The power of sticks and stones, meandering and gabions…. a visit to Quail Springs Permaculture Farm

June 16, 2010 § 4 Comments

Permaculture for adults, toads for kids

Once a spring stops flowing, can it ever come back? This is a question that is much closer to home than many Angelenos might realize, given the rich hydrological history of our beloved but over-paved metropolitan area.

This weekend, I visited Quail Springs Permaculture Farm. To get to the farm, we drove two hours; past blooming fremontias, lupines, prickly poppies that look like miniature Romneyas, swathes of burned but once tree-covered land; till we were in the midst of the Los Padres Mountains. Then we turned up a long wide canyon.

The canyon was vegetated with a mix of sun-toughened plants: yerba santa in bloom, silvery something that reminded me of artemisia, and pine-like things. Colorful stray wildflowers broke up the rhythm. Yucca lit up the hills. I imagined this was as close as I might ever get to a pristine landscape.

But when Warren Brush, co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture Farm started speaking, I learned that there was nothing at all pristine about the landscape.  According to Chumash friends, over a hundred years ago, this valley would have been entirely unrecognizable to our eyes. At that time, our Chumash ancestors could walk throughout the canyon while always remaining under the shade of trees. Sycamores, pines, and myriad oaks were plentiful.

If this story sounds familiar, it is. Similar stories have been told about large swathes of our metropolitan area.

So what happened to these big trees?

Development and industrialization. Three smelt factories, each burning through the timber of 20 acres every single day, operated in the vicinity of the canyon that is now Quail Springs, in the late 1800s.

With deforestation, the soil in the canyon washed downstream. Today, oak species that had once lived in the valley would not survive even if planted, because there is simply no soil to support them.

Brush told us that if the valley were reforested, water from condensation should exceed precipitation. When Quail Springs began six years ago, the spring did not even flow during the day. It flowed 3 gallons per minute at night.

Water retention has been the foundation of a plan to restore the land. Through induced meandering, bioengineering, and the building of gabions and swales;  water is allowed to soak into the ground. Such techniques turn the earth itself into a reservoir. Gabions are permeable low tech structures that have been used for stream stabilization and erosion control for thousands of years. Swales are depressions that are dug to follow the contour of the hills. While helping with water management and collecting silt, they also become prime areas for growing things. And growing things helps more water soak into the ground. Exploiting simple patterns of nature and what Larry Santoyo would call, “sticks and stones technology,” are the hallmarks of permaculture.

Today the creek flows 22 gallons per minute by day, and 40 gallons per minute at night. It supplies drinking water to a small community of farm workers, interns, and students, irrigates an innovative and growing dryland farm, and fills an irrigation supply pond rimmed with cattails that is raucous with redwinged black birds. Young trees are beginning to bear fruit.

There are many things I could write about Quail Springs, such as about goats and chickens and art and gratitude, but you would certainly have more fun visiting in person…


§ 4 Responses to The power of sticks and stones, meandering and gabions…. a visit to Quail Springs Permaculture Farm

  • Nancy says:

    Do you have any pictures of the gabions? I’ve mostly seen them used architecturally so I’m interested in seeing how they are used for erosion control.

    • Jane Tsong says:

      The third picture on this page shows a gabion at Quail Springs which has been built in an S curve across the stream bed. According to Brush, they first tried building gabions in the classic arch dam shape, however, this particular one has held up best over time.

      Amazingly, there are many companies that specialize in fabricating gabions for stream bed stabilisation, and I found many interesting photos by googling ‘gabion’…

  • skr says:

    I’m not sure if the swales follow the countours of the slope. I would guess they would have them follow the keylines of the slope in order to maximize water retention in the soil and minimize erosion.

  • […] Dome To do that, a series of gabions, ponds, swales, and berms was constructed to slow water from rain runoff. These elements work […]

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