Making Swales Pt. 1: Managing Water on Urban Property

Three years ago we bought our first house on a 1/2 acre lot.  We chose this size of a lot in order to grow food and keep chickens. It’s been so beautiful to get to know this place and we started out working in the existing garden beds and just getting to know the property for a while without doing any major changes.

During these 3 years, we have continued to notice places where water collects and does not drain well. Because of this, the sunniest place on our lot is not good for gardening until late in the gardening season.

Having lived for a time at Inspiration Farm, we noticed how Brian Kerkvliet effectively uses swales as a way to “catch, store, sink and spread” the energy and nutrient resource we call water.  Brian offered to help us create swales on our property to deal with the soggy earth so we can make more land available to grow food.

This blog series will be about our process as we get ready to sculpt the earth to create better drainage for gardening and as a way to deal with the excess water. It is written primarily by my wife [and head gardener] Angela, with a few comments and edits thrown in by me.

The first step has been living here for several years mainly observing and interacting with the land as it is [employing David Holmgren’s First Principle of Permaculture]. I’ve made use of the established garden beds. While the soil drains better there, there is barely enough sun reaching these beds for a thriving garden. Here are the existing beds…lots of shade here:

I noticed that several more hours of sun a day reached another part of the property and I proceeded to turn the grass into a new garden space. That location seemed a bit higher in elevation but it turned out to be wetter. I’ve had to wait until June for the soil to be drained enough to plant. That was OK for summer to early fall plantings, but that’s rather limited.

In the meantime, we have been wondering how so much water seems to end up in our land. When it rains hard we get a pond about 20 feet in diameter and up to 10 inches deep. It can take a couple days to drain. We talked to the previous owners and learned that they had put in a drain for this water and that connects into the curtain drain around the house. This then connects to the city drain at the street. We also learned some about the history of the property and some of what nearby neighbors have been doing with their water management. The properties adjacent to us on either side both have substantial buildings (less ground to absorb water), and the elevation lines appear to tip the water towards our property. (We might want a pond at some point but not ready for that yet).

There have been many times in these 3 years that I have wandered the property looking at everything, discussing with David what we might add, what we might take away and where everything goes…..Optimal locations for chickens, berries, compost, fruit trees, new shed, greenhouse, clothes line, croquet course, tent for guests, where does the sun shine through the day, what direction does the wind predominantly blow, etc etc…I’ve gotten better at letting the questions hang without being answered immediately, just living with them as we continue to work the gardens and get to know the feel of the earth at this spot.

After this 3 years of observing, interacting and mulling….we’ve decided we are ready to take Brian up on his offer to create swales here.

Next post I will write about what we are doing to get ready for the earth sculpting event. If you are interested in participating in this event see our event announcement HERE.

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