As I write this article, the monsoon season is in full swing. We have been blessed with plenty of moisture over the last several months, so it might seem silly to discuss rainwater harvesting during what seems a time of plenty for this area. However, as most of us are aware, drought constantly hovers nearby. The Colorado Climate Center recently issued warnings that the Four Corners area may slip into drought status. With that in mind, I would like to briefly explain how you can store the rain in the soil or literally “plant the rain.”
Many years ago, I applied for a Natural Resources Management position on the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico. I had just moved back to Texas from Massachusetts, and the landscape on the reservation seemed desolate to my eyes accustomed to the effect of 50 inches of annual rainfall. I REALLY needed a job, so I plowed through the interview and then spent time looking at beautiful jewelry while wondering whether I could live in such an arid environment. With 20/20 hindsight, I realize that I was fortunate to not be chosen for the position. Living in Central Texas for several years allowed me to “dial down the green” somewhat and experience periods of extended drought. When a years-long drought settled in Texas (which it does there and here on a regular basis), I started wondering how the Zunis and other Pueblo peoples had managed to survive and thrive in even tougher conditions. At least I could still walk outside and turn on the spigot to water my thirsty garden!
My research into water conservation eventually yielded clues. The ancient cultures living in dry climates understood the importance of storing rainfall in the soil, close to the food being grown. The Zunis did this by creating “waffle gardens” or rows of square cells that concentrated summer monsoon rains around the roots of their food crops. Waffle gardens fell out of favor after WWII, but there is renewed interest in this time of climate variation. The Denver Botanic Garden has created a variation of the waffle garden by creating recessed cells to hold plantings of the Three Sisters.
Brad Lancaster, author of “Rainwater Harvesting of Drylands and Beyond”, tells of how a South African elder turned an eroded and overgrazed 7 acre plot into an oasis by doing what he called “planting the rain.” Various catchment methods were used to store rainfall in the soil, where trees and food crops were then planted. The Zuni waffle gardens and zai pits of Sub-Saharan Africa are utilizing the same principles. This doesn’t have to be used exclusively to grow food. Rain gardens are a modern variation that can be used to water trees and perennials, instead of depending on potable water. A rain garden is a shallow depression located to catch runoff from hard surfaces such as roofs or driveways. Even if you don’t feel like digging, adding a gutter downspout extension directed toward a tree will help the tree and our precious water supply at North Lake. I count Brad Lancaster as my water conservation guru, and his Volume 2 of the series is the first reference in CSU’s article on rainwater collection in Colorado.
Finally, some of you may have been wondering what the Three Sisters mean. This is a form of companion planting that Native Americans have been practicing for centuries. Corn is planted first, then squash is planted nearby. After the corn has a little height, beans are planted so they can grow up the stalks. The squash shades the ground to conserve moisture, and the beans add nitrogen to the soil for the heavy-feeder corn. The Anasazi were known to adapt this style by adding a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant, to be sure pollinators were drawn to the area. I planted the Three Sisters this year, and they seem to be thriving. I’m sure the squirrels and raccoons have spread the word on their social media, so I plan to protect the plot with some electric fencing. It’s rather pleasing to see stalks of corn taller than me waving in the wind and knowing that others before me have done the same.