Digging Swales to make a Beautiful Vibrant Yard

Last week we tried to dig swales using a friends tractor. That did not work out in the end… This week we rented some equipment from a local store and went to work digging swales. It took most of the weekend but we got it done in the end!

The Plan For the Yard

When we moved unto our homestead the area directly in front of our house consisted of small trees and lots of underbrush. Needless to say, we did not spend much time there. Since starting my permaculture course I have been dreaming up ideas to make the space more productive. The trouble with making use of that area, roughly a quarter acre, were two fold. First, lack of sunlight due to the full canopy. Second, poor soil due to rainwater eroding away newly forming topsoil. However, in my mind a plan emerged.

I could see an area crossed by hedges of berry bushes and medicinal shrubs. Between the shrubs grasses and other animal forage grew. Pumpkins and melons could grow in the space between rows of shrubs. The possibility was simply mesmerizing.

Plan for the area in front of the house.
The plan for the area in front of the house drawn out on paper.

Implementing the plan started last fall when we put our pigs to work clearing out the thick brush. Now it was my turn. Whenever I could get the chance I would drop 2-3 of the small to medium trees, gradually thinning the forest. The area is roughly a quarter of an acre and it truly is amazing how many small trees can grow in that space. After moving the chicken coop, and getting a little help from the loggers on the larger trees, the area looked more like a grassless meadow. We had overcome the first difficulty, we have full to partial sun penetration there now!

Digging the Swales

With the trees cleared it was time to turn our attention to dealing with the rain runoff issues. When it rains that shallow slope gets covered with a sheet of water that quickly flows downhill. To preserve, and build, the topsoil, we needed to slow it down.

We decided to catch and slow the water by digging 4 swales, on contour, spaced out along the slope. Originally I had planned on hand digging them, however, when the time finally arose (mid February) I realized that was not going to work. So instead we rented a back hoe. Even with the back hoe digging out the swales took an entire day. Plus I ended up having to clean the swales up the next day by hand with a shovel and pickaxe. The swales are now in place and ready to be planted.

Typically, trees are grown in swales. This helps hold the swale together, but also benefits the tree with improved drainage and also better water absorption by the surrounding soil. Our swales are fairly small though, so instead of trees we are planning to plant lots of bushes and shrubs, with just a few trees.

Planting Ground Cover

Since we were still waiting on some of our shrubs to arrive, and were racing against the setting sun to finish, we decided to plant our ground covers first. Last year we ordered a bunch of native wild flower and native grass mixes from Hamilton Native Outpost. We had planned on spreading that seed last fall. Thankfully we delayed, lots of heavy equipment has been moving around lately and would have torn up the tender new plants.

For this years planting we were a little late, however, this is when we were ready. So we raked all the sticks and leaves into the swales (adding to their size). Then we spread out a seed mix designed for meadows and clearings. We added some of our own seeds to the mix too, dill, kale, and cilantro (we had lots of seed and these plants usually grow well in grass/ground cover mixes). We are really excited to plant the shrubs into the swales and watch this area blossom!

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