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swales to help deal with drought

Posted by bart_2010 8/9 Italy (My Page) on
Sat, Jul 26, 14 at 7:56

I'm very, very lucky this year, since we are getting rain, but having suffered through drought, and living in a climate that is prone to this scourge,I sympathize deeply with my fellow gardeners who are trying to deal with drought,and am always trying to make my own garden as drought-resistant as possible. On the Permaculture Forum, I found out about this idea of swales,and am in the process of digging some in my own garden (though given the sharp slope, it's more just like terracing the land ,for now...) Here's a link (hopefully) to a clear explanation of what a swale is and how they work. There's another video on YouTube of a man who lives in the desert, and uses this concept to water his fruit trees...very, very interesting...these ideas could be a revelation/ revolution, at least for me...check it out, maties... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3mBhQDsZ_U


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: swales to help deal with drought

I like the idea of swales in some applications Bart, they can be really useful. Two things I'd like to add though. Firstly they only work if there is water coming into them. I know this seems obvious, but if you don't get rain for 8 months of the year you will still have to irrigate, and to irrigate swales you have to flood the top tier and let the water work it's way down. I don't know if this is more or less water efficient than standard drip irrigation under mulch. It certainly seems like a great way of deep watering roses, but it might use quite a lot of water!

Secondly, if you garden on heavy clay and drainage is not optimal, swales can become really swampy and drown plants. You'd have to construct berms AND swales, and think your planting through - plant your roses/fruit trees etc on an adjacent berm, and plant swamp plants along the swales. (Trust me on this! I've killed a few citrus trees doing this the wrong way).

Are you trying this out at your place Bart? I'd love to see some progress shots if you have some. Great project.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

I was thinking about this and the video today.

I have tried to tip the garden beds to slope backwards from our hillside. Hoping to slow the water to soak in deeper and not run down the hillside. Being cheap (aka broke) I used concrete blocks that we mostly had laying around the place. They are stacked 2 high with the cavities packed with dirt and some random metal posts pounded in to hold them sort of in place. On top is 4 feet of field wire, we grow things like beans, peas, cucumbers to help hold the soil together. And it sure is nice to pick stuff with out having to do too much bending. It does help that we have clay with a lot of organics in it.

It is the same with the meandering walks around the garden, they all slope in a direction to slow any run off and channel it back to where I want it. We do have a couple of rather straight runs, but at the very bottom of the property,(where I stole all the dirt for the upper parts) I now have a very nice swale. I made a nice berm, what I was working on today, but also made sure that I did not create a lake that might flood some one lower down (aka the neighbors) Should it fill too high, the lot is naturally sloped so I can direct too much water away. My new "Tea Garden" will be part in this lower swale and part on new berms I have to create. They will also work to limit the flow of water and capture it as well making that lower area less likely to get to any problem level of run off.

We got our first watermelon today from the swale and brought in our pumpkins (a little concerned someone might help us harvest them) My Pomegranates look great considering it was rather damp down there in the "rainy" season. They did get some extra drip, but very very little cause it is from a hose bib that does not 100% shut off. Something to fix but my dad McGyvered so much junk together we don't want to touch until we have a replacement water line. We have a landscape shut off valve at the house so the garden water is rarely on. The several inches of compost/mulch is still rather damp all things considered.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Kippy, I'm sure I speak for us all in saying we'd love to see some pics of your tiered vege garden and Tea bed berm and swale setup! Sounds fantastic :)


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

The ones I'm making -at least two-aren't perfect,precise swales; actually probably closer to what Kippy is describing.A very kind and generous permaculture forum member helped me,pointing out that on my 33-degree-angled slope, a real swale would not be feasible, and advised a terracing-type concept.I can do it in this area because I was re-doing it anyway (obviously I'm not going to rip up all the roses in the relatively finished areas!).At the lowest, flat area of the garden, I hope to make a real swale; this area has unspeakably awful soil,and in the area that has yet to be cultivated, I'll start off by building these structures.I can't plant on my berms, since they are made of tree branches covered with soil (though maybe in the future I can change that). I can't say I'm worried about swampiness too much; the only area that could risk that is the flat area.
Thank you for your interest, muscovyduckling! I'm not too good about pictures, I must admit...but I'll try to take a few and maybe some day i'll find the time to figure out how to post'em. I'd LOVE to see Kippy's pictures !


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Oh Bart! Have you looked into Hugelkultur? It sounds like you're making Hugelkultur berms, which is a FANTASTIC way of storing moisture in your soil! It doesn't sound like you'd need to worry about drowning your roses so planting them along your tiered swales will be great - but you can definitely plant some companion plants with smaller, less penetrating root systems on those Hugelkultur berms, my friend.

This just gets better and better, you really must get some pictures for us now!

In the mean time, can you give us a link to the thread on the Permies forum where you discuss this project?


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

making my first swale

Posted by: bart_2010 8/9 Italy on Wed, Jul 2, 14 at 7:37
7 follow-ups, last one posted on Tue, Jul 8, 14 at 3:07

Muscovyduckling, I'm not sure if the above is a link exactly, but at least if you go onto the Permaculture Forum, you can see the thread (this forum is slow-moving, and the thread is still on page one...) I am going to have to read about Hugelkultur; I want to learn about this stuff: i.e., how to make the best of the resources one has,to make a sustainable garden that will be able to sort of take care of itself (bringing in water will not be sustainable in the long run; strangely, I've noticed that I do actually get older as the years pass, lol...)
Can you suggest some companion plants for the berms? At this point, the project is still in it's infancy: for now, the berms are made of logs braced with short verticals and covered with scanty soil, but in time I hope to substitute logs for soil,plus the wood WILL eventually rot. It's a lot of work, dragging in the soil, etc,but once I get these sort of "temporary" berms done,I won't have to be in a great hurry to substitute them all with soil ones...thanks for your encoragement! bart


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Hugelculture is a German method of controlling underground moisture to reduce water usage. Large rectangular shaped areas dug some 6- 8 feet deep are filled with logs and then backfilled with rich humus.
Last summer with donated heavy equipment, the Mason County Master Gardeners set up such a system. We planted pumpkin starts in this area and directly next to it and below it. The pumpkin plants all produced wonderful crops. We could not decide which were more productive. However, the Hugelculture area required 1/3 less water.
We also use swales in our rain gardens, but this is more of a system to deal with large amounts of rain runoff during early spring. I do not know how this system works for water reduction during the summer.
These alternative methods of gardening with the addition of native plants is beginning to change my gardening structure and the type of plants I use.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Hi Bart, Jeannie is right, hugelkultur is basically just burying sticks and logs under the soil to make a raised garden bed. The logs underground soak up and store water, which keeps the surrounding soil moist. As they decompose, they release nutrients into the soil and make a nice home for beneficial soil critters. They also collapse and shrink a bit when they decompose, which leaves little air pockets in the soil, which helps to combat heavy or compacted soils. The link gives a very basic rundown of the hugelkultur method, and has lots of pictures.

A lot of people make stand-alone raised hugelkultur beds to grow food crops on, but you can also incorporate them into your berm/swale design - just google 'hugelkultur swale' for some pictures and ideas.

Sorry Bart - where I live I get about 60" rain annually, so I'm probably not the best person to suggest planting ideas for you. But I will say there's a theory that for the first year or two the buried wood will steal nitrogen from the surrounding soil as it decomposes, so perhaps planting a nitrogen-fixing cover crop first up (like peas, legumes, clover etc) might be an idea. Or just mulch with chicken manure and plant whatever you like!

Here is a link that might be useful: Basic hugelkultur overview


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Bart, Sunday I will bring the camera and try and get some low photos for you. Our hillside is a gentle drop compared to some but it might give you an idea of what I am doing.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

I learned about swales and other great permaculture ideas in my master gardener program this year. I haven't put any in yet but am definitely looking into it.

I would also LOVE to see pictures. Wonderful stuff.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Thanks for the link Muscovy.
Bart here is another link, hugelkultur with swale:-)

FWIW, When we had to dig a trench for a new water pipe in a small shady bed, we realized how sandy our soil is. 100% sand all the way down.

This is not practical for shade plants, which love humidity. So I tried incorporating the basics of hugelkultur by burying branches, leaves, even a couple of 4 inch branches, any where I could before replanting the poor dislocated perreniels.

It took a couple of years for the bed to settle down, but the plants look happy now :-)

Here is a link that might be useful: Hugelkultur with swale


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Ahh, cool link True Blue! Just what I was looking for!

Glad to hear that you've actually made and had success with a hugelkultur bed, especially in sandy soil. How much rainfall do you get there? I know someone in Perth (other side of Australia from me) who tried a hugelkultur bed in their alkaline sand, it failed miserably because the sand drained so quickly and they have so little rainfall that the logs just sat there for years and wouldn't break down. So I'm wondering if the key to success is the amount of water the bed gets, or the size of the bed, or some other factor.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

I'm glad I started this thread! I will try to take some pics. The things I'm making are MUCH smaller and more shallow than the things I'm seeing on Internet,nor have I truly buried the logs enough, but it's a start. This area is probably never going to be a true, dyed-in-the-wool Hugelkultur area, because I have to work around existing ,established roses that I want to keep,but in the area that I have yet to really start cultivating, I think I'll be going whole hog, as much as is possible, considering that I'm a middle-aged woman, with no machinery or other people to help her do the jobs.
I think that ,like all of life, a lot of factors come into play in these things, muscovyduckling,and a lot of playing around and experimentation is needed,since every area is so different. You ARE right, for this to work, one DOES have to get SOME rainfall; I mean, water is life. I am lucky, for now at least, in that we do still get rain here in Tuscany. Normally, the rainy season is supposed to be fall and winter,tapering off and becoming scarcer as spring advances into summer,during which time, in the past, there would be a month or so of no rain at all. In recent years, everything has changed. The past 10 plus years have been too dry,it stopped raining completely in spring/summer,it was horribly hot...now, this year,instead, we've gotten lots of blessed rain,and it's rained a lot in summer, too,which to me is such a blessing!!! (though the turist industry sees this differently...) and for the first time in many, many years, one can actually speak of us having a "heat wave" instead of 3-4 months of wretched scorching weather! Also, I have some area of real gooey clay in my garden, and the soil that I'm lugging in is all this type of heavy clay. It is not fertile, but holds water very well,and I spend an awful lot of time gathering up organic matter for mulch and for amendment. I also add clay kitty litter . I think sandy soil would require even more amendment,organic matter, work (and kitty litter!),and probably would require watering, at least for the early years.
Seriously, people, the more I read and think about this stuff, the more I think that the human race could not possibly have survived if we'd always been as silly,spoiled,and wasteful as we are nowadays. And I mean myself, too,so please may nobody be offended by this comment.Hopefully it's not too late to change,but change is slow and difficult at times...regards to all, bart


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Muscovy, Montreal has an annual precipitation of 1,062.5 mm (41.831 Inches), rain and snow. In simple terms we are blessed with rain, snow & anything in between, more or less every month of year. It doesn't mean that we don't have periods of drought but nothing compared to California or Texas droughts, thankfully. However, are growing season is short. 5 months, from May to September.

Like Bart, I had to work around a half planted bed. So, it was tricky. As the bed is small, every time the great maple sheds some of it's twigs. I poke them in the soil around the plants. Think of it as a mini Hugelkultur!

As for Hugelkultur in desert/ drought conditions from what I understand it is possible.

It's best to prepare the bed before the rainy season.

The beds should be ground level, i.e. one should dig a trench and cover it. The reason being that heat and wind dry the Hugel (hill).

They use swales to direct water to the trenches or the inverted Hugels if you please.

They've done one this year at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. Our Californian friends can tell us if it has worked not.

Here is a link that might be useful: Los Angeles County Arboretum Hugelkultur


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Good on you Bart! I think just doing what you can is pretty amazing and makes a huge difference, even if it doesn't conform to the 'rules' of gardening. I have gooey clay here too, and some steep slopes - even though I'm not yet 30 and only have half an acre to deal with, it still makes everything so difficult! And there's only so much one person can do.

True Blue, thanks for the great link! I think you've hit the nail on the head re: making hugel beds at ground level in sandy soils. That makes a lot of sense - it just seems so obvious when you think about it, really - and I will pass it on to the folks out West.

Kippy and Bart - pics please!


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Not yet 30 AND with gooey clay? Muscovyduckling, you'll be able to rule the world, lol!!!! bart


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

I am tired. I tend to get songs stuck in my head and sing a line over and over as I do a project like this, mom hates it if I put on earphones and listen to music thinking instead I am tuning her out......so today it was Happy (I think I watched that senior citizen version that was all over facebook that got me)

Uploading a couple of pictures in separate emails.

This is a photo of the lower level. I had started this a couple of weeks ago but was not happy, so I dug and added a bit more. I have been using the extra 5g pots, filling with dirt and shoving some pelagronium in them. Mom wants plants to share...bingo and they hold back the berm. It is hard to see but the top of the berm is several inches above the top of the pots. In the sunny part of the photo, you can see the real work done today.

And the "tools of the trade" I think before the winter season I am going to scrub out and repaint my wheel barrow in a nice hot pink.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought 2

Next photo, on the left and back center is what I had done previously. The chickens and holy Moley have done a number on the berm I had just beyond the pumpkin vines. Once the vines are done I will fix the berm on the upper end of the right hand side. I added to the right hand berm today

The old giant rototiller, that never worked, is going to the farm museums tools section I hope.

The Pomes are doing good considering they have only been in since October and one moved in December. It is hard to see, but on the left side is a berm that is about 18" tall on the back side I have the "Big Girls" planted to swallow our view of the neighbors rotting fence.

The green mass on the fence in the corner is a 2 year old Felicite et Perpetue she looks like a funnel waiting to gather in any fool who jumps the corner fence. Really she is more like an armed octopus who will swallow them up. On the right is my second season in the ground Cl Cecile Brunner and in the center an Everblooming Cecile.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Haha Bart, I've been amending four small beds/large holes this weekend to plant my four baby apples in. I feel like I might be able to win the Iron Man championships if I keep this up, lol.

Kippy, amazing!!! Your bones must be aching too :( Those berms look fantastic, though! What have you made them from? Just mounded dirt, or is there something underneath? Hopefully you get some decent rain this winter to kick off your new beds.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought 3

This is the hard part that I did today. I have already dug in this area before so don't get too impressed that the soil is soft or I am super woman, it was just a bit easier to dig than it looks. And a nice drizzle helped make it cool and a perfect time to do it. I only dug about a shovel depth, threw it up above, then moved over and repeated 2x. Total depth dug was only about 9" but when you do that three times wide and put the dirt up on top of the untouched soil, it really looks much bigger. I raked and smoothed the rest and recovered with some of the mulch.

I think you can see the main path about midway in the photo, this comes from the lower gated "trailer park" area and heads toward the back of the lot above the pink flower. In front of the white pipe arch the path makes a Y and heads down to this new terrace and about where I was standing to take the photo, it heads further down to the lower level with the pumpkins. It is sloped to keep the rain toward the back of the terrace so the walk stays drier. On the right below the pink flower the path heads toward my new shed and the shady zone past an orange tree also on this middle berm so we can water and keep the water in the root zone.

The reason the chairs are now at the top of my new berm, when asking mom how to exit this level, she got on her hands and knees and thought it was best to crawl over the top!!!!! Arrrrgggg.....pointed her to the gentle slopping walk way. I will be adding fencing and moving the bigger Tea roses to the swale in that berm asap!


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RE: swales to help deal with drought 4

To give you a view up the hillside, you can kind of see all the "S" curves in the pathway to slow and redirect run off coming down the hill. Up there I used wall block, but for down here my budget is being spent on plants instead. I think I will cover the big berm with some of the garden burlap stuff just to make sure it stays together. My biggest issue is the chickens since where it is wet the worms are and the hens dig. I have a bunch of bulbs that I might also plant on the slope to add some roots.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought 5

A view to the back of the area. I plan on loosing the neighbors fence and preventing the nice young people who use the fence to tag from visiting us with a few thorny Barbier roses. One of white posts has one on it already and the hole is waiting for the next post. In the end there will be 4 posts with wire between them to attach the canes

Where all the chairs and my pot ghetto is fairly flat area with a berm behind the H Musks (other white post)

The berm in the foreground is just below the path way down from the #3 post.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Kippy, this is freakin' incredible! I just love the way the whole area has this organic flow to it now. I guess it designed like that to direct and slow water run-off, but it seems like it also works to direct and slow people, and takes them meandering through different parts of the garden. I love it. Can't wait to see it all mature. Ahhhh it's gonna look great!

Err, did I mention I really like your garden design? Haha.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Kippy that's real hard work.

I would love to see an up date after.

Your Mom has a funny sense of humor. It made me chuckle!


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Thanks TrueBlue....if only she was joking. She is going to be 91! Thursday I will get a couple of 10' PT posts and cut in half and run some 3 foot garden wire on them. That will hopefully help deter her slope climbing.

I called the tree guy for more chips today, he said I was already on his list. It is the wrong time of the year, but I am considering moving a couple of fairly recently planted roses that would be better over here.

Muscovy, thank you, the meander is for both reasons. Just like not planting the trees on too much of a grid. The street side is wider and I can do that there. The back side has more of a straight shot up the hill but still has some contours to direct water. The trees on this side are more typically arranged. The neighbors have a similar walk from the parking space to the house that makes a large C, helps to calm down agitated clients before reaching the home office. This part is the "working" garden so finished will be a relative term and not what is usually thought of as a rose garden.


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RE: swales to help deal with drought

Kippy, are you digging your trenches "on contour", that is , using an A-frame? The area pictured (thanks much for the photos, and I agree with muscovyd that these also do provide structure to the space) looks to be fairly flat in comparison to my completely uncultivated area. I 'll be practically starting from scratch there...
In the US, do you have to pay for the tree people for the wood chips? What does it cost? I never heard of anyone in Italy doing this; I have to gather up all my mulch myself. So much work!!!!!!!
I did take some photos, but need help from my DH to figure out how to unload them from the camera and post them. regards, bart


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