A permaculture swale is a technique that captures water in the landscape for passive irrigation and for slowing runoff. Learn what a permaculture swale is and why you might need one in your yard. Oh, and don’t forget to grab your FREE DOWNLOAD: How to Build a Swale to Capture Roof Water Quick Start Guide at the end of the article.
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Irrigation for gardens and farms has always been a complicated subject. That’s because the possible solutions are as varied as the conditions on each property.
In permaculture design, we seek to solve problems in the landscape by working with nature and using techniques that are appropriate for the site.
For many gardeners and farmers, catching rainwater in the landscape can be a low-maintenance way to irrigate and improve soil quality at the same time.
When I started creating pockets of gardens and edible landscaping around my house, I wondered how I would find the time to hand-water all of those areas. And that’s when my love affair with the swale began!
What is a Permaculture Swale?
A permaculture swale is a shallow trench dug along the land’s contour, with a berm on the downhill side created with soil from the trench. All points along a contour line are exactly the same height above sea level.
Therefore, a trench along the contour captures water in the landscape, slowing and spreading it across the contour line. This action reduces erosion and retains water where it is needed.
Map showing contour lines with swale indicators. Image courtesy of www.midwestpermaculture.com
The above picture shows contour lines in pink. These indicate that all points along a single pink line are the same height above sea level. The hillside slopes downward toward the bottom right corner of the image, perpendicular to the contour lines.
Potential swale trenches are drawn in blue, while the planted berms below them are green. Without swales, the water on this hillside would rush down and form gullies, taking precious topsoil and nutrients with it.
Permaculture swales can ease the effort of food production while improving the local ecology. Each swale has unique characteristics to match the site’s conditions. In fact, the above picture is showing large swales on a large farm field.
Lucky for us that swales are also applicable at a residential scale. See how I constructed a swale in my front yard landscape!
Would you like to grow food in your front yard without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my ebook, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
Is a Permaculture Swale Right For You?
If this all sounds too good to be true, well, you might be right! Unfortunately, swales aren’t appropriate in all situations. They are great for gently sloping land, but not steep slopes. Also, on-contour swales might hold too much water in super rainy climates.
Keyline design and check-log terraces are a couple of strategies that have been used in these situations, and are worth exploring.
Keep reading to find out if a permaculture swale is right for you.
>>> Get more nitty-gritty details in my article How to Construct a Permaculture Swale.
Why a Permaculture Swale Could Be Helpful in Your Yard
- Mitigate stormwater runoff.
- Are aneasier way to catch rain than using a tank or barrel.
- Are more efficient than tanks or barrels.
- Build self-sustaining ecosystems.
Let’s elaborate on each of those points.
1. A permaculture swale mitigates stormwater runoff.
Stormwater runoff is now the largest source of water pollution and is a huge problem in most cities. That’s because municipalities view water as a liability, so they send it away as fast as possible. With the existing infrastructure in cities, they’re right to be concerned about flooding.
However, sending water away as quickly as possible has resulted in horrible breaches of environmental stewardship. In my city alone, we send 13 million gallons of raw sewage into local waterways each year because the overtaxed sewer system combines stormwater with sewage during heavy rains.
How combined sewer overflow works. Image courtesy of www.CivicGardenCenter.org
We typically think stormwater is a problem that only governments, institutions, and experts can solve. In reality, there would be no problem at all if citizens did their part.
Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” – Bill Mollison, father of permaculture, and author of Introduction to Permacultureand Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
Here’s an example of how I did my part to help with the stormwater problem:
My 1200 square-foot house catches 30,525 gallons of rainfrom the roof each year. How much water does your roof collect? I capture 75% of that, or almost 22,900 gallons in our landscape.
What if we all caught tens of thousands of gallons of water in the landscape, where appropriate?
Me thinks that the millions of dollars of taxpayer money currently going to fixing the sewer problem wouldn’t be necessary. Quick everyone! Dig a free swale! 😉 It also means that aquifers would be recharged and watersheds would remain healthy and intact.
Water management is the foundation of a low maintenance landscape.
Learn more about permaculture-based solutions in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
2. A permaculture swale is a more passive solution for catching rain than using a tank or barrel.
Catching rainwater in tanks or barrels takes a certain amount of engineering skill. You have to:
- Buy a bunch of parts.
- Connect the downspout to the tank.
- Link multiple tanks together.
- Route the overflow either back to the sewer or run the overflow into the landscape.
- Add mosquito dunks regularly and clean out the barrel at least yearly.
- Install a spigot for filling up a watering can or connecting a hose.
All of these parts eventually degrade with sun and weather and need to be fixed or replaced over time. What’s more, there is very little water pressure from rain barrels, so using the water is quite frankly a pain in the ass.
Believe me, watering by hand takes a REALLY long time without water pressure. The solar pump I tried didn’t work very well. I think the inventors know that because it isn’t on the market anymore. 😛
Look at all of that engineering and purchasing of parts for a water source that ADDS maintenance time! Catching water in the ground using a swale can be so much easier. It allows you to passively water the garden with little work after it’s all set up.
Now, if you have rain barrels, don’t worry. I have rain barrels, too! Check out how I planned the overflow and made our rain barrels as super low-maintenance as possible. Don’t let thousands of gallons of water go to waste!
If you’re going to capture water for irrigation, whether in the ground or in a container, be a good neighbor. Plan it out properly so that you don’t flood your neighbor’s basement!
>>> Learn more about permaculture.
You alsodon’t need a hillside for a swale to be useful! A gentle slope or flat land can also benefit from a swale.
3. A permaculture swale is more efficient than tanks.
Good soil is thirsty. Organic matter acts like a sponge, easily holding several times its weight in water. Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden tells us that three quarts of dry soil can easily hold one quart of water.
When we translate that to the soil in our yard, if our yards were covered in one foot deep of rich, moist soil, it would hold as much water as a 3-inch-deep lake the size of the yard. It would be cost-prohibitive to install a container that could catch that much water.
But the soil will hold it for free!
The berm of our front yard swale is densely planted with strawberries and flowers.
An urban neighborhood works with local permaculture practitioners to construct a swale and build a community food forest.
4. A permaculture swale builds a self-sustaining ecosystem.
An underground reservoir in a swale system.
Swales catch water and direct it to where it’s needed, which is in the soil. Instead of water running off or pooling above ground, swales direct it downward into an underground reservoir.
Nature has its own built-in, self-watering system. When water is needed, it is naturally released. No work on our part after the swale is built!
This underground reservoir attracts microorganisms. Suddenly the soil is alive, and voila—we’re generating organic matter and fertilizer right in the place where we need it.
This means fewer inputs, which saves money and time. The more the organic matter builds, the more moisture it holds. With more organic matter, the system can better withstand both floods and droughts.
As the water reservoir and nutrients in the soil build, gardening will become a breeze for you.
Water management is the foundation of a low maintenance landscape.
Ready to construct a permaculture swale in your own yard?
See my articlehow to construct a swale in the residential landscape or check out my free download:
Have you built a permaculture swale on your property? What benefits have you noticed?
- Create a Permaculture Food Forest
- How to Build a Fruit Tree Guild
- 6 Maps to Draw for the Permaculture Farm Design
A permaculture swale is a technique that captures water for irrigation and slowing runoff. Learn what a swale is and why you might need one in your yard.
A permaculture swale is a technique that captures water in the landscape for passive irrigation and for slowing runoff.. Oh, and don’t forget to grab your FREE DOWNLOAD: How to Build a Swale to Capture Roof Water Quick Start Guide at the end of the article.. In permaculture design, we seek to solve problems in the landscape by working with nature and using techniques that are appropriate for the site.. The hillside slopes downward toward the bottom right corner of the image, perpendicular to the contour lines.. Keep reading to find out if a permaculture swale is right for you.. Here’s an example of how I did my part to help with the stormwater problem:. My 1200 square-foot house catches 30,525 gallons of rain from the roof each year.. A permaculture swale is a more passive solution for catching rain than using a tank or barrel.. Catching rainwater in tanks or barrels takes a certain amount of engineering skill.. If you’re going to capture water for irrigation, whether in the ground or in a container, be a good neighbor.. But the soil will hold it for free!. Swales catch water and direct it to where it’s needed, which is in the soil.. No work on our part after the swale is built!. As the water reservoir and nutrients in the soil build, gardening will become a breeze for you.
A permaculture swale is a technique for capturing and storing water in a garden. Learn how to build a swale in the residential landscape.
A permaculture swale is a technique for capturing and storing water in a garden.. Always think about where the water will go if the swale overflows.. Note: I don’t recommend filling the trench unless the swale is in a highly visible place where aesthetics are important.. My front yard swale: The trench is on the left, topped with wood chips so it can double as a walking path.. Here’s a picture of our front yard before we added a swale and gardens:. The swale system and perennial plantings work to slow the water, spread it, store it, and lock in moisture.. The front yard now looks like this:. Our front yard (2013), after building a swale and planting the edible landscape
Managing water is crucial in designing and setting up a permaculture farm. No permaculture site has been properly planned unless...
You’ll have to be clear on what you want to achieve with your water system from the outset, because you want to know what size of storage you’ll have to build and, most importantly, whether they’ll be possible to build due to your terrain and your budget.. Once you have an idea on your water needs and how you plan to use your harvested water, let’s see what water sources are available to your farm.. Okay, so let’s now start with storing the water in the soil.. Swales on the contour.. Okay, once you’re done with storing water in the soil, and developing that cheap water storage in the soil, let’s move to storing water on the surface.
A swale is a small channel that may include native vegetation, trees, or grasses. Know more about it and its purpose here in Sublime Gardens.
So, if you have to deal with stormwater frequently or want to make proper irrigation, we recommend you construct the swales.. Further, you will get to know more about the swales.. Avoid constructing the swale in a steep area.. Locating a suitable place for permaculture swale is another essential thing to do before starting making swales.. Once you are done marking contour lines, the other thing you require is to dig a trench.. Try making a berm on both sides of the trench.. Conclusion If you want to control water flow and maintain the water quality, then try constructing the swale.
By drawing these six maps, you can create a permaculture farm design that maximizes your efforts for a low-maintenance homestead.
Now, I’ve been practicing permaculture design since 2009, and I have a pretty good idea of how I want my new homestead to look when I’m all done developing it.. The base map The sun map The sector map The zone map The Master Plan The water map. Before drawing your 6 essential maps, you need to get a few existing maps of your site to draw from.. Here is what my zone map looks like:. Master Plan Step A: Make a list of everything you want to include in your permaculture farm design.. The final design is usually a hybrid of ideas from the four schematic designs in Step B above.. Here is a look at my water map:. It takes time to think through this process and draw out the maps that lead up to a master permaculture farm design.. Have you created maps for your permaculture farm design?
Worm bins are a simple way to compost food scraps. Learn about some of the nuances and worm bin problems facing beginners and how to fix them.
Worm bins are a simple way to compost food scraps.. Getting the moisture right is definitely one of the biggest worm bin problems.. Red wiggler worms for worm bin. I hadn’t been super motivated to have a worm bin prior to this point because I worried about the worm bin problems that might ensue.. With the new worm bin, I worried:. The worms adapt to their new home and start eating more food, which means eventually you’ll be able to add about one pail of food scraps to your bin per week.. I just throw all of the food scraps into my regular compost pail which goes outside to the regular compost bin.. This should help you deal with some of the worm bin problems you might have with your new worm bin.. Have you experienced worm bin problems?
When I first learned about permaculture, I was blown away by the profound accessibility to the design principles. Reading over the 12 principles, I remember thinking, "This makes complete and total sense.” Applied to our gardens, permaculture is basically a design system whi
I observe the existing site conditions, look at where the sun is hitting the ground, feel which direction the wind is coming from, notice soggy ground, pay attention to the sites and sounds from the neighbors' houses, and I listen to the property owner who has much more experience interacting with the space than I do.. One of the best things about growing food is harvesting it.. This way, you will naturally visit your new garden daily, notice when it needs water or is ready to harvest, and you can easily harvest it without going out of your way.. To quote David Holmgren on page 93 of Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability , "Permaculture design should aim to make best use of renewable natural resources to manage and maintain yields, even if some use of non-renewable resources is needed in establishing the system.". What you can do: Look for ways to make the most of your garden's resources.. Plant legumes to help make nitrogen more available for other plants, use cover crops instead of leaving your garden bare in the winter, plant fruit tree guilds, and compost in place.. What permaculture design principles are you already applying to your daily life and garden?
The banana circle enacts many permaculture principles and is not only a great polyculture in tropical permaculture, it can be adapted to other climates.
Compost pile (anti-burning of organic material) Food production Biomass production Greywater- from a sink or an outdoor shower right on top Habitat for wildlife Integration into mandala gardens Community interaction (as we experienced in Malaysia with harvesting material from one neighbours burn pile). The banana circle is a relatively easy design feature to construct and quickly planted out with cuttings and root division.. Burning the material solves nothing holistically but a banana circle results in food and biomass at the very least.. Bananas are very hungry plants and will thrive off the abundant cycling of organic material as well as the moisture inherent in its design.. The mound will support seven bananas equidistantly planted around the edge on top of the mound.. They are fast growing and can give some shelter while eventually providing a root crop yield while the systems is still young (plant and time stacking).. From there any of the tropical grasses (lemongrass, citronella, or vetiver) are inserted on top of the mound in between the banana plants.. These plants are easily propagated through root division by digging up a clump elsewhere and simply ripping the root mass apart, cutting the foliage back, and then replanting.. The final element is the planting out of the inner rim which could house a number of different plant elements.. Thirteen banana circles in the middle of a farm implementation, Jamaica de Dios, Dominican Republic, 2012. The mound will evolve quickly and excess banana plants (should only be grandmother, mother, and daugheter from each original plant) can be used as material to fill the depression.
Do you want to transition to a more sustainable method of farming. Permaculture farming may be for you! Read on to learn more!
This way, you’ll always have resources when necessary.. This helps your whole system work.. Permaculture farming is the way to do it!. While planning, permaculturists will aim to position these elements in a way to maximize energy usage and minimize waste.. Diversity : This design principle encourages a variety of different crops and farm animals to prevent farmers from becoming dependent on a single product.. Permaculture farming is not always strictly organic because it prioritizes using local resources rather than importing certified organic resources.
Size of a pumpkin leaf: 42 cm, that’s 16.5″. Not bad for a sandy soil! One of the problems a lot of
Biochar is a fancy name for charcoal if it’s used as a soil amendment (to improve soil properties).. Significantly and permanently increasing soil Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) — i.e. the soil’s ability to hold nutrients Because of its high porosity it creates lot of habitats for beneficial microbes Increased water retention. Biochar made of wood or woody organic matter should not be considered as a source of nutrients for the soil since its purpose is not to fertilize your plants or soil, but to create the opportunities for it to be fertile.. By comparison, poor, sandy soil with little to no organic matter would have a Cation Exchange Capacity (the ability to hold positively charged soil nutrients) in the range 1-4.. If you have infertile, sandy soil, your biochar will be taking and holding nutrients from your soil for months, making the growth of your fruit, vegetables, and cereal less than perfect.. That’s why biochar research sometimes shows a decrease of yields after an application of biochar to the soil.. The results of using biochar made of coal on sandy soil?. Before you apply “nutrient charged” biochar to the soil you can add some beneficial organism (microbes, mycorrhizal fungi mycelium or mycorrhizal fungi spores) that will improve the biology of your soil even further.. I advise incorporating biochar into the soil but it will work even if you spread it on top of your soil.. How much biochar should I add to my soil?. Biochar is one of those things that the more you have in your soil, the better it is, but the minimum value I recommend to use in a garden is a 1″ (2.5cm) layer on top of your soil.. If you add 2″, then even after the manure that you mixed with your biochar decomposes, you will still have plenty of organic matter in your soil.