A Tale of Two Swales

Whirlwind does not even begin to describe the past two days. With a team ranging from novice to expert, we learned a great deal, and now have two gorgeous swales on our property.

Our first team member arrived by 8AM–a 7,500lb excavator with a 36″ bucket.

Ray and I worked with the team from Midwest Permaculture, Bill Wilson and his intern Matt, to mark out the contour lines for the first swale so that Hal, our excavator operator, could start digging.

We used a transit and stadia. Once we finished marking the first swale, we double checked the flags to make sure we were on the money.  A “measure twice, cut once” method.

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Next, it was time for Hal to break ground. We were using a 36″ bucket with no teeth in order to pack the ground down tightly once the earth was removed. It had rained a few days prior so the ground was soft without being soggy and fairly easy to work with.

The plan was to make a 5′ wide, 18″ deep swale with a sloped back end, so it was important for someone to work with Hal to get the depth and angle of the back cut just right.

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It was oddly thrilling watching the excavator tear up our back yard. It was almost like I had a birds eye view of the work. All I could think about was how  beautiful it was going to be 2, 5, 30 years down the road.


About midday we stopped for lunch and one of our younger team members came out to help operate the excavator.



Matt, Melissa, Hal and Bill (left to right)

At the start of the day we were looking at a plan to put three swales in. Once we actually started measuring, the number went up to five. We were able to clearly determine the contour lines of two but, with all the irregular dips and dives of our land, the other three seemed to change every time we used the stadia.

Ray, Bill and I were standing together watching the excavator progress. I was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that was ahead of us and, as if reading my mind, Bill looked at me and said, “You know, a year in the life of a tree is nothing. You don’t have to do it all right now.”

He was right. Ray and I were so anxious to get the land working for us and to start repairing the landscape that we were ignoring our own little alarm bells, “Danger! Danger! You are taking on too much at one time!”

We were so ready to get started that we were forgetting to stand back and observe the land. We knew when we started that we wanted to put a swale or two in on the NE side of the property because we could see the water pool, collect and flow through it every time it rained, but we really don’t know much about the NW side.

So, we made the decision to wait until we had a chance to observe the NW side before making any concrete plans. We needed to be reminded to practice permaculture which means applying “thoughtful observation” rather than “thoughtless labor” to our design systems.


Now our first two swales are in and we have our work cut out for us. We plan to cover crop with inoculated dutch white clover and then plant trees, shrubs, etc on the south side of the berm. We have 35 trees coming, but with more than 1000ft of swale…we’re going to need a lot more than that.

In the mean time…we will be anxiously watching the forecast for that next torrential downpour so we can see just how awesome our new water catchment system is.



6 responses to “A Tale of Two Swales

  1. I have had similar issues setting up contours on my property. We found out later it was user error with the equipment. The transit became unlevel every swivel. Lesson learned.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your progress in the future.

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