Having a Swale Holiday

Please pardon the permaculture pun.  And the alliteration.

I finally decided to break ground on the first true swale at Good Life Ranch. Most of our new pastures are devoid of trees, which is how most livestock farmers want them.  But trees are great!  Trees are windbreaks, food sources, shade sources, nutrient accumulators, solar-powered water pumps, mulch producers, and so many other things!  The trick is growing them in the open pasture and keeping the animals away from them until the trees are large enough to handle the impact and then keeping the period of impact short in duration.

swale is a tree-growing system.  It’s basically a trench with an uncompacted mound of soil on the downhill side.  The swale is constructed on contour, which means that it is all at the same level in the landscape.  This makes the water slow down and spread out rather than keeping going downhill.  The idea is that rainfall runoff fills the trench, soaks into the mound of soil, and then is utilized by the trees before they pump it back up to the atmosphere again.  The water is retained and used rather than running off so quickly.

I decided to put the swale in now due to the weather.  It’s been real warm so my tree seedlings have just now lost their leaves and gone dormant.  A few still have leaves on them, but they should be alright.  We’re also scheduled for about a week of rain and mild temperatures coming, so I thought that might ease any shock the trees experience.

We have a line of existing pine trees in our front pasture that serve as some shade when the livestock are in that paddock as well as a windbreak and noise barrier for the house from the road.  The existing trees don’t extend all the way across the field, so there’s a 200-yard gap.  In that 200-yard gap is a strong breeze, noise from the highway, and an eyesore in the deserted mobile homes across the road.  So that’s where my first attempt at a swale will go.


They’re hard to see, but the pink flags mark the level line across the field.

The first step in a swale after you decide generally where you want it to go is to find level.  I used a simple A-frame level I made from some PVC pipes.  Basically take 2 PVC pipes of exactly equal length, join them with a right-angle joint, and attach a 4-foot level to make the A.  If you attach the level with the PVC resting on a known level floor so that the level is level to start with, then you’re all set. By the way, I just won the contest I was having with myself to see how many times I could use the word  level in 1 sentence.  Now anything you set the legs of your A-frame on, you can find level.  So now you just move across the landscape marking each new level point with a flag.

Usually permaculturists hire big machinery to come in and create their swales.  Excavators, bulldozers, etc.  But this land isn’t steep – it’s almost level to start with – so I won’t need a very large trench or mound to contain the amount of water coming through.  I decided to try it with my tractor and a plow.

This is what I got:


Freshly-dug small swale.  Now it’s easier to see.

It’s not bad.  I think it will do the job.  Not perfect by any means, and I learned that plows don’t turn well.  For the record, this was my first time plowing anything.  For anything with more slope, I don’t think a tractor plow would work at all.  An excavator would definitely be the way to go there.

In the picture above, you can see some of the pots of the tree seedlings I’ve been growing ready to go.  What you can’t see, in the spaces in between, are lots of bare root seedlings that weren’t in pots.  I laid them out pretty equally spaced but in mixed formation.  The trees planted in this swale were: white spruce, white oak, red oak, apples, and thornless honey locust.  I will add willow staves from the trees lining the creek in the spring.  All of these trees have a purpose:

  • Spruce is an evergreen and as such will be photosynthesizing throughout the year.  It also provides a year-round windbreak and noise barrier.  It’s great bird habitat as well, and birds in the pasture help keep flies down.
  • Both oaks provide shade, acorns for the animals, mulch from fall leaf drop, and quality timber at the end of their lifespan.
  • The apples are just seedlings from the seeds I’ve saved from apples I’ve eaten, so they will most likely just be crabapples.  Doesn’t matter to the livestock, though.  All of the animals love to munch on apples.  The apple trees also provide leaf mulch and wood for smoking fish and bacon.
  • The honey locust provides sweet pods that the animals adore, high-quality leaf much, and dappled shade in which grass grows well.  As an added bonus, honey locust is a nitrogen-fixer that adds fertility to the soil.

Trees planted, cover crop ready to be spread.

The final step for now is planting a cover crop that will hopefully sprout first in the spring and provide competition for the grass seeds already in the soil as well as a nurse crop for the trees.  The mix I sowed consisted of 4 kinds of nitrogen-fixing clovers, turnips, kales, rape, and daikon radishes.  Those plants should cover the soil nicely.  If they don’t, then I’ll do some heavy weeding in the spring and replant then with something more vigorous like cowpeas.

Let’s see how this works!


It rained all last night, and the Swales did their job!

Swales fill up for the first time.

Swales fill up for the first time.

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