our drainage ditchUsually Mother Nature and the man we call John the Baptist are in perfect accord. One of the few instances where they part ways is on the subject of water. You see, Sonoma is technically a semi-arid environment. In a normal year, we get all our rainfall in two or maybe three months of the year. The rest of the time, it’s bone-dry. Which means, when we do get rain, we get torrents, deluges, buckets full. If that rain falls on the dried out earth and you aren’t ready, the earth cracks open, chasms develop and rivers appear overnight. So you better have thought about where you want that water to go or you’ll get a river or a chasm opening up where you don’t want it — like down the middle of a vineyard. The bottom line, a large part of John the Baptist’s job, as ranch manager, involves directing water. Since Mother Nature isn’t one to be told what to do, that job can take the form of appeasement, bribery, pleading and even begging.

You may remember when John built our own version of the Suez Canal. (That’s it at the top of this post.) Mother Nature liked that project. It’s been channeling the water that used to make the lower pasture a swampland instead into a lovely little seasonal creek. Okay, it’s more like a drainage ditch. But it does boast frogs and flowers and lovely tiny waterfalls. So can we be excused for glamorizing it?

One of this rainy season’s big projects is a hillside below the road leading from the vineyard to our pasture and barn. It’s been subsiding over the years — as a result of the making of that road years ago — and is now in a dangerous state of instability. We’re having a strange and disturbingly dry winter so far, but should we get one good soaker, that section of hillside could dissolve completely. Enter John with an ingenious plan that’s one part engineering, two parts horticulture and a dash Native American tradition.


On the least eroded part of the hill, the first step is a long wattle of rice straw. Why rice? Because it will not seed, take root and crowd out native plants.

But it’s in the area where the erosion is at its worst where the plan becomes pure art. You see there is a “seep” on one end of the hill. That’s sort of a spring…without the springing. For some reason, perhaps from a fissure in the underlying rock and pressure, water oozes up. Not only is that water destabilizing the hillside, it’s saturating a long swath of land down the long expanse of the hill below the road to our seasonal creek. That’s bad news because there are oak trees growing all down that hillside. And California oaks hate to have year ’round water. In fact, they languish and die if they get too much moisture. But if Mother Nature is bringing up water, she wants it to go somewhere. How to talk her into a different path?

live willow fence

The answer, says John (quoting various Native American tribes), is a live willow fence.

When John says “live willow”, he really means it. The lower part of the fence is made from braided branches of native willow trees.

live willow fence

Each of these cut branches already has buds on it. They will take root and a hedge of willows will quickly grow.

Here’s where the plan is pure genius. Willows, as you probably know, LOVE water. They’ll suck it up by the bucketful, then create their own little moist ecosystem under their drip line. The result: very little water will be left to gush down the hill and hurt the oaks. But under the willows, grasses, flowers and other more water-hungry plants will have “a happy place”.

terrier and live willow fence

Just to calibrate and using the Internationally recognized measure of the terrier, you'll see that the fence doesn't need to be very tall to do its work.

strawed hill

Last step, a dressing of secured coir matting and straw to diffuse raindrops and we're done.

We have it on good authority that Mother Nature approves.