Building the Swale Day 1

excavating for the swale

 

Josh is our contractor; we rented a Bobcat E-35 mini-excavator, and (after the appropriate line locates, to determine where all the many different kinds of “lines” for infrastructure were), Josh got to work, digging for the Swale.
The Swale is a “dry stream” bed. The reason one builds a swale is to capture rain water and release it gradually to the ground. Swales in nature do much the same thing, having capacity to hold large amounts of water, and allowing the water to slowly seep into the surrounding soil.
In some cities in Europe, people are not allowed to let water run off their properties (within reason – sometimes, one has no choice with a flash flood), and this has led to people using swales as common features in their landscaping. Josh has a swale at his home.
The swale has been designed to run from the highest point of the garden to the lowest. It is almost entirely flat, in three sections, giving the water time to seep into the soil. If there is a lot of rain, the water will flow out of one nearly flat section, over a little waterfall, to the next, and so on. However, the swale should have the capacity to hold a lot of water, without overflow from the lowest pond.

Although Swales will not necessarily hold ALL the water from a significant rain event, this is what they are best at!  They will hold a lot of that water, thus diminishing the effect on urban infrastructure, as well as the effect on the environment.  If water runs off my front lawn, onto the street, into the storm sewers and then into the river, it picks up pollutants along the way, washing chemicals into the river to kill the life that grows there.  Thus, there are three good reasons for building swales in your yards:  to ensure you don’t have to water your garden as much (because the water goes into the ground), to save the city’s infrastructure (which was not built for the number of rain events we have been having), and to keep our rivers healthy.  Plus, they are fun to play in and good looking as well.

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Sofia and the little birds

Janet wants the wild roses (even though they are native plants) out of the garden. They take over, crowding out many other plants, and make moving through the trees difficult, and they grow tall where we want prairie. Without grazers and fire (we cannot have fire, but surely we could have grazers), the roses get out of control
Sofia uses clippers to cut back the stems and then digs out the roots. Wild roses spread mostly by sending out roots under the ground, and popping up, sometimes far away.
But, while cutting into one immense bush, she noticed she had cut a stem/trunk with a bird’s nest on it. A tiny nest with four little eggs. Very traumatic! A female yellow warbler was hanging around, looking very upset. So, Sofia dug a hole and planted the stem/trunk of the wild rose in the hole.
The warbler parents were content with this arrangement, and continued to sit on their eggs, and the eggs hatched into four charming little birds – naked and mostly mouth, but still …
See the picture.
Over the week, Sofia noticed that when she was near the bush, and might have caused a bit of a rustle in the leaves, the wee birds would throw back their heads and open their mouths.
Spending time daily in one nature location offers so many opportunities to come to know the ecosystem and the different relationships there.
We both worried about the babies over last weekend, when there were several hard rains, one associated with wind gusts. But Sofia checked first thing Monday morning and there they were.
But after lunch, they were gone. Sofia noticed that the stem/trunk had been bent over a bit, something the parents did not have the weight to do. We suspect a larger animal had found the wee birds, and turned them into a food source.
We are now thinking of what kind of bird house, what height and what kind of location to put it in for the survival of yellow warbler chicks. Not that they can all survive – ultimately, I suppose that two chicks should survive to replace their parents …
Still, one gets attached.

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upcoming workshops!!

Rain Rain Come Our Way: Building a Swale Workshop
Sunday, July 10
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (come and go)
Includes an hour lunch break from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. (lunch not provided)
Location: The Prairie Habitat Garden is located along the west side of the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education building. Closest intersection is Diefenbaker Ct. and Campus Drive.
At this workshop, participants will complete the last phases of the swale installation (but will be able to see the early phases) at the PHG. The swale will capture and guide rain water naturally through the garden, as well as provide children with a rock pathway for exploring the garden.
Participants are asked to wear long sleeves and long pants (for sun and mosquito protection), closed toe shoes, gloves, hat, and sunscreen, as well as bring their own water, snacks, and lunch. If possible, please bring a shovel and wheelbarrow as well.
Please note that this workshop will require lifting and moving rocks and gravel.

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Eco-Friend or Eco-Foe

Eco-Friend or Eco-Foe:
The last event was “Eco-Friend or Eco-Foe” which took place on Saturday, the second last day of the festival. Unfortunately, the weather forecast suggested rain, and the skies were cloudy most of the day. The workshop began with Carla Kennedy, a local First Nations scholar, telling of her experiences about her great grandfather and her grandmother and how they managed the prairies. Carla noted that the purposes for managing the prairie had modified from one generation to the other, and hence the practices had. Her great grandfather was still a part of the tradition of Frist Nations management – different areas of the prairies would be burned, early in the spring while the ground was still wet, and ground nesting birds had not yet nested. The purposes would have been multiple: pushing back the woody shrubs that could have taken over, and limited the grazing and food plants; rejuvenating prairie growth; killing ticks (!); limiting the fuel that could contribute to devastating prairie fires later in the season when the weather was dry. Carla’s grandmother lived with close neighbours in built homes. Fires would have pushed back the shrubs and trees, as well as controlling the fuel for potentially fatal grass fires. Also, the burning would release nutrients for her garden soil, as well as controlling for ticks and mosquitoes. Without Indigenous peoples managing our prairie ecosystems, likely this land would have looked very different (and perhaps less hospitable?) to white settlers. Indigenous peoples were necessary in the prairie ecosystem, and we have much to learn about living on and in this land from Indigenous peoples.

Although the weather was not conducive to a large turn out, we had about 8 to 10 people, and were able to identify and move many of our native plants from the area we had decided needed to be mowed and tilled, and covered with plastic to kill the weed seeds and rhizomes. About one third of the garden is in good enough shape as far as invasive species go that we can weed in amongst our valuable plants. Eryn Tomlinson presented on the invasive foes we have, one of the most worrisome being European buckthorn. Meewasin is going to return in late July or August and help us to remove them.

Eryn taught us about the integrated management plan that Meewasin has developed for maintaining the native prairie in their authority. Invasive exotics are removed by hand, through grazing (sheep and goats), controlled burns, and, when nothing else is working, strategic and careful use of chemicals. Grazing (by bison and pronghorn antelope) and controlled burns controlled native invasive plants in the past, and these methods would likely be all that was needed by Meewasin if exotic invasives had not been brought into the country.

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Building a Bee Hotel

Building a Bee Hotel:
The second workshop was to build a bee hotel. The garden had a commercially produced bee home, but this “hotel” will provide for a greater variety of bees and allow for easier cleaning to ensure viruses and bacteria and other pathogens do not build up. Two students from the EcoJustice grade 8 program contacted me, asking if the Prairie Habitat Garden would be willing to host the bee hotel. I enthusiastically responded, and invited them to teach an elementary school class how to do this simultaneous to building the hotel. The students, Emma and Connor, provided two wood palettes, and firewood. I provided straw (with hollow stems, from last years plants), clay pots and clay bricks. Sarah Godson’s grade 4 class from Brunskill School walked over to the garden to participate. The workshop began with a power point lecture on what is a species, what is a niche, what is a habitat, and also addressed the great variety of kinds of bees there are in the world. Then Emma and Connor took over, taking the children outside to play two games and to build the hotel. While one group built the hotel, another group played a “virus-infection” simulation (the virus-infected bee was “it”, and anyone tagged joined the virus-infected team until every one was infected) or a biodiversity simulation” (children were bees and had to seek ten different kinds of flower in the Prairie Habitat Garden, and then ten different kinds of flower in the soccer pitch – guess which location provided greater biodiversity of flowers!) The students rotated through the different activities.

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Building a Sun Effigy

Building an Earth-Sun effigy.
The first workshop was: Building an “Earth – Sun” effigy with First Nations (Cree) elder, Joseph Naytowhow. Prior to the activity, the children who were to be involved generated their lists of words that they associated with the sun. Joseph translated the words into Cree, and the words were written onto cards. Each child would thus be able to take home a new Cree word, one that they had chosen that related to their environments. As well, prior to the activity, we ordered soil, sculpted the soil into a sun shape (circle – with four rays, each pointing in a different cardinal direction) to prepare for the workshop. We left some soil at the side for the children to move to the sun shape. Kelly Fineday’s Grade 3 class from Sutherland School and children from the University of Saskatchewan Campus Day care participated in the activity. The activity began with Joseph telling the children a story and then teaching them a Cree song. They all sang the different verses / choruses of the song together. Then, they talked about the sun, and each child was given his/her card with his/her sun word(s) on it. Lastly, Joseph smudged the sun, and the children brought more soil, smudged the rocks they had brought and placed the rocks onto the sun. We now have a beautiful sun in the garden – there rain or shine!

The tradition of building these shapes is not necessarily a Cree tradition. Joseph is an artist and draws his art from teaching and learnings wherever he is. He has traveled extensively and spends time with various different Indigenous groups. The sun is the third “Earth” feature he has created in the garden. The first was the Earth Turtle (from Anishinabe traditions) and the second was the Earth bison, from Plains culture traditions.

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