Store water on your wild homestead

3 Ways You Can Store Water on Your Wild Homestead

Water is a critical part of any wild homestead. You can’t create an abundant landscape filled with trees, shrubs and other plants without enough water. But irrigation is expensive, and many communities are running low on water. This will become more common as the climate crisis intensifies. Luckily, there are ways you can store water on your wild homestead to keep your landscape lush and bountiful.

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Wouldn’t you love to have access to lots and lots of free water that didn’t need to be pumped from a well? Now imagine the water was also spread out across your wild homestead, reducing or even eliminating the need for active irrigation.

Does that sound too good to be true?

It turns out you can store water on your wild homestead in a way that makes that scenario fully possible. The key is to move away from active and centralized water systems toward passive and decentralized water systems.

Active and centralized water systems are wells and the corresponding irrigation hoses, sprinklers and pipes, or water piped in from a municipal water service. If the well or pipe fails, then the whole system fails.

But a passive and decentralized water system is much more resilient. Instead of actively turning on the faucet, these systems are integrated into the landscape to help slow the water and hold it in the ground longer.

Instead of watering your plants in short, quick bursts, the water is always there, gradually hydrating your plants as they need it.

This post covers 3 general types of passive and decentralized water systems.

  1. Swales and mulch pits
  2. Permeable ponds
  3. Underground water storage in the soil

All 3 of these water systems share a couple of key traits. They’re all permeable, meaning the stored water will soak into the ground and spread out, helping to hydrate the land. They all slow down the flow of water, keeping the water on your land for a longer time period.

They’re also all passive, meaning you don’t need to actively pump the water around your wild homestead. With proper design, the water will naturally spread out over your land.

Wild Tip

The general rule for storing water on your wild homestead is to slow it, spread it, and sink it.

In addition to these 3 water systems, there are a number of other techniques you can use to further drought-proof your wild homestead. Make sure you grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet, covering 21 different ways to drought-proof your wild homestead.

Swales and Mulch Pits

Swales and mulch pits are both simple earthworks that capture surface water and soak it into the ground.

A swale is essentially a ditch that is dug on contour, with a berm on the downhill side. As the water flows down the slope of the land into the swale, it’s stopped, and it spreads out across the swale.

With the water held back, it will start to soak into the ground under the swale. This is the core purpose of a swale. This is why a swale is a great way to store water on your wild homestead.

So you’re not actually storing the water in the swale—the swale is there to capture the water and soak it into the ground. The soil is actually what is storing the water.

Wild Tip

The downhill side of the swale just off the berm is a great place to plant trees. The swales will get the water to the roots of the trees and really help them to grow.

Wild Tip

Make sure to put in a spillway, (AKA level sill) in your swale for the water to flow out of if the swale if the swale gets full. That way the water won’t overflow in a way that erodes the berm. Also, be careful not to compact the soil in the swale, or it won’t soak in the water as well.

Mulch pits are similar to a swale in function, but very different in design. Essentially, these are large bowl-shaped holes in the ground that are filled with mulch, such as wood chips.

Often greywater is directed towards mulch pits, since they can help clean the water before it soaks into the ground.

But you can also use mulch pits to capture runoff from structures, driveways, and roads. The water from these features will fill the mulch pits and then slowly soak into the surrounding land.

This is a great way to store water on your wild homestead.

On my own wild homestead, I have a mulch pit that captures runoff from a dirt road I share with my neighbors. The mulch pit has a simple spillway for excess water to flow out into one of my fields. Eventually, this will empty out into a swale to further capture the water.

As with swales, mulch pits aren’t for storing water directly, but instead for slowing the water down and soaking it into the soil. The water is then stored in the soil.

Storing Water on Your Wild Homestead in Permeable Ponds

Store water on your wild homestead in permeable ponds

Ponds that are built to be permeable like this one that mimics a beaver pond work great to slow water and get it into the ground. Just as with beaver ponds these types of ponds store much more water in the soil than on the surface.

Often when people install ponds, they line them with impermeable materials or use techniques like gleying to seal them. This is great in some cases, but this type of pond is a centralized water system.

Ponds can also be built to be permeable—where water can pass through into the soil. And in fact, this is actually easier to build, and it’s a great way to store water on your wild homestead.

These types of ponds work much like a swale, but they aren’t built on contour, and they may feature an impermeable dam to retain water in the pond. But the bottom of the pond is permeable, so the water slowly soaks into the surrounding soil.

Wild Tip

Ponds also back water upstream from them. This can create a well-hydrated area that increases the amount of water being stored in the soil.

While permeable ponds do store water directly, as with swales and mulch basins, the majority of the water is stored in the soil.

When building permeable ponds, look for areas where water naturally collects from the surrounding land. These areas may be great for ponds, since the water is already collecting there.

The Best Place to Store Water on Your Wild Homestead is in the Soil

Store water on your wild homestead by building soil

Hugelkultur beds are planting beds that have wood and other organic material inside them, mixed with the soil. These beds mimic nurse logs, which is what you see in a forest when a tree falls. Over time it breaks down, and new trees and shrubs grow out of it. Hugelkultur beds are great for building the organic material in your soil, which helps retain water.

Have you noticed that the first two methods for storing water on your wild homestead all have one thing in common? They both ultimately store water in the soil by slowing the water down and giving it time to soak in.

But there are some things you can do to increase the amount of water your soil can hold.

Organic material in the soil (pieces of dead plants and animals, plus the millions of microbes, fungal networks, and bacteria that thrive in healthy soil) increase how much water your soil can hold.

This is referred to as the percent of organic material your soil contains. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available water per acre.

So how do you increase the organic material in your soil? Here are 5 things you can do to increase the organic material in your soil.

The number 1 best thing you can do to build organic material in your soil is to stop tilling. But any of the methods on the list will help increase the amount of organic material in your soil.

The best is thing to do is to use a mix (or all!) of the 5 methods on the list. Doing so will greatly increase the amount of water you can store on your wild homestead by increasing how much water your soil can hold.

Putting it All Together to Store Water on Your Wild Homestead

Use all these methods to store water on your wild homestead

All these methods work great on their own, but when you put them together you can store huge amounts of water on your wild homestead in a passive and decentralized water system.

Instead of relying on a centralized system like a well or a public water line, these methods all spread water out through the soil to hydrate all your land.

While each of these methods works great on their own, when you put them together you can really get a great passive and decentralized water system.

Swales can capture surface water in the upper parts of your wild homestead, and then help fill ponds in central points where water gathers. Mulch basins can capture water running off hard surfaces such as roofs and roads, and then the water can flow through the ground from these basins to swales and ponds.

You can then improve how much water all these features can store by increasing the amount of water your soil can hold by not tilling and by mulching.

The result is a decentralized system where every part works together to store water on your wild homestead. This is growing increasingly important as the climate crisis intensifies, increasing the prevalence of droughts.

But beyond these methods, there are many other techniques you can use to make your wild homestead more resilient to droughts. Make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet covering 21 different ways to drought-proof your wild homestead.

Store water on your wild homestead

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Jay says:

    I’ve already got a spot picked out to build a permeable pond. It already collects water during really big storms, but I need to block the outlet to hold the water deeper longer. I’m hoping to plant a mini-food-forest on the north side of the depression, but the slope is rock over mineral soil and Himalayan Blackberries, so I will have to work at it one step at a time.

    • Daron says:

      Hey Jay! Thanks for leaving a comment! Awesome–great to hear that you have an area that could work for a permeable pond! Good luck with your mini-food-forest. I’m dealing with Himalayan blackberries on my wild homestead too… they are a pain in more ways than one… But with some steady progress using small steps I’m sure you will get it worked out. Good luck!

  • Matt says:

    Orchard on a slope with swales. Trees planted in the downhill base of each swale. Swales far enough apart to collect and store plenty of water. The steeper the slope the bigger the swales. Tree roots will help hold the swales together. Plant understory plants between the trees for more roots to hold the swales in place as part of a food forest.

    • Daron says:

      Hello Matt,

      Thank you for your comment! That is a great list of ways to store water on your wild homestead in a passive and decentralized approach. Thanks again!

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