Rainwater harvesting, and Urban Food Forestry -The Transformation of Our Urban Home

This article is about how we partnered with my mother in law and transformed her property into a permaculture oasis.

After traveling for almost 4 years learning about renewable energy, low energy buildings, rocket mass heaters, farming, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, composting, we came back to Calgary and started working on the only land we had access to, my mother in laws home. She encouraged us to renovate her 1000 sqft home to see what would happen. After 10 years the results are hard to believe. This project was the start of Verge Permaculture.

Google street view in 2007

This is the home we started with. A 1970’s bungalow on a 5000 sqft lot in the east part of Calgary. The house was poorly insulated, had an ancient furnace that was haunted and front and backyards that had been sprayed with weed and feed for years. It was a daunting project but we went in with a saying from Michelle’s mum.

“You will overestimate what you can do in one year and underestimate what you can do in five”. ~Annette StCyr

I use this saying all the time with my clients and keep it top of mind when I am taking on a new project.

Google street view in 2015

This photo is a couple of years old now but it really captures the transformation that the front of the yard has taken on over 8 years. Meanwhile we are still innovating and making changes to the property. The property in this photo has a medicinal and edible food forest, completely renovated and re-insulated home, edible back yard with cob oven, outdoor kitchen, passive solar greenhouse and complete rainwater harvesting system.

In permaculture water is the master element. If you get the water piece right everything else follows along with it. When we started most of the water hitting the roof and property flowed away.

This is how cities and subdivisions are designed.

They are patterned after deserts.

They should be patterned around forests.

Cities create drainage systems that remove water from the landscape almost as fast as it hits the ground. As soon as the rain is gone we then spend copious amounts of energy pumping the water back up to all of our homes. The City of Calgary uses an estimated 30% of its energy pumping water and sewage all because we got the initial design wrong. This needs to change and we wanted to show some small things that households could do to start this change.

A subdivision and a desert

When we started the majority of the water left the property. We started by harvesting the rainwater first, now we capture close to 90% of all of the rainwater that hits the property and we either store it in tanks, in the ground or use it to grow food.

We have two types of rain storage on our property, two of which are above ground tanks and one that is below grade.

The above grade tanks are IBC totes, which I don’t recommend ( I will discuss this in a future article) and store 1000 litres or 200 gallons. The tote in the image below stores water for our greens bed with all of the overflow feeding the food forest through a Swale. The screen that I am holding in this image is called a “rain head” or gutter screen and is designed to prevent debris from the roof entering into the tank.

The other style of tank we have is a custom built below grade rain cistern which doubles as a patio. This tank was formerly a strip of lawn that was perched on top of a terrace in our back yard. We excavated it, lined it with a pond liner, installed culverts to create voidage and then finished the top off with a patio. The tank stores roughly 3000 litres or 600 gallons and meets the majority of the water needs in the passive solar greenhouse. The easiest way to explain how this tank was installed and works is by watching the 6 minute clip below.

Installation and operation of our “patio raintank”

We have a third tank behind our garage which captures water from the garage roof.

Overflow from our neighbors roof. The “Bud” rain!

One of the differentiated things about how we harvest water is that every water harvesting storage system that we have installed has an overflow system that feeds into another element on the property. This is different to most conventional rainwater systems in that it the overflow is typically just discarded. Let me give a few examples;

1)The front rainwater harvesting system captures rainwater from the front of our house stores it in the tank and the overflow feeds the food forest.

2)The below ground raintank is filled by the rear roofs of our home and the overflow feeds the back gardens.

3) I even traded a case of Budweiser with my neighbor to get access to his roof rainwater that was just going to waste. He took the bait and I got ~15,000 litres (4000 gallons) of water for my food forest that would have just bled out into the storm drain. :)

“Waste is just an unused resource” ~Bill Mollison

The capture of rainwater allows us to meet all of our outdoor water needs on a typical rainfall year without having to use grid based water. We are able to grow most of our greens and herbs as a result.

The front yard is where we positioned our food forest. If you have never heard of a food forest, here is the definition that wikipedia gives it.

Forest gardening is a low-maintenance sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans.

Growing your own food is like printing money. A sign that gets a lot of attention by pedestrians as they walk by.

Our food forest is filled to the gills with as many different perennial fruits, herbs, berries, and vegetables as we could fit in the tiny space we were allotted. In addition to providing us with yummy food it has provided our kids with hiding places and a unique understanding of botany and an innate knowing of where food really comes from.

Rowan going for the raspberry. The raintank in the background.

The front of the food forest is where our community “Fedge” is placed. A “Fedge” is a fruit-hedge. It consists of Nanking and Romeo Cherries and its “mission” was to taunt pedestrians to “steal” fruit from our garden. IT WORKS! These cherry bushes produce copious amounts of cherries and humans can not help but pick a juicy red cherry when they see one, it is in our DNA. It is my attempt at subversively getting people to think about abandoning the front lawn.

In our food forest we have plums, cherries, apples, seabuckthorn berries, currants, rhubarb, asparagus, goji berries, honey berries, Russian almond, raspberries, good king henry (perennial salad green), sorrel, angelica, clover, alfalfa, rhodiola (medicinal root) and much more. It is an incredible space to be in and beats the lawn!

If you want a more visual tour of our property take a look at the first part of our 3 part mini-doc of our home transformation here.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article where we will talk more about our water systems and how we grow most of our greens all spring summer and fall in Calgary’s harsh climate.

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In less than 10 years, Rob Avis left Calgary’s oil fields and retooled his engineering career to help clients and students design integrated systems for shelter, energy, water, waste and food, all while supporting local economy and regenerating the land. He’s now leading the next wave of permaculture education, teaching career-changing professionals to become eco-entrepreneurs with successful regenerative businesses. Learn more and connect with Rob at https://vergepermaculture.ca/contact/

PS. If you see any typos, please let me know.

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I designs farms & homesteads that leverage and interact with the environment in which they're built, producing their own energy and food.