Swales: Reframing a Problem as an Opportunity and Cultivating Love (Part 8)

by Angela, with additional comments and edits and headings by David

Permaculture Principle #1: Observe and Interact

Initially there was a “problem”…too much water in the landscape. And we wanted to get rid of some of this water so we could expand our growing season on better drained soil. However, permaculture teaches that “the problem is the solution.”  That sounds like a Zen koan, but it encourages people to take a bigger picture view, to look for more integrated solutions, to see different perspectives, and to notice that some problems can be turned into resources. Instead of just thinking of how to get rid of something (the throw away culture), you start to think about how you might make productive use of what you have. As Bill Mollison famously said to someone, “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency!”

And so we tried to see the water not as a “problem” to be exported, but rather as a resource. Brian has taught that it’s more a matter of working with the resource in a way that maximizes it’s many attributes through gently shaping it’s expressions in the land. At the same time I’ve learned about more than just the water in our property. We looked at all the relationships between the water and the other aspects of the land-life.

Permaculture Principle #2: Catch and Store Energy

Water carries nutrients. To divert or shunt it off the land quickly we would lose out on the nutrients it carries. Making swales in a more winding path through the property slows it down and retains more of the nutrients, distributing them through the soil-life-web and to the plants.

The swales spread and sink the water as it moves through the land. We have intensely compacted clay soil here just under the top soil. In breaking up some of that clay and creating sink holes and hugelkultur, we help the water sink below the topsoil thus giving better drainage for the growing beds. At the same time that water is then stored in the spongy hugelkultur and sinkholes (dry wells) to be reabsorbed by the beds above when there is  less precipitation (summer).

This is also the place where we can discuss the fact that we rented a fossil-fuel powered excavator to dig our swales.  It took just a few hours and 3.4 gallons of diesel fuel to carve out the swale ditch and move the soil. How much time and energy would it have taken to do all of this work by hand? We considered this an appropriate use of available technology.

In general, the best use for non-renewable resources and technology should be to establish a system, rather than to maintain or harvest it.
– David Holmgren

Permaculture Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Details

We’ve learned about the elevation changes in our landscape and the soil compositions in the area we worked. It’s so interesting to see the color and texture changes as the ditch for the swales was excavated. It made a lot more sense why the top soil was so soggy for much of the year. The water would sink down through the top soil and hit that compacted clay and would just sit there being held in the topsoil unable to sink deeper. Or it would just slowly sheet over the clay layer, through the top soil and eventually go to the low point (becoming a pond in the really wet season).

Having access to a topographical map of the elevation contour lines on our property, as well as the adjacent properties, allowed us to see where water comes from in addition to the direct rain water from above our land. Where the elevation is higher next door, we could assume that we “inherit” some of the neighbors’ water. We took this into account when determining where to put the swales and the hugelkultur.

Permaculture Principle #8 and #10: Integrate Rather than Segregate; Use and Value Diversity

Curves. Almost all swales are curving in shape, because they follow the curving contours of the earth. To me curves are more interesting, energizing and beautiful than straight lines. Though this might seem like a trivial feature, it is super important to my soul. Since I started changing our straight lined boxed beds to curving raised beds I’ve felt a surge of energy and a change in my mood. This gives me lots more motivation to get out there and work (play), in the garden.

Permaculture Principle #11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Swales create more edges. There is more diversity of life on all levels at the edges, where one aspect meets and relates to a different aspect. Swales increase relationships between organisms, land and plants.

Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small and Slow Solutions

Swales would be an excellent system in a dryer climate where you want to maximize the water if it is scarce. Living here in the northwest where water is abundant, you might think swales would not be so useful. Some of the points outlined above show that there are many ways that swales can be of benefit in any climate (And remember last summer in this area? The 3 to 4 months in a row with no rain!!).

Whether too wet, or too dry, the idea is to slow and to catch, to sink and to spread the water that does come, to maximize the productive use of the water that does come.

Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Versatility. The concept of swale systems is applicable to any size plot of land. From many acres to the smallest urban yard.

A discussion about succession planting was an important part of our workshop. At first when Brian suggested that the berm part of the swales be planted in perennials – especially nitrogen fixers, trees and bushes – Angela was afraid that would take up too much of the space she envisioned for annual food plants and that they might cast shade on where the annual beds would be. But over time, listening to Brian explain, she began to understand the idea of succession planting and to think in terms of a series of stages using different plantings that protect and build the soil…. That we can plant things with the intention and expectation that they will serve a purpose and then be removed later to be replaced by other types of planting. This is how natural systems develop, and we can speed up and improve our systems by intentionally and intelligently using this strategy.

Intimacy with and affection for the land. This might be the most cherished outcome of this project of swale making. Through every aspect of this project we’ve gotten to know our land in ways that make it come alive for us. Intimacy comes through working with it, struggling over it, being confused by the problems that crop up, physically toiling over it. Asking for outside help from others and engaging in community-building through the construction process….Touching, smelling and breathing the soil life. Imagining our future together…Making something of beauty with it….All the ways that you develop an intimate connection with someone or something, have been happening with the land in this swale making project.

We plan to keep a photo journal of the swale system here through the seasons and over the coming years. We’ll post updates on Transition Whatcom occasionally.


3 comments on “Swales: Reframing a Problem as an Opportunity and Cultivating Love (Part 8)

  1. Reblogged this on Partner the Water and commented:
    So sometimes I’m a little slow…after reaching out to the “group mind” in my neighborhood, it only just occurred to me to search within the WordPress community for other permaculture approaches to the challenge of too much water. Here’s a brilliant application of permaculture principles in the use of swales to catch and conserve excess water….

  2. Thank you for posting this…I am dealing with the challenge of abundance on my property, too. Still in the early stages, bookmarking this site to watch for further wisdom! Appreciation!

  3. […] For  examples of water-storing earthworks, and the principles behind them, click here […]

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