January 13, 2022

Swale Project: The Plan

I've experimented with small swales in the garden. My first was about five years ago (blog post here), but it was small and so had small effect. Then I started digging hugelkultur swale beds in the garden, since raised beds dried out too quickly (blog post here). Now, thanks to permaculture video lectures by Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton, we've begun to understand how to incorporate swales into an overall homestead design. The goal is to keep our soil hydrated. This is a challenge because we typically have long, hot dry spells each summer. We collect rainwater for irrigation, but now understand that the best way to collect and store water is in the soil. 

One thing Bill and Geoff stressed is that permaculture focuses on design, rather than techniques. Specifically, permaculture is about energy design: identifying, collecting, retaining, and using energy as many times as possible, for as long as possible. Water is a key energy source. Without it, everything dies. Our design is our plan to collect and store as much water as we can before it flows off the property. Swales are a key element to accomplish this. (See my notes, here.)

Since swales are built on contour, we used a topographical map to visualize a rough idea of where we should start. The topo map is pretty general, and shows our highest elevation at the top of the property, where the house, gardens, and outbuildings are. A series of descending ridges takes us to the bottom of the property, where it's densely wooded. This arrangement is actually opposite of an ideal permaculture property, where the house, gardens, and outbuildings are closer to the property's lower contours and can take advantage of water collected at higher elevations. But it is what it is, and that's our challenge. 

First stage: blue lines are proposed swales, red lines are contour lines.

I'm calling this stage 1 of our new water conservation plan. The proposed swales (in blue) will have the potential to catch most of the runoff from the highest points of the property: roofs, driveway, and parking areas. Stage 2 will be constructing spillways to direct swale overflow and more catchment at lower elevations. More on that after we've had a chance to mark the actual contour of the land. For that, we bought an inexpensive transit level, so we know exactly where to put the swales. Then it's on to digging, and after that, planting. We've made a start on the first one, so I'll have pics to show you soon.

7 comments:

Ed said...

We can readily design houses to suit our specific needs but we rarely have the same opportunities when it comes to land. If I could design the three acres where my house sits, it would certainly look a lot different than it does now but as you say, it is what it is. We just try and make the best of it.

Leigh said...

Ed, I only wish we'd known this stuff when we first bought the place. I think we would be much more productive by now if we had.

Rich said...

It's hard to tell from the photo, but to my eye, it almost looks like the neighboring land has some terraces running close to the red contour lines, and I can almost see the remnants of those terraces running through the trees on your property and around your homesite.

Leigh said...

Rich, good eye! Yes, the terraces cut across several of our neighbors' properties. In fact, they are almost like remnants of old swales. We think perhaps the entire area was part of the governments' swale project back in the New Deal era.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, when and if we ever move, we will have the same issue you do: The house at the Ranch is set at the top of a small hill just before the lower valley that leads to the Meadows. Where the garden is (flat part of the valley) has potential, but the rest will be a challenge.

Or, I intend to fully learn from your experiment!

Leigh said...

TB, then let's hope Dan and I learn something worth imitating!

wyomingheart said...

Great info today. Leigh! So much to learn, and retain! It is definitely water that keeps everything alive! Thanks for sharing!