February 16, 2017

Garden Swales

Until last summer we hadn't had any trouble keeping the garden watered. Between regular rainfall, mulch, and rainwater irrigation as needed, we've done okay. Last summer though, was the hottest and driest we've had since we moved here. Daily temperatures averaged upper-90s to 100°F (37°C) from May through September. In July I took my soil's temperature - 94°F (34°C)! What can grow in that!

Photo taken last July to record soil temperature. The little
rain we got seemed to evaporate right out of the ground.

Once the rain tanks were empty, most of the garden went into survival mode and stopped producing. It was worrisome and I can't help but wonder if this summer will be the same. So my garden project this month has been to put in some swales.

I dug down to the clay subsoil, a ditch about knee deep and two
to three shovel-widths wide. It's as long as our garden beds, 16'.

I'm guessing most of you know what swales are; they are ditches dug along the contour of the land for the purpose of catching and holding rain runoff. I'm putting my first one at the top of the garden.

Filling with rotting logs, stalks, and corn cobs 

The next step was to fill it with material that would help retain moisture. I'm using old rotting logs previously used as garden terrace retainers, plus things which will get water logged easily but take too long in the compost pile: corn cobs and stalks from sunflowers, corn, and Jerusalem artichokes, bark from Dan's sawmill projects.

Pine bark and wood chip mulch on top

I topped it off with the wood chip mulch I've been raking up from last summer's bean and cantaloupe bed.

While raking up the mulch I extracted three wheelbarrow
loads of my beloved wiregrass. (I'm being facetious, folks!)

The soil which was removed becomes a berm which also helps with water retention. I removed as many wiregrass roots as I could, relocated the earthworms, replanted the dug up daffodil bulbs, and planted the whole thing with Dutch clover seed from the feed store.

Berm somewhat leveled.

Clover seed is beginning to sprout!

Our garden is three, 16-foot beds wide (plus walk paths) so I'm planning to get at least two more built, also at the top of the garden. We're also going to decrease the size of the kitchen and canning garden by at least half. Our first year here we planned out a 80-foot by 60-foot garden based on Dick Raymond's "Eat 'N Store Garden" from The Joy of Gardening. While that size garden worked well for Dick Raymond and his fancy-schmancy top-of-the-line Troybilt tiller, it hasn't worked well for us and our particular gardening challenges.

Don't get me wrong, we learned a lot from that book, but what I'm saying here is what I've been saying all along - there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to gardening and homesteading. We must adapt to our particular soil, landscape, climate, and weather patterns.

The challenge is new experiences that push the boundaries of "normal," such as our unusually hot and dry summer last year. Other year's we've gotten too much rain. We humans tend to plan for "typical," but it's the extremes that we really need to prepare for. Without the experience of it, however, who's to know how to prepare?

Anyway, no matter what the summer brings, my swales will certainly help.

Parting shot:

Daffodils!

Garden Swales © Feb. 2017 by Leigh

38 comments:

  1. Leigh,

    Your Daffodils are blooming already? They're gorgeous!!

    I've noticed the high tunnel in some of your pictures. Have you considered making high tunnels for the other garden boxes you're making? This may help with the heat come summer time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Last summer we took the poly off because it gets so hot in there. What I need to try is shade cloth, which is supposed to help with the heat. One thing I'm finding, is that my raised beds seem to dry out faster.

      Delete
    2. Leigh, The shade cloth called Aluminet is best for your neck of the woods. It reflects out a lot of the sun's rays and really keeps it cooler underneath. You can tell because all my sheep try to crowd under it. I got mine from FarmTek. Grommets in tape--ready to go.

      Delete
    3. Now you tell me! LOL I had already ordered some by the time you left your comment. I wasn't really sure what to get and don't have much time for research at the moment, so I got some 60% shade cloth just about the right size to cover the hoop house. I'm almost thinking I could use it now. We've had a warm streak, which means it's been pretty warm in the hoop house, and my arugula is starting to bolt!

      Delete
  2. As I'm sure you know, swales have been used in agriculture for centuries. Sure hope yours prove to be a significant help in your garden during stressful dry conditions. What a lot of work you've put into creating them already. You be one tough lady! (And there are still the people who question what we gals on the homestead do all day. Grrr!)

    Yep, my raised bed soil dries out faster than the soil in my field garden. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but most of the time I have to watch it carefully.

    Even up here in the much cooler summer temps, I use shade cloth (50%) to keep cool weather crops producing through the season. It really works.

    Though I've suspected Dick Raymond has a crew on hand (like Ms. Stewart?) to create all he has in the gardening realm, I still love his books and feel he's most likely responsible for helping many beginning gardeners get started successfully.

    Your daffodils are blooming currently? Wow!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, only one so far! I'd like to get in at least three, but have some pasture planting to do which I think is a priority. Too much to do!

      Thanks for the feedback on the raised beds and shade cloth. I found some on eBay that I'm fixing to buy.

      Delete
  3. I can't help but thinking if I were digging in the black soil up here and came across soil looking like yours, I would first suspect it was the scene of some massive toxic chemical dump due to the color!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the south! Sad looking, isn't it? And certainly not as rich as the soil in the midwest. It takes a lot of work to get it productive, and I'm afraid we don't have the resources to put into it as quickly as I'd like.

      Delete
    2. Most of the soil in Australia looks like yours Leigh, lol. We just have to figure out what grows best in it.

      Delete
    3. That's why I'm always interested in your experiments Chris. We're on opposite sides of the world but have similar problems.

      Delete
  4. So much hard work! I hope it pays off. Though I also hope summer isn't as hot this year. Gorgeous daffodils! Here in NE OK, mine are *just about* to bloom. I am looking forward to them later this week.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Cassandra...just wanted to say I'm a fellow NE Oklahoman! Nice seeing someone else in my neck of the woods!

      Delete
    2. Cassandra, thanks! It is a lot of work but after last summer I'm motivated. I just hope I can get a couple more in before (and if) we hit a dry spell.

      Delete
  5. Wow that is CLAY!I recognize the color. I love Permaculture ideas, like swales. I wish we had room. I'm trying to find a place to put in an herb spiral. They look cool! Hope that helps your garden!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, clay! It's actually a clay subsoil with a loamy top soil. But it's poor soil and is taking some time to get into better shape. Slowly but surely!

      Delete
  6. Hey Leigh - everything is looking awesome! Look into hugelkultur. We get a LOT of rain in the summer, then go long periods without much. This concept is perfect!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Tuesday. I have some hugelkulture going on at the bottom of the garden which seems to retain water well at the bottom of the slope. For the top I've been thinking about sunken beds to help retain ground moisture. Maybe do some double-dug, biointensive, reverse huglekltur-technique beds. It would be a lot of work, but it would improve the soil and moisture retention.

      Delete
  7. I didn't know what a swale was, thanks for the lesson! It's nice to see ground, we still have 5 feet of snow and I'm sure more on the way. I've decided on a container garden this year. I won't have as many challenges as if I planted directly into the soil (plus I'm still renting so I don't want to dig up someone else's yard). I have everything in place, I've done all my research etc...but Mother Nature can change all that up in a heartbeat! I love all of your plans and those daffodils give me spring fever :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally different experiences call for totally different measures! LOL. A container garden sounds like a great idea. They can be just as successful as the more traditional kinds of gardens (and they're portable, just in case!)

      Delete
    2. Oh Leigh, just wanted to let you know I finally started a blog if you want to read it :)
      http://rainsgarden.blogspot.ca/

      Delete
    3. Thrilled to hear it Rain! And it looks like it's really going to be a good blog - I've just followed.

      Delete
  8. The principle is the same as Hugelkultur. They make the core much bigger with tree trunks, limbs, and then layers of manure and then the whole 5' tall hill is covered with soil and planted. My "river of sticks" has been in place for four years now and it is almost flat. I buried the slash with wood chips to fill in a little dell in the land. The wood acts like a wick and really keeps drawing moisture. You will love it. It was worth the effort. The higher the swale, the more shade it creates for the back side of the swale. Did you orient it East West? The stuff prone to drought sensitivity can be planted on the North side.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I planted with the contour of the slope, to catch the most run-off. One thing we have is plenty of wood, so getting it into that clay soil can only help!

      Delete
  9. Interesting seeing what you're trying next. You're right on the mark that what works for one year may not work in another. The weather can be quite variable. Plus, there are so many variables from garden site to garden site. Soil. Drainage. Wind. Etc. I love to experiment and try new things too. While swales would not work in my region, I have created hugelkuktur pits that appear to be capturing and conserving ground moisture. A concept very much like what you're building. Hope it works out for you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll have to look into hugelkultur pits - probably similar to my swales. One Australian blogger hasn't had much success with the hugelkultur mounds because they don't get enough rain. I only wish there was more time to accomplish all the things I want to do.

      Delete
    2. Mounds don't work for me. My ground is too porous, I get brutal sun at times, and plenty of wind. Mounds dry out and drain quickly here, even when full of rotting wood. I guess I don't have the right environmental combination for hugel mounds. But I have had in the past a couple of very wet years where those mounds could have been the answer. Something for me to keep in mind.

      Delete
    3. Interesting. I appreciate hearing your experience. My raised beds dry out pretty fast so after that other gal's experience I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened here. Going down into the soil and adding moisture retaining materials makes more sense in that case. Like you say, not everything works everywhere, every time!

      Delete
  10. I was reading along, appreciating your wisdom, enjoying myself, and then........... BAM!
    You had to throw down a blooming now picture.
    Looking forward to our growing season & some flower throw downs of my own.
    ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! We enjoy a mild winter, early spring, and blazing hot summer! Can't say I mind the first two, with daffodils being the first spring color of the year.

      Delete
  11. I actually did not know what swales were....thank you for teaching me! I thought I was strong but that much digging? I think I'm out of shape now that I've left the farm. I could do it but not all in one day probably! Good for you! I believe in climate change so I have a feeling you should prepare for hotter and drier. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst! Our daffodils are blooming here too...mild Winter and early Spring.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, the soil was soft from recent rains, which made all the difference for digging! When it's dry, our soil is like concrete!

      Climate change. You know, the earth is a living organism so the climate is in a constant state of change. At some level I think we all know this - everyone knows about the earth's various ice ages, and a lot of people know that the Scott expedition to Antarctica found coal there (which is made from plant matter). The squabbling now is all about politics, not reality. That's my 2 cents anyway!

      Delete
  12. Great work! While I understand this is for water retention in dry years, how will this work out for wetter years? If there is too much runoff, where does it go?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perry, that is an excellent point. They should actually be interconnected starting from the highest point with overflows and holding areas eventually draining down to the lowest point. Ideally there could be a pond there with a windmill to pump the water back up the hill for when needed! Our property would be challenging to accomplish that, although not impossible. Maybe in the next decade or so, LOL

      Delete
  13. I saw this post a while ago, but was in the throngs of being sapped of energy, from a cold. Now I'm better I can come back to comment.

    I like how you've added the vegetative matter. A wise use of resources. Although swales are traditionally dug just to catch water and hold it on the surface. Vegetative materials are placed on top as a mulch.

    Yours is like a cross between hugelkultur and swales, by digging down further into the contour, to add woody materials. Which makes for an interesting experiment. It should hold more water than a traditional swale, should you be so fortunate to have that much, fall from the sky.

    It's good to get this infrastructure in though, so we can take advantage of the good times. Our rainfall has been getting lower and lower, every year. But at least if that pattern changes, I've got the swales to help manage the excess water.

    I'm looking forward to seeing how this travels over the growing season. I have a few experiments of my own to update, now our growing season is (technically) coming to an end. I suspect autumn is probably when our growing season should start, as the summers are just too hot to grow anything.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you're feeling better Chris! I tried to research how long swales last but never did find an answer to that. I figured that these will eventually decompose and leave a bit of a sink. Then I'll just smooth the berm back over them and dig new ones. It will be a great way to build the soil!

      Delete
  14. Such a good plan! I plan to something similar. I had a pumpkin volunteer grow out of an aged compost pile, about 3' deep, no water at all, and at the tail end of 7 years of drought! I'm a believer!

    ReplyDelete

Welcome! Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment. I try to reply to all comments and return blog visits if I can.