Building Abundant Ponds, Chinese Wheelbarrows, and DiY Algae Reactors


In today’s letter:

  • A little lesson on how the legendary farmer, Sepp Holzer, builds abundant ponds.   Ponds that produce food and income.
  • How the Chinese wheelbarrow and paved paths “saved” China’s economy after its infrastructure collapsed.  It’s also a neat bit of technology.
  • Plans for a DiY aquaculture system that allows you to grow lots of algae at home, and some ideas for what you can use that algae for.

Request:  If you know someone who should be reading this letter, please share it with them. Or if you are working on something that seems to match what we do, share it with us.

Abundant ponds for fun, food, and profit

Sepp Holzer, the legendary Austrian farmer, has a saying, “water is life.”   He believes, strongly, that water management is central to farming and if you don’t actively entice water to spread itself around and stay for a while, you are missing out on a big part of farming.

One of the ways he entices water to stick around is by building lots of ponds.

However, the way Sepp builds them, these are much more than simple ponds.  They are abundant ponds.  Ponds that produce plentiful amounts of food, year round and improve the surrounding ecosystem.  They also provide him with a substantial amount of income.

Here are some of the things he recommends (see Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture for more):

  • Site your pond where nature wants it.  It will save you lots of effort in the long run.  Study the topography.  Analyze the soil.  Look for natural wet spots.  Get professional help if you need it.  If you do this, there is much less likelihood that the pond will leak or slide.
  • Don’t try to force the pond into a specific shape.  Let the topography dictate it.  Make sure it includes deep (more than 3 meters) and shallow ends.  The shallow end has warmer water and can be used as an entry point for swimming and as a place to grow aquatic plants.  The deeper end balances the temperature of the pond and provides fish a place to and/or hibernate over the winter.  Make sure the drop off between shallow and deep is steep (it’s a barrier to invasive plant growth and will prevent the pond from being overrun).
  • Build the walls of the pond by dumping the soil you dig up in tall piles.  You’ll find that the fine material you want for the wall piles nicely while the larger material will roll away.  Pack these piles down tightly with an excavator.   Add islands if you find them useful or aesthetically pleasing.
  • Once you happy with the pond, seal it.  Don’t use a pond liner.  That makes your pond brittle.  Instead put some water into the hole and let it rise to 30-40 cm.  At that point, Sepp inserts the excavator bucket about half a meter to a meter (depending on need) into the bottom soil and vibrates it.  This seals the bottom in a way that allows plants to grow freely.
  • Finally, for long-term flexibility, insert a standpipe drain at the lowest point in the pond (assuming the pond is situated in a way that allows you do drain it from the lowest point).  The standpipe drain looks like the letter L, with the lower portion going through the wall of the pond at the lowest point and the top at the water’s surface.  If the vertical portion is added in segments, you can easily set the water level where you want it, or periodically drain it to rapidly harvest fish and plants.  A good safety tip is to insert and overflow valve for torrential downpours at the top of the pond.
  • Banks and shallow areas can be modified with stumps and large rocks to improve aesthetics and pond performance.  Rocks are particularly good are increasing water temperatures, so use them liberally if you want to raise warm water plant and fish species.


The Chinese Wheelbarrow and Paved Paths

What happens when the money and political will required to maintain an extensive road network evaporates?

People improvise.  How?  The adapt by building new methods and new technology.

Here’s a great example (thanks to Kris De Decker) of that.  Around 300 AD, the Chinese empire supported 25,000 miles of roads, which is about half of what the Romans built.  Like the Roman roads, these Chinese roads fell apart rapidly, after the finances required to maintain them evaporated.

To compensate, communities and enterprising individuals began to build narrow, more easily maintained paved paths.  However, these paths were too narrow for anything but foot traffic to navigate.  Again, innovation bloomed and the Chinese wheelbarrow was born (it started as a military innovation that allowed rapid troop movement and served as a lager for infantry).

The Chinese wheelbarrow, unlike the western wheelbarrow, acts like a pack animal.  It carries all of the weight put upon its large central wheel and axle (in contrast to the lever of the western wheelbarrow).  The person pushing it is merely directing its course and providing the force to propel it forward.  This configuration allows the wheelbarrow to gain stability with speed.

The result?  A wheelbarrow that can navigate narrow paths with ease while carrying up to 400 k of cargo at a running pace.  Essentially it’s the perfect low-cost, high-speed method of getting product from river transports to inland destinations given rudimentary infrastructure.

Chinese Wheelbarrow with a Sail


If you like this topic, there’s lot more about this wonderful bit of technology in Kris’ article.  Please give it a read.


Growing Algae at Home?

Most people think that algae is a persistent pest.  If you own tropical fish, a pond, or a pool you understand how fast it grows.  However, it may prove quite useful.  How so?  Here are a couple:

  • It’s used in lots of Asian (Chinese primarily) cuisine.  It’s also VERY good for you (omega 3/6 fatty acids).
  • There may be a way to turn into a high quality fuel in the future.   That’s still in motion.
  • It can be used for “green” compost material and as a fertilizer.
The most innovation use of algae I’ve seen is its ability to extract nitrogen and phosphates from water contaminated by agricultural runoff, and become a high-end slow release organic fertilizer.  I wonder how it would work with grey/black water from domestic sources?
So, if you are interested in experimenting with algae production, here’s a design for a DiY Algae Reactor from Jared at InventGeek.

Estimated Construction Time: 4 Hr

Required Skill Level: Simple Power Tools

Simple wood frame and tubing (cast and extruded acrylic tubing).  The completed tubes are dipped in “plastic dip” sealant (make sure none of the sealant leaks into the tubes).

Here are the low-cost air pumps used to keep the water in the tubes oxygenated.

Jared’s completed reactor looks like this.  It can be tilted off the vertical to get sunlight.

If you know of any useful way to grow or use algae (other than as a food supplement or composting material) today, let me know.

That’s it for today.


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  • Penny Pincher

    You might consider looking in your schematics diagrams for that ham radio etc. (or open it and look inside) and stocking up on some capacitors that match what’s in there. You can buy capacitors from Digikey. Usually when a piece of electronic equipment fails, it’s either the capacitors blew or the solder connections cracked. Maybe 90% of the time it’s one of these 2 problems. Capacitors are made cheap in China and they just fail after a while. In this one repair shop I work for, they call them Crap-assitors.

    If new electronics repair parts become unavailable, i.e. war with China, then you could scrounge other people’s discarded electronics from the trash and part them out. The legs on the scrounged components might not be very long compared to new, but perhaps there’s a way around that.

    You’re still depending on large corporations if that’s who manufactured your equipment. And on governments because that’s who makes the world safe for the large corporations. But then, I guess it’s a capital expense rather than an ongoing dependency, unless you count on replacing or repairing your equipment periodically. Hmm, I guess it’s an ongoing dependency then.

    If some maker club in the US could start manufacturing capacitors and other electronics parts locally, that would be dandy.

  • Penny Pincher

    Harbor Freight (hardware store) makes a solar panel kit that is quite popular. I think they’re 45 watts or something like that. They also have a club you can join that sometimes you get 20% off coupons, and that combined with a sale is the time to buy the solar panels, that way you can get a kit for $180 instead of $240. And there is a “ning” website that has all kinds of info about them, how to string them together in combinations, etc. You can take 2 kits, use one of the controllers and keep the other one in reserve in case the first one blows, and keep 2 12-volt deep cycle batteries charged. You still need an inverter but they also sell those. And assorted lengths of wire, of course.

  • Peg (@ethnobot)

    Just a note: In the U.S. most farm & backyard ponds require state and sometimes local permits. Make sure to check with your state’s environmental services department.

    Yes to ponds and wetlands! Year-round recreation, irrigation source, wildlife habitat, food supply, and more.

    It’s not a permaculture manual, but here’s a mighty fine and free resource if you’re considering a pond.

    You might also consider creating a homestead wetland. Here’s information about creating backyard wetlands:

    Backyard Wetland

    Backyard Wetland Resources

  • Peg (@ethnobot)

    Yes to ponds and wetlands! Year-round recreation, irrigation source, wildlife habitat, food supply, and more.

    Just a note: In the U.S. most farm & backyard ponds require state and sometimes local permits. Make sure to check with your state’s environmental services department.

    It’s not a permaculture manual, but here’s a mighty fine and free resource if you’re considering a pond.

    You might also consider creating a homestead wetland. Here’s information about creating backyard wetlands:

    Backyard Wetland

    Backyard Wetland Resources

  • WayneB

    Found this while reading JWR Survival Blog site, thought it was pertinent, as it is a permaculture course now freely available:

    It is from the University of North Carolina State University and is taught by Professor Will Hooker.

  • Rod

    Re the LPG generator, do you intend to fuel it with biogas in future. If so does the generator need to be sited close to the bio-reactor and do you need to get a particular machine to get replaceable parts for burning biogas?

    I ask because I’m considering moving from bottled LPG which currently supplies all the space heating and 1/2 domestic hot water (rest from solar thermal) for my house. We currently use 400kgs a year so the smallest 1200 litre tank should give us 18 months of fuel. I was also considering getting a generator so one that runs on LPG would seem to be a sensible choice as we would have quite a bit of fuel on site. If it could be adapted to also burn biogas that would seem to be another benefit. On a related note are you planning on getting battery backup possibly combined with solar electric? If so how would you prioritize the purchases.

    • John Robb


      It is sited near a potential biogas install. Still a long ways from that though.

      My selection of the generator over other alternatives was due to the number of failures we are already experiencing.


      • Ron

        I always wondered if you could power a generator with a homemade hydrogen generator?brown gas. My other idea was bio gas using waste from chickens and rabbits kept in something simple,truck inner tube,air mattress?

        • John Robb

          Ron, You can store biogas is something simple like that. Lots of designs use that approach. Kind of ugly though. JR

  • Robert

    I visited Tamera last month, which is an intentional community in Southern Portugal (analagous to Southern California climate) that has engaged Sepp Holzer to help them improve their water strategies. They have a 500 acre site, and the difference the lakes are making is impressive. Beyond the benefits of acquaculture and microclimatic moderation, there were two things that were new to me.

    First, the benefit is in the recharge of groundwater above the pond height, as the water table rises. This reduces the need for irrigation above the pond. In effect, rather than losing land to water, they have doubled their growing area. The recharge effect has led to springs that have been dry for 20+ years starting up within 2 years of the lakes being built.

    Secondly, the process of digging a pond will, on agricultural land, result in the recovery of very large amounts of soil that have been run off from previous years of mechanised agriculture. They reported finding barbed wire fencing more than a metre below the ground level of the lake area when they started excavating, which means that the topsoil of the surrounding slopes had been lost in the last century, and was biologically inert but ready for microbial recolonisation. The scale they are applying the ponds is with large earthmovers rather than a backhoe, but the value certainly looks like it’s there.

    The principle they are operating on is than no rainfall should enter the river network, rather ALL of it should be captured in the soil, and when the soil is saturated, springs will generate streams creating clean water year round.


  • Mike

    The Portable Extension Office for Program Literature Exchange at the has an excellent collection of articles for small scale, sustainable commercial agriculture and aquaculture. The articles are aimed at tropical island climates in the Pacific, but much is applicable to semi-tropical and indoor culture as well. The methods used are geared towards low income populations, making them well suited as low cost, high density solutions for adoption by resilient communities.

  • Penny Pincher

    You can raise tilapia in a plastic trash can (or a few) indoors. If you have a decent basement or sunroom that’s relatively climate controllable, you can raise fish pretty much on the sly. It takes like 6 months for the fish to get full size. I’m guessing you could also add some aquatic plants to the trash can(s). You won’t need a filter but you do need to remove 10% of the water and replace with fresh from time to time, say, with a bucket. Then water your garden with it. Tilapia tolerate a fair bit of muck. You can also feed them with bugs. So you could raise mealworms, say, and then feed them to the tilapia. You can, as I understand it, also put some chicken poo in the water (not too much) to feed the plants, and it won’t hurt the tilapia any.

    In a real survival situation, mealworms are also edible. Some insectophages grind them up and bake them in bread.

  •!/gnoll110 Noel Kelly

    Black water is valuable. Just letting it back down, untapped is a waste.

    Use it to make methane, it can be stored and used for base load during troughs of wind & solar power generation.

    • John Robb

      Concur. Need more prefabbed systems to make it easier to take advantage of.

  • James Bowery

    John, the most economically effective photobioreactor, by far, is the Alga6 from Algasol. Algasol is currently looking for $5.3M to set up minimum, bare-bones mass production line.

    Earlier this year, I sent an email to about it and received no response.

  • Wynn Solomon

    R.E. uses for algae…Harvest it & use as supplimental feed for a Methane digester for local fuel use [cooking, heat, CHP generator]. Clean up grey or black water & harvest more solar in a storable form.

    Using a thermophilic digester [another use for solar input] does better breaking down lignin [increasing possible feedstock (sawdust, woodchips)] and pastureizes the sludge so it’s OK for direct use as fertilizer. Recycle the effluent thru the algae reactor for another go. And/or run effluent thru a constructed wetland to grow more biomass for the digester [& in last stage, crops for food] as well as create “good water” for release to environment.

  • Javier

    Hi John,

    Algae can be used to make nanocellulose,

    and with that you can make batteries, filters, flexible screens,

    armor(8 times harder than steel), aerogel, car parts, etc.

  • Daniel K Day

    Peg, your link to the “PONDS.pdf” document is broken.

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