Hill Wicking in Fields for Natural Irrigation and Drainage

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2018: $9,769.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2019
Grant Recipient: Elderberry Pond Farm
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Louis Lego, Jr.
Elderberry Pond


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, cover crops, cropping systems, drainage systems, drought tolerance, irrigation, ridge tillage, water management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: mulches - living
  • Soil Management: green manures, soil chemistry, soil physics, soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    On our farm and throughout the northeast record rainfalls have flooded fields, saturating and compacting normally well drained organic soils. Summer heat bakes the compacted soil reducing yields and leading to long term deterioration of soil life and structure.

    Our vegetable plantings of 20 acres are in sub fields of about 200’ by 45’ surrounded by permanent truck/tractor paths (fig 1a). Subfields are elevated in the center with drainage trenches on both sides. Crops are planted in rows spaced about 4 feet apart. We are proposing a new field design using 5 “wicking hills”  in the subfield to alleviate flooding and provide natural irrigation during dry spells. The sub-fields are planted in a clover mix and hills are formed the length of the subfield with trenches on both sides. The hills incorporate wicks made of oat straw or fibrous plant stalks in the soil. This wicking material helps stabilize the hills and drains excess water to the troughs. More importantly, during dry spells the wicking material pulls moisture from the trough and soil subsurface into the hills. A similar concept used in greenhouse beds draws water from tanks beneath the beds. My technical advisor, Brian Caldwell, found a 2013 MIT thesis paper on the theory of irrigating using wicking materials. To our knowledge the concept has not been demonstrated in an actual field trial. We will demonstrate the concept, comparing moisture, fertility, crop yields, etc. to a flat field control planting and present the results at regional conferences.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project objective is to design, construct and test a “wicking hill” field system for mixed vegetables. The field design we are proposing has some past proven design elements like intercropping and raised beds and some important new additional elements like single row hilling with wicking fibers that we do not believe has been tried in a field setting. We will plant three test field areas, two in April and one in July, in the new configuration, and one field in the currently used configuration (figure 1A). While long term sustainability issues will be difficult to measure, we will measure, record and compare water drainage and retention in root zones during dry and wet periods, seasonal nutrient change, plant growth rates, disease pressure, weed pressure and other criteria during one growing season. We will determine if the wicking hills incorporating natural wicking media such as oat straw or sunflower stems will maintain root zone moisture at a more constant level during both excessively wet and dry periods. If successful this project will make available a new field system design to other organic and conventional farmers to help us all to better deal with weather extremes.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.