Sometimes the best plans go sideways on the ground. We had laid everything out on paper, and marked everything out on site. Then the tractors came in and started moving dirt and oh my life did it go bonkers fast.

We had decided the key feature in our hazel/apple orchard was going to be a high level ditch harvesting swale designed to catch the runoff in the ditch and park it in a flat on-contour swale, then drift it slowly over into the stream bed with a spill channel. It would gracefully backflow into the ditch and stream in peak runoff situations, no flooding.

Here’s where I made a mistake: I made parallel lines off of that swale, which was on contour, and tried to treat those parallel lines like you would keyline cultivation. Epic fail that was noticeable when the tractors started digging, we had a trench, and I mean a World War I trench warfare style trench, after 100 feet. Not a nice flat bottom swale, oh no, a giant epic mess. Three hours to dig, 15 minutes to fill, and an hour on the ground and phone with some keyline people trying to figure out things.

What I should have done is: one, marked the keyline; two, marked the swale; three, paralleled off the keyline for planting and plowing.

We quickly re-did some planning and the digging crew built a new swale, a proper one, that is designed for catching the water from the ditch and moving it over, and sinking it into the top of the orchard. It should be more than enough to keep that water table high in that area most of the year and give a good down hill boost to the plants, possibly pop a spring in a low spot, and help keep that creek running longer.

In the end it is probably not that big a deal, the area we are doing turns out to have a wicked shallow water table. I was hitting water in multiple places using a one-man auger at 18″ when putting in semi-permanent fence posts. The landscape is not in need of hydration in a serious way, and the ditch water catching is going to be more for recharging and extending the running time of our seasonal creek. So rather than resurvey everything, we kept the not-so-keyline planting pattern and if things get dry going forward we will do small spot swales or boomerangs.

It’s not what I originally envisioned, but it was a pretty good learning experience. I also learned that in our area you do the earth work in October, and then you don’t have to race weather in our volatile spring.

I also learned a valuable lesson about hitting the wall. There are two walls you get to hit doing this farm startup thing. The first is a physical wall, where you hit the limits of what you can physically do at that time. The second is a mental/emotional wall where you hit the limits of what you can psychologically handle. I’ve hit both of these kinds of walls before, and it’s never fun, but never at the same time. Last week I had the joy of hitting both of them at the once, which led me to make some very sharp and rude comments to some family members helping us out for an afternoon. If they had been volunteers or customers, I’d have lost them for life; but family forgives.

I don’t know if I have ever been that tired physically and mentally before. My body was in pain from the amount of physical work I’ve had to do over the last two weeks, and I hadn’t slept more than 4 hours a night for weeks. In that state I was trying to wrangle people, plant materials, logistics, and earthworks. Apparently I didn’t do so well, and I don’t recommend trying to do that regularly to anyone unless you want to turn into a crotchety and lonely person.

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