Monday, July 27, 2015

Permaculture How to Built Swale on Contour

The permaculture way: Observe, find solutions within the problems that arise (with the right steps these shouldn’t be too grand), and reap the productive benefits of forethought and working with nature.

The basic concept of a swale on contour is to catch water as it drains and hold it in place until it absorbs into the ground. It looks a bit like a massive ditch with closed ends, trapping all of the water as opposed to having it flow anywhere.

Other swales systems, also known as diversion ditches or soil conservation swales, are meant slow down the movement of water in order to allow it to partially absorb, catch sediment, and/or prevent erosion while slowly ushering it elsewhere, like a reservoir. However, a swale on contour aims to keep all the water in place until it is absorbed.

“On contour” simply refers to the fact that this sort of swale works on the principle that by keeping everything level, such that the path of the swale moves along the contour, or elevation curve, of a slope. Doing this means that the water absorbs evenly into the land below as opposed to flowing to the lower end of the swale. Without following the same elevation level, the water would flow to one side or the other, and preventing this flow is what makes the water become passive rather than destructive, as is the case with water draining en masse and quickly in one direction.

Lastly, another nearly ubiquitous feature of swales is the result of all the soil that is removed to create them: the berm. The berm sits on the downhill side of the swale and is the perfect place to grow trees and deep rooting plants like strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, comfrey, and dandelions. The deep roots will keep the berm stable, as well as suck up the moisture from below so that the newly hydrated soil doesn’t become overly saturated.




Another important aspect of making a swale and, particularly, avoiding possible problems is to plan for passive overflow. The best way to do this is to have a sizeable, say equally as wide as the swale is, spot that is perfectly level and below the top of the berm where water can overflow into a safe place, either a pasture or another swale or a water catchment like a pond or damn. At the overflow point, it’s best to have something like a plastic sheet, stones or—ugh!—concrete to prevent erosion.


Once the base of the swale is satisfactorily level, a nice thick layer of mulch is a good idea. It will add nutrients to the water that is going into the soil below, as well as prevent evaporation. In fact, many people choose to fill up their swales in order to make convenient and logical access paths around the property. It’s just another viable purpose for having a swale.

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