Backyard Swales

In the backyard, I wanted a place to extend the garden with vegetables at first and more perennial crops like a food forest later. I wanted to take greater advantage of the water turn, not spend a lot of money, and also make it look nice. What I ended up planning on was two beds on contour (or flat), with a ditch or swale in front for the water turn, and a hugelkultur mound behind. I’m going to walk behind what we did so it makes sense.

First we used a transit level to mark out a level line, or a line on contour in the landscape. It’s marked with yellow flags in the pictures. Our backyard is pretty flat, but it still has a lot of hills and flat spots you don’t see unless you are out there with the level. The line we marked was nice and pleasingly curved. Several time Joe asked if it was really necessary to worry about an inch in grade. I said yes. Getting the first line right on contour both made for nice curves and made the water flow far more even than it would have been otherwise. If it wasn’t exactly level, we might have had to go back and re-dig or dam some areas up.

step 2

Next Joe dug up the downside part of the line we marked out. He dug about three feet wide and maybe a couple of feet deep. We then filled up this area with various sticks and logs we had on hand, and put the soil back on top. The rationale behind burying the woody material is it will break down and gradually add organic matter to the soil. It is often referred to as a hugelkultur bed. In drier climates, I think it is important to do this in the fall to give the woody material time to break down over the winter: otherwise it can strip the plants of nitrogen. For us, it was also an easy way to get rid of at least some of the large pile of shrubs and trees we’ve removed (pictured in back by the basketball court).

step 3

Joe dug a trench in front of the woody beds, piling more soil on top. This created a ditch or swale to let water flow down. The swale is flat, and is fun to see fill with water. Instead of the water just rushing down, it fills up gradually and soaks into the the area. It both channels our water turn, and collects rain water. We’ve had lots of rain, and filled it with irrigation water and it is doing the job.

step 4  water


After the mounds and swale were dug, we seeded the mound with a cover crop that included Austrian field pea, hairy vetch,  winter wheat and winter rye. I also put clover down where I wanted something more perennial. The seed was raked in and covered with a light straw mulch.



Next year I will start planting with a wide range of edible plants. I’m hoping it will be a better environment for my squash that were in the same area but all died this year using traditional agriculture practices.

This is completely new territory for me. It isn’t a far stretch in permaculture circles, but outside of that I have to explain in detail what I am doing and why to anyone who sees it. It remains to be seen if this will be a highly productive system or not, but I have high hopes. So far, the cover crops are coming up great.


2 thoughts on “Backyard Swales

  1. Rita says:

    Yeah, this is all pretty much over my head. I’ve never heard of a swale, and I really don’t even know what permaculture is. I was pretty excited that we actually ate a little bit of food we grew this year. 🙂 But I like seeing what you’re doing. Somehow it’s more inspiring than defeating, even though I can see how much I don’t know.


    • Elizabeth Braithwaite says:

      I didn’t know what permaculture really was until six months ago–I could offer an explanatory definition but really it is food gardening for enthusiasts, and for people who like to learn a lot. It’s not necessary at all to learn all about permaculture if you just want to grow a bit of a garden. I was turned off from it for a long time just because of how complicated it is.


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