Swales Update: A Pulse of Snow and Rain Offer Good Chance to Observe and Interact


Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship to nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration, repertoire and patterns. It is not something that is generated in isolation, but through continuous and reciprocal interaction with the subject.

– David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability


Getting about a foot of snow a week ago, then a few more inches this last weekend, followed by rain today offered a good opportunity to employ Permaculture Principle #1 with our swales: Observe and Interact.  Above, see the sun glistening on the snow that has blanketed our raised beds and berms between the swales.  Below, see one of our swales iced over.


Timeout for building a snowman (Permaculture Principle #12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change):


From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton

From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton


In PatternDynamics, we call this big influx of snow and rain a Pulse event. “The Pulse Pattern signifies  the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges.” – See more at: http://www.patterndynamics.com.au/patterns/rhythm/pulse/#sthash.wVQZx4Sf.dpuf

Since installing our swales last summer, we have been mostly Observing how they’re behaving through the seasons.  Brian Kerkvliet advised that we might need to tweak them at some point for fine tuning.  In our last Swale post, Angela ended with this comment: “I’m excited to see how the swales work and to know that we can change them in subtle ways as the needs arise.”

Over time we have so far observed that the spillways at the end of each swale have not yet come into use.  The swales had not yet filled to the point of overflowing into the spillways.  We’ve been concerned that perhaps we need to dig the spillways down a little lower so that the swales could drain a bit, but we’ve been taking the Small and Slow Solutions approach (Principle #9), to just keep observing over time (for now).

Time to check in with the snowman again, and Observe how he’s reacting to a little bit of warmth. Our friend Sus observes: “This guy has so much class in all phases of life. I see him ecstatically surrendering to the sun.”


After the big pulse of snow started to melt…followed by more snow, and then more rain…we were eager to see again today how the swales are responding. For the first time, I noticed that the spillway of the 2nd swale has been operationalized! It is now spilling out into the yard below – with puddles beginning to form in the yard (where without the swales we would have a huge pond right now).  The first swale, however (pictured below), is still not emptying into it’s spillway.  Instead it seems to be overflowing at the other end (on the west side closest to the fence).  That area has the most clay soil, and water is pooling on the ground near our peach tree between the two swales (peach tree to the right in the photo below).


This next photo below shows the spillway from the first swale where water is not flowing. It has finally become clear to me that it is time to follow our Observations with some Interactions.


But first lets go back in time a few days and check back in on our snowman…ah, devolution. I think this is the Order/Chaos Pattern at play.


And now its finally time to go to work.  Going just a shovel length deep, I carved a deeper winding path in the spillway, and bingo! The water started to flow!


I used some of the soil dug from here to build up a little more berm on the west end of the swale where it was overflowing.  It will be interesting to continue the Observation tomorrow and in the days ahead to see the effect of my actions today.


It was very satisfying to see the water now flowing between the swales.


*All photos in this post by Angela (except the first snowman by David).  Snowman constructed by David


3 comments on “Swales Update: A Pulse of Snow and Rain Offer Good Chance to Observe and Interact

  1. robertcurris says:

    Nice work. OK so you posted in early March and now it’s the end of June. I always liked gardening magazines because they never go out of date … the wheel of the years goes on turning!

    Anyhow, I’m in Ireland and contemplating a series of swales and banks (can’t get the hang of the word ‘berm’). My problem is twofold: near constant rain in NW Ireland and a strong west-sloping field. I’m caught between the standard permaculture advice to hold the water (slow / spread / sink) and need (?) to drain it away quickly. Will swales merely make the ground wetter for longer? or will I end up with a better, more productive field. They WILL give me loads of edge I don’t have now.

    p.s.We rarely have enough snow for snowmen.

    • davidm58 says:

      Hi Robert, thanks for your comment. I don’t want to try to advise you on your situation, but keep in mind what Toby Heminway said in “Gaia’s Garden”: “Swales aren’t just for deserts. I was once skeptical that swales could be useful in my Northwest climate…I’ve found that letting water concentrate and soak in via swales will store it in the soil deeper and longer than if the water simply spreads across level ground. I’m sold on swales.”
      In our situation, in this first year we are still experiencing a lot of wet ground between the swales, but we expect the situation to improve over time as the system gets more established and as we continue to improve the soil. The problem we’re dealing with is a heavy and deep clay layer – the backhoe was not able to punch through the clay layer on one side of the swale where we put in sink holes.
      The good news is that water was contained in the swales and this year we did not experience the winter ponds in our backyard that we used to get on a regular basis after heavy rains.
      Another thing to keep in mind is that the berms (“banks”) you create with the material dug out of the trench gives you raised beds you can plant in. Also that the swales catch and store additional materials and nutrients that otherwise might be washed off your property.

      See this video:

      • robertcurris says:

        Thanks David. We get 4/5 feet of rain a year, generally spread over the 12 months. We NEVER get a rain-free month. I just need to have some grounds for a decision before I start digging!! Mind you, the creation of some banks / berms will raise the growing surface, as you suggest. Here in Ireland, we have what are known as ‘lazy-beds’ Basically similar to the beds Fukuoka uses: double reach beds (about 3-4 feet wide) built up using the soil from the paths between, but flattened again with harvesting and re-digging in winter/early spring and planted again with potatoes before St Patrick’s Day (March 17). Ain’t tradition a great thing?

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