Fireraven9(z5ManzanitaMtNM)May 18, 2002

Has anyone used swales to keep water on their land and prevent erosion? What do you plant in your swales? Do you use an A-frame or a bunyep to find the contour line when placing the swale? Any favorite materials to use in making the swale? Like dirt, rocks, straw or duff?


What potent blood hath modest May. - Ralph W. Emerson

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DanaHealer(z7b AL)

I am interested in swales too. I would really like to chat with some using them.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2002 at 10:34AM
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I don't know if this will work in your part of the country. But, many times I have designed swales into the perimeter of rural/country landscapes. The swales were simple dug depressions (usually done with a tiller) the width of a customer's lawn mower blade and just deep enough so the lawn mower could be run on top of the swale without cutting the white clover I planted in the swales. These swales served two purposes. 1) Captured and held rain water and 2)the clover plantings helped greatly to keep rabbits and deer fed and out of the gardens during the growing season.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2002 at 1:32PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

g'day fireraven9,

we use swales and we use a bunyip (if i recall that is a water level device?), to find the contours. currently we use rows of slashed grass and ripping furrows to act as swales. if i had a grader blade for the tractor i would cut some swales that way as well. we have planted our food trees along the contours and then connect each well mulched tree with a line of slashed grass.

the slashed grass being blady grass doesn't break down very fast so it is ideal for this purpose, also holds a lot of moisture underneath it. you could also use grasses like lemon grass to create swales by planting them close together and in 2 staggered rows this will block run off debris and hold the flow of water.

we sort of favour the ripple effect with swales in stead of building large single swales, also our swales being of a somwaht temporary (be good for a couple of years) allows us to renew the swales on different contour lines later on.

mail len

lens garden page

    Bookmark   May 19, 2002 at 4:24PM
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We have a moderate slope so we do use swales in some areas. There are places with obvious erosion and we do short stacked swales there. Rather than dig them in with a trencher or tiller (tiller does work for that) we have begun using strawbales stacked end to end (on contour laid out with a bunyip) to catch the water and the eventually silt up and turn into a little swale of dirt rather than straw. Plants (from seeds wash down hill) grow in the uphill side and water catches there to water them. This also works well if the bales are buried and allowed to catch water. We do have a few traditional dug earth swales where the erosion was really bad. They have made a big difference in the soil loss and they have filled with plants.

What potent blood hath modest May. - Ralph W. Emerson

    Bookmark   May 19, 2002 at 9:30PM
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mike_stubbs(8, Bastrop, TX)

Hi all, another rookie here. I have a large supply of wood chippings/sawdust that has been sitting for a few years available. My thought has been to put them out as low spreader dams across my front lawn. They would start out slowing down the water flow and everntually silt up and catch water and nutrients and seeds. I am using my front yard as a wildflower meadow and can't afford to water a lot.
Does this seem to do the same job as a swale? Does it seem like a good idea?
Mike Stubbs
Central Texas

    Bookmark   May 20, 2002 at 11:49AM
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Mike, I went to a mini-workshop that suggested doing just that. Duff and woodchip swales will silt in and the water will be slowed and soak in too. The focus of the whole workshop was forest thinning (with fire suppression there is way too much fuel load) and the PC part dealt with what to do with thinning after the trees are cut and the small ones and branches are chipped into mulch. The idea was laying chipped wood swales along the countors in the thinned woods to keep any rain that falls on the land and allow it to soak in. Paths in the woods that are not on countor can be made of chips as well and these will not silt up as much and will allow the flow of moisture beneath them and the earth will retain its vitality and not become compacted. All this would be good in a meadow too!

What potent blood hath modest May. - Ralph W. Emerson

    Bookmark   May 20, 2002 at 1:01PM
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seraphima(z4 AK)

I've been doing a lot of planting on slopes, and have been making little cachement swales for each plant above and around them. This is not instead of a large scale system of swales, but rather to develop little microclimates for each bush too.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2002 at 6:59PM
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Kathy_KY(z6 KY)

Sorry guys, I've been trying to figure this out by reading your posts here in an effort to avoid having to ask, but, well, um . . . what are swales?


    Bookmark   June 5, 2002 at 2:06PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

g,day kathy,

swales are used to control water, in short that is how i would put it. they are usually constructed along the contours of the land, they can be permanent affairs like using a continual furrow with the soil mounded up on the lower side, or they can be less permanent as in using rows of mowen grass, or ripping furrows another way to construct more permanent ones is by planting rows of tall tufting type grasses ie.,. lemon grass etc.,. and the debri that normally flows with the water clogs between the grass tufts and acts as a swale.

they are used like this to stop water from simply flowing straight down a slope into a catchment and away from your property. i have swales constructed of rows of slashed grass and ripping furrows, in recent rains they all worked well, causing more water to soak in to the underground where i need it.

in short you could say they act like a dam. hope i explained that well enouigh.

mail len

lens garden page

    Bookmark   June 5, 2002 at 3:42PM
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Kathy_KY(z6 KY)

Thanks len.

The reason I ask is I was wondering if this was something that I could use in our yard. The way they design water irrigation in our area is kinda crazy. When it rains, the water is actually directed toward the house to a well of sorts that is located under the house. Then there is a sump pump in the basement that "shoots" this water outside of the house.

I don't know what they were thinking when they built our house because they didn't complete the design. Typically, this water would then be directed via underground pipes to an area away from the home. This part of the design was not completed in our home so the water just shoots out of the house, is re-absorbed into the ground, and ends up back in the tank that the pump then shoots out again. And around and around it goes.

Also as a result, that section of our yard is always a swamp-land in the spring.

I would like to harness this water for a useful purpose. We get tons of rain in the spring but have a relatively dry season through the summer and fall. Our backyard does flow in a slight downgraded manner.

I wonder if I could create swales for this purpose.


    Bookmark   June 6, 2002 at 9:44AM
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Kathy_KY(z6 KY)

Ooops. I hit the Submit Message button too soon. I meant to add that our backyard has no vegitation whatsoever at this point so it's a blank canvas just waiting to be created. All suggestions are much appreciated.


    Bookmark   June 6, 2002 at 9:48AM
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I don't think you can call what we have a "swale" because it's too small-scale: our food forest is growing in a tiny downtown backyard. But I made a variation on the "hugelkultur" suggestion from Gaia's Garden that has been remarkably successful at keeping water in the soil- and the materials will never be so abundantly available as when you are establishing a new garden.

- Dug a 2-ft deep trench
- When I peeled back the sod to turn my lawn into a garden, I used the sod to form a foot-high wall around the trench
- Filled the trench with the debris from my pruning activities- branches, twigs and brush
- Allowed the trench to become thoroughly waterlogged during a week-long rainy period
- Topped the soggy brush pile with 2 inches of topsoil and compost, leaving a thin perimeter bare so that rainwater would easily soak in forming a "moat" that moistened the soil from beneath

Voila- a perfect potato patch (just top with seed potatoes and enough soil to cover them) that is constantly moist although I virtually never water it. And it's very attractive too- a sort of raised bed look that doesn't leave a swampy effect, especially important for controlling the ostrich-sized mosquitoes we get in these parts. Peanuts and cilantro grow beautifully in it too - Gaia's Garden suggests blueberries but my blueberries are under the cedar for the acid so I haven't tried that.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2002 at 11:08AM
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microfarmer(z9 Sac-o-tomato)

Well...I use a swale too and it does control runoff...but I use mine to keep the POURING spring rains from making everything soggy. I use it to channel the flow of water off my property (I have no where to store the water) so that it doesn't cut it's own course. I may extend my seasonal creek (if you could call it that...they call it a French drain out here) up the swale but my wife just wants lawn, not rocks.

Here's some pics of my "swale":





    Bookmark   June 10, 2002 at 7:05PM
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Richard_inNM(8 New Mexico)

Ok, now I feel like I should point out the difference between a swale and a drain. The point of a swale is to catch water, and allow it infiltrate the soil along a contour rather than let it run off downhill. Len said it well when he said that they are more or less a dam, I would just add that the water is held in the ground rather than on top of it as in most dams. A swale is dead level on contour, and as water always finds a level, unless it breaks the bank of the swale somewhere it won't go past the swale. A drain is higher at one end than the other, so naturally water will use it to flow downhill.
Swales don't direct water away from your property Microfarmer... if that is what is happening then you do indeed have a drain.
I think that the main use of swales is to catch enough water to reestablish trees on cleared land, which in the long term is the best way to prevent erosion.
Kathy in Kentucky, your situation sounds like a swale might save your pump from wearing out prematurely, but depending on how exactly your tank is fed ( I mean, does ground water get into the drains that fill the well, as well as runoff from the house?)and how much rainfall you have and how well drained your soils are, and how far your swale is from the tank, it might just slow it down a little bit, I'm not sure. You may actually want a drain to direct the water away from the house altogether, perhaps to a swale in another location, perhaps downhill of the house where you might plant fruit trees etc.? Definitely plant up your swales wherever they are I reckon.
Jennifer in Canada, you sound like you've developed the temperate answer to the banana circle replete with cilantro and peanuts. Very nice.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2004 at 8:51PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

we're wrapped in the rip swales we used here the results with all that extra moisture underground is nothing short of brilliant. rip swales are far less work and are not a permanent change in your landscape. we have been madly planting trees along the contours as well in time these will do the job of the swales. not sure about wells but all this water being directed underground has done nothing for our bore capacity, mostly i think aquafa water is refurbished from sources elsewhere this most likely will be very dificult to determine. but lack of trees on the higher hills to our west are most likely why our aquafa isn't refurbishing even though in this area we have had the best january rain for 10 years.



    Bookmark   February 9, 2004 at 2:04PM
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botanicals4u(zone 6 WV)

Is a swale the same as what my husband always called a 'berm' in the construction field? Whatever it is we want it! Living on the side of a mountain is fine usually, but in heavy rain I resent all the good soil we worked so hard to make washing down into the bottom lands.
While I'm at it does anyone have any good ideas about what to do with used kitty litter (clay type)? I wanted to build a berm with it to keep the water here, DH wants to throw it out, but only because we can't agree on a use for it.

Carol (who has been known to go out in the remains of a hurricane to dam up the rivulets washing our soil away)

    Bookmark   February 26, 2004 at 2:46PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

just my thoughts carol,

if you do swales or similar they will interupt the flow of water down the slope but may not stop your top soil eroding between the swales this could be dependent on how heavy the rain fall. to me it sounds more like you may need to consider some sort of terracing where you want to garden at least anyway, and use swales on other areas to help get water down below.

just as a trial why not do a run using hay/straw bales as your swale, you will most likely need to put a stake through the middle of each bale to help hold it against the water pressure, remember but that this method won't begin to work until you have a good debris build up along the bottom of the bails or until the grass has started to grow along those edges. push the bales up tight together. you could create a debris build up by spreading leaves or grass clippings etc along the base of the bales on the top side.

for the longer term do any tree plantings along the contours you can then build up rows of mulch and other garden debris between and along the topside of the trees these will be come sort of permanent swales as well as provide continual breakdown of organic matter as nutrients and to help build your soil structure.


mail len

lens garden page

    Bookmark   February 28, 2004 at 10:54AM
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