Saturday, November 30, 2013

Water everywhere

It's been a long couple of weeks at Several Gardens Farm. A raccoon got into the yard and killed  some of our ducks. The second time it was there, I woke up to the sounds of it and ran out to catch it in the act. I should have just let it finish. Their instincts make them want to kill. Mine make me want to help, and this time there was nothing useful I could do but help the duck to have a speedy ending.

Before it happened I had already, sadly, acknowledged that I was not good with ducks.

They were messing put all the other animals' water. The soil was pocked with their bill marks and churned up into smelly mud.

I loved having them but I also hated and dreaded it. I had found a home for them a few weeks earlier, balked - but now I called them back and asked them to give the remaining ducks a safer and more adapted home.

Then I turned to the yard and started restoring it to its pre-ducky, dry, fresh smelling, state. Don't get me wrong. In rainy Seattle, its uphill work to keep a barnyard dry, and there are days in winter when the chickens and the goats stay inside, pooping where they are. It's worst on days that hover just above freezing, when the animals stare out at the sleet, and you can see their breath condensing on the nail heads in the walls. The humidity seeps in through the floors and the hay gets damp and droopy and the walls weep and the plywood roof develops a discolored spot where it's weakest and everything seems to groan and age beyond years.

But all of that is just the normal, sad winter mood. The ducks brought an extra layer to it - the smell of fishy wet poop and the frustration of birds that can't climb and are constantly underfoot with the goats. The ducks pulled the hens tails when they stuck out the the nest boxes. The seething, sexually insatiable drake hassled ducks and chickens alike, and the distress of the tiny rooster trying to ward him off and defend the flock. It made the goats nervous and the chickens frantic.

We got a glorious summer this year; with virtually no precipitation from early July until mid September. We had a gold and orange autumn, with crisp days, and sunshine enough to ripen a decent grape harvest.

But starting in November, a sort of amnesia kicks in. It feels like it never started raining and will never end. Now a sad calm reigns, but the wet smell of waterfowl lingers.

First off, even before we had ducks, the drainage in the barnyard was never ideal. The drip line from the sheltered feeding area always formed a muddy puddle, and the downspouts at each end of the barn created two more mud pits. Mud is anathema to goats' hooves. Imagine walking barefoot. In mud. Cold mud where you also had to poop. Imagine cold, grainy mud wedging not just between your toes, but up under your toenails, all winter long. This is exactly what a muddy barnyard does to the goats, until eventually it can cause foot rot, peeling hoof walls and all other manner of foot woes.

In winters past, we put concrete pavers out for them to tread on, but the ducks digging around in the mud would gradually work the pavers down into it so that they eventually buried them completely.

I've also added yards and yards of cedar play chips (expensive but great) and free arborist chips (free and sometimes worth it). Cedar decays very slowly but it, too, can get buried over time.

This year we decided to add real drainage.

The barn is at the top of a very gently terraced orchard, running down through a series of swales to the back, where a seasonal pond forms every winter and lasts till April or May. But while it works on a big scale, the ground gets pretty soggy day to day. Before there were animals, no one cared, but now we need something better.

Naturally, a tractor was involved in this project.

We set about adding drainage at the wrong time and in the wrong way. We planned to go out of town, leaving the house with the goat sitter. Instead of deciding it would wait till our return, we were suddenly seized with the need to get the place drained before the sitter got there. This meant we had a 24 hour deadline, which didn't include both of our jobs, feeding the kid, the animals being underfoot, etc.

So please excuse the pictures. There were a bunch of times when I just didn't feel right asking David to stop for a photo.

When I looked at my pictures later there were a lot of blurry action shots and a huge number of pictures of small rocks at night, or small rocks nestled into mud. You'll get to see some of them in a moment.

And there are no photos of me doing anything but I will vouch that I was down  in the trenches too.

I went through four pairs of work gloves and two pairs of pants. David even changed once. His insulated Carhartts got so heavy with mud he was actually finding them uncomfortable. That never ever happens and is testament to what a job this was.

I think what we installed qualifies as a French Drain. It is not a drain to save our basement or keep a structure intact so in one sense it was less critical, but we put a lot of work and a lot of pebbles into the ground so we did our best to build it to work.

First we dug a series of deep, long trenches, running from the spot where the water accumulated to a spot lower in the yard. We kept the trenches sloped so they would act as ditches to run the water away from the house. The tractor was very handy for this.

It is a good digger but it didn't have a way to level the trenches, so we ended up down in them, raking the sandy soil from one place to another.

Seattle has some pretty interesting geology. We have areas where glaciers swept the place clean, and areas where glaciers left rocks and debris, and one yard can have both. Luckily we had mostly sand with rocks the size of a tennis ball or smaller, so there was no really serious hauling of stone.

Our main concern was to have the trenches point downward along their run. The last thing we needed was for them to direct water back up toward the barn.

At the end of the trench we dug a dry well, a deeper area where extra water could go.

This is the despair photo. I seem to have one in every project, a sort of mid point where I regret ever starting and look around at nothing but devastation. Tractor tire marks in the grass. Cut up PVC pipe all over the place. Mud, muddy concrete and muddy water buckets for the animals. Despair.

At some point in the process, we hit a water line. We knew it was in there but it's not on any records anywhere so we didn't know when or where we'd find it. Alas, we found it by creating a geyser.

Luckily we have a very good hardware store fairly close to the house, and David is a very patient and resourceful guy who just fixes things instead of pitching a fit. He picked up pizza on the way home and we got a little break.

By the time we set the PVC pipe in place and added T's to get to the water along the concrete pad, it was completely dark and getting chilly.

Luckily we have a big overhead barn light to work with, but unfortunately I don't have a flash.

So believe me when I say we laid out filter fabric, poured a bed of crushed gravel into the trenches, and set the pipes on top of their nice bed.

Then we filled in the rest of the trench with more stone, placed more filter cloth on top and covered it all up with the excavated soil, which was by now soaking wet from the earlier waterline break and the gentle, bone chilling rain. 

In all we went through two yards of gravel, and could have used more if our truck had been up for it. As it was, it took two trips and we were pretty seriously dragging with each load.

 A very strange thing happened near the end of this stage.

When we refilled the trenches, there was not enough soil to fill them. This flew in the face of all math. We had dug out trenches and filled them with rocks and pipes. They should have been too full and formed mounds, but instead they were slightly sunken.

They were also, due to the huge amount of mud we had churned up, a worse mess than when we started.

Sometimes the solution to a problem really is to go to bed. By the next morning, the water had sunk down through the soil, leaving ordinary damp dirt without puddles. That night - our last before catching our flight - we filled in the top with lovely, fresh smelling cedar play chips, another two yards.

The yard is now safe for the foot of man and beast. The sitters appreciated the nice clean walking surface and probably the pleasant smell. When we get a chance we will add a few pavers and perhaps another yard of chips. All that will be icing. The big news is the yard will be free of puddles.

That's a pond in the corner, not a really big accidental puddle, BTW.
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