The swale is a super helpful tool in your permaculture design toolbox. It looks great, provides a whole new area for permaculture and garden design, rehydrates your landscape, and revives your soil. The swale is the perfect irrigation setup and no-dig garden in one.
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A Permaculture Swale Is No Ordinary Swale
Permaculture swales are different from what other people may refer to as a “swale”.
We need to be particular about the wording on this one. It’s not just a swale, it’s a permaculture swale. When others talk about swales, they generally refer to a diversion drain, a swale with fall to drain water away.
A permaculture swale is dead level. It has no fall at all. If you have water in your permaculture swale, it doesn’t run one way or the other, it is of similar depth at either end of the swale. This is why permaculture swales are referred to as being “on contour”, which I’ll explain later.
What’s So Good About Permaculture Swales?
1. You Can Manage Hydration
Because your swale is on contour, you can position your spillway anywhere along the swale.
What is “on contour”?
On contour means that the swale is positioned along contour lines. Contour lines are lines in the landscape of a similar elevation. As this website mentions: “If you walk along a contour line, you neither gain nor lose elevation.”
They use the beach as an example. If you walk along the line where the ocean meets the land, you are at sea level. If you continue walking along this line, you are on contour, a level line. If you walk into the ocean, you are at a different elevation, a different contour line.
Positioning your swales on contour means they are level. The water level is the same at either end of the swale. There is no rise or fall of the water.
The beauty of this?
You can position your spillway anywhere along the swale. If you find the water spilling into an area that is getting too wet, you can move the spillway so it hydrates another area. You can move your spillway at any time.
2. You Can Manage Fertility Movement
Besides managing water movement, you can also manage the movement of fertility across your landscape with a swale.
Water is a major mover of nutrients. As you’re moving water across your landscape with swales and spillways, you are also moving nutrients, fertility, across your landscape.
There is some debate over whether or not to have swales. Mainly because it is a significant mechanical action on your land, and it takes a lot of energy to build.
Swales are definitely intensive to build, but if you have poor soil, they are invaluable. Mainly because of the movement of fertility. They help you speed up the process of rebuilding your soil and helping it recover.
How to Build a Swale
I love swales because they help us work on contour. They also create areas you can work with. When you put a swale in, all of a sudden you have a redesigned area with edges – swales often spark a whole new design in my mind!