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Filling small swales with woodchips for a path - what could go wrong?

 
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
3
dog trees bee
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I want make a few small swales that are paths between our fruit trees (as yet not planted) My husband is concerned about sediment building up in the swales. It sees to me that it might build up as the chips break down. Perhaps years down the road the swale will have filled in but by then I am thinking we will have the place well-planted to help slow the water down. Am I missing something important that I need to consider about making swale paths?
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
3
dog trees bee
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Okay, I have more information now that we re-hydrated after working outside all day. My thought was that I had read somewhere that you could dig a swale and make the bottom level but my husband's concern is that if we have to dig down deeper to make it level in some places that those places are the spots that will fill up first with sediment and then the water will backup in the swale and run some place we don't want it to run.

So I guess I am confused. Okay, not guessing. Definitely confused. Do you only use a swale on flat land? That doesn't seem to make sense since I read about people digging swales on all sorts of property. And once dug, do they always stay level? I wouldn't think so. I feel like I am missing an important connecting point. I will go back and reread old swale posts but will look forward to any discussion as well.
 
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Location: Sunshine Coast, BC
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hugelkultur forest garden fungi trees books chicken bee
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Hi Susan;

Spend a little too much time out in the hot sun today? lol

So, here's the scoop on swales, as I understand them:

Swales are generally dug 'on contour' with level bottoms, so that the water entering the swale will spread out evenly into the soil, and not run to one end or the other, or all puddle in one spot. You want as even a spread of water as possible out into the soil. This can be done on relatively flat land (most sites have at least a little slope), or they can be used on slightly steeper areas - on contour - to slow water down and soak it into the land, instead of it all just running down to the bottom of the hill.

So, that's the building part. Even if you can't put them perfectly on contour, you should try to make the bottom as level as possible, to evenly spread the water.

For swales as paths, the chips that you put into them will break down, and other detritus is bound to get in there as well. But this is a good thing. The mycelium that will inevitably grow in the chips will be great for the surrounding landscape; AND once the chips are broken down at the bottom, you can scoop them out to use in other places in the yard as a nice inoculating-type mulch, or for planting trees. You'll have to add new layers of chips from time to time as they will compact as they break down. But you would have to do that with a regular path anyway, right?

This is what I'm doing in my garden. The chips I recently put in my path are a year old, and already filled with mycelium, so it will be great in another year or so, when I scoop some into the garden and add new chips. Plus, the mycelium will continue to grow and spread, adding more goodies to the soil.

Let me know if this makes sense to you!

Cheers
Tracy
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
3
dog trees bee
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Hi Tracy,
Yes, that's the same understanding I had about them. My husband's concern is that the yard very very gradually (like you need a level to see it) moves uphill as you move back toward the property. So I was telling him that the swale path would be deeper at one end than at the other to make the ground level but he said that wouldn't work because the deeper end would fill with stuff (which, like you, I want.)

He was, at first, concerned that I was going to run one of the pipes for rainwater overflow from the upper property directly down the path but I am not planning that. (That pipe will go to a deeper, dedicated infiltration basin.) I just want to start capturing the water at the highest part of the yard and slow it down. Last year it raced across the yard (well, there were no plants in it) and we had a mini racing creek for a few days. I want to start soaking the water in higher so it will last long.

I think I have him convinced to let me dig down about 8-12 inches and mulch the path heavily and then let things break down. Now we are going back and forth on what to do with the dirt I have pulled out of there and where berms should go and how he feels about berms (I had no idea - LOL.)
 
Tracy Wandling
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Location: Sunshine Coast, BC
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hugelkultur forest garden fungi trees books chicken bee
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Oh, isn't it fun when two minds are working together. I have the same kind of fun here.

So, yes, even if the top of the land around the swale isn't 'even', if you get the bottom as level as possible, it will help greatly in getting that water to spread evenly; although, as many will tell you soon (I'm sure) you really want your swale to be on contour to be fully effective. But if your aim is to have a path in a particular place, which isn't on contour, then making the bottom as level as possible is the next best thing.

Your hubby may be having the same cognitive problem with swales that my man had/has - envisioning them as 'water channels' to take water from one place to another, rather than as a means to slow water that is running down a slope, or across the landscape, and putting it into the soil. Not sure why he worries about the swale filling with 'stuff' . . . but, I know how hard it can be to change one's way of looking at things from the 'conventional' to the 'permacultural'. Also, I think that the chips and 'stuff' will hold water longer, but won't affect the even soaking of the water into the soil. So, the stuff in the swale being uneven isn't really an issue. Between rainfall and you walking on the path, the stuff will level out anyway.

Maybe you could use the soil that comes out of the swale and put it on the down side of the swale as a small berm to plant in (that's the general permaculture way, as swales are often used as tree planting systems). This will help in soaking in water, and whatever you plant in there will be very happy. Otherwise, generally try to build your berms as 'on contour' as possible to gain more of that slowing-down-water effect.

Fun, ain't it?!
 
Posts: 144
Location: Sacramento, CA
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The goal is not to create a river, you don't want the water flowing along the swale as that will undercut and collapse it. That is why they are cut along the contour of the land. That is the ideal, the reality is you are going to have some flow because that rock/tree is in the way or you get tired, etc.

Starting high with small swales to slow the water is exactly the right idea.

Wood chips are fine as long as you have the depth behind the swale high enough to catch the largest likely rainfall or you risk having them wash out in a big storm. Of course, that is really just a guess since there isn't much of a way to calculate it accurately but figure your average rainfall over the surface area above a swale and you can come close enough.

And remember, perfection is the enemy of good enough!
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Thank you Tracy and Michael for continuing to help me learn about swales. It will be an ongoing process, I am sure. I am just trying to get as many holes/ditches/swales/paths/water features cut in as I can while the equipment is here as my body is too old and broken to do much more than dig a hole for plant anymore.  It's okay. I have other mad skills.

I just got hubby to walk the property with me so I can draw out a rough plan for when the Bobcat is here on Tuesday. He seems more in favor of basins, a.k.a. mini swales so perhaps doing more of those and fish tail swales will give us both more of what we want.

I want to go deep on a couple of the water catchment basins (2-3 feet?) Then fill it mostly with logs and chips and then top it with a few feet of dirt and just plant some native grasses there. So many ideas and I need to remember there is no way to get it all done at once and really, I wouldn't want to. The more I observe, the more I learn.

Thanks everyone for the information.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Cool. Yeah, big equipment is sooooo handy. We did the same thing - pack as much as we could into the time he was here! Moved some reeeealllly big rocks.

I think that you're plan is great: get that water there and keep it there, anyway you can. It's fun putting it all together, isn't it?

Here is a link to some videos on urban swales that I think you'll get some good info from. This couple is big into urban permaculture - Geoff Lawton did a video about their place. Anyway, here's the link, if you're interested: http://permaculturenews.org/2016/06/27/urban-swales/
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Tracy, thank you! Thank you for the video. I just started watching the first one and right away he was doing what I wanted to do, run the water off the roof through a wetlands feature of some kind before it moved elsewhere. Yes! Okay, back to the video but had to say thanks. This might help hubby understand more - seeing someone else do it rather than listening to me try to explain it.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Awesome! I thought they'd help. Sometimes even us wordsmiths just . . . don't have the words. Keep us posted!
 
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