Gardening for Gullywashers and Flash Floods?

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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In drought-prone areas, gardeners hope and pray for rain. Some have started preparing for the gift of gullywashers so no precious drop is wasted when the skies finally open. When they open too long, though, floods can overwhelm the land, particularly in recent wildfire burn scars on slopes. Here we look into ways we might make the best of both gullywashers and floods and minimize the damages to gardens, orchards, and small acreages we manage.

Emergency management folks say the public only prepares for extreme conditions after experiencing an extreme event. Here on Colorado’s Front Range, some officials (even meteorologists) said that before the big flood of September 2013 they could not fathom any flood could hit with such heavy, continuous rain and produce such catastrophic flooding. We got more rain in a few days than we often get in a year. Most of us were unprepared. Topsoil, crops, burn scars washed away or were waterlogged for a couple of years, streambank trees fell into streams and, along with heavy debris flows, altered their course, permanent gullies formed.

Anna Lappe writes of a similar time in the Foreword to Mark Shepard’s book, Restoration Agriculture: “…powerful rainstorms had devastated farmland and left the state footing a bill for millions of dollars in flood relief…I’d driven by enough flooded fields…I assumed Mark had faced the same fate. Imagine my surprise when I [found] Mark and an intern joking around, grinning from ear to ear. These were not the faces of farmers in despair. While New Forest Farm had been pelted with the same rain that had crushed neighbors across the road and left dark brown gullies in its wake, Mark’s fields were relatively undamaged. In fact, a few of his crops had never been better.

How did Mark prosper while his neighbors suffered? I was eager to know because the answer, I believed, could hold a key for rethinking farming in a climate-unstable world.”

In brief, Mark designed his farm according to ecosystem principles. He began with a bare, eroding piece of hilly land, badly degraded from previous owners’ industrial monocropping practices. Using Keyline Design on the hills, he ripped the soil on amplified contour and planted a forest of edible nut and fruit trees and shrubs, and edible vines. Strong tree roots hold soil in place and all  increase the photosynthetic capacity of the land, which in turn helps increase carbon sequestration and humus formation, essential for holding water in the soil.

Diverse perennial and annual crops and pasture grasses planted beneath and between tree rows and multi-species rotational grazing further increased the microbe-mediated fertility of the land and its capacity to hold and infiltrate water and to slow and spread it, as it can do in all soil types. Thanks to all the living roots and the ever-increasing percentage of stable organic matter, his crops and soil hold steady in gullywashers and flash floods.

On a smaller scale, gardeners apply the same principles when we install raingardens, bioswales, bioretention ponds, or implement other basic water-harvesting techniques of our choice or design, ancient and modern. Permeable pavement and green roofs can add to our options. Gardeners are capable of preventing and mitigating gully formation, erosion, and crop loss from severe rain events and flooding by building soil water-holding capacity and fertility in our gardens, orchards, and home landscapes.

Pamela Sherman gardens with her husband at 8,300 feet on part of an old pioneer farm on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. She can be reached at

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