Hola! First and foremost, thank you for joining me here on this windy afternoon up near the cloud rainforests of Monteverde. Although these pictures and this project was carried out in the humid ocean-side jungle of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I am finishing up this post in a restaurant literally built in and around a tree in the small town of Santa Elena in Guanacaste. Whether you are here because you are genuinely passionate and curious about vetiver grass and contouring (on slopes, not cheekbones), or you are a die-hard fan of See Gressa Go and you love me enough to step outside of your comfort zone and learn something about permaculture farming, I welcome you whole-heartedly and hope you have as much fun reading as I did digging and writing.
To start, I will give a short explanation of swales for those of you who are new to this (myself included). If you are dealing with a pesky slope and want to prevent erosion while simultaneously capturing as much water as possible for the soil, listen up. I can guarantee that if designed properly, swales will be your new best friend. Also vetiver grass, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The concept is quite simple. On contour, swales work by slowing down the water flow so that it is able to absorb thoroughly and evenly into the soil.
Now I’ll introduce vetiver grass into the mix. Vetiver grass, more commonly known for its designer fragrance than its key role in preventing erosion on slopes, is native to India and Indonesia; however, today you can find it growing in most countries around the world. Fun fact, in ancient India, it’s essential oil was named “the oil of tranquility” and could be (and still is) found as the base for most designer perfumes.
As it relates to contouring on slopes, when planted in close proximity to each other on the down side of swales, the roots of vetiver grass weave into each other creating a wall that is as strong as it is deep. The roots also help by pulling moisture and rain water down into the soil. In this particular case, I have skipped digging swales and am just planting vetiver grass on a contour line. Over time, a miniature swale will naturally form from built up sediment pushed against the vetiver wall. For more information on why swales will become your new best friend and how to build them separately from vetiver grass, click here.
So, as you may have gathered thus far, planting vetiver grass on a contour line is a winning combination for both soil hydration and erosion prevention. Now for the broken down, illustrated step by step guide!
Say hello to my little friend the A-frame. This is how you will keep the contour on a 15% gradient, which is important so that the water doesn’t either flow too fast or become backed up. To make one is quite simple, as you can see it looks like the letter A, hence “A-frame.”
It is important that the two legs are the same length, and halfway down you will attach a center board where you can either do it the old fashion way and hang a plumb line from the top of the A and mark the point where it hits in the middle, or you can take advantage of 21st century resources and simply attach a level. For a thorough step-by-step video guide to putting together an A-frame, click here.
Once you’ve got your A, it’s time to get out there on your slopes! To use your A to get a contour line, you will do something called “walking the A.” This is quite an elementary maneuver that is way easier shown than described in words. The video hyperlinked above showcases a beautiful A-walking, but for your amusement I will also attempt to describe it. Simply, put down a stake by each leg, and then, while keeping one leg of the frame planted to the ground, swing the other leg around until it is roughly at equidistance to its companion leg. Put a new stake down beside this leg only when your plumb line falls against a satisfactory mark on your middle board.
When marking out the contour, it’s important that the plumb line hangs as close to the middle as possible, but, and this is based off the A-frame pictured above, anything between the 0 and 5 will work just fine. You’ll end up with a staked out contour line which may surprise you as it surprised me, revealing more of a curvy line than an evenly graduating slope.
So now that you have your contour line, it’s time to get out your handy-dandy shovel!
You’re not going to shovel out a trench so much as delicately split the earth like you’re performing reconstructive earth surgery. Any extra dirt is placed accordingly on the down side of the slope. The idea is that after planting the vetiver grass, you will simply re-close the opening in the soil and the vetiver roots will act as the stitches.
I don’t, unfortunately, have any pictures of me attractively battling to dig this clump of vetiver grass out of the ground, however I must warn you that the blades of this particular grass are anything but warm and fuzzy. Vetiver roots have been known to grow up to 12 feet in favorable soil, which I understand is quite intimidating to shovels and humans alike, however, thankfully, you only need about 100mm of the root system. Pictured above, I have moved on from my battle and am now giving the grass a fashionable snip. The excess grass, when dried, is perfect for mulch, roofing, or even aromatic hats and rugs! Click here for more ideas on how to use your excess grass. 🙂
Now that you’ve given your vetiver a fresh cut, it’s time to separate the clump into sections that we call, in the vetiver world, slips. These are little clumps of roots more tangled up in each other than high schoolers on prom night, and you’ll recognize them because breaking them apart with a hammer and a machete will be close to impossible.
The hammer and machete method is absolutely not the only way to go about this, however it is so far the method that I have found has lead to the least amount of hair pulled from my head. Please feel more than free to comment if you have personally come up with a more efficient method, I am all ears!
Here, after a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears, we have a slip of vetiver grass! Time to give these babies a new home and our freshly split open earth some nice new stitches.
Here I am tucking in my vetiver slips, which is about as straight forward as you can get. Just cover the roots and firmly pack the soil around the base of the grass. Vetiver grass requires watering for the first few weeks, especially if you live in an arid environment, but before too long they shouldn’t really require much maintenance other than a hair cut about twice a year.
And there you have it! The beginning of a fully functioning, plant-based, vEgAn, hydraulic system. If you’ve been following along up until now, and you still have questions, I can’t recommend enough the website https://www.vetiver.org/, which I personally have spent a good part of a cloudy afternoon nerding out on and as a result have come to the conclusion that vetiver grass will save us all. And of course feel MORE than welcome to drop any questions or comments you have below and I pinky promise to get back to you as soon as I am able.
I will add that I am currently traveling through Costa Rica without a phone (pro-tip, if you ever put your phone in a bag of rice it is Essential to slap some tape over the changing port), and therefore replies may be slower than usual, as well my ability to market myself and the miracle of vetiver grass on contour…so if you would like to help out your favorite broke travel and environmental enthusiast, you can share this article via your social media platform of choice! Also if you are feeling extra generous this holiday season I have made it possible to throw some financial support my way by clicking on one of the purple buttons below. I wish all of you a very very merry whatever you celebrate; on this particular day, merry winter solstice and Jupiter and Mars in conjunction. I will be in touch soon after the holidays spent exploring the lush jungles of Monteverde and white beaches of Samara with my fam. 😀