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Hugelkultur vs. swales?

 
Devon Olsen
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Location: SE Wyoming -zone 4
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Ok, so i know that ideally it is best to use both and then some... as i am doing currently, but i was wondering if someone could help me come up with a list of pros and cons of both as well as what they have in common, i think its called a Venn diagram, the three circles, i what im trying to make, and i am trying to stick tightly to these things and not stray into lumpy soil vs flat or into edge(directly anyway, i think surface area is exceptable to talk about) for my own purposes, though i certainly agree that there is a lot more techniques to help do the same things that these two things do

so... heres what i have so far

Similarities:
Both...
slow water and help it penetrate the soil
concentrate organic matter that would otherwise have been swept away or spread thinly
by the process above help to build organic matter in the soil
help to harvest rain water
help to reduce need to manually water
include initial movement of soil and then leaving it be from there on out
help create more biodiversity
CAN have buried or layered organic matter


Differences:
Hugelkultur:
buried wood/organic matter
can potentially increase the surface area of the land by quite a lot
is tough work by hand and can cost a lot to get done with machinery
is most efficient if it is steep and has many shapes rather than just straight lines when looking down the bed
EDIT - CAN store and hold more water in certain environments but not in others - EDIT *this has been potentially refuted, and as such changed
can be perfectly level with surrounding soil or 10 ft high or more
can be shaped to make most efficient use of land
Swales:
dug out berm and basin
doesn't generally increase surface area by much
is a lot easier to build and costs less even with all equipment nessacary
doesn't require heavy machinery to get done in a timely manner
has key elevations that need to be followed when constructing
is most efficient if not level but 4 inches lower is basin than spillway and 4 inches above spillway at the bottom of berm as a minimum
works best if perfectly parallel to contour and perpendicular to flow direction


 
Tom Farkas
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Location: Eastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod
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Hi Devon,

I've been considering the same thing. But I came to the conclusion that one could combine both. On the down slope side of the swale I thinking I could create a bit of a raised berm that would comprise buried logs/brush. Water would permeate the depression in the swale, soaking in as it is supposed to. But in this case the wood absorbs what it can and supplies that to plantings on the berm. Any thoughts?

 
Devon Olsen
Posts: 1066
Location: SE Wyoming -zone 4
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i also think a combination of the two is best when comparing however im trying to write myself a little compare/contrast essay and though i got a decent list now i was just hopin to get a few more things added before i start the actual writing part...
 
Neal Spackman
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Hey Folks,

I have to disagree on some of the pros and cons. I have over 7 kilometers of swale on my site, and when it rains i can get over 10,000,000 liters soaking in with 1 inch of rainfall (sorry but i'm used to working with metric here). So i'd argue that you can soak in a lot more water with a good long swale than you can with a hugelkulture bed, but only because you can put in a lot more swale than you can hugels. I'd argue that swales are more stable on slopes, as long as they're dug right. Also, as i'm working in a desert, wood is not easy to come by.
Pneal

earthworks.jpg
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you can see my swales in the top left corner--this is a shot that was meant to show the types of earthworks i have going from the top of our watershed down to the bottom.
 
Leila Rich
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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I think we have a big, fat "it depends" here
I think of them as having generally quite different roles: hugelkultur being a reasonably high-labour (to construct) gardening method, zone 1 or 2 type thing,
while as Neal says, swales are often used more 'extensively', for irrigation in food forests, grazing areas and so on.
The only hugel building I've seen has been small and labour-intensive, but cheap-to-free, while some of the major swale networks using earthmoving machinery and cost a lot.
I haven't seen trees grown on hugels, but swales are ideal places to grow trees.
Inversely, I'd grow veges on hugels, but not really on swales.
Swales can go for miles, I can't imagine that would be practical for hugels
I imagine a swale's water-plume probably has more irrigation effect on the land around it, while a hugel's water-retention is quite localised (that is based on no research whatsoever, btw
And Neal, your project looks amazing!
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm going to try a little "trees in hugel" experiment soon.

 
Devon Olsen
Posts: 1066
Location: SE Wyoming -zone 4
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i think neal has a vaild point so i changed the first list but would now say that maybe hugelkultur is best for holding water at the surface for vegetables whereas swales help water to soak into the soil deeper for larger plants such as trees
 
Tim Southwell
Posts: 116
Location: Hamilton, MT
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Neal Spackman wrote:Hey Folks,

I have to disagree on some of the pros and cons. I have over 7 kilometers of swale on my site, and when it rains i can get over 10,000,000 liters soaking in with 1 inch of rainfall (sorry but i'm used to working with metric here). So i'd argue that you can soak in a lot more water with a good long swale than you can with a hugelkulture bed, but only because you can put in a lot more swale than you can hugels. I'd argue that swales are more stable on slopes, as long as they're dug right. Also, as i'm working in a desert, wood is not easy to come by.
Pneal



Did you place any organic matter on the surface prior to swale construction, thereby dropping excavated soil on top of organic matter to assist with soil amendment? Such material would be rotten wood, bales of hay, cardboard, packing paper... anything that will hold water, breakdown and feed organisms to develop soil. I too have a property (20 acres) that is far devoid of trees, and finding / hauling wood onto the site then placing at location of swale construction would be a bear.

 
neil bertrando
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Location: Reno, NV
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always good to select the technique or strategy that best meets your available resources, management and climate needs.

My opinion: Try combinations of both and variations of each. we built 1/4 mile plus of hugelbeds in Montana with Sepp in May in about 1 week. not as quick as swales, but not a purely small scale/intensive landscape technique. Hugels are most appropriate for flattish ground and work on mellow slopes, swales too, terraces on steeper slopes.

Hugels do not need to be oriented on contour and can be a great opportunity to drain frost whereas swales may spread it or catch it and create frost pockets. so a combo might be called for. that's what I'm trying. I could also see a combo of hugelbeds in the berm portion of a swale as 'swale furniture' to accent a swale and still utilize it's spreading and infiltrating functions. or how about a hugelbed on the uphill side of a swale so it gets some water from the swale and from above, a nice topsy turvy luscious food forest in action.

many blessings to those trying these techniques and other experiments in permaculture, regenerative design and ecosystemic agricultures.

Steppe one 7_31_12 41.jpg
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Steppe one 7_31_12 40.jpg
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Brent Rogers
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I think that both swales and hugelkultur are excellent techniques that have so many possibilities and potential. I have seen great examples of how they can be used in cooperation. I just wanted to add that swales have the ability to create lots of edge effect.
 
William James
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http://youtu.be/OavKcBmC1fs

Here they do a swale-hugelculture combo. I'm on clay and planning my future attempts strictly above-ground, unless it's a one-off "bury a rotting log" type of thing, which I'd do again.

Best,
W
 
Tim Southwell
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Location: Hamilton, MT
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I like that video... it is simple and gets the point across.

At this stage, I favor the Hugel-Swale combo, over just doing one or the other. If you are doing a traditional HK bed, there is the logistical concern of finding soil to top the rotting organic matter you have just placed on grade. Do you import this from another location, rob it from another part of your property, or what? With the HS combo, the hole or trench you are digging (by shovel or digger) is simply placed off to the side. Then after laying in organic matter below, as well as above, grade, you top with the soil excavated in the first place. No trucking in, no foreign soil on your land, just a more simple / logical process. Thoughts?

That being said, this September, I will perform all three (HS, HK bed, and SW) and monitor the findings over the course of 2013 and beyond. Will be fun!

Regards,

Tim
 
Devon Olsen
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yeah i think ideally hugel-swale combos are kinda the best way to go
i currently have built 1/4th of a planned circular/squarish hugel bed around an existing fence (of which i hand dug about 1/4th of and did the rest with machine through an exchange of labor with someone i know with a small skidster) and have hand dug one swale thats maybe 70 feet long or so
the hugelkultur, though i still water it, when i left for 12 days of extreme heat, kept plants green and greening when surrounding plants suffered from heat stress and turned brown, some even died back, but the hugelkultur bed kept things green and STILL had sprouts growing on it!!
the swale, done only a week ago, i have noticed already made a difference just from the water i used to test the level( i dont think my bunyip works too well, it doesnt look too reliable and is kinda short) as there are a few spots that are much greener

but i have noticed that hugelkultur seems to collect water better than swales if you have a climate like mine, somewhat sandy soil, and only light rains most of the time, during light rains the hugelkultur seems to STILL be collecting water, whereas the swale doesnt make a huge difference with light rains( though i could be wrong) however i think that hte swales work better during larger rain events because they help stop and slow water that would otherwise run to the lowest point in the property... in otherwords our poorly placed house lol

i think a combination of the two would do a great job of capturing light rains as well as more effeciently capturing heavy rains

i do wonder though if you would have the problem of lower hugelbeds having less water availabe? (that is PART of why sepp slants his beds rather than building on contour)
 
Brent Rogers
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Tim Southwell wrote:I like that video... it is simple and gets the point across.

At this stage, I favor the Hugel-Swale combo, over just doing one or the other. If you are doing a traditional HK bed, there is the logistical concern of finding soil to top the rotting organic matter you have just placed on grade. Do you import this from another location, rob it from another part of your property, or what? With the HS combo, the hole or trench you are digging (by shovel or digger) is simply placed off to the side. Then after laying in organic matter below, as well as above, grade, you top with the soil excavated in the first place. No trucking in, no foreign soil on your land, just a more simple / logical process. Thoughts?

That being said, this September, I will perform all three (HS, HK bed, and SW) and monitor the findings over the course of 2013 and beyond. Will be fun!

Regards,

Tim


Tim,

You make a great point, one that I underestimated when building our hugelkultur beds. Where does all the dirt come from? Where we placed ours was on top of an area of high clay soil where an old pool used to be in our backyard. It would just become a small pond in the winter. So, we put three hugelkultur beds in and problem solved! First I dug down about 2 feet and started throwing in wood until I had a mound about 4 feet above ground level. That is where we got a lot of our soil, but it wasn't great and we still needed much more to make a proper mound. Luckily there are cattle on the property behind us and we used a lot of manure, both aged and fresh, which made a nice covering. It really does take a lot of soil to cover a hugelkultur bed!
 
Brent Rogers
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William James wrote:http://youtu.be/OavKcBmC1fs

Here they do a swale-hugelculture combo. I'm on clay and planning my future attempts strictly above-ground, unless it's a one-off "bury a rotting log" type of thing, which I'd do again.

Best,
W


William,

When we built our hugelkultur beds we first dug down 2 feet and added a few rotting logs. The hope is that the logs below ground would wick up the excess moisture that normally settles where the beds are, and also to add more organic material into our clay soil. I will post pictures soon, but I can tell you everything is going quite well and the soil we started with was absolute garbage. We grew a cover crop of buckwheat, rye grass, common vetch, common pea, red clover, and white clover on the beds and did a chop and drop to stress the plants and convince them to share their precious nitrogen nodules. Then we mulched heavily on the beds and around them with straw. Now you can turn over the mulch and find worms everywhere working their magic with the soil. The watering is much less than a typical raised bed and I have heard year one is nothing compared to year two and beyond. I also arranged our beds so that the bases touch and create a narrow pathway in between which doubles as a shallow ditch and helps to collect water and release it more slowly into the soil. If it was not also a path it would work more like a swale. I am considering adding rock to elevate the walking surface, but still allow water to collect beneath, or adding a thicker layer of wood chips to keep compaction down. My family and I are having a great time experimenting with our hugelkultur beds and I highly recommend it if you have poor soil.
 
neil bertrando
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Location: Reno, NV
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at the Sepp course in Montana, the hugelbeds were not oriented based on contour. they were built on relatively level ground and meandered around what used to be a grass pasture type area in the middle of a wetland.

they are versatile in their location, shape and applications, so in this way, I consider them superior to a swale design technique. both have there place in the permaculture toolkit and lexicon. lots of innovation to be done in synergizing these two techniques.

Re: the question of materials:

a thematic takehome from the Sepp course: Use what materials you have on site to the most creative extent possible and bring in whatever else you need (ideally this is minimal). high level application of Permaculture "next best use"

sometimes you will need to bring in organic matter, sometimes soil, sometimes rock, sometimes seed and plant materials. sometimes you can source all of these on sight.

don't be afraid to 'exercise the ecology' as Joel Salatin suggests.

there are lots of grading options for sourcing soil for building hugel beds. I dug basins on the ends of swales to generate the extra topsoil as an unskilled machine operator, this was the best I could do. you can build a krater garden pattern which covers logs with material from the basin, I'm sure the possibilites are endless.

at the course, the earthmovers were very skilled and scraped topsoil from the surrounds and tapered the grades toward the beds to generate what they needed, which gave a very easy access/approach and made awesome beds. the topsoil there was deep and some material was transported from nearby on site (a few hundred feet away). good to remember he does things BIG. over a 1/4 mile of 7' tall hugel beds in a few days.

here's a rough idea about the grading cross section used at the course
hugelbed grading option v1.jpg
[Thumbnail for hugelbed grading option v1.jpg]
 
Devon Olsen
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good to know that sepp also grades towards the bed
when i had a machine here for what ive done so far, it ended up taking the soil down a good foot in some places and inches in others, now there is a slight slope toward the bed from the compaction and idrt lost or moved in excavation, this creates a few spots near the bed where water collects right at the base during big rain events or when i leave the hose running nearby if i have something that catches my attention during watering
but my machine operator couldnt manage to get the steep sides that i imagine sepp gets, and i havent yet toyed with heavy machinery to do it with that so i ended up going along the backside of hte bed and steepening it by hand, also digging in in a few spots to enable me to harvest way up the bed from the ground, i left the other side of the bed alone pretty much this year, maybe ill mess with it next year...
the beds are ALREADY outcompeting nearby soil quite a bit, a large part of the bed isnt mulched yet and just has crappy subsoil form the pond area, so well see how that works because i just planted it

i didnt pick somewhat level ground either, i planned a general shape and got started, i need a LOT more practice to build one with that much edge though, most of my edge was incorporated with shovel because i couldn't instruct my machine operater well enough to get a curve and mis-judged the evening out that happens with the slumping of our somewhat sandy soil
 
Brent Rogers
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Haven't done any swales yet, but these hugelkultur beds are doing great! (These pics were taken from our roof, so everything looks miniature.)
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Front Hugelkultur
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Back Hugelkultur
 
Neal Spackman
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Tim Southwell wrote:
Neal Spackman wrote:Hey Folks,

I have to disagree on some of the pros and cons. I have over 7 kilometers of swale on my site, and when it rains i can get over 10,000,000 liters soaking in with 1 inch of rainfall (sorry but i'm used to working with metric here). So i'd argue that you can soak in a lot more water with a good long swale than you can with a hugelkulture bed, but only because you can put in a lot more swale than you can hugels. I'd argue that swales are more stable on slopes, as long as they're dug right. Also, as i'm working in a desert, wood is not easy to come by.
Pneal



Did you place any organic matter on the surface prior to swale construction, thereby dropping excavated soil on top of organic matter to assist with soil amendment? Such material would be rotten wood, bales of hay, cardboard, packing paper... anything that will hold water, breakdown and feed organisms to develop soil. I too have a property (20 acres) that is far devoid of trees, and finding / hauling wood onto the site then placing at location of swale construction would be a bear.



Hi Tim--No we're putting in our swale furniture after digging them. I didn't have access to any surplus organic matter when we dug these, but we are currently, and i hope to plant them the end of October. You can tell from the picture that we have a small mountain above our swales--we have diversion dams where the wadi and the swales meet so the water from any flash floods will be directed out to the swales--in order to get that to sink in faster and to be able to plant without drip irrigation, i'm planning on digging some deep post holes for each tree we're going to plant--maybe 1 foot diameter by 4 feet deep, and then putting in manure and leaf mulch for the bottom foot, and then rock mulch in the rest--this will get my water to sink in more quickly and i'm hoping i'll be able to keep my trees alive without drip irrigating them through this technique. I'm doing it on a smaller scale first, and then if it works will incorporate it over the 7 km of swale.
 
Tim Southwell
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Location: Hamilton, MT
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Neal,

I recently sat in on a chat with Paul Wheaton on Permaculture without irrigation. He remarked that one of the keys is to plant by seed rather than by start (or transplant). This is due to the taproot which is all but stunted with container growing for future planting. Your post hole idea has merit, and would be well served if you were to sow seed above location. Growth will be surprisingly quick given the infrastructure you are designing. I will go this route on my land, while also trying a transplant or two... thereby sitting back and watching the results.
 
Eric Weisberg
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I am a student in Tom Ward's PDC in Ashland, OR, tasked with helping plan a small truck farm for the Jackson WellSprings: Mineral Hot Springs, Events & Retreat Center ...

Our design team is considering Hugelkultur beds at various locations around the perimeter of the site.
hand site color map_0001.jpg
139K View Download

We are interested in diverting the polluted water coming off Hwy 99 north of the site and Jackson Rd. which transects the property, and providing a sound and air pollution barrier. We don't know if Hugelkultur can be used to filter such water. And, we don't want to pollute the ground water as a result of our structures.

Some of the site already has swales which could be converted into Hugelkultur structures if and where that is appropriate. The question is whether Hugelkultur can be used for either diversion or filtration of problematic water or whether we would just accumulate and transmit the pollutants into our adjacent soil.

Our site is alluvial, consisting of Newburg fine sandy loam with a water table less than 6' below the surface. Water flow is onto our site and then to the northwest along the roads.

Please direct us to research on using Hugelkultur for water diversion or filtration, and give your thoughts on the propriety of Hugelkultur in our application.

BTW, we are in a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers (though we can get water to the project).
 
Brent Rogers
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Eric,

I would not think that Hugelkultur would be the right tool for diversion or filtration. From my experience, a Hugelkultur bed is great at absorbing water and holding it for extended amounts of time. It may work for diversion, but it will most likely take up the toxins in the water and you will just be keeping pollutants around longer. My suggestion would be to check out "Mycelium Running" by paul stamets. This book has details on how to successfully utilize mycofiltration (the use of mycelium to filter microorganisms, pollutants, and silt) and mycoremediation (the use of fungi to degrade or remove toxins). You may be able to construct a Hugelkultur, with more wood than typically used, and inoculate it with mycelium! Paul Stamets has a process where he inoculates sawdust and wood chips inside of a burlap bag, then places them in the ground, on contour, as a filter. I hope this helps. Also, I think large Hugelkultur would make a nice berm for sound and air pollution.
 
Neal Spackman
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Here's some video I took this week of one of our swales in very early stages.





 
Ichabod Shorthouse
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Neal Spackman wrote:Here's some video I took this week of one of our swales in very early stages.







Very cool. Looks a lot like Texas in certain places.
 
Heidi Hegwer
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thanks for the vid. Reminds me of sites in Southern Arizona.
Good to hear about the bird and insect response, very exciting after only 6 mobths
A great seed source for you might be the desert-adapted seed varieties that they collect over at
NativeSeed Search in Tucson. (nativeseeds.org)These are heirloom desert-adapted food plants, grown for many
generations on Indian Reservations. Desert watermelon, besides the corn / squash / beans that you
would expect. There is a desert Carob too, very beautiful with fantastic shade canopy.
 
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