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At what point is a swale not an option?

 
leah gibson
Posts: 7
Location: Central TX prairie
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Hello,

I just purchased our 11 acre homestead and was gifted a few fruit trees that I would really like to get in the ground in the next month or two.

The acre that the house is on is very flat. 2% or less, and clay soil with an existing grass mix. The rest of the property is a very gradual slope and I can see some wonderful berms and swales and ponds in the future.

But for now, I just want to focus on that flat acre, and I'd really like to plant some trees (the ones I was gifted), and I'd like to start establishing an evergreen screen because I am closer to my neighbors than I prefer.

Of course I don't want to plant anywhere that I would regret later. I have helped many friends install food forests planted on berm and swale systems, but they all had bigger areas, with more slope, and had preexisting drainage problems. I have walked the area in question during a rainstorm and don't see any run off issues. And the day after a storm, the ground is always nice and spongey but not ever boggy. So, it seems that a berm and swale system may not be as effective here. Am I right? What are my other options?

Some more info about the site....clay soil (I think I would need to build berms at the very least so that the trees are happy, but I dont know how to place a berm without a swale); this is central texas so drought can be a problem in the summer and any and all rainwater harvesting techniques should definitely be applied. I will be irrigating with a 4200 gallon rainwater tank in times of drought. Temps get to be 105 in August, down to 25 in January, albeit usually for just a few hours at a time. The native vegetation is prairie grasses so I'd like to keep that theme going throughout the property (later will be using mob grazing to restore native grasses) while also establishing a few fruit tree guilds here and there.

I appreciate any input you have...this is my first project here and I don't want to mess it up.
 
Justin Wood
Posts: 95
Location: KY
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Congrats on the land purchase.

My thoughts - you can never have enough water on the property. I would chinampa my property if I could.

Swales usually go with trees. The height of the trees usually dictating the distance between swales. With that formula, I would swale and tree everything I could and use the space between swales as natural paddocks that would become native grasses. (That approach is more of a geoff lawton school of thought and he has video of that somewhere. www.geofflawton.com)

Are you looking at ponds/dams? You could mix those into the swale lines.

 
leah gibson
Posts: 7
Location: Central TX prairie
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I love that idea, I was envisioning very long, broad berms/swales with fruit and nut trees and pasture planted in between...I'm glad you backed up my train of thought there!
A pond is in the plan but I have a ton more research to do about where to place it in order for max benefits.
 
Justin Wood
Posts: 95
Location: KY
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I have 5 acres. I only have 1 pond. My goal is at least 4 more ponds. Right now, I have little ones and ponds make me nervous. I would not limit the number or size of ponds. Just start somewhere and then observe. I really think the key is just getting started with a sound outline and then you can make adjustments.
 
leah gibson
Posts: 7
Location: Central TX prairie
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I have practically no earthworks experience, asides from what I've been reading and what I've helped friends build (after they designed it). Do you have any recommended reading or websites specifically for ponds? Thanks.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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Swales are meant to solve a problem. You don't seem to have any drainage issues on the flat portion of your property.  It might be wise to put your resources into developing the more sloped areas for water catchment.
 
John Wolfram
Posts: 616
Location: Lafayette, Indiana
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You didn't mention where in central Texas you are located, but I'll just assume you have weather similar to that of Austin, TX.

In 2014, Austin got 36 inches of rain and half of the total rainfall for the entire year came in just seven days of the year. Two thirds of the rain for the year fell in about 11 days. As a comparison, where I'm at in Indiana, we got about the same amount of rain for the year (40 inches), but to account for 2/3rds of our rainfall you have to look at almost 30 days. Weather Underground is a great source for historical data.

Based on your observations of little or no runoff during or following one of the downpours, it would seem that your property is already well suited to take advantage of the quick bursts of rain you receive. That being said, small earthwork features on flat land are able to hold back a tremendous amount of water relative those features on hilly ground, so you might be able to get a modest improvement for a modest expenditure of work.
 
Peter Ellis
Posts: 1268
Location: Central New Jersey
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I would do swales, even on a marginal slope. Especially if you are feeling the need for berms anyway, use the integrated system. You have observed that this land appears to be absorbing water pretty well, but you are in a lower rainfall area where you do want to capture all you can.

You might try an experiment. Select a location where you want to plant a couple of your trees, mark a contour line and dig a swale there, with downslope berm. Plant the trees in the berm. And then watch with your next measurable rain event and see if the swale does its job. My guess is you will find more water in the swale than you might anticipate. And if it does not appear that the swale captured any water to speak of, you may still want to build them, just as a side effect of building the berms you want
 
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