-loving plants to ripen, so use the color that works best for plants that will be growing there.
  3. A large body of water will warm and cool more slowly than the surrounding environment, and thus serves to modify the temperature of its immediate vicinity. This creates a small microclimate, and this is why there is less frost near the ocean.


Too much wind can harm wind-sensitive plants, blow away seeds, lower the temperature of the soil, dry up moisture, kill young animals, and make it intolerable to live and work. Winds of fifteen miles per hour, which in some places is the average wind speed, are strong enough to reduce production. Winds of twenty miles per hour are enough to cause physical damage to plants. A windbreak can either block or channel winds in the direction you want them to go, ensure that plants produce and animals gain weight, be made of almost anything, be edible for animals and bees, and provide a home for beneficial birds. Near the ocean, a windbreak is the first priority in establishing an orchard.

When planning your sectors, take note of the direction of the prevailing wind, or the direction the wind blows more often. You do this by tying a streamer or flag on a tree or stake. In the city, the wind may not necessarily be a problem because you can use buildings. As mentioned before, you can use tires for a quick solution or potted trees for a natural windbreak.

Since cool air always goes downhill, a slope can create a wind that sweeps through a valley. In some large valleys, the wind will flow uphill during the day and downhill at night. The side of a hill with the prevailing wind will experience faster wind speeds going uphill, and as the wind reaches the other side it will be disrupted and slow down as it goes down again. A similar effect happens near large bodies of water: during the day, warm air rising creates a breeze that circles toward the land, and at night, as the air cools, it reverses and circles toward the water.

A small shelter, such as an old bag wrapped around stakes, a metal drum, old tires, or straw bales, can be built around plants to shelter them from wind. Traditional structures like cold frames (wood frames with glass tops), cloches (capes or bells that sit over the plant), and milk jugs with the bottoms cut off can all work. A building can be protected with bushes and vines planted around it. Even just snow or dirt piled up can be an effective insulator.

When choosing the material of your windbreak, remember that trees are both a benefit and a competitor. They provide firewood, stop erosion, create privacy, and offer a habitat for animals. They also have large roots that need lots of water, and windbreak trees won’t give you as much fruit.

Another way to shelter the garden from wind is to build a trellis extending from the corners of the house, and plant climbing vines that grow up and cover them. These will control the wind flow, trap the sun, and provide something to eat. These grow fast enough to provide wind shelter as trees are growing, but make sure to pick the right species as they can quickly take over and embed themselves into structures permanently.


Every 330 feet (100 m) of altitude away from sea level is equivalent to a temperature change of one degree of latitude from the equator. For example, if you are hiking exactly on the equator, and you climb to a height of 1,650 feet, the temperature will be the same as it would be five degrees from the equator. This is why a tropical region can have snow in the mountains. A body of water also modifies the temperature of the surrounding air through evaporation. In very hot areas, even a small body of water or a fountain can cool the surrounding area. There are various means of modifying the temperature:

  1. The most obvious way to create a warm microclimate is with a greenhouse, which is particularly valuable in the winter.
  2. In the spring, remove mulch from the soil in your intensive growing areas so that the dirt can warm up, because mulch doesn’t have any heat-conducting properties. Mulch (and living ground cover) should be used at almost every other time in the gardens to help the soil retain moisture, reduce erosion, maintain a stable temperature, and stop weeds.
  3. Plants release water vapor, cooling the air and causing humidity. Filling a porous earthenware pot with water and covering the top with a heavy, wet fabric can create a similar effect. Place these around in the area you want to cool.
  4. Blocking the sun is a very quick way of cooling something down. Shade cloth that allows some light in is the simplest way of cooling the growing area.


Plants need light, and redirecting sunlight can mean the difference between green tomatoes and red ones. Any plants that have a high need for light and warmth can be placed on the sunny side of buildings and slopes.

Trees with light-colored leaves can be used to reflect heat and light. A sun-facing wall can be used in a similar way, and can reflect the sun in winter. Plants will ripen faster and more completely if they have a reflective surface behind them.

A temporary shelter made out of fabric or other material can be used to provide shade and prevent sunburn during the hottest parts of summer.


“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

—Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

Assessing the Water Situation

Water is the most important element. On a piece of land, no other factor impacts so many other things, or is affected by so many other elements. How much water you have depends on the rainfall, how the soil drains, the plants that are currently growing, people and animals using the water, and what kinds of plants you want to grow. Some of these factors are in your control. The first step is to decide where the water is coming from and devise a way to store it, using gravity to move it to where you want to use it. The second step is to use species that need less water in places that are difficult to get water to. In an urban setting, this may be as simple as plugging a hose into a faucet, but awareness is still important.

Beginning dates of seasons (for the northern hemisphere—they are reversed in the southern hemisphere):

Summer solstice: On June 21, the North Pole leans most toward the sun, and it is the longest day of the year.

Winter solstice: On December 22, the South Pole leans most toward the sun, and it is the shortest day of the year.

Vernal (spring) equinox: On March 21, the earth is most sideways to the sun; day and night are the same length.

Autumnal equinox: On September 23, the earth is most sideways to the sun; day and night are the same length.

Lengths (for northern hemisphere):

Spring: 92 days and 20 hr.

Summer: 93 days and 14 hr.

Autumn: 89 days and 19 hr.

Winter: 89 days and 1 hr.

These rice terraces in Bali illustrate effective water management. The torrential rainfall running downhill is utilized by the water-loving rice.

While trying to reach these goals, keep in mind that water is also a responsibility. Your job is to use the water you harvest for as many tasks as you can through conservation and reuse.


A swale is a long, shallow ditch about three to five feet across that serves to stop and channel the flow of water into the soil. Unlike a regular ditch, which directs and carries water somewhere else, the swale is made to help the water absorb directly into the soil. Swales lie across the land, especially across a slope, and when the water is forced into the soil, it can be soaked up by trees planted along behind. They can be filled with rock, gravel, or gypsum for even better water penetration. Swales are perhaps the most effective method of water conservation in both dry and humid climates. They work well on steep slopes or on flat prairies and can even be implemented in an urban area to take advantage of road and roof runoff.

A swale may not be at all practical for the urban farmer, because it requires pretty drastic changes to the landscape. However, in this time of climate change, knowledge of swales will be increasingly important. It may become the difference between having and not having food, and so it is included here.

Building a Swale

It is not difficult to dig a ditch a few feet deep. The swale will catch the water in a pool as the rain runs into it, where it will gradually soak in. If the swale is overflowing, then you need to widen it or improve the drainage. Over time you can throw mulch in and grass will probably grow. If you plant trees along it, they will get taller and begin to shade it, and other species will spring up.

The swale is really all about positioning. Two or more are always put in together, along the counter of the slope (horizontally crossing the slope to stop the water from running downhill), and the soil is loosened up to help water penetrate. The second swale is placed between ten and sixty feet away from the first, depending on the amount of rainfall you get per year.


Space between swales

Less than 10 inches

60 feet

10 inches

50 feet

20 inches

40 feet

30 inches

30 feet

40 inches

20 feet

50 inches

10 feet


Unlike a swale, which stops the water and forces it into the soil, a diversion drain is a ditch that carries water away. A diversion drain can be used to direct water into a swale, a pond, or an irrigation system. Drains are also used to direct the flow of water to a place to catch water runoff. If they are directed to swales, they don’t need to be waterproof, but if you are sending the water to a dam, the drain should be built of rock or concrete. Installing a spill gate also gives you control over the flow of water. If you fall victim to flooding or you want to control crop irrigation, you can use the spill gate to direct the water where you want. A spill gate is simply a removable method of blocking water.

Dry Bed Management

This kind of management is most valuable in the desert where small creeks and streams can quickly get out of hand after a short rainfall. The rain runs into the low creek beds and rapidly becomes a flood, eroding the soil and becoming unusable to anyone. It flows too fast to be absorbed into the soil or taken up by plants that conglomerate in the creek bed. It may also cause damage.

Stream braiding is a nontechnical term for spreading the flow of a stream out into a myriad of much smaller channels over a landscape, so that it irrigates the entire area, and at the same time prevents flooding. This happens naturally in many areas where silt and sand erode and deposit downstream, breaking up the terrain. To do this, start at the head of the stream and dig a small pool. Branch off from that pool and create a diamond pattern across the landscape by digging diversion channels. Where each diamond intersects you will dig another small pool. This strategy works well for streams that tend to run dry parts of the year and are prone to flash floods.


A small farm under two acres can use between five hundred and one thousand gallons (1900-3800 L) of water per day during the summer, or more. Tanks can be made from plastic, concrete, compacted clay, metal, or even plastered dirt. The water to fill the tanks comes from rainwater that runs off roofs of buildings or other surfaces, or is pumped in from a well. To prevent mosquitoes, the tank should be covered and screened. Thick, green algae will begin to grow over the sides of the tank, but this is a good thing because the algae will help clean the water. The outlet pipe of the tank can be three inches (7.6 cm) above the bottom so that the algae remain undisturbed.

Some people have recommended that mosquitofish can be used in a tank to eat mosquito larvae. The use of mosquitofish (or gambusia) does more damage than good, and it is questionable if they eat any more larvae than any other fish. They have hundreds of fry and breed prolifically, but they only live a couple of years. They should not be introduced to your aquaculture pond, because other fish tend to avoid eating them and they can quickly choke out other populations. A more effective mosquito control is frogs and birds.

It makes sense to place a water tank at the top of a hill. In fact, a large water tank set on the top of a hill can act as the foundation for a building, and the building roof can be used to collect rainwater.

This eight hundred gallon plastic tank was traded with a family for a CSA share. It served a one-and-a-half acre area. A pump ran on a timer through the night to fill it, and a second timer turned on the sprinkler.

Choosing a Tank

There are many different types of water tanks. Choosing the right type can be difficult because the pros and cons aren’t always extremely clear. Price is always a factor. The earthbag tank is cheap and durable, but it takes up a huge amount of space. Polyethylene is cheap, durable, and comes in any size and shape, but people concerned about chemicals leeching from the plastic will want to avoid it. Even an earthbag tank is lined with polyethylene, so it may not be any cleaner. Galvanized steel is considered safe to drink from, although it has a zinc coating that does leech into the water. It is a good thing that the zinc no longer has lead in it, which manufacturers at one time used. The concrete tank is less expensive but it has more metal in it in the form of rebar than a galvanized steel tank does, and even then its lifespan is shorter than that of other options. However, if the right concrete is used, it may be the safest to drink from.

Another major factor is portability. If you believe that someday you may need to move your tank, plastic is the clear choice.

Earthbag Cistern

Earthbags make a very inexpensive water tank. You must use fifty-pound bags made of polypropylene or other durable plastic that will be waterproof, at least seventeen inches wide and thirty inches long. The steps are simple, although very labor-intensive:

  1. The tank is set at least a quarter of the way into the ground, and so you have to dig a smooth hole the size and shape of your tank, leaving room for the earthbags.
  2. Line the hole with pond liner or heavy polyethylene.
  3. Begin building the walls. As you put down each layer of earthbags, lay two strands of barbed wire between each layer to hold it together.




Galvanized steel


Takes up little space

Lasts 20 years

Must have a concrete base

Can’t be set in the ground

More expensive

Possible metals leeching


Available in all shapes/sizes

Less expensive

Doesn’t need a concrete base


Lasts 25 years

Takes up little space

Possible chemical leeching from plastic


Less expensive

No chemical leeching

Lasts 15 years

Has more metal in it than a steel tank (rebar)

Takes up more space


May be cheapest

Lasts 20+ years

Takes up more space

  1. Once you have the walls done they need to be waterproofed. You can plaster walls with concrete or stucco, lay down a pond liner, or use a sheet of heavy polyethylene. Cover the top with an earthbag dome or concrete.

Cold Climates

In a cold climate, the water is likely to freeze over and make a certain amount of your water unusable. Several feet of ice can make a significant difference in your water supply. Pipes need to be buried in the ground at least three feet to prevent freezing and bursting, or they will have to be left on all winter or completely drained. Such wastefulness can also quickly drain your tank. You can prevent many of these issues by putting the water tank under the ground.

Pond Design

Water holds and reflects heat. As the temperature drops at night, heat radiates into the air and surrounding gardens. A pond will keep plants and people warmer in the cold and cool them off in the heat, and serve as a place to grow water-loving plants and fish. Tiny frogs will live there and eat bugs. Your pond can grow water chestnuts, rice, bait fish, freshwater shrimp, snails, aquarium fish, water lilies, basketry materials such as reeds and rushes, and mushrooms. It can also be a home to crayfish, prawns, mussels, clams, and ducks.

A small backyard pond versus aquaculture tanks.

Some rules of thumb for designing ponds:

  • For fish, several small ponds no more than four to six feet deep work better, while storage ponds can be ten to twenty feet (3-6 m) deep.
  • A large pond for irrigation shouldn’t have many fruit or nut trees around the pond, or the pond will become polluted with leaves and dropped fruit.
  • Any waterproof container can be used. You can use stones to disguise the edges of a bathtub sunk into the ground.
  • Large livestock can’t have access to ponds for aquaculture or they will destroy the balance of the pond.
  • The pond must be near a water source to be filled initially or topped up during a dry season. This can be a diversion drain or hose.

The pond should have various refuge areas for each species that lives there. For the ducks, a small island can be formed in the center. A series of shallow shelves around the edges can serve as a home for forage plants. The pond also needs to have some deep areas at least six to eight feet deep (2-3 m) where fish can retreat in the summer when it is hot if the pond is outside. Drop in some hollow logs or pieces of pipe for them to hide in.

The depth or volume of the pond doesn’t have any impact on how many fish you can stock. The population of the pond relates to the total square feet of its surface. A pond three to six square feet (1-2 sq. m) can be used to raise some plants and a small population of fish. A pond at least a hundred fifty square feet (14 sq. m) can supply a family with all the fish they need (if the right species is selected), water plants, and a flock of ducks.

Pond design isn’t extremely complicated. As long as you use any swampy areas or low-lying ground you already have and waterproof the bottom, you can build a fairly successful pond. Keep in mind the rules of thumb to be even more successful at growing things in it.

Constructing the Pond

  1. Lay down a rope as a guide for the shape of your pond while you dig.
  2. Divide the pond into thirds: one-third for the shallow end, one-third for the mid-range depth, and one-third for the deep end.
  3. Line the bottom with pond liner. Pond lineris a heavy black plastic, rubber, or geotextile sheet made specifically for this purpose. The edges of any small pieces should be taped together or weighed down with heavy rocks. You may also want to put down a layer of pond underlayment under the liner to protect it.
  4. The edges of the pond will need to be stabilized with rocks of varying sizes, bamboo, grass ledges, or logs, especially at first, before other plants step in to prevent erosion. This step also helps hide the liner, so it’s a good idea to use several materials for a natural appearance.
  5. Do not introduce fish right away because there won’t be enough food. Once you have built the dam and the pond begins to fill, lay down a couple of inches of straw and trample it into the bottom. This will provide a habitat for water insects.
  6. Introduce water plants such as lilies, water chestnuts, and duckweed to build up the bug population. This process may take at least six months. They have to be very well established to withstand being eaten all the time by fish and other animals. You can start this process by leaving the plants in plastic pots for a while and simply submerging them in the water, so you can move them around if you need to. Transplant them when they get bigger.
  7. The pond inlet from any outside water source must be planted with grass to help filter the incoming water. Keep the inlet clear of any debris.
  8. The water should become green. If it doesn’t, add a small amount of manure. The water may also be muddy at first if it is coming from a dam or other flowing source. If that is the case, add one teaspoon of gypsum per square foot (4.5 g per 0.10 sq. m).
  9. If the water gets too warm or it has been cloudy for a while you may need to aerate it, or the oxygen in the water may drop too low. Plants won’t oxygenate the water unless it is sunny, and they may not be able to keep up with the demand in hot weather. The average water temperature should be about three-quarters of the air temperature. This is why people have tiny waterfalls and pumps that keep the water flowing. However, we are trying to save energy, so you might want to invest in a floating emergency aeration system. That is an electric device that sits on the surface of the water and creates bubbles and disturbance.
  10. Hopefully you won’t need an emergency aeration device if you have the right proportion of plants. The plants should cover around 60 percent of the surface of the pond. Plants that live under the surface should be spread at a rate of one bunch per two feet (0.2 sq. m).
  11. Introduce baby fish in the spring. You can also add a few buckets of pond water from a nearby pond to introduce a supply of aquatic insects.
  12. Over time the bottom of the pond will acidify, and while you can add lime to balance it out, every few years you may need to drain it. When it is dry, you could raise a crop of melons or rice. Your primary goal is to maintain water quality, with a pH of around seven or eight.

Irrigation Principles

Even a small property can become very self-reliant in the water department with a well-developed water diversion system. It is not only ecological to use your own water sources from your own land, it is more secure. You will have peace of mind knowing where your water comes from and what’s in it, and that you will never be without it due to some disaster. Rainwater that directs into swales and reserve ponds may have irrigation pipes leading to the garden and orchards, which also have swales and diversion drains helping to direct water to the right places. However, an irrigation system should never be used for growing watermelons in the desert, or for growing lawns and washing cars. Irrigation is simply a way of supplementing the natural flow of the land, and possibly rehabilitating the soil.

Desert Irrigation

With some careful planning, you can still have enough water to grow food in the desert. All gray water should be recycled to a wetland marsh, and instead of spray or flood irrigation, a drip hose should be used. The drip hose should be buried at least six inches under mulch or soil. Drip hoses can be expensive, but you can make your own version with earthenware pots sunk into the ground (called ollas), bottles with holes punctured in the sides, or pipes filled with gravel. In the orchard a sprinkler can be used to spray a mist over roots. Sprinklers are only used in shady tree areas; otherwise evaporation becomes a problem. In dry, hot climates, only water in the early morning, late in the evening, or at night. Mulch and swales, which trap and preserve water runoff, are really the secret to successful desert gardening.

Designing an Irrigation System

Unlike “irrigation systems” that people shell out thousands of dollars for, permaculture irrigation is half species choice and half terrain. Only a small part of it has to do with piping or pumps or equipment. By studying the slope and topography of the land, gravity is used to direct water into the gardens or even to individual plants. These individual plants are chosen for their specific traits that make them function well in the location that you want to put them. The roof is harvested for rainwater, which is stored in a large tank and hopefully gravity-fed to the gardens below if it does get dry. It is less likely to dry out if the topography and layout of your garden are conducive to water retention, if you have mulched extensively, and your species can handle a little drought if you can’t water them.

Simple Rainwater Collection

The simplest system is one in which a roof or other sloping surface is equipped with a gutter that carries the water to a covered storage container with an outlet tap. The old term for this system is the “rain barrel.”

Awesome Rainwater Collection

  • 1,500-gallon cistern of nontoxic metal or plastic (or homemade cistern)
  • ½ horsepower shallow-well pump
  • Plastic PVC and CPVC piping

Every 1,000 square feet (92 sq. m) of roof surface area will gather 600 gallons (2,270 L) of water per inch (2.5 cm) of rain, and every roof on your property can be used to collect rainwater. The best material for this purpose is metal because it’s a bit cleaner than other roof materials. You will also need to install gutters with a leaf screen.

Making It Work:

  1. The roof of the house is where the water is collected. The bigger the roof the more water you will get. The rain washes off the roof into the gutters. Metal roofs are best because they easily wash and collect the most water.
  2. The gutter is covered with a leaf screen and directs the water to the cistern. A mosquito screen covers the entrance hole of the cistern, and an overflow pipe at the very top directs extra to the garden.
  3. From the cistern, the water goes through a valve to the pump.
  4. The water leaves the pump, and through your timer to a multiple-outlet irrigation valve. The timer will control which hose is on and when, and for how long. Today, technology exists that allows you to control this with your mobile phone and automatically check the weather.
  5. In the city, if you still want to be connected to the municipal water supply (which you will need to do to have enough water for irrigation), you usually need an approved backflow prevention device that will ensure that no rainwater gets into the city water supply. This device must be examined and maintained properly.

Gray Water

Gray water is the water that drains from sinks, tubs, washing machines, and showers. If you use a separating compost toilet, then you might divert the liquid wastes from that as well. Gray water is different from black water in that it doesn’t contain sewage: solid human waste. In most systems the gray water is simply mixed with black water and dumped into a septic tank or sent to the city sewer. This is obviously a waste. Gray water, if handled properly, reclaims valuable nutrients and puts them back into the soil, while at the same time saving energy and water.

Keep in mind that gray water systems might be illegal where you live, although it is changing. Where building codes do exist to regulate them, you will have to get the system inspected and approved.

Gray water cannot be spouted directly into a food garden because it will contaminate your food. It can, however, be piped into a marsh or container garden where it will help grow a variety of water-loving plants. The first consideration is location. Either you need to use an existing marsh, or you will need to pipe it somewhere where nothing important will be contaminated. This means a place that won’t flood, isn’t near any food, and where it won’t harm any important species. To build your own gray water garden, follow these steps:

  1. From the gray water source, install a two-inch (5 cm) pipe from the house to the gray-water treatment area with a grade of 2 percent, put through a trench on a bed of sand. Install a shutoff valve and two screen filters: one on the inlet and one on the outlet. Fill the trench with soil.
  2. Calculate your water usage. A frugal household of five with a waterless composting toilet uses about 940 gallons (3,558 L) of water per week.
  3. Your runoff area should be able to handle the volume of water that is entering it in a day. One cubic foot (0.03 cu m) of wetlands will filter roughly one gallon (4 L) of water. Your surface area should be able to handle about a third of your daily gray water production, and the container should be two feet deep (60 cm).

Here’s the formula:

Daily gray water (in gallons or liters)/3 = surface area of marsh


134 gallons per day/3 = 44 square feet

This could mean a long skinny marsh two feet wide and twenty-two feet long (0.6 m x 6.7 m), or a small area five feet wide and nine feet long (5 m x 2.7 m). But in an urban environment, an alternative method is used. Rather than building an open marsh, the pipes run into a container garden. This container garden would have the same capacity and organic materials as the marsh, but would have to be formed of either one or more concrete planters.

  1. Build your concrete containers. The inside of the planting container should be layered with a variety of filtering materials, starting with a layer of gravel, then sand, then a layer of sticks cut into six-inch (15 cm) lengths, and finally a layer of straw and other mulches. The mulch must be at least eight inches (20 cm) deep and will have to be replenished every year.
  2. Now you can begin growing wetland plants in the mulch. Local varieties of cattails, rushes, reed grasses, horsetails and water-loving flowers are good choices. The cattails are edible, and rushes and reeds can be used for making baskets. These plants are part of the filtering system, purifying the water as they take it up into their roots.
  3. There are a few rules to using gray water. You must use biodegradable soaps and avoid any detergent. You also cannot wash anything with human waste on it, such as cloth baby diapers, and send the water to the gray-water system. If you have diapers to wash, you will have to have a way of keeping this black water separate. You could have a valve for the washing machine that sends water to the city or septic if you need it, and then switches back for other loads. Or you could give them a rinse and wash by hand and dump the water in your humanure compost before putting them in the washing machine. Having a humanurecompost pile is questionable in the city, however.
  4. The water level in your containers should never flood over the top of the mulch. If you find that you are over capacity, you can install a tank with a valve to control the flow of water, or you will have to increase the size of your system. If you do use a tank, the liquid in it must cycle every twenty-four hours or it will be too toxic to use anymore. Watch for clogs, and prevent them by flushing the system with clean water once a month.

This system can be valuable for the urban farmer for two reasons: First, it can provide a cash crop of ornamental water plants. It can also provide you with a sheltering plant system in case of drought. Drought is going to be a major problem in our changing climate, and shade and mulch will be an essential part of growing food. The plants can be used as a mulch. The other alternative in a permaculture system is to grow plants near the edges so that they shade the soil, preventing evaporation.

Ways to Water

Bucket: Many people use a bucket or watering can with great results, if they are watering inside or in their own backyard. It is the cheapest, most tiring method, but quite effective and it doesn’t waste much water. Watering with this method is very time-consuming, and just not possible if you are using an area bigger than a few hundred square feet.

Upside-down bottle: Used mainly for trees, get a jar or jug with a small opening and fill it with water. Stick it in the ground upside down next to the plant.

Drip hose: A hose with small holes that lets water drip out directly onto the soil and next to each plant. The cheapest version of this is called T-tape, although it degrades over time. Your local irrigation supplier or garden store can tell you what you need and how to install it.

Soaker hose: A hose with small holes on one side and a cap on one end that forces all the water out like a sprinkler three to five feet.

Ditch irrigation: A ditch around a field through which water from a well, spring, or community irrigation ditch flows. It is diverted into the field by contour ditches six to twelve inches deep through the field downhill. You don’t want to wash things out, but you don’t want it too dry. To make the water go into the contour ditches, dam the big ditch.

Traditional irrigation: Big farms use water pressure and large rotating sprinklers, either with wheels or simply rotating heads. These are quick and easy, but expensive and wasteful.

For urban farming you will be using everything but traditional irrigation. For things like microgreens, a pesticide sprayer that has a fine mist works well because it doesn’t disturb the seeds like a bucket would. A drip hose is your most likely solution, with a timer. For plants in containers where a drip hose won’t reach, you will probably be using a watering can or bucket. Watering will take almost as much time as weeding, so plan your irrigation carefully.

Summing It All Up

The basic rule of watering a garden is to put enough water to reach the roots, and when it dries out, water again. Generally, this means that you need it to be moist about six inches down (you can dig to find out), and you will have to water in the morning and evening (unless you have wet weather). Soak them good and deep when the sprouts are well started. If you are using mulches and shading the soil, you won’t have to water as often or as much.

In the coming years, drought and flood will make farming much more difficult. How can you keep the soil damp all the time during a water shortage? How can you drain a marshy backyard? This is why we have talked so much about rainwater collection, water storage, and redirection of water. Mulch is the key to the future of food production. It is used in dry farming, which is just creating a sponge out of mulch to absorb rainwater so it can be used during dry spells. Mulch also prevents erosion during flooding or high winds.


“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

—Charles Darwin

The Successful System

  • High biomass production. Biomassis the volume of living organisms in an area.
  • Lots of organic matter. Even if it’s not alive, the organic matter in and on the soil should be tremendous.
  • Living organisms provide minerals, rather than rocks and rain.
  • Retains minerals over time. Consumption and erosion have little impact.
  • Allows fungus and bacteria to play a central role in the cycles of life.
  • Maximizes diversity.
  • Has complex food chains rather than simple ones.
  • Sees relative sameness over time. Very little or very gradual change.
  • Uses species that are useful in as many ways as possible.

Drawing It Out

You’ve already taken an inventory of your land using permaculture principles. You should know how many square feet your garden space is, which way the ground slopes, the direction of the sun (or light source) and where it hits, and where there is shade. You should also know how far away and what direction the water source is and use graph paper to draw a picture of all these things. But you still can’t draw it out until you have decided on your plants, varieties, and your calendar. You probably have a general idea of what you want to grow. If you are following a typical urban SPIN-type model, you’ll be following a variation of Curtis Stone’s fifteen or so vegetables. If you are doing farm-to-table, you might have a garden that specializes in herbs or gourmet mushrooms. Your profitability is based on your square footage and how much you can grow per square foot. It is time to map out your space, what you will grow there, and the other elements.


The house, the fence, the outbuildings, the shaderoom, the patio—these are all possible trellises. A trellis is simply a framework that supports plants. Trellises can be built over pathways, and in the middle of gardens in the form of tripods, circular baskets, wire frames, archways, or even over streams. They can create hedges if perennials (such as hops) are planted on them, they keep areas cool, and they become part of living spaces. Ivy, grape, wisteria, roses, beans, cucumbers, melons, squash, peas, and tomatoes all need trellising.

Cold Frames and Covers

Unlike a high tunnel, which is more or less an immobile greenhouse, cold frames and covers can be used over any bed. This is very valuable in high-rotation beds. You can throw thin plastic over your plants and hold it down with rocks, or you can use a cloche, which is a light frame holding the plastic in a dome shape. A cold frame is a wooden box with a glass lid that can be opened and closed. To use a cold frame, you simply cover the plants when you know there will be frost. Generally, this means close them at night and open them during the day. Cold frames are harder to build and difficult to move but last longer and protect your plants from the weather. Cloches and plastic are easy to make but get wrecked easily. An easy cold frame is to use straw bales to hold up an old window—be resourceful. To make a sturdier cold frame, build a six-by-twelve-foot box on the ground with no bottom, and face it south. Angle the top so that the higher end is on the northern side. Fasten two windows with hinges on the top as a lid. Use a stick to prop the windows open. This is like a miniature greenhouse.

If you are extending your season by planting several gardens during the year, the early and late gardens will need special care. Some plants are hardy to frost, others aren’t. For a garden planted in August you will especially need frost covers over the plants. This means that you will have to be extra vigilant in watching the weather and be dedicated to covering them up.

The Greenhouse

A greenhouse is a structure that allows heat and light from the sun to penetrate but doesn’t allow all the heat to escape. Greenhouses are used mainly to grow plants that need the warmth, to extend the growing season, and to protect from frost. They can also be used as an attachment to your home so you can utilize solar heat.

The easiest greenhouse is a frame made of plywood or PVC piping that is fastened firmly to the ground, which is then covered in heavy-duty plastic. The bottom edge can be a wood frame or a square made of bales of hay, and the plastic stapled to it. The plastic can be fastened to the frame with leftover one-inch PVC piping cut into two-inch lengths and sawed along the edge to form a “C.” This is then snapped over the pipe and the plastic.

A more expensive and difficult greenhouse is a wood frame that is covered in glass or Plexiglas or other hard plastic sheeting. The frame would be similar to a barn frame, with gussets (or reinforcements to the joints) to strengthen it.


Fencing is sometimes a major challenge for urban farms, which might seem ironic in a place where there are so many fences. You may be lucky enough to be in a location which already has fences, but if not, you will have to decide whether or not to invest in permanent or temporary fencing. Obviously, the more permanent your property is the more permanent your fencing can be. But if temporary fencing is your only option, there are things you can do. Deer are usually a pest in the city, and you can use deer netting. This should be eight feet high and held in place by rebar stakes. Leave at least six inches of material at the bottom, which should be buried in a trench so they can’t get under it.

This high tunnel was built with PVC pipe and heavy-duty plastic sheets taped with Tuck tape. The wood framing on each end and along the bottom gives it strength.

My personal experience with deer is that deer netting will not deter a determined buck. After the buck jumped over and tore through our eight-foot deer netting, we used heavy plastic sheets to construct a fourteen-foot barrier. However, this buck also tore through the heavy plastic and jumped over nine-foot sections, and led four or five doe into the garden. This number of deer will decimate an entire season’s growth in a single night. In that situation, you only have three options: find a bow hunter and eat venison, let the deer have it, or buy metal fencing.