I continue to study permaculture, and swales are very popular within the permaculture community. A swale is a ditch which holds water, instead of moving it from one place to another. A swale is dug on the contour of the land, and its purpose is to slow the runoff of rain water, so it infiltrates into the surrounding soil instead. The Permaculture Research Institute has an excellent post if you want to learn more.
Last year we had a couple of landscaping consultants come to the farm, and while they were here, I asked them to help me lay out the contour where I wanted to plant my permaculture windbreak. They used a builder’s level. I was glad they did, because my eye would have made a lot different contour than what the tool said.
This year I knew I wanted to plant my evergreen windbreak on the contour,and I also wanted to make a swale. The consultants charged me enough last year that I knew I wanted to do it myself if at all possible. I needed a level.
I could have spent more and purchased a laser level, which would mean I could do the job by myself. But I thought it would be quality time to lay out contours with my sons. I could have also purchased a transit level, which I guess would have allowed me to do vertical angles. I didn’t have any experience with this stuff, so my understanding may be off.
So after much research, I got my level and started practicing with it. It turned out to be a good purchase. I really enjoy using it, and am amazed at how far off my eye is.
Below is my first swale. After flagging out the contour with my level, I built it with my loader. It’s about 100 feet long. Five plum trees and six currant and jostaberry bushes are planted along the ridge. I mulched with hay to keep the sides from eroding.
It got dry after I made the swale and I wanted to see how much water it would hold, so I filled my Dad’s liquid manure spreader with water and put it in the swale. It can safely hold over 1000 gallons of water. We have also had rains of over two inches and it had no problems taking that amount of rainfall.
No matter how wet we have been, almost all the water has soaked in after 24 hours. And all of it has soaked in after 48 hours. I haven’t had to water the plantings, and we’ve gotten pretty dry in August, so it appears that the concept is working.
I’m not sure how practical swales are. I like the concept, as I hate to think of rain water running off the land. I think they work best for smaller-scale agriculture. As I plant more trees, I think it would be wise to plant them on swale mounds as this will help with their watering needs.