Go Dig a Swale!

A Permaculture Nugget

On-contour swales and berms help with water issues on this sloped forest garden land. Photo by Dennis.
On-contour swales and berms help with water issues on this sloped forest garden land. Photo by Dennis.

We’re offering several “permaculture nuggets” over the weeks leading up to the Permaculture Design Course. You can find the previous one, on Stacking Functions, right here, and the second, on Perennial Polycultures, here. Please enjoy!

Swale: a trench dug on contour for the purpose of holding water on the landscape.

Berm: a small ridge or wall of soil

Summertime on the rolling hills of Missouri can bring challenges to food-growers: it can get really hot and dry, and when the rains do come, the water can roll on down the hills, often taking precious topsoil with it.

A permaculturalist in Missouri – or anywhere else there might be hills – might say, “Go dig a swale!” and then “Berm it up!”

And that’s what we did this spring in the Sharin’ Abundance Forest Garden at Dancing Rabbit. We dug two long swales following the contour of the land to slow, stop, sink, and spread rainwater as it naturally flows downhill. We put the dirt we dug out on the downhill side of the swale, forming a little hill, or berm, to create an extra barrier for swift-flowing water.

It’s been amazing to see the results! The water remains in the swale days after a storm has passed. It slowly soaks into the ground below the berm, giving the soil and plants time to absorb it. This makes the berm a great place to grow trees and other plants with deep roots.

You can learn more about swales and other water management techniques at the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) being held at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage August 29-September 6. Earn a permaculture design certificate while experiencing life in an ecovillage! Click here for more information and course registration.

Sharon has lived at Dancing Rabbit for the past six years. She has studied and practiced permaculture for close to twenty years, receiving an advanced design certificate and, most recently, a teaching certificate. She is the author of a permaculture curriculum for children, and will apprentice teach with Bill and Becky Wilson at Dancing Rabbit’s permaculture design course in August.


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