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What Makes a Great Ranch Road?

Anyone can appreciate a well-made road. But what does it take to accomplish this? How can you avoid costly design and construction mistakes? What are the consequences of a poorly made road? What are the effects of low-quality ranch roads on the property value and the environment? Let’s explore these questions and learn about what makes a great ranch road. 

Not all properties are created equally when it comes to designing the access into the landscape. If you have not purchased property yet, please check out our FREE Pre-Purchase Property Selection Service.

A great ranch road starts with planning. The only way to start planning is to obtain a topography map of your property, preferably one that is overlaid onto satellite imagery. A topography map on satellite imagery not only shows the elevations and how water flows through the property, but also where trees and existing buildings are located. The map will show you where to find the high ground, the low water areas, where the land is very steep, and where the slope is gentle. The topography map shows the fingerprint of the landscape, each one is different and offers its own set of challenges. A smart designer can identify the best road locations that make it easier for the contractor to build, owner to maintain, and can even provide a positive influence on the landscape.  The benefits of a robust map study cannot be overstated.

Roads are Built to Manage Water

When placing a road remember that high ground is your friend. A road on a ridge has no storm water runoff flowing towards it. Roads that go across the slope of the land will require a drain on the uphill side of the road.  How big is the drain? That depends on how much land uphill of the work site flows into the new road. This can be measured using modern mapping and satellite imagery. In Texas, we could easily see 20 inches of rain in a single day. This makes planning for storm water runoff an essential task. Everything in road building is about water management. The surface of the road should be crowned, meaning that the center of the road is higher than the edges. Even the slightest ridge along the side of the road can prevent water from draining away. Never put rocks, railroad ties, stockpiled materials, piles of logs/brush, etc along the edge of the road. If water cannot get off of the road, the road will become a river during large rain events. It’s a great way to lose road base. A wet road that is driven over frequently will form potholes, ruts, and muddy puddles. Proper drainage will provide the road with a longer life span with less frequent maintenance. The costs of maintenance on a poorly designed road can be staggering and will contribute to sediment pollution of creeks and rivers. 

A great ranch road can and should be designed and used to manage or harvest storm water runoff. If it is required to construct a road across the slope of the land, the project can be designed to move water into a pond. Properly designed and built roads can also protect buildings and agricultural areas from excess storm water runoff. Strategically placed culverts can release water into areas that are more appropriate for managing high flows of storm water. Storm water produced from the construction of roads should be managed, when possible, with soil and water conservation measures on the downhill side of drains. Many people also think that road surfaces can be made to be permeable, to reduce the impact of storm water runoff. I think this is a mistake. Roads should always remain as impermeable hard surfaces that are built for driving on. Then use the landscape to absorb the storm water downstream with good management of soil and plants.

The Proper Tools

What makes a great ranch road? Once you have a good plan the next step is to find the right contractor. Although budget considerations play a role in selecting contractors, quality roads must be built with the right tools. A real road contractor will have a laser level, dump trucks, belly dump trucks, excavators, motor graders, rollers, water trucks and loaders. If your contractor is proposing to build the road with just a skid steer or a bulldozer, it may be wise to reconsider and find someone who has a motor grader. Dozers and skid steers can be used for clearing and rough grading.  However, a motor grader has the ability to cut drains and smooth out material with high accuracy. The blade can move up and down, it can be tilted forwards to spread material, it can be tilted backwards to cut material. The blade can angle to bring material from the edge of the road to the center while the angling, tilting and dropping of the corners can shape the road into a crowned surface that allows water to flow away from the center. No other machine can do this while also producing an enjoyable smooth driving experience. Dump trucks are great for hauling material, but when building roads, the belly dump is king. A belly dump truck releases the material from the bottom of the trailer in a controlled way that prevents road base from spilling outside of the edges of the road. This prevents loss of materials and a wavy edge to the road. Crisp clean edges make the road much more visually pleasing.  Water trucks will be used to wet the road in preparation for compaction. It’s impossible to completely compact extremely dry material or sopping wet material. Ideal moisture content allows the roller to perform its duties of compaction. Compaction with a roller is absolutely necessary to create a great road. Without compaction, vehicle tires may spin on the loose material and create potholes. 

Dimensions

A high standard for common ranch roads in Texas conforms to the following dimensions. The road should be estimated to have a 9-inch layer or road base that compacts to 6 inches. If you plan to have a road base that is 6 inches thick, 9 inches of road base material volume is estimated. Limestone road base shrinks 33% with compaction. The entryway should never be narrow. Keep in mind that an 18-wheeler will need at least a 50-foot-wide mouth at the entryway, then road will then gradually narrow down to its standard width. There should always be a recessed entryway gate 75-100 feet from the edge of the property. This allows trucks and trailers to safely pull off the main county or state highway without blocking traffic. The road is 12 feet wide; this will allow two cars to pass each other with each vehicle keeping two tires on the hard surface. It’s always a good idea to think about how the egress for large trucks and trailers. Can these large vehicles safely get in and out of the property without damaging the land? In some areas, pulling off of the hardened surface is not an option due to soft and wet soils where vehicles get stuck in the mud and incur the property owner unnecessary costs to repair damage. Avoiding sharp curves in the road during the design phase can help keep trucks with long trailers from doing damage to the land. Trailer tires do not follow the same path as the truck tires, this is known as off tracking.  Off tracking becomes a problem around sharp corners with a less than 90 degree angles and where there are obstructions near the corners like trees or steep drop offs.

 

Clean Up and Revegetation 

What makes a great ranch road? After construction is complete it is time to clean up the site. Do not forget to include this in the budget. Brush piles from clearing can be burned or chipped up to reused in the revegetation effort. Any piles of dirt should be spread out in low spots or hauled off from the site. If the project is done in the fall through winter, an easy way to achieve vegetation is to use annual cool season rye grass. This seed can be broadcast onto the soil with a thick application for cheap and easy cover during the cool season. Perennial grasses should also be seeded to establish ground cover during the warm season. Establishing ground cover is an important part of any road project. Vegetation will help prevent erosion along the edges of the road and in the newly cut drains. All bare soil should be covered with thick green grass. It helps a lot of the drains are built in a way so that they can be easily mowed in the future.

Accessing newly purchased property should be easy. Why purchase land if you cannot enjoy it? A good road is a huge first step to developing a property that is usable and valuable. A great road is a great asset and will last many years with very low maintenance. Keep in mind however that all roads require maintenance and its easier to do it early rather than late. What makes a great ranch road? It’s planning, having the right tools, execution, and revegetation.

Other Things to Avoid

  • Try to avoid crossing gullies and low water areas when possible
  • Avoid trying to cross boggy or swampy areas 
  • Do not allow the road to become the gully 
  • Avoid building roads without proper drainage
  • Avoid using washed gravel as a road base
  • Do not using pea gravel as a road base, any river rock or base with round stones.

For a high-quality topography map for low cost, check out our Topography Map Service. We can provide maps for pretty much anywhere in the United States. We also provide professional property design and consulting services in Texas. If a high-quality ranch road is desired here in Central Texas, send us a message, we can help. 

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Texas Topography Maps

LIDAR contour lines at 2 foot intervals.
Successful Texas property design starts before the land is purchased and with Texas Topography Maps. For information about property selection visit my blog post here.

Today, there are thousands of people moving out of the cities. They are migrating across state lines and looking to settle in the country side of the great state of Texas. Whether you are trying to decide on a property purchase or making choices about how to develop a property that’s already been purchased, it is absolutely critical to have a clear picture on the geography of the landscape. Thats when you need Texas Topography Maps. We can help! 

 

Affordable Texas Topography Maps

 

Fortunately, today we have access to some incredible resources in Texas that make decision making easier. Satellite imagery, computer programs, and LIDAR topography data are powerful tools that allow us to save time and money. Achieve your goals on farms, ranches, homesteads, and conservation properties now! These maps are extremely helpful in selling real estate! However, theres a learning curve involved in processing this data into a usable, affordable and accurate format. I will provide you affordable and quality Texas topography maps in a variety of usable formats. These maps have changed the way I do business and I know will be invaluable to Real Estate Agents, Architects, Farmers, Ranchers, Homesteaders, Conservationists, Small Business Owners, and anyone interested in owning land in Texas.

 

A Variety of Uses

 

A good topography map, aka contour map, can be helpful in many ways. These maps will help you to determine where the best sites are to build a home, including the orientation of the home in relation to the sun and the landscape. You will be able to identify spots that need to be avoided because of high stormwater runoff or steep terrain when building a driveway. Contour maps will help you understand how water flows through the property and how you will better manage it. Water flows at a 90 degree angle to these level lines that are drawn on the map, because of gravity. My personal favorite is to overlay the topography map onto satellite imagery using a program that’s free to download like Google Earth Pro. This program allows you to zoom in and out, draw lines/shapes, and measure areas on your landscape making it very user friendly!

Here are some formats available: AutoCAD DW, AutoCAD DXF, Microstation DGN, KMZ (KML), Shapefile, CVS, Excel, Vector (AIX/Illustrator, EMF, EPS, PDF, SVG, and SVGZ), Raster (BMP, JPEG, PNG, TIFF, TGA, and GIF)

Texas Topography Map on Homestead

Process

Currently this service is only for Texas properties. Please email me your name and address, the location of your property, like the property address. It’s very helpful if you can also send an image that shows the boundary of your property and let me know the size of the property (how many acres).  Watch this tutorial on the best way to send me your property boundary. We need to make sure that you get the correct map. Let me know what format you would like the data to be sent in. If you are using free Google Earth Pro (recommended) that will be a KMZ file. We’ll send you an invoice via email and once payment is received you will get your topography map in email. We accept cash, check, or payment through Venmo. 

Thanks for your business!

Contact

To get your Texas Topography Map contact me by email:
 
vandyck.designs@gmail.com
 
For volunteer and educational opportunities visit Earth Repair Corps
 

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Texas Topography Map on Homestead

Texas Property Design

Successful  Texas property design starts before the land is purchased. For information about property selection visit my blog post here

Texas Property Design over satellite imagery

Texas Property Design over satellite imagery

Designing a resilient landscape is a tough challenge. Every property is different and every client has different skills, resources, goals and interests. Context is everything and costly mistakes can create years of setbacks. You should not be afraid to get help than can save you time and money! It’s best to start off on the right foot with a full scale plan that provides focused direction for your actions now and into the future.
Experience
Van Dyck Earthworks & Design LLC has worked with clients all over Texas and completed over 50 full scale Texas property designs since the business was started in 2016. Our clients are organic farmers, regenerative ranchers, permaculture homesteaders, conservationists, game managers and government entities. Whether you are developing a raw piece of land from scratch or retrofitting an established property; we can provide you with cost effective solutions that are practical, productive to your local ecosystem, and aesthetically pleasing.
Process
Give me a call and we can discuss whether or not I’ll be able to help you with your project. If it sounds like a mutually beneficial relationship then I’ll ask you to send me some your location with an address, an image showing the property boundary, and a complete list of everything that you want to achieve. Explaining your situation with as much detail as possible will yield a better end result. Your specific context will determine how the design will be laid out.
Each design is overlaid onto satellite imagery and has multiple layers. The structure of the design is based off of my study of P.A Yeomans Keyline Scale of Permanence, the more modern Regrarians Platform taught by Darren Doherty, and Permaculture Design. Texas property design requires attention to detail and deep understanding of the local climate and conditions.
  • Geography- The design will outline the border of the property and also includes a topographic map of the property. Usually we can obtain LIDAR topography data for properties in Texas. We can also measure water catchment areas using LIDAR data and overlay this onto satellite imagery.
  • Water- Each design comes with an appropriate water layer. This includes the layout of dams, conservation terraces, and conceptual irrigation system layouts that service the property. In Texas, water availability is either feast or famine. More and more landowners are starting to realize the value of a trademarked Drought Proof Texas design.
  • Access- One of  the most overlooked but important aspects of design is accessRoad construction and maintenance is one of the largest unexpected expenses for most new land owners/managers. Using the topography of the land as a guide, we can achieve the best possible access system for your property that will provide priceless value to your land. Good access saves time, money, and endless headaches of a poorly designed system.
  • Buildings- We also provide recommendations on where to place and how to orient your building sites. Good building sites lower the cost of construction, lower the cost of maintenance over the lifespan of the building, saves on energy costs, and provides benefits instead of harming the surrounding landscape. The money spent on the design will be recuperated on this element alone! Take peace of mind knowing your building will be safe from as many liabilities as possible.  We will also make recommendations on home design, building materials and waste water systems when necessary.
  • Fencing- Every homestead, farm or ranch needs a good fencing layout.  Each design will have appropriate fencing recommendations that will serve the clients specific needs. This will include specific types of materials, building specifications and measurements that fencing contractors will be able work from with ease.
  • Forestry- We design orchards, food forests, privacy screens, windbreaks, forestry management plans, and functional solutions to the management and establishment trees on your land.
  • Soil- The plans provided for you design will include soil management practices for every square foot on the property. This includes the design and placement of gardens, recommendations and concepts for grazing management, management of hills and slopes, management and layout of agricultural areas, establishment of native grasses and prairie communities. The goal is to have 100% ground cover 100% of the time and to improve soil organic matter over time.
  • Energy- When required, we can provide you with a layout for your grid power system. Many clients are also interested in solar energy and, if so, we can provide recommendations on the best course of action to achieve energy independence. We can also help you design a layout for a propane system if desired. Redundancy in your energy system provides great financial savings and security.
  • Economy- Many clients are working to create income streams using their land. We work to integrate all elements of the design to help assist with these endeavors. We have helped folks with their ranching operations, farm development, Airbnb/rental cabin development, and educational operations. Let us help you achieve your goals or determine the feasibility of projects!

Each Texas property design starts off with a first draft. If any adjustments are needed or if anything was left out changes will be made. The client is then presented with a second draft for overview. If any further changes need to be made we’ll take care of those and then present a final draft. At the end of the design process the client gets a KMZ file of the design and a written report. The KMZ file is used with a program called Google Earth Pro which is totally free to download. With this program you can zoom into your design, click on aspects of the design to get more details, and take measurements of lengths and areas. This is an extremely easy way to use your design to communicate with contractors. The report comes in PDF format and has the maps of each layer of the design along with detailed descriptions of each element. There is also a brief guide to using the design on GEPRO.

Each customized design is priced at a flat rate based on the criteria and complexity of the project.

Lifetime of Value
-Save time and money not only in the development of property but also maintenance over a lifetime!
-Avoid costly mistakes, type 1 errors, and debilitating setbacks.
-Have a clear and focused vision of the end goal.
Set up your phone appointment by email:
vandyck.designs@gmail.com
For volunteer and educational opportunities visit Earth Repair Corps
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Land Restoration in Cedar Regrowth

All of us who live in the Texas hill country are well acquainted with the Ashe juniper and its challenges for land conservation. This blog post is about a land restoration project on a degraded caliche hillside. I’ll show all the steps of what we did to harvest water, control erosion, improve soil conditions and increase species diversity on the land.

Soil conditions common to the site. Notice all the bare soil. The flags marked level lines that we cleared of Juniper.

Ashe juniper is a native Texas tree is very well adapted to our climate and soil conditions. It is often seen as a menace, but I have grown to respect this tree for what it  really is, a tough pioneer species. The cedar berries are also one of the most utilized sources of food for many species of wildlife. This is why it spreads so quickly as the seeds are being eaten and “planted” with manure by birds and small mammals. Often in very degraded areas of our caliche and limestone soil, the cedar trees are the only plant with any topsoil around them. This dark soil was created by the cedar trees! Cedar trees also have very thick evergreen foliage that intercept heavy raindrops before they hit the soil. This protects the bare soil from the initial impact of the raindrops and acts like a slow filter for the rainfall into the soil. This is very helpful during our common flash flood deluges when water is moving too quickly and causing damage. However, the cedar trees can begin to form a monoculture thicket which makes the land less valuable to wildlife, soil micro-organisms, and humans.

 

Soil and Water Conservation


Before and after satellite imagery

The client wanted to clear cedar, harvest water, plant natives and also some fruit trees. They wanted to do the right thing for the land. While most folks would just bulldoze all the trees down and burn the brush, we came up with a much gentler solution. This was to clear only the juniper that we needed to get other plant species easily established and use the remaining juniper trees as nurse trees to provide shade and wind protection.

We began by surveying some levels lines through the cedar trees, all measured 70 feet apart on at the driveway and marked with flags. These lines we used as our guide to clear the cedar trees on contour. All of the brush was stockpiled for later use either uphill or downhill from the line. This accomplished the our clients goal of thinning the cedar trees but also left us plenty of protection from wind and the hot Texas sun. We cleared only enough to allow a mini-excavator to get in and out of the work site safely. I used the mini-excavator to build a series of conservation terraces that will virtually eliminate runoff and provide a platform to plant a great diversity trees, native grasses, wildflowers, and cover crops.

This photo shows the 6,000 lb machine and conservation terraces being built.

The terrace basins are 90 inches wide, 9 inches deep, add up to a total length of about 950 linear feet, and have a water storage capacity of about 25,000 gallons. The high calcium, gravelly soil, soaks in water very quickly allowing the basins to fill and drain multiple times in a day. Not only are these structures adding massive amounts of water to the soil, they are also mitigating hundreds of thousands of gallons of flood waters from entering the creek. The berms were about 9 feet wide and 15 inches tall at the crest. The teeth of the excavator bucket was used to break up the soil into very small pieces to provide great tilth for plants to grow in.  These berms are excellent for planting native trees and even fruit trees into, their roots are easily able to proliferate in the decompacted soil.

Here a conservation terrace that has just been completed. Notice how close we were able to keep the cover from the cedars.

 

Community Outreach

 

We were fortunate to be able to call for help from the Earth Repair Corps and Kirby Fry to finish the project. We organized a Permablitz around this design where volunteers came to help install irrigation, plant seeds, plant trees, build tree cages for deer protection, and spread mulch over all of the bare soil. This is a great way to meet people in the community and get lots of hands on experience. The results, as usual, have been spectacular and will continue to get better as the soil improves due to added moisture and root activity.

Here you can see the first seeds coming up, the trees planted with tree cages, just after a rain.

A picture from the following summer. American basket flower in the foreground.

By harvesting water, bringing in organic material to cover the ground, and planting seeds we can help even the most degraded landscapes provide function and beauty that we can be proud of. The client mentioned recently that this garden was “One of my favorite places to be!”.  Maintenance for this system is not hard. The most important things are to keep adding mulch where the ground has not recovered yet, check that each tree is getting water from the irrigation system, pruning as needing, and taking down the mature vegetation during the winter so that light can reach the growing points of the plants in the spring.

 

Validation

I was not able to be at the Earth Repair Corps Permablitz event for this site because I was visiting Oaxaca, Mexico. Curiously, we ran into some conservation terraces that were built by the locals. They had been using a system very similar to ours in the limestone mountains of Oaxaca for many generations. Their main crop was agave, from which they harvested the “aguamiel” or honey water from the base of the flower stalk. A 1000 liters of this agave nectar can be harvested from one plant over the course of 3-6 months. According to Native American history this process was discovered over  1000 years ago. The honey water is used medicinally and they also ferment this liquid into a particularly viscous beer known as pulque. The agave plants themselves are controlled in the local villages because of their value. They grow these highly prized plants on conservation terraces almost identical to the ones I built on this site in Leander, Texas. They said the terraces were used to harvest water and prevent the soil from washing away during heavy rains. The climate there was almost like a limestone mountain desert covered with cactus and thorny trees.

Photo of indigenous conservation terrace in Oaxaca, Mexico with agaves growing on the berm. We got to taste the aguamiel and pulque right off the farm. They were also growing corn in soil conditions that I could not believe. The success due to adapted genetics from generations of selection.

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Road Equipment

A soil and water conservation case study: Little Barton Creek Preserve

I was very honored to have one of my projects at Little Barton Creek Preserve featured on the blog of Texas Living Waters organization recently. I love their moto “Fresh water, forever.”.

Texas Living Waters is a collaboration of conservation groups working to ensure fresh water will always reach its natural destinations. For our wildlife, our economy and our kids. They are working to help keep our springs and rivers flowing year round and protected for future generations.

Read the blog post and see all the great images here:

https://texaslivingwaters.org/little-barton-creek-preserve/

Little Barton Creek Preserve is a privately-owned conservation easement in Dripping Springs, Texas that is dedicated to habitat restoration. This area of Texas is rapidly developing and at risk of both severe drought and flooding conditions.  With our help, the family managing this conservation easement has taken creative measures to mitigate these risks and increase wildlife habitat at the same time.

In two years we have transformed a caliche hillside from a barren, lifeless landscape into the most biologically-diverse area of the property. Here’s what we did:

  1. Basins were dug, eight feet wide and nine inches deep, in contour patterns across the landscape for a total of 1,400 linear feet.
  2. The soil excavated from the basins was shaped into garden bed-like berms
  3. The berms were then seeded with a diverse mixture of native grass, wildflower, and cover crop seeds, which were then covered with a protective layer of compost and mulch.
  4. Next, the berms were planted with 40 species of native trees, fruit trees, and pollinator forage trees.

Today, this conservation terrace is well on its way to becoming a richly diverse and abundant food forest for both wildlife and family managing the land.

For this restoration project, the family chose to tackle one of the most degraded areas on the property. This was a caliche and limestone ledge that had lain barren for as long as anyone can remember. Almost no plants were growing and it was hard to believe that anything could grow in such bleak conditions. The bare surface of the soil had turned into a clay hardpan that would shed most of the rainwater that falls on it, letting very little water filter into the ground. There was also a significant amount of runoff from the road above that was causing a large amount of soil loss when storm water would flow across the bare soil…

Please visit the Texas Living Waters blog to read the whole post!

https://texaslivingwaters.org/little-barton-creek-preserve/

To see more about this project visit my projects page that has much more photo documentation:

Little Barton Creek Preserve

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Pre-Purchase Property Selection Service

Successful Texas Property Design starts before the land is purchased.

 
Buying property is one of the biggest investments that a family will make. It can be exciting and yet stressful. It is important to ensure that the new land owner will be able to accomplish their goals and avoid unnecessary challenges and mistakes. Choosing the right land not only helps to save money when developing the land but also in the long term cost of maintenance on the property. Our Pre-Purchase Property Selection service delivers the results you need.
 
Not every property is worth buying and some can lead to disaster. The shape of the property, terrain, aspect, land resources, and accessibility should all be assessed for ease of development and management. A professional pre-purchase property evaluation can be the most valuable investment for the subsequent land owner. This service often provides tens of thousands of dollars in savings and countless hours of the land owners priceless time saved during a lifetime of management on the property. The land should be enjoyable to work with, not a life long frustration.
 
Usually a buyer will have goals and dreams for their new property. They purchase land and only realize later on that the land that was selected has difficulties and expenses that were not anticipated.
 
 
 
Experiences
 
 
I once had a client that was closing on a property call to hire me for a property design. When I asked to come see this property before closing, they declined this offer. Soon after I went to the property for the initial design consultation and could tell before entering the property that they should not have bought it. I pulled up to the gate of a long and narrow easement, the road was pure sand and looked more like a drain than a road. The property was low lying and prone to flooding. At one point my clients could not leave the property for a week because of flood conditions and high water over the road. The family started to get sick because the home was riddled with mold. It could not affordably be fixed and they had to walk away. The unnecessarily lost the home, the land and their dreams for the future. I also have clients who bought land that was incredibly steep, rocky and covered with cactus without realizing the challenges and limitations they would face on land of this type. Long and narrow properties have also put many clients at a significant disadvantage when pursuing their goals. Don’t let this happen to you!
 
 
Lifetime of Value
 
 
For incredibly low cost we can help you choose a property that fulfills your vision. Is there good water availability on the property and opportunity for redundancy? Will the property be accessible with a road that is easily maintained? Is there opportunity for successful orchards, gardens, animal grazing, or other enterprises? Is the shape of the land conducive to easy management or difficult management? Are there enough good building sites on the property to meet the land owner’s needs? Is the property private? If the land owner wants to produce food on the property, is there a market for these products? These and many more questions can be answered.
 
Initially we work with the client to communicate their vision for the future. The client verbalizes all their needs, wants and goals for the land. Together we develop this context with an initial phone consultation and follow up email correspondence. We give some selection criteria to begin the process. The client then sends property listings that interest them via email. Each listing is assessed remotely and given a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and a short explanation of reasons why. The explanations help guide the selection process so the client can begin to see the better properties and skip over the poor properties. Usually we will find one ‘yes’ for every fifteen to twenty five listings. Once acceptable properties have been identified we meet for an onsite assessment at each one and compare the various properties. The client then purchases a property that has been hand picked for ease of sustainable design and ease of management.
 
 
 
Contact Before You Buy
 
 
Clients can send me property listings for FREE EVALUATION! If you have listing of a property that you are looking at, send it over and you get advice for zero cost. Site visits are charged hourly including half of the travel time at $50.00 an hour. Take advantage of this Pre-Purchase Property Selection Service now!
 
Email your listings to:
 
vandyck.designs@gmail.com
 
Also get info about affordable Texas Topography Maps.
 
For educational and volunteer opportunities check out Earth Repair Corps.
 
 
 

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Texas Prairie History

Texas Prairie History

These quotes were assembled by Elenore Goode in order to provide historical context for our work in ecological restoration and regenerative agriculture.

Quotes from the wonderful research on prairies of Del Weniger’s The Explorers’ Texas, The Lands and Waters:

Prairies

“We are led to think of the prairie as flat, treeless and essentially stark and barren. Yet this is not a true picture of a prairie. How has our conception become so twisted?

The problem begins with a confusion of two different words: prairie and plain. Both of these were originally French terms. They exist because – modern dictionaries not withstanding – they mean two different things. The opportunity for confusion of the two is great, for you could have a plain included within and part of a large prairie, but hardly a prairie within and considered part of a plain. 

A plain was a flat expanse which was altogether or practically treeless. It was a plain surface in every sense of that word, and also in the sense of the word plane. The prairie, on the other hand was seldom flat or treeless.

 The essential difference is shown by the most common way of describing a prairie. This was as rolling. No plain could actually roll, since it had to be flat.

The other difference was the vegetation. While both plains and prairies typically had grass-covered expanses, the plains were treeless, while the prairies had trees as an essential part of them. Nothing shows this better than the fact that Dr. Ferdinand Roemer, one of the most scientific observers of early Texas, could write of “the forests of the prairies…”

This unflat combination of grass and trees, a fusion of the forest and the grassland…

“…If the prairie be small, its greatest beauty consists in the vicinity of the surrounding margin of woodland, which resembles the shore of a lake, indented with deep vistas, like bays and inlets, and throwing out long points, like capes and headlands; while occasionally these points approach so close on either hand, that the traveller passes through a narrow avenue, or strait, where the shadows of the woodland fall upon his path, and then again emerges into another prairie. Where the plain is large, the forest outline is seen in the far perspective, like the dim shore when beheld at a distance from the ocean. The eye sometimes roves over the green meadow without discovering a tree, a shrub, or any other object in the immense expanse but the wilderness of grass and flowers, while at another time, the prospect is enlivened by the groves, which are seen interspersed like islands, or the solitary tree, which stands alone in the blooming desert.”

Karl Anton Postl wrote under the pen name of Charles Sealsfield about the prairies west of Houston as they were in 1832: “…we distinguished some dark masses, which we afterward discovered to be groups of trees; but to our eyes they looked exactly like islands in a green sea, and we subsequently learned that they were called islands by the people of the country. It would have been difficult to have given them a more appropriate name or one better describing their appearance..These islands are one of the most enchanting features of Texas scenery. Of infinite variety and beauty of form and unrivalled in the growth and magnitude of the trees that compose them, they are to be found of all shapes – circular, parallelograms, hexagons, octagones – some again twisting and winding like dark-green snakes over the brighter surface of the prairie. In no park or artificially laid-out grounds would it be possible to find anything equalling these natural shrubberies in beauty and symmetry. In the morning and evening especially, when surrounded by a sort of veil of light-greyish mist and with the horizontal beams of the rising or setting sun gleaming through them, they offer pictures which it is impossible to get weary of admiring…I passed several beautiful islands of pecan, plum, and peach [laurel cherry] trees. It is a peculiarity worthy of remark, that these islands are nearly always of one sort of tree…the vine only is common to them all and embraces them all alike with its slender but tenacious branches. I rode through several of these islands. They were perfectly free from bushes and brushwood, and carpeted with the most beautiful verdure possible to behold.”

That these prairie mottes were not figments of early imaginations is clear. That modern poet of nature, Donald Culross Peattie, wrote a whole book, A Prairie Grove, about one of them, and his words of introduction match those of the explorers exactly: “The prairie island and its grove are like the hammock in the everglades, like an atoll in the sea, like an oasis upon the desert….”

This blending of trees and grass which was prairie is made even clearer for us from further descriptions which use another analogy. Dr. Ferdinand Roemer, in 1849, expressed it most simply. Writing about present Harris County, he said, “After passing through the forest, I had my first view of a Texas prairie…The oft-made comparison with an English park on a grand scale appeared very appropriate to me.”

The references here are to parks and orchards, and they are echoed time and again by others. William Carleton, leaving early Victoria in 1855, said, “The country about here was very beautiful indeed, but farther on and until we got to Gonzalez it was beautiful beyond description. I thought I had seen beautiful scenery here before, but what I passed on this route surpassed anything I had ever seen before or imagined. No ornamented ground, no lordly park I have ever seen can be compared with it…”

At about the same time, J. De Cordova was even more specific in drawing the comparison for east Texas. He said, “…But by far the richest and most beautiful district or country I have ever seen, in Texas or elsewhere, is that watered by the Trinity and its tributaries. Occupying east and west a bet of one hundred miles in width, with about equal quantities of prairie and timber, intersected by numerous clear, fresh streams and countless springs, with a gently-undulating surface of prairie and oak-openings, it presents the most charming views, as of a country in the highest state of cultivation, and you are startled at the summit of each swell of the prairie with a prospect of groves, parks and forests, with intervening plains of luxuriant grass…”

Even the southwestern stretches which we do not think of as prairies at all today were described in the same terms. Witness Cora Montgomery’s description of Maverick County in 1852. She put it this way: “Our embryo town [Eagle Pass] lies on a sloping prairie, sprinkled with mesquite trees like a vast and venerable orchard, and falling in successive platforms or terraces down to the river’s edge.”

This, then, was the original Texas prairie. Imagine, those of you who know the lakes and bays and oceans, who have seen capes and headlands and islands, these scenes transposed into similar configurations, with slopes and hillocks and hollows of grass and flowers, and skirts and groves of trees in place of shores, points and islands.

Time and again the explorers expressed feelings of relaxation and relief in moving out of either forest or large plains into prairies.

 

The Quantity of Trees in the Original Prairies

But on to some details of the prairies. First, what was the relative amount of trees and grass in a prairie? No simple answer to this question arises out of the early accounts. It appears that this is because the proportions were so variable.

There were prairies described which had so many trees that the explorers threaded through the narrow straits between the forests, and the openings were those beautiful little, locked-in meadows we have already described. Other prairies had the trees as only scattered islands…Then there were prairies with their trees few and standing singly…There were even prairies with large flat, treeless spaces – the plains within the prairies – between fingers of forests.

Olmstead stated that the proportions of grass increased and trees decreased from east to west across prairies. This is as it should be if the prairie is actually the zone of juncture of the eastern forests and the western grassland – or the strip between them which neither can totally claim.

There is general agreement that the prairies of east Texas were about equal part wood and grassland. Kennedy stated this for the whole country watered by the Trinity and Brazos, the upper San Bernard, the San Andres and Cummins Creek. We have seen that De Cordova corroborated this about the land in the Trinity River watershed as did Mirabeau B. Lamar…

In central and south Texas were many prairies. Kennedy calls them “A vast chain of prairie, extending from the western bank of the Colorado to the mountains…” This word – chain – is very well chosen, for in this region one apparently found the prairies strung out in a row from east to to west. Abbe Domenech says of this area, “the prairies are divided by forests which extend along the rivers.” But here these forests were not wide. Kennedy says, for instance, that “The Colorado bottoms differ much from those of the Brazos and the rivers of Eastern Texas, which are always covered with a heavy growth of timber. Many of the richest bottoms of the Colorado are prairie of extraordinary fertility…” Olmsted concurs, saying, “We struck the Colorado at Bastrop…The bottom was here narrow, the surface rising rapidly to open prairie or post-oak… The scenery along the river is agreeable, with a pleasant alteration of gently-sloping prairies and wooded creek bottoms.”

 

The Grass of the Prairies

Another crucial question about prairies arises – how much grass was in their meadows, and what was it like?

Kennedy’s observer, Hall, is most specific of any about this. He tells us, “In the summer the prairie is covered with long coarse grass, which soon assumes a golden hue, and waves in the wind like a ripe harvest.” The point is that rather than a close-cropped, velvety sward, the prairie grass was a tall and stalky crop. By the middle of summer it had turned the gold of ripeness. The scene was, for most of the year, that of a standing or later and unharvested, falling grain field, with the breezes rippling the tall stalks like it does the ripened wheat on much of the same ground today.

But if this is so, how could the pioneers call these fields lawns? We moderns are once again tricked by the narrow image a word may give to us of so little experience. Only for those of the last fifty years or so since the development of mechanical mowers had a lawn been merely inches high.

Just how tall was this harvest? Hall is specific here also. He continues:”…In the low, wet prairies…the centre or main stem of this grass, which bears the seed, acquires great thickness, and shoots up to the height of eight or nine feet, throwing out a few long, coarse leaves or blades, and the traveller often finds it higher than his head, as he rides through it on horseback.“

If we are ever to imagine the low prairies of east Texas west to Dallas and the Blackland Belt, we must force ourselves to see these grass forests with the heads of their grasses often nodding as high as our own. The degree of difficulty we find in imagining this scene as we stand outside any of our Prairie Views or Grand Prairies today, with the grass hardly to our boot-tops, measures how far removed we are from Texas as it was.

And so it was in the mixed-grass prairies, with the grammas, the dropseeds, lovegrasses, etc. topping out at three to five feet tall. They will still do it wherever they are left uncropped and the soil is yet undepleted.

It was only the prairies of northwestern texas which originally had the short grass standing only a foot or so high. These were usually called by the explorers mesquite prairies, after the mesquite trees whose presence helped make them prairies instead of plains and after the excellent grass which grew associated with these trees.

North Texas prairies had grass tall enough to hide all but the antlers, necks and tails of bounding deer or the humps of grazing buffalo, while south texas prairie grass was tall enough and thick enough to hide men crouching on sleds being pulled through it by oxen. What luxuriant cover this was! What a commentary on our greed is the naked, almost barren state of our overgrazed prairie pastures today, which will hardly hide a rabbit.

Perhaps someone objects. Someone who appreciates flowers may think of all this grass as monotonous and insist that the blanket of flowers on our modern, almost grassless prairies is preferable. I must hasten to state that there were plenty of flowers in those grassy prairies – probably even more than today. Frederic Gaillardet, in 1839, stated that, “For nine months of the year Texas is a green carpet decorated with wild flowers.”

Hall’s observations brought to us by Kennedy detail the scenes through the whole growing season: “The first coat of grass is mingled with small flowers, the violet, the bloom of the strawberry, and others of the most minute and delicate texture. As the grass increases in size, these disappear, and others, taller, and more gaudy, display their brilliant colours upon the green surface; and still later, a larger and coarser succession rises with the rising tide of verdure.

The whole of the surface of these beautiful plains is clad, throughout the season of verdure, with every imaginable variety of color, from grave to gay. It is impossible to conceive of greater diversity, or a richer profusion of hues, or to detect any predominating tint, except the green, which forms the beautiful ground, and relieves the exquisite brilliancy of all the others.

The only changes of colour observed at the different seasons arise from the circumstance that, in the spring, the flowers are small, and the colours delicate, as the heat becomes more ardent, a hardier race appears, the flowers attain a greater size, and the hue deepens; and still later, a succession of coarser plants rise above the tall grass, throwing out larger and gaudier flowers. As the season advances from spring to midsummer, the individual flower becomes less beautiful, when closely inspected, but the landscape is far more variegated, rich and glowing.”

Sealsfield (Postl) confirmed this description of northern prairies as applying also to Texas by writing of a scene he witnessed in 1832, in western Harris or Waller County: “…the part of the prairie in which I now find myself presented the appearance of a perfect flower garden with scarcely a square foot of green to be seen. The most variegated carpet of flowers I ever beheld lay unrolled before me – red, yellow, violet, blue, every color, every tint was there – millions of the most magnificent prairie roses, tube-roses, dahlias, and fifty other kinds of flowers. The finest artificial garden in the world would sink into insignificance when compared with this parterre of nature’s own planting. My horse could scarcely make his way through the wilderness of flowers, and I for a time remained lost in admiration of this scene of extraordinary beauty. The prairie in the distance looked as if clothed with rainbows that waved to and fro over its surface.”

So there were enough forbs to sprinkle all this grass with flowers all the growing season. The ones we know had their season, and perhaps some of them grew in that rich mulch far taller than we see them today, while even taller ones may have disappeared along with the tallest aristocrats of the grasses.

There were, in Texas, some special kinds of prairies. These seem to indicate special environmental situations prompting special biological communities, or else prairies with unusual topographic features.

 

Weed Prairies

One of the most interesting of these was the “wee prairie.” The name does not indicate any tiny size of these prairies, but is a curious corruption of the term, “weed prairie.” These were apparently localized situations where little grass grew and forbes ruled exclusively. They were described in 1839, by Kennedy, as follows: “In their ‘wee prairies’, the counties of Robertson and Milam possess a characteristic of the soil peculiar to themselves. These prairies, unlike most of those in other localities, are covered with a thick growth of weeds instead of grass. These weeds are generally from ten to fifteen feet high, and so dense that they are almost impenetrable to man or horse, resembling in some respects, the cane-brakes of the alluvial region. The settlers highly estimate the productive power of the weed prairie.” De Cordova is the only other early writer to mention these, speaking of the “…immense bodies of fine weed-prairies, so proverbial for their fertility,” in present Falls County. As far as we know, these peculiar prairies were limited to the three counties named in these passages.

 

Shaking Prairies

A strange passage exists which can do little more than intrigue us. It consists of two sentences written by the Abbe Domenech about a situation encountered when travelling in what is now Cameron County at the southern tip of Texas. The Abbe relates: “We then passed over glades and prairies where the earth was so light and soft that sometimes it gave way under our horses’ feet. The rancheros call these tierras falsas (treacherous grounds): after rain they are very dangerous; man and horse sometimes sink and disappear in them, as in shaking prairies.” Was this soil so fine and sandy that it could form a quicksand-like mass after rains, or were there at that time old resacas so choked with partly decayed plant material that horse and rider could sink into them? Who knows today? At any rate, there must have been something unsteady enough that we can add the term, shaking prairie, to the list of strange Texas locales.

 

The Wetness of the Undrained Prairies

The result of all of our modern activity has been to improve the drainage of wetlands. Our agriculture and our desire for convenience cannot tolerate water standing anywhere except behind our dams or in rice fields, and so we forget what the country was like before drainage projects. We therefore don’t realize what the low-lying prairies, on many of which we now have nice, dry cities, highways and farms, were originally like in the wet season.

Dr. Roemers account of the traveller’s tribulations in 1849 on a wet prairie should enlighten us: “Hardly had we left the city [Houston] when the flat houston prairie loomed up as an endless swamp. Large puddles of water followed one another and at several places a large section of land was under water. All of the low coastal region presents a similar picture during this time of the year…darkness fell and still we had not reached the end of the prairie, nor did we find a dry place to lie down…[in the morning] we proceeded on our journey. We were confronted with the same obstacles met with on the previous day. An extensive, level prairie, now and then broken by a sparse grove of oaks, partially covered with water, lay before us…Night overtook us in a wet, open prairie, where not a stick of wood could be found to kindle a fire.”

These were the prairies of Texas. They made up a larger part of the State than any other natural community. There was much variation in them, as they were themselves a curious blending of hills and plains, forests and grassland, forbes and grasses.

 

The Early Destruction of the Prairies

By late in the 1850s these prairies were vastly altered – so much so that by the end of that decade descriptions were not of the prairies in their original state anymore. By 1860 many of the trees on them were cut and much of the grass had disappeared. Although actual cultivation was ripping into them by then, two other forces accomplished the first destruction of the prairies even before the plow.”

One of the first agents in the destruction of the prairie was the so-called domestic animal. It was the practice of the pioneers to turn as many cows, sheep and goats as they could acquire loose in the prairies and reap the gain in offsprings of the prolific, semi-wild herds. In south Texas the missions pioneered by introducing the Spanish open ranching system full-blown, and the hers were prodigious. By the 1760s the five mission ranches in the San Antonio area were working a total of more than 5,000 cattle and 17,000 sheep and goats, while the mission Espiritu Santo, near present Goliad, had a total of 16,000 cattle by 1768. In north and east Texas the other settlers needed no old-world systems. They managed in their own ways to get the cattle and sheep and goats out onto the prairies and re-capture a part of the increase.

One can imagine the destruction worked upon the prairie vegetation by such herds. There was a respite as the mission activity dwindled and failed by the end of the eighteenth century, but soon after that the settlers flooded in, each establishing his herd and turning it onto the prairies. Add to these the myriads of wild horses grazing everywhere by then, and one must envision the tall grasses being whittled down year by year. The tall, standing biomass, the life of the prairie as surely as the trees are the life of the forest, was being eaten away. By the 1850s this process was far enough along that the prairie was often stripped, naked and dying, and it sometimes took some of its tormentors with it.

Olmsted describes a scene of such an early death of some prairies. When he was travelling down the Guadelupe River, he said, “On the 20th February [1854] we reached Gonzales. The prairies through which the road passes were cropped very close, and we passed many carcasses of cattle that had miserably perished by the road of cold and starvation.”

There was another destruction being wreaked upon the prairie by this time.

Carl, Prince of Solm-Braunfels described it in 1854 – and notice that he recounts the practice as a happy one, making the farmer’s life easier. “Throughout the entire winter the prairie sare covered with green grass. When it becomes dry, it is burned, after which the prairie looks black, producing a rather dreary effect. Only one food shower is necessary to erase the black appearance and to enable the fresh grass to shoot up and cover the plain with its refreshing greenery.”

The extent of this burning of the prairies must have been great. Olmstead, in his 1854 travels, while in present Leon County, said, ‘Most of the prairies have been burned over. Both yesterday and today we have been surrounded by the glare of fires at night.”

Already in 1849, Dr. Roemer said, “The grass had been burnt nearly all the way from San Felipe to this point [on the San Bernard River] The monotonous black ground extended as far as the eye could see. A few deer which were cropping the tender stubble were the only living things we saw. AT another place several prairie chickens (Tetrao cupido L.) fluttered out of a strip of long yellow grass which had not been burned, owing to the moist soil found there.”

And in 1846, McClintock, while traveling through what is today western Limestone and eastern Falls Counties, said:  “Scarce any timber today, a few scattering musquit trees, many quite dead, others dieing. The gray and bleaching trunks and boughs present a melencholly appearance…The Timber is of slow growth, and easily killed – great quantities are destroyed by the burning of the prairies.” 

This fire was a new enemy of the prairie. McClintock’s mesquites were just dying from it in 1846. There is no evidence that the prairie fire started by lightning was ever any more than a freak happening of local consequence. Nor, contrary to many statements, is there any evidence that the Texas Indians ever used fire to drive out game until they learned the practice from the Spanish. But they learned that technique quickly, and the ranchers burned after them in their turn. Thus the prairies capital was repeatedly reduced to ashes. Herds of cattle and sheep and goats were always ready to chop off the new growth when it came back, and the prairies could not rejuvenate themselves. So by 1860 the grand prairies existed only in pitiful remnants, and we leave them here.

The prairies of Texas were as grand as the sea, with moods and vistas as variable, but with a grace and tidiness which would do justice to a civilized park. They were as fruitful as an old-fashioned orchard field. They waited here, a home away from home for the wanderers, some of the most hospitable scenes for any settlers to enter. And they could have supported many humans while surviving as prairies. But we destroyed them in our greed. Where would you go to see a real prairie today?”

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Starlove Ranch Design

Design

Starlove Ranch is a 100 acre property near Giddings, Texas that is currently being continuously grazed by cattle for a small beef production operation. The ranch is transitioning from animal production to plant based production. They are working in partnership with the organization Farm Transformers that promotes and supports vegan farm transitions and farm animal sanctuaries. The 26 cattle will stay on the land safe from the sale barn and be managed to help kickstart the plant based production. Starlove Ranch is also aspiring to build a beautiful camp out wedding venue on the land. I will now take you through each layer of the design (excluding climate) which was created using the Regrarians Platform and Google Earth Pro.

 

Geography

 

The image below shows the property boundary and a roughly accurate topography map for most of the property at 2 ft intervals. It was difficult to get good information of the topography in the forested areas. However, I was able to get enough information to make design decisions and verify them in the field.  The land is beautiful with low rolling hills and thick forested areas. The soil on the surface is a sandy clay loam but the clay layer beneath is heavy and impermeable. There are post oaks, live oaks, yaupon holly, eastern red cedar, mesquite, huisache and cedar elms growing on the property.
 
 
Water
 
Starlove will begin managing the cattle a bit differently, switching from continuous grazing to managed rotational grazing. To protect the land from overgrazing and ponds from erosion the animals will be moved around the property using electric fencing. This can be done effectively but more water availability will be needed around the property. The light blue lines in the image below are underground water pipes that carry water around the property so that cattle can be paddocked away from the ponds and still have water availability. Having clean water on demand with a float valve will also keep the cattle healthier than allowing them to drink and defecate in the same water at a pond. We will also use this system to irrigate trees,shrubs and the garden. Water pipes will also provide water redundancy to the house sites which should also have rain tanks. We will be fusion welding polyethylene pipes from 3/4″ -2″ in diameter, no pvc. All fittings will be underground in irrigation boxes safe from frost. The pond is also marked in blue with the dam wall in brown. There are also brown lines that mark berms and swales to be built to increase the ponds catchment area by 50 %.
 

This next photo shows all the fittings like valves, tees, inline assemblies, reducers, transitions, and 1/2 poly pipes for surface irrigating trees and shrubs. Each pin has a parts list and description designated with it.

 

 

Access

This next image shows the access system around the property.  I added a road loop and also another road into the huisache thicket. The roads going into the pastures do not have to have road base, they are just more like farm tracks. The entry road will be build up to two lanes to accommodate wedding venue traffic. The brown lines show foot paths around the reception area and camping sites. The grey rectangles are parking areas. The parking is right off the road and requires much less grading work, equipment rental and materials moving than building a single parking lot. Big money saver here. This parking design yields 70 parking spots. There are also two culverts that need to be installed to maintain positive drainage around the driveway. I try to keep the roads on ridges or near contour for ease of maintenance and longevity.

 

Forestry

The dark green shaded areas show where various kinds of trees will be planted. Because it is a wedding venue I would like to plant some native trees that are beautiful and nostalgic like pine, oak, sycamore, cottonwood and cypress. These are along the pond, the entry way of the property, around the reception area, etc… The green and pink circles mark tree cages that will protect the nut orchard from cattle, deer and hogs. Every other tree in this orchard is a pecan the rest are a variety fruit trees, forage trees, pollinator trees. Each tree cage will also protect 3 blackberries. This is like a zone 4 area of mixed forestry. This layout is around 130 trees and nearly 400 blackberries in the back fields. They have 110 ft alleys between the lines and the trees are at 50 ft spacing in the lines. The tree cages will be 8ft squares made from cattle panel and T posts. Each cage will have irrigation set up on a battery operated timer. The rest of the trees will need much less protection since the cattle will be excluded from those areas.
 
 
The following image is a close up of the orchard. The orchard is laid out in straight lines for ease of cattle management with electric fencing. However, the straight lines also adhere closely to key line patterning for soil and water conservation. This pattern mostly moves water towards the ridge in the pasture. The ground will be prepped with a keyline plow before the trees are planted, each line of trees will get 6 rips. We will not be key line plowing the grazing alleys. The blackberries will provide a bounty of reliable fruit for the family and their farming operation while the pecans will provide long term profits and benefits of a beautiful food forest.
 
 
Buildings
 
There are various building plans for this property including a cabin, two homes, and a shipping container storage facility. The buildings are marked with orange shaded rectangles, the homes are all accompanied with rain tanks indicated with blue circles. The family is also very motivated to have their homes built to harvest solar energy on the roofs. This will be a great option as grid electrical would require criss crossing the of electrical lines and poles across the property.
 
 
Fencing
 
This property already has perimeter fencing and many functioning interior fences that we will be working off of. The cattle fencing will be adjustable and movable so it is not indicated in this next image. The only new fencing needed is a 6ft fence around the new garden site. The fencing will be built with 10ft 6×6 posts that are 42 inches in the ground, 2×4 wire fencing and a total of 5 gates.
 
 
 
Soil
 
The yellow areas are grazing areas. I suggest moving the cows with electric fencing. The brown lines around the yellow are suggested paddocks cows can be moved to. Managing like this allows other pastures to recover from grazing and grow better forage. They will still have to feed the cows, monitor their body condition and monitor their manure. The cattle are unadapted herefords that need selective grazing to maintain body condition, but the land needs to be rested from grazing as much as possible, so paddocks sizes will be moderate and moves will be carefully managed while also provided supplemental feed. The turquoise shaded areas are wildflower prairies and will have to be managed by occasional mowing or grazing. These painted prairies will be beautiful in the spring and show off the natural Texas beauty of this land. The pink area next to the barn I am proposing to become a 1 acre garden where the family can grow plenty of veggies, herbs, and fruits. They will be able to plant 50 fruit trees here in this garden and many productive perennial shrubs. This garden will be right next to the reception area where interested guests can walk through and experience the beautiful poly-culture garden!
 
 
The following image shows a close up of the garden. The light green lines show the way planting will be patterned. These areas are 30 ft wide and will be managed as a no till system and rotated from high productive crops to lower value cover crops each year. The dark green lines are rows of fruit trees and productive shrubs. The gardens will have rotor sprinkler heads down the center of each annual alley. There is a 10 ft headlands between all planted areas and the fence. We will prep the ground by deep ripping with the key line plow, the use a tiller to disturb the grass and weeds that are currently growing. We’ll top off this off with a layer of minerals, seed, compost and mulch. The ground will not be tilled again and we plan to have plants growing year round as much as possible. The green shaded rectangle represents the nursery and mushroom growing area in the shade of the live oak trees. The red shaded square is a materials staging site within the garden. There is also pollinator garden areas indicated in light blue.
 
 
Economy
 
Aside from growing fruit and vegetables Starlove Ranch will also be host guests as a camp out wedding venue. The Ceremony area is shown as the purple rectangle near by the pond. This area will be private, cozy, and overlooking the remodeled pond. The ceremony pad will be 75’x50′. The reception area is the purple rectangle near the garden, 110’x70′. Guests will gather here after the ceremonies. The remaining purple areas show where camp sites will be developed.
 
 
 
Energy
 
Starlove Ranch will be installing a grid tie solar system on their new well house to power the farms reticulation system with the sun. The future homes are also being planned to include solar with battery powered systems. Hopefully in the near future this system will be much more optimized and affordable. The orange line indicates where existing grid power lines are in place up to the meter. By using solar we will limit the amount of power poles and power lines crossing long distances over the property.
 
 
I am looking forward to getting started on this unique and challenging project.
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Keyline Garden Design

Today I am sharing my new Keyline garden at Texastopia Farm. This is where we will grow medicinal herbs like chamomile, lemon balm, echinacea, comfrey, yarrow and many others. This garden is special because it was built on a very degraded caliche hillside. I believe this garden will soon demonstrate that it is possible to grow high quality food and medicine while restoring degraded landscapes at the same time.

First Garden at Texastopia

This new garden is an addition and retrofit to an existing garden that was built by the previous owners of the property. In that original garden I built some raised beds that were all very nearly on contour. The beds were made with finely shredded mulch, algae harvested from the Blanco river and compost. I ran drip lines down each bed for irrigation. During the first year this garden was slow to perform, the wind would easily dry the beds out and the plants were slow to grow. As the months have gone by all of that organic material has begun to decompose. The fire ants and earthworms have been turning the soil from underneath into the mulch and compost. The result has been the creation of some fantastic garden soil, plants began to grow vigorously towards the end of this last summer. We had a great harvests of milky oats, tomatoes, holy basil and our spring wildflower blooms lasted into December. The diversity of the garden was the main attraction for cardinals, hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.

Brand new beds just watered in. We built the beds right on top of the Bermuda grass with no weed fabric, plastic, or cardboard underneath.

 

Here are the mulch beds with a fresh coat of mulch. These beds easily dried out at first from sun and wind, but now are holding water much better.

 

Close up of one bed in the first growing season. The diversity of plant roots provides many different types of feed for microorganisms. The beds are now completely shaded and many different types of fungi can be seen fruiting and mycelium has spread throughout the beds completely. The fungi are the teeth breaking down and eating the wood mulch inside the beds, turning it into luscious soil that has a clean forest smell.

 

 

This is picture was taken in late spring of the gardens first year. There are garden beds down there underneath the plants. Sunflowers did a great job giving us summer shade in the garden and bloomed spectacularly for the many pollinating visitors.

 

Garden Expansion

After the first year I decided to expand the garden. This expansion offered a great opportunity to practice some Keyline patterning with garden beds. Special thanks to Kirby Fry for being a great mentor, without him I would never have been able to build a garden like this. Together we have grown comfortable designing and installing systems similar to this.

This is what the area looked like before we started the garden addition. Almost 100% bare soil. The only things growing were sticker burrs and KR bluestem. Will things actually grow here?

 

The first thing to do was survey and lay out the garden and fence with flags. After laying out the keyline pattern, I began to move soil into the garden area to build the beds. I used some fill dirt as the base for the beds, which is mostly gravel and caliche. This is not the best substrate, but its what we had available on the farm. Once the base for each bed was built I began working on the fence.

 

 

 

 

 

The fence is 6 ft tall with 6×6 corner posts, 2×4 welded wire fencing and I used T-posts as the line posts.

 

This is a picture of the finished 6 foot fence. Thankfully my good friend Kirby Fry was willing to come over and help me get all this wire-fencing put up.

 

Here is an overhead view of the first garden and the new garden under construction.

 

Once the fence was complete it was time to start top-dressing the new beds with compost, mulch, and seed. We used compost from Geo-growers in Dripping Springs, oat straw from a local farmer and a diverse variety of annuals, native and cover crop seeds.

Here the beds are seen top-dressed with Geogrowers dairy compost.

 

Heres I am spreading compost and getting ready to rake the beds to perfection. The garden paths are already mulched.

 

This keyline garden is patterned for soil and water conservation. All of the bare soil is now covered with a layer of organic matter and seed. This garden is now a huge sponge capable of soaking in heavy rainfall.

 

Keyline patterned garden beds with fresh mulch. The beds are parallel to each other and designed around a single line on contour.

 

The final step to complete this garden was to add irrigation. I ran a 1 inch poly pipe up to the center of the garden and now can run all 4 sections of the irrigation system at the same time. This time I opted to use 360 degree micro sprayers on the garden beds instead of drip line. This gives us better seed germination and waters the beds more thoroughly.

 

Here is a photo of the irrigation system running and our new seedlings coming up!

 

The finished product is a drought proof garden that harvests rainfall and mitigates runoff in an area that was once completely degraded. In spring this once source of albedo will be vibrant with wildflowers, herbs and buzzing with bees and hummingbirds.

This photo of our keyline garden was taken the first spring April 10, 2018

For anyone interested in building these types of regenerative systems please inquire about our upcoming educational course that will be led by local legend and design mastermind Kirby Fry and myself in the spring!

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History

History

 

Hill Country Flood in September 1952

 

The following information about the September flood of 1952 highlights intrinsic characteristics of drought and flooding in the Hill Country. Large amounts of precipitation fall in a very short time. Most of this rainfall is shunted off the land before plants, animals or people can effectively use it. It is important to retain as much of this moisture high up in the landscape as possible to prevent damage from flooding and drought.

 

Drought

 

This particular flood happened during a time of extreme drought. According to the records of the Lower Colorado River Authority, Lake Travis’s all time low is 619.06 feet, recorded on September 6, 1952. The Llano River at Llano had virtually dried up in August, requiring the city of Llano to ship in water on train cars. The federal government had sponsored a program called “Operation Haylift” to ship hay from Iowa to Texas and there were very little crops being grown in Texas. Many Hill Country streams were at their all time record lows. Texas in the early 1950s was a very dry place in need of a reprieve.

 

Rainfall

 

In September the Hill Country received torrential rainfalls exceeding 20 inches in 48 hours. On September 9 gentle showers settled the dust with 1-3 inches of rain over various counties. Then the gentle showers turned into the heavy deluges that this area is known for, ranging from 3-8 inches across the Hill Country. On September 11 Blanco received 17.5 inches, Hye 20.7 inches, Llano 12.5 inches.

 

The Blanco River at Wimberley had only 11 cfs flowing on September 10 at 4 A.M. At 8:30 am on September 11 the river had rose to 30.10 feet and attained a peak flow of 95,000 cfs. In San Marcos, the floodwaters from the Blanco caused the San Marcos River to flow backward. The backflow of the San Marcos River over topped the highway 81 bridge. Once this extreme amount of runoff enters the river it is lost and cannot do its job to mitigate drought conditions. It may sound unrealistic, but much of this runoff could have been mitigated with just a few percentage increases in soil organic matter. For example raising the soil organic matter by 1% on one acre allows the soil to hold an extra 25,000 gallons of water. Raising it 1% on a 1000 acres yields 25,000,000 gallons of water storage in the soil, or around 75 acre feet of water volume stored in the soil via soil organic matter. We can also preserve our current water storage capacity in the soil by protecting the soil from erosion.

 

The Pedernales River received the most intense runoff of this event; 15 inches of rain fell in Fredericksburg, 26 inches down poured in Stonewall and Hye. The Pedernales at Johnson City had no flow on September 9th and on September 11 achieved a new record flow rate of 441,000 cfs and a new peak height of 40.8 feet. The USGS noted that cypress trees 5 feet in diameter “were broken off like matchsticks” and pecans 2ft in diameter were uprooted and washed away. This is reminiscent of the 2015 Memorial Day flood on the Blanco River in Wimberley where the cathedral of cypresses was lost and the landscape changed dramatically. The flood scraped the river bottom down to bare rock. The bridge on Highway 281 over the Pedernales had lost large sections and beams. Lake Travis gained 701,000 acre-feet in a single day, nearly tripling its volume in 24 hours. The level of Lake Travis gained 57 feet and filled the lake for the first time in seven years. Lake Travis did a great job of harvesting this floodwater and at the same time has been able to provide water to people during times of drought. However, the risks involved with this amount of water storage far exceed the benefit and only treats the symptom of the floods. In order to mitigate to high financial cost of flooding and the further degradation of our riparian areas water should be encouraged to infiltrate into the soil with all appropriate means as high up in the landscape as possible. This helps dissipate the high energy of the water in riparian areas.

 

No Drought Relief

 

Despite the intense rainfall, drought conditions persisted in the Hill Country and all of Texas. There was little to no rain reported for the entire month of October. This highlights the cycle of drought and flood in central Texas. Water storage capacity in the soil can be improved with polycultural forestry, intensively managed grazing systems, appropriate earthworks or a combination of all. Harvesting water high in the landscape via infiltration turns the problem of intense rainfall and flash flooding into a profitable and sustainable solution. Extreme flood events like this should be stored to mitigate drought, storing it in the soil is the cheapest and most effective way to do so. Instead the flood of 1952 caused damage to the soil that further degraded out water storage capacity in the soil. One Farmer in the Hye area had as “Fine a field as to be found in Gillespie Country before the rain. Now the field is just gravel and clay since all the topsoil was washed away.” This farmer’s field like many, is now less drought resistant than before because of the loss of topsoil which is rich in organic matter that holds tons of soil moisture, 113 tons of water per acre for every 1% organic matter. Subsoil’s that are exposed to the elements also erode more quickly and allow less infiltration resulting in increased runoff which exacerbates flooding. Optimizing lands ability to harvest water requires 100% ground cover 100% of the time. Damaging floods will be ended by ending bare soil.

 

Pete Van Dyck

 

Sources

“Flash Floods in Texas” Jonathan Burnett 2008

 

“Chapter 1 The Climate” Regrarians eHandbook 2015

 

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1082147.pdf

 

Photo:http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/wimberley-texas-flood/394307/

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