It’s a Whale of a Swale! (actually quite small)

Since spending some time in Damascus a little over a year ago, I have become more and more sensitized to the attitudes and use policies surrounding water in the different cities and agricultural systems I am involved in.  Although I started my life in a desert as part of a family ranching business that was heavily dependent on rainfall, I never worried about going thirsty from a lack of available drinking water.

In the years since I left home to continue studying international agriculture and development, I have constantly been reminded of how the world depends on clean and available water.  Managing and protecting the water supplies for direct human consumption and agricultural uses can already prevent or directly cause bloody conflict around the world.  We must have both food and water to survive, but all of our food, whether plant or animal based, requires water to grow and produce as well.

With all of this in mind, I found myself in Copan Ruinas, Honduras in the middle of a conversation about permaculture and reversing desertification with Nathan Hale, the most excited-about-sustainable-living musician/songwriter/missionary/bamboo farmer/community builder I had ever met. He turned me on to the work of Geoff Lawton and his work, Greening The Desert.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is where I first found out about using swales to control erosion, improve soils, and even, someday, change the weather!  A swale is a ditch that is put in on contour for the purpose of holding water and allowing it to soak down into the soil instead of running off to either cause erosion or flow into a larger body of water downstream.

So this is my first swale, located a uphill and on east side of parking and loading area in front of the Heart Diamond HQ.  This soil left in this area is a red sand that has been stripped of any kind of organic layer from years of car traffic without water or cultivation of a cover crop.  There is also relatively steep grade that contributes to the removal of any plant matter or debris that might accumulate over a growing season.

Looking at the grade and how quickly the little rain that falls runs off down stream, I decided to install a swale to slow the water down and increase water availability to the plants in the area. I will also be planting at least two nitrogen fixers, clover and alfalfa, on the swale to stabilize it.  I have also seen and read that trees and shrubs are essential to use with swales to prevent salting and destabilization of the soil as the water that will now pass through the soil instead of over the surface can leech out or dissolve minerals that were previously stable.  With that in mind, there are some pomegranate, fig and maybe apples on the way to help out.

Here is the site just after I staked it off along the contour using almost invisible stakes and an A-frame level (homemade a la my time in the Peace Corps):

Here is the A-frame level, the definition of high concept but low tech:

And Yes, I did use an old padlock for my plumb.  You can see the black mark in the middle of the cross piece that marks level when the string/padlock comes to rest.

Next I dug out the line from stake to stake with the pick you see behind the A-frame in the last picture.

Facing the first line cut in with a pick

Notice from downhill and looking straight on, it looks mostly like a straight line, which is a good sign since it is supposed to be level on contour for holding, not diverting water flow.

Next, I went over it with a shovel to level out the bottom as well as to soften the uphill lip of the ditch so that I can plant my cover crop there, as well.

Here you can see the angles a little better from a lower perspective:

Swale at Ground Level

From there, I smoothed and softened up all of the surfaces with a rake, broadcast about 3 cups of the mixture of 50/50 alfalfa/clover seed that I mixed up and then raked over one more time for a little soil over the top.

Alfalfa and Clover seeds mixed before planting

Finally, I scattered part of a VERY grassy bale of alfalfa hay over the top of my newly planted seeds to keep in moisture and to protect them from birds and whatever else wanted to eat them and then I watered sparingly.

Swale wide shot with Seed and Mulch

And there you have it!  A brand new, baby swale.

The mulch might be too thick, the uphill slope might be too steep, but it’s a start and I learned a lot.

I checked this morning and some of the seeds are starting to poke through under the mulch.  I’ll update in another week or so, hopefully with pictures of a river of tiny green sprouts.

As for resources if you want to read more on this topic, the most important one so far has been this book:

Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
Reading through it is a bit like staring at the sun or drinking from a fire hose because it has the content density of a textbook, but it is still the best source for permaculture strategies that I have found or heard of.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading and feel free to chime in with suggestions.

Next up…Drinking water, Bamboo, or Chickens…we’ll see!


About ERay

Capoeirista, Gardener, and Development Practitioner but a cowboy way down deep.
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