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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Mar 09

Scaling It Down

Posted on March 9, 2018 at 10:38 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

A friend in Lassen asked if I was interested in seeing a big project he was working on. He called it “plug and pond.” He thought I would enjoy visiting the site, knowing my passion for water and how it relates to landscaping.

To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about until we drove for a few miles along the creek on his property. At times this creek can cause flooding in town. As we drove along, we stopped to investigate the workings and discussed certain sections of the project. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that the project is just an enormous version of a principle this blog has covered in the past: slow it down, spread it out, sink it in.

Unknowingly, my friend was using Brad Lancaster’s methodology of “planting water.” Brad is an expert in the field of rainwater harvesting and water management and the guru of making the most of what nature provides. I’ve mentioned him in this blog in the past when writing about ideas for directing water from downspouts into the garden. 

My friend’s project was exciting as I could picture how it could be scaled down to work in the average residential property – especially in hilly Marin where we can get heavy rains that cascade into our gardens. In the past I’ve written about how the water entering our properties seeks its own level. Without our assistance, water can find its way into areas that may not be acceptable to us. When that happens, we can employ our knowledge to redirect future water flows.

Water flow can be directed in several ways using the “slow, spread and sink” method, without the need for extensive drainage work. As I watched the flow of water along the creek on my friend’s property, I noted how numerous curves cut into the bank and well-placed boulders within the creek bed helped to slow the flow of water. Along the creek bank were large, sporadic ponds that provided a place for the water to spread out. These, too, helped slow the water from gushing unbridled through the land. And should the ponds overflow, there were deep toughs cut and backfilled with more boulders to help sink water back into the aquifer. 

These landscape features can be translated to our gardens on a smaller scale. For example, water from downspouts can be directed into seasonal dry creek beds that meander through the garden in curvilinear paths to slow the water down. A dry creek bed can guide water near trees and shrubs along its path to assist with deep watering the root systems of these lucky plants. 

Spreading the water out can also be accomplished on a smaller scale than the ponds found at my friend’s place. In our home gardens we can create rain gardens, which are shallow collection places for water to come to rest. Plants that thrive in wet areas are perfect for growing in rain gardens. As the collected water evaporates, the vegetation continues to thrive. A very attractive area can be created by installing a few boulders and accenting with Siberian iris and beautiful native plants that can withstand wet feet during some times of the years. The list of plants surviving in these conditions may surprise you!

Finally, my friend’s troughs also can be downsized for the home garden in the form of bioswales. Oft times these earthen berms are backfilled with nothing more than a porous material such as bark or mulch that allows the water to sink back into the ground. For hillside gardeners, bioswales are the perfect answer for capturing runoff from the property above, slowing it down, and sinking it in. 

Projects, no matter the scale, are rewarding when the end result provides a safety net for our house foundations and gardens, helping to protect them against damaging flooding and erosion. How are you planting your water? Use your imagination. Take a walk in nature to see how it happens without the helping hand of man, then mirror those patterns in your garden. 

Curves (top) and ponds (bottom) help the creek water slow down, spread out, sink in.


Scott Stokes
March 9, 2018 at 2:33 PM
A great and timely article. If you come down this way, San Rafael, please stop by. I'd love to show you my slow down, spread out and sink in landscape design, complete with rolling hill synthetic turf and "bubbler" underground drainage. All designed from the get/go.

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