Creating Swales for Water Retention – A Permaculture Technique 

Last week, I gave a brief introduction to what Permaculture is, and why you should care. You can find that post here. Today, I’d like to talk about one of the techniques that Permaculture has given us. That tool is called swales.

Swales are ditches that run on contour. Think of them as ditches that run perpendicular to the flow of water coming down a hill. The point of them is slow down and catch water, and then slowly release it. This also eliminates erosion problems, and allows you to grow things that you might not normally be able to grow.

We built some swales around our trailer, and the very next day we got 2 inches of rain. This was perfect timing! I’m happy to report that two days later, the swales are still holding water.

Here is one of our swales. The livestock guardian puppies seem to enjoy them as much as we do.

To create a swale you need to find a suitable spot. Then, you need to get an A-frame level in order to mark out your swale. You can find out how to build and use an A-frame level here.

Now that you’ve become familiar with an A-frame level, you can mark your swale. I like to use flags for this, but as you can see in the picture above, we used fiberglass rods. Once you have your swale marked out, you can grab a round headed shovel and get to work. I like to cut into the ground at a 45 degree angle when making a swale. Once you start removing dirt, you place all of it on the downhill side of the swale. Try to keep this pile of soil somewhat neat and orderly. You will be planting into this pile later.

After you have completed digging your swale, it’s a good idea to cover the pile of dirt that runs along the downhill side of the swale. I prefer hay to do this. Also you want to avoid putting too much hay in the actual swale, we don’t want to build too much organic matter in this area. Where we do want soil cover and organic matter is on the pile of dirt. Check out the picture below.

When you reach this point, most of the work is done! All you need to do now is plant into the downhill side of the swale. For the first year, I would recommend you plant a mixture of cover crops to keep the soil covered, and start building organic matter. Later down the road you can plant veggies, fruit and nut trees and shrubs. It’s a good idea to build organic matter and let the root systems of the cover crops hold things in place.

When you build a swale you will see the benefits of it immediately. It’s a nice feeling when you can see that you are holding onto the water that falls on your land, and you aren’t losing topsoil and moisture due to runoff. Try creating a swale and tell me what happens, I’d love to hear about it.

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Chris Stelzer

Chris Stelzer is a published Author, founder of Agricultural Insights and creator of many resources that help family farmers and ranchers grow their businesses. His flagship courses are the Grazing Mastery Program and The Farm Marketing Mastery Program. 

Chris Stelzer

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