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Posts from the ‘Water’ category

How To Install Dripline Irrigation

For almost three years (the whole time we’ve been here), we’ve been using passive water harvesting, hand watering and using sprinklers strategically to irrigate our growing garden. However, the plan has always been to install dripline irrigation, as it’s the most water efficient and time saving approach available.

IMG_4636Hand watering…. And over it!

But before we could do that we had to replace some significant water pipes, build a series of retaining walls (which pipes had to be integrated into), build some steps (which some other pipes had to be integrated into) and upgrade another mains water line. This took a while. So it was only a couple of months ago we finally got to install our driplines, suffice to say we love them. Here’s an overview of how to do it so you too can be liberated from hand watering.

Before you start *anything*, the first process to go through is the design stage. Map out your garden and measure the areas you need to irrigate. From here, you can create an accurate shopping list and be super efficient with resources and time – a big theme for us.


But before you can start shopping, some basic information…

What is dripline? – well, it’s a line of plastic tubing that drips. There are a range of variations, with soaker hoze, leaky pipe and 13mm poly pipe with drippers that you punch into them at desired intervals.  However we have been eyeing off dripline with the drippers pre-installed in the line.  With products such as Toro and Netafim being popular brands – in terms of budget and quality, these seem to be some of the best. The Toro pipe we’ve used has drippers every 300mm (one foot in the old scale) – each dripper releases 2 litres of water per hour.

How does it work?  The drippers drip onto the soil, from the place the water hits the soil it spreads in a cone shape.  With sandy soil the drip is a very narrow cone, pretty much just wetting the soil immediately below the dripper.  With clay soils the cone has a very wide angle, effectively watering a larger area.  As a result, the spacing using drippers will change depending on your soil type.

Pressure compensating Vs Non Pressure compensating drippers?  If you are buying dripline you will come up against this terminology.  Basically pressure compensating drippers can work over a range of water pressures.  Why does this matter?  Hilly and steep sites create different levels of water pressure.  Thus using non-pressure compensating drippers could result in the bottom of the hill getting more water than the top.  I have heard it recommended to use the pressure compensating drippers if the irrigation slope is over 2 meters or if the runs of dripline are very long.  There is a whole science to this and this site has a great overview of the topic.  Given our steep slope, we used pressure compensating drippers.

Calculating the dripline length: First we measured the bed length and width.  Then calculated the number of driplines per bed.  We have spaced our drippers around 300mm apart, from this you can calculate the length of dripline you need.

Draw a map of how it will work on the ground.  From this you can calculate all  the T connectors, elbows, 13mm plain line, clips, ends and valves you will need.  Once you have worked out how many you will need, add another 20% to these.  Plans change and having them on hand lets you adapt and change the design as your garden evolves.

Buy the bits.  Word of caution, avoid the mainstream, heavily over priced hardware stores.  Go to an irrigation specialist in the “industrial” part of town.  In Hobart we use Hollander Imports or Irrigation Tasmania. If you are buying online these people have very good prices and products.

Each section of our garden is watered by a manual tap which is in turn directed to 3 or 4 sub sections of the garden. In this way we can water fruit trees differently to our vegetables as their water needs are drastically different.  To do this, we create a “manifold” using a variety of connectors – the image below shows the items required.


Prepare the connectors in plain 13mm poly pipe.  You can use pliers or the tool below – a razer blade with leverage, affectionately known as the finger cutter.


An incredibly helpful tip is have some hot (almost boiling) water on hand to place the pipe in, this helps the pipe stretch to attach each piece together easily. We fill a thermos of hot water and pour it into a cup as needed – this little trick will save you a lot of time and frustration.


Attach the bits together to test it will fit the area it is made for (always test first).


Clip the fittings together and attach in place.


So we could still use each tap we installed a tap splitter, make sure you use plenty of plumbers tape so the tap fittings don’t leak.

IMG_4641Plumbers tape will make sure you don’t have any leaks


The dripline is attached to the tap using a standard hose tap fitting, simply put the poly pipe in hot water then attach the tap fitting – too easy.

Next we need to lay out the driplines for the beds, you can see in the bed below we have set four driplines in total.


At the manifold/tap end of the driplines, we have created another set of T’s and elbows that distributes the water into each dripline.  This is measured out so that the driplines are in the correct position on each bed.


Once all of the above is clipped together we run water through the system.  This is to flush any dirt or plastic scrap that may be in the pipe.  Once this is done, we put the ‘end caps’ in place to block the end of the pipe – alternatively you can put valves at the end so you can flush the system in the future.

IMG_4660Flushing out the pipes to clean out any ‘bits’

Because we’re often working vegetable beds where we do seasonal mulching/planting/digging we had to make sure the irrigation is easy to move. To do this, we attached one end to a timber strip at the end of the bed so we can just pick the whole thing up together. You don’t have to do this, indeed,for some contexts it might be easier to have them loose and just pick them up one by one.

IMG_4932  IMG_4935

Oh, and if you run out of connectors or don’t like chopping the pipe up, you can always put it down in a spiral. Just know that if you have seeds or young seedlings you’ll need to do a bit of hand watering to make sure they get enough water in the early days.


So that’s the basics of our dripline system.  We have spent around $500 and have around 1/2 of our 1/4 acre block under dripline now.  We think it’s more than worth it as It’s a great time saver.

And if we where to do this again? We would think a bit harder about the original main water pipe layout (a 20mm blue line poly pipe).  We would duplicate the system so there was a “dripper” dedicated pipe and a “tap” dedicated pipe.  That would mean we could then just turn one valve and water the whole garden. This would be specifically for when we go away and we get our awesome neighbours to water the garden…. And of course you can put an automatic timer on some/all of your irrigation system – we haven’t gone there yet but it is a consideration in the future. We see what we’ve done now as an awesome stage one that fits within our context and capacity.


The ‘Right & Wrong’ Way of Doing Things

There’s an acronym, W.A.S.P.A, which is really popular in permaculture circles. It stands for Water, Access. Structures, Plants and Animals and lays out the order in which you should implement your design for ultimate ease and flow. Let me step you through the thinking and considerations…. And then confess a bit of a stuff up on our behalf when implementing our our design (an ongoing process).

1. Water

Implementing water first up can include large scale earth works (i.e. dams and keyline systems) where you have big machinery coming through your property, you can see our own earth works we’ve completed  here. As we’re on an urban block there are no dams, buts lots of terracing, and passive water harvesting systems, including swale paths. You really don’t want to be trying to do this work once you have other things in place i.e. fencing, as you’ll end up having to rip it out and put it back again, a whole world of pain which is best to avoid.

Of course, water systems can be happen on a much smaller scale and involve installing taps, drip line irrigation (something we’re still planning to do), rain tanks or simply digging a trench with a mattock and shovel to direct water flow. Regardless of scale, it’s best to get this all sorted first up so you can then support what’s to come – cause lets face it folks – water is life. No water no life.


A snapshot of the major earthworks we did on our place within a month of arriving. The blue lines indicate where the key access paths/swale paths are now located. 

2. Access

Access is super important and determines how you move around the site on foot, with your wheelbarrow, on your tractor or car. If you get it right, good access paths can improve efficiency drastically as well as double up with water harvesting systems.  Implementing access paths can often happen at the same time, or very closely after water systems are put in place. When working with large machinery, you can double up by carving in water harvesting methods and access roads/paths at the same time – this is what we did with our swale paths (below) and it’s working a treat.

2014-02-05-08.13.12-1024x768The early days of one of our key swale paths, providing both access and passive water harvesting

3. Structures

Structures can include tool/machinery sheds, fencing, animals shelters and your house (if building from scratch). At our own property there was an existing house (yay) with a downstairs space which currently functions are our workshop/tool shed. We do plan to build a glass house, however this is lower on our priority list compared to other structures such as fencing (which still isn’t 100% complete) and animals shelters such as our rather beautiful chook house.


Without a doubt the floppy fence is my favourite structure on our place, it allows us to grow and harvest crops without feeding all the local wildlife. Well worth the investment in time, money and energy.

4. Plants

Now, and only now, should you be looking to plant vegetation – edibles and otherwise. In our area, if you plant your crops before you have put your fencing up you might as well declare your garden a wallaby, possum and rabbit feast – they’ll be in there before you can say ‘bugger bugger bugger’. Your plants will also benefit massively from having good water systems set up and access paths for easy harvesting and maintenance. It all fits together beautifully. The first plants we put in was a stack of annual green manures to improve the soil which we’re still as the soil needs a lot of love. This particular growing season it turns out we’re growing 50:50 of vegies and green manures which we’ll do into winter as well as we’re thinking long term here.

10639512_836798769687703_8220657592843300869_nWe’ve had some bumper crops in our 2 years of being here, none of which could have happened without our water, access and structure systems in place (photo from October 2014).

5. Animals

Last, but not least – animals enter the system. For animals to thrive and not just survive they need a space which is well suited to their needs, otherwise it’s simply not ethical or appropriate to have them in there at all. We have chickens, ducks and honey bees at our own property.


The bees are beautiful and happy in their top bar bee hive (above). Our chickens have what we call the ‘stage one’ run which is more than enough space with good shelter – we’re actually going to be extending and integrating them more into our food gardens this year. But it’s still a good, healthy space for them right now.


And our ducks.? Well now this is where we smack ourselves on the wrists.

Our ducks were always in our design, but we weren’t planning on getting them as soon as we did. The idea was that we’d simply have two female ducks for egg production and slug control and that would be that. However – just over a year ago I happened to be in the vicinity of a bunch of cute-as fluffy ducklings and I wanted them right then and there – there was nothing more to it. So, despite not having a home or a pond set up for them, four ducklings came home with me. I chose four as I thought that at least two of them would be girls and the boys could be re-homed or eaten. I was told they were pure khaki campbells which are good breed as they don’t fly, are quiet, don’t destroy your crops so can free range in the vegie patch and are great egg layers.


However, a few things happened… It turned out they weren’t pure bred khaki campbells, but ‘bitzers’ as in a bit of this and a bit of that, so they liked to fly and eventually some did… Away from us. The ones that stayed turned out to be boys, bugger – and four was simply too many to have, even for a short while in our urban space. So we sorted out the numbers, bought in a pure bred lady khaki campbell and had some baby ducks with the intention of just keeping 2 girls. Today we have 5 ducks (2 adults, 3 teenagers) and a simple but great pond/fertigation system which is tops. However 5 is too many for our space, for the first time they’ve started eating our crops, specifically all our lettuces which is not ok. With just two ducks it was fine, they happily free ranged throughout our garden and had a little nibble here and there, but the increased numbers means there’s more hunger and more stress on our system, which we simply can’t support right now.

IMG_2017Exhibit A – the lettuces (and nothing else) have been getting hammered.

And this is where we come back to W.A.S.P.A… If we had followed this to the book our ducks would still be another year away and our lettuces would still be here. We need more time to finish installing the needed structures and plant systems which would support the ducks and us. But real life doesn’t always work like that, we’re an impulsive lot us humans and no matter how much we learn we will more often than not regress to instinctual ‘wants’. We’ve just made the decision to re-home our little duck family at a friend’s house and use this next year to complete some of our foundational structures before the ducks can come back, cause they’ll definitely be back. This means we want have to work as hard to have them here, and we all know that permaculture is all about with nature rather than for or against it.

We’re looking at it as a good and humbling reality check. A healthy reminder that we must always self regulate and admit when you may have got ahead of yourself. The great, fantastic thing about permaculture is the design framework – this is what sets it apart from other methodologies and gives it huge strength. It’s this framework that keeps us in check and provides a clear tool for us to use when we pause and reflect on the work we have done so far and are yet to do.

So here’s to learning, stuffing up, and learning some more. A non-stop ever evolving process!


How to Find Contour Lines: Low-fi & High Tech Options

Knowing how to find and mark out a contour line is pretty darn useful. It allows to you build foundations for houses, catch and store water and nutrients in swales or swale pathways, make fantastic walking tracks across steep hillsides and numerous other fantastically functional things. We’ve just been teaching 3 different ways (high tech and low-fi) you can find and mark contour lines to our Permaculture Design Course students and thought we’d share them with you too…

The Bunyip Level (aka the water level)

Bunyip level

Caroline and Nysha learning the ways of the bunyip

Firstly, I have no idea how the bunyip level earned this name, if you know I’d love to hear from you. This handy tool consists of two posts and a hose connecting them meaning it’s either free or dirt cheap to make. On each of the upright timber posts are measurements showing up to 1 metre off the ground. This means you can match the water line against the numbers at both ends of the hose, ensuring you have the same level. We added some yellow food dye into the hose so you can see the water line more clearly, however this was a bad colour choice as it inspires thoughts of urine…. Will choose a different colour next time. You can make your own so easily at home, watch Brad Lancaster’s video about how and check out all his other work, when it comes to water harvesting he’s one of the best.

Bunyip w group

The hose can be varying lengths, this one is approximately 10 metres which allows you to mark out short or long areas and move around corners or structures. One thing you do have to watch out for is making sure that you hold the post perfectly upright. To help, you could hold a spirit level against the post to make sure it’s vertical (instead of leaning to one side) so you get an accurate reading.  This is a minor, yet crucial detail in creating successful contours.

We’ve used the bunyip level a lot of our own place for creating swale pathways amongst our vegetable gardens, they work a treat.

The A-frame

Todd w A frame

 Todd calibrating the A-frame

The A-frame consists of three sticks, a length of string and a weight to hold the string down – we’ve used a big heavy bolt for this particular one. When making your own, the key thing to remember is to make the distance between the legs a desirable length, 1m or 2m generally works well as it helps you keep track of distance. You can see a step-by-step guide to making, calibrating and using an A-frame here, all filmed to a thumping techno sound-track… But don’t worry, you can turn the sound down. The guys on this short film are using nails to join the timber pieces together, I’d actually recommend using screws, bolts or just some strong lashing as nails have a tendency to pop out sooner rather than later.

A-frame marking contour

The A-frame in action, you can see the short sticks in the ground marking the actual contour line.

The Laser Level

The laser level is the high tech option which can get fairly pricey (depending on how much you’re willing to spend), however you can also hire them by the day. Currently this is what we do when we need it for big jobs as it’s super quick to mark out large areas with one person and when you’re working with an earth moving machine it’s easy to check or tweak levels as earth is being moved. It consists of a tripod with a ‘computer head’ (not the proper term… obviously) on top which projects a laser light to the height of your choice and a long, retractable measuring stick with an electronic reader on it which picks up the laser light coming from the tripod.

June w Laser Level

June marking out a contour on our current part-time Permaculture Design Course, 2014

Laser LevelThe laser level can be used across long distances by one person and is super quick to get accurate contour lines marked out quick smart. 

All three of these contraptions can also be used to create a gradual ‘fall’ on your site so that water is channeled across landscapes, or you might want to create a ramp for wheelbarrows and walking. If moving water, the recommended fall is 1:400, one metre over 400m (or 1cm over 4m) this will move your water slowly over your property, ensuring that it still soaks into the soil first being moving to the next area you’re directing it to.

The really great things is that when used correctly the A-frame and bunyip level are just as accurate as the laser level, they simply require a bit more time to do the job. But if you’re just working on your own garden and not looking to do big landscaping projects regularly we can’t recommend these two options enough!

Handy Resources

A big thanks to Tamas Oszvald for taking all these photos!

* Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.


Swale Pathways

Hobart is Australia’s second driest capital city (Adelaide’s first) so catching and storing water is often on my mind. Annually we get approximately 615mm, most of which arrives in the cooler months in and around Winter. During Summer time our soils will dry out so ferociously that some soil types (including ours) will form cracks big enough to stick your hand a good foot into them. When we first bought our place in mid Summer 2012 we walked across the lawn-scape and had to be careful not the slip into the cracks and twist our ankles – seriously, they were that big.

So as soon as we could we shaped the land to catch, slow and sink water into the soil in every possible way. First up, we had an excavator come through to terrace the back half of the block. All the terraces are angled slightly back on themselves to guide the water into the slope rather than letting it slide off the slope. On top of this we designed the key artery pathways to be swale pathways (the blue lines shown below). These are placed on the inside of the terrace where they catch all the excess water that the terraces guide back into the slope.


But lets back up here a minute and make sure we’re clear on what a swale actually is. A swale is a ditch dug on contour – this means that water is not draining in one direction, instead it spreads evenly across the slope and sinks into the soil. Traditionally, the earth that is dug out is placed on the downhill side and planted out with with a mixture of perennial and annual crops (but always perennial to ensure that the earth is stabilized with good long-term root structure). As we’ve made deep terraces, our garden is a variation of this, but still receives the same benefits – water in the ground.


A diagram of a traditional swale system

A hot tip is to remember that you always need to plan for flood and have an overflow system, even when you live in the second driest capital city in Australia. This can be a pipe or drain which directs the excess water to another swale, pond, orchard, dam or storm water drain. What system you choose will all depend on where you are and what is appropriate for your property. Eventually (we haven’t quite finished it yet) our overflow system will be directed into a series of ponds and additional swales which will end up in our orchard which we’re planting out in the front half of our block this Winter.

swale colllage

It rained as soon as we dug the swale which allowed us to see the amount of water it actually holds (left) – a lot! We then lined it with cardboard to prevent any unwanted plants growing up and filled it with sawdust (right). When it rains no muddy puddles form, instead there’s just soft spongy sawdust paths – nice!

2014-02-05 08.13.12

January 2014, the swale path has now settled in and the young food forest (left) and tomatoes (right) are loving it.

It’s now just over one year since we’ve moved into our home and the section where we’ve applied these water storing techniques is largely under cultivation. There’s still lots to do, but it’s happily unrecognizable from this time last year. The great thing about this water system is that it’s PASSIVE, now that it’s in place our work load has been reduced. We’re still going to install drip line irrigation, but through establishing this passive water framework and mulching throughout the warmer months, we’ve drastically reduced the need for irrigation and that’s a major step in the right direction in creating a stable and resilient system – yay!.

Dec-Sep backyard progress

An older photo (sorry), it’s looking fairly different now with lots of crops growing everywhere!

So, do I need an excavator to have swales? I hear you ask.

No, absolutely not, is the heart felt answer. As someone who rented for over 10 years and lived in 25 houses I’m passionate about affordable, transferable and effective strategies which can be scaled up or down.

Swales can be hand dug and one metre long. Always come back to the function it’s performing which is simply to catch and store water in your soil. You can obviously do this on small or large scales, while renting I would often dig swale paths with my mattock as seen below.

george st swales

Rental property, 2012. Narrow swale paths with ag pipe (a pipe punctured with holes throughout) – we directed our laundry water or garden hose into this pipe

As these particular swale were quite small, we increased their capacity by laying ag pipe down which we could then plug a hose into from a laundry and bathroom. Using grey water to irrigate crops is technically not smiled upon. However please keep in mind we put no nasty chemicals in there and alternated where the water was directed to, so there was no build up of any nutrients which can affect soil health. On top of this no water touched the surface or leaves of plants – it headed straight underground. In our experience when managed properly this is a great way to return water to the soil instead of sending it down the storm water drain.

So there you go, swale paths are for all shapes and sizes and can play a clever and effective role in catching, storing and sinking water into our thirsty landscapes.

Fabulous resources you should check out

*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney: Co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk