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Two Swale Questions

 
Andrew Michaels
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1) Is it only practical to build swales with power equipment? Can someone building swales for 5 acres and under do it themselves with a shovel?

2) Is there a reason why big swales (the deep kind excavators tend to make) work better than smaller-scale swales that someone would make by hand? As long as the swale is deep enough to catch water running down a landscape, what need is there for it to be bigger? I ask because it seems like the swales I see from the DVDs are all deep.


Thanks.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
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Location: Oakland, CA
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I think even a swale made with a spading fork (i.e., achieving its depth only due to the loosening of soil) would do some real good. P.A. Yeomans tended to control waterflow on slopes with a similar method, and seems to have gotten spectacular results.

Re-arranging biomass grown on the slope would, in my opinion, accomplish more for the labor than using a shovel alone. Windrows or bundles of weeds, staked down or shallowly buried, should improve conditions enough to grow field crops, the residue from which is substantial enough to be a real help in getting longer-lived species established. The volume of each root system that grows will also add to the depth you can achieve.

I think our central examples of swales are so large partly because of the organizations that built so many of them for erosion control.  A system of swales will function perfectly if it can hold all runoff on the slope, and so deeper swales can be spaced much more widely. A larger number of swales is not only more fault-tolerant, it can gradually build capacity from "does some good" to "enough for a typical rainy day" to "enough for any reasonable amount of rain."

There are important functions that do require some significant depth, though. Most permaculture books would recommend hiring an equipment operator to implement the whole plan right away, and I think that point of view is worth some careful consideration, especially because my understanding of this topic is mostly theoretical.
 
Andrew Michaels
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Good points. Thanks.
 
Maddie Bern
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Location: Sierra Nevada foothills, zone 7
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My swales in my veg garden are hand-dug. Learned about doing it at this scale in my PDC.
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Paul Cereghino
gardener
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Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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One of my early jobs I was part of a hand excavation crew that unearthed a 300' x 4' x 5' trench of a utility corridor.  There were no as-builts, so we did over half of it by hand feeling for pipes.  Thus I believe you can do just about anything with a shovel (particularly if you don't have to heave it up over your head.)

Lancaster's vol. 2 has very good introductory discussions of design
 
Andrew Michaels
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I've always wondered about the berm's ability to absorb water from the swale. You'd think the water would absorb downward in at an angle into the ground, and that the plants on the berm would be too high up. Perhaps the roots go down far enough, though. 

madronewood wrote:
My swales in my veg garden are hand-dug. Learned about doing it at this scale in my PDC.
 
                                                                    
Posts: 114
Location: Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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My favorite swales involve no digging because digging disturbes the vermaculture.

So most biomass materials such as weeds, wood, wood chips, brush and grass clipping are all useful for making swales.

One can also use a shovel.  Shoveling is great excersise if one limits the daily dose.  I stand on the uphill side and flip a layer over to the down hill side.

I hope that helps.
 
john smith
Posts: 70
Location: western u.s.
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Campy in Nashville, Tennessee, USA wrote:
My favorite swales involve no digging because digging disturbes the vermaculture.

So most biomass materials such as weeds, wood, wood chips, brush and grass clipping are all useful for making swales.


So you simply stack the swales on either side, which creates a "ditch" in the middle?

I have dug 60 foot ditches and enjoy the digging.  It is good exercise.

A couple of decades ago, nothing grew on a 6x25 foot section of land by the house, and so it got very muddy in the winter.  I dug three holes two feet deep to get past the hardpan, where the dirt suddenly became very soft, then filled the holes with organic matter and sand.  Drainage was no longer an issue and, surprisingly, volunteer plants have grown well there since, though nothing has been done with the rest of the soil.

I am planning to dig the same type of holes through the rest of the property, this time filling them with wood, along with other organic matter, and possibly stones.  Perhaps digging them in a series will create some connection between them.
 
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