A Swale of a Tale: The Plan

We are excited. This year, we are going to dig our very first swale and plant fruit trees, nut trees and fruit bushes. A beautiful and edible forest right in our own back yard, perched atop a swale that will collect the rain that falls.

First, what is a swale? In a nutshell, a swale is a ditch on contour with the dirt piled on the downhill side to create a berm. Then trees, shrubs, etc are planted in the downhill side of the berm. The swale will allow us to catch rainwater and use it instead of watching it run straight off our property.

Below is an example of a typical swale. In addition to the producers (fruit, nut, etc) we will be planting support plants.


Now, our property does a pretty good job of keeping a lot of rainwater. I’ve mentioned the moat in a previous post. Our fedge gets a pretty fair amount of rainwater and we have plans to plant little pockets of trees in other areas of the property where the water stands for a day or so after the rain. But, it could always do a better job and we plan to help it along a little bit with this swale.

Step 1: Survey the land using A-Frame level or transit
We made ours (as you can no doubt tell). A more accurate tool is a transit which is used to measure horizontal angles. Surveyors use them and over the years they have advanced quite a bit.


Step 2: Hire excavator
This is the tricky part. The first excavator who came out and took a look at our plans basically told me that the neighbors would hate the way it looked and that we were pretty much just digging an ugly ditch. “Thank you for your opinion sir, we won’t be in touch.”

What he didn’t quite grasp was that we know that at first it will look a little odd, maybe even a bit unsightly, but we are planting long term perennial and edible trees and shrubs. He didn’t “get” that we will be keeping rainwater on our land and preventing at least a small amount of erosion. Would he have done the work? Sure. But his heart wouldn’t have been in it.

The second excavator who came out, while very nice, gave me an estimate that was 6 times what (in my opinion) the cost should be. “Thank you for the estimate sir, but we’ll have to pass.”

So what did we do next? We called Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture. He came out and took a look at our contour markings with a transit and, while we weren’t spot on, we were close. After chatting with him for awhile, we decided that we would have him out again, with an excavator he recommended, to install the swales.

The image below is Bill’s design of our property. The plan is to put in three swales with a long-term, down-the-road plan of adding a pond.

6 inch topo with Bill's design sketching

Step 3: Start digging!

Step 4: Plant into downhill side of berm
What are we going to plant? Oak trees, Almond, Walnut, Chestnut, Cherry, Apple, Pear, Hickory and anything else we can find on the cheap.

Step 4: Wait for the rain

The work starts bright and early on Wednesday and may continue into Thursday. We are planning for three swales per the above design, but we’ll have to see just how far we get.

Stay tuned for pictures and video!


5 responses to “A Swale of a Tale: The Plan

  1. It was the greatest pleasure to meet you both and your kids and family. You guys have done an amazing thing today for all the right reasons and I know you will be successful in your plantings and other land adventures this year and it will be so exciting to watch what develops over the years! You guys inspire me and you have the gumption to do this important work! Thank you for having me as part of the experience I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot from your land design! Please contact me if you guys ever want to come visit MWP or need any support or hands to work while you implement your design. What a great family you have and I feel privileged to have met you and know you. Sincerely, Matt (Bill’s apprentice)

    • Thank you so much Matt! We enjoyed meeting and working with you as well and cannot wait to get over to MWP and check out the set up and help out on a workday.

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