Gee, that’s Swale! Resources for Permaculture Swales in Michigan

“Swales” are one of the most common water-harvesting devices used by Permaculturists. 

Like most Permaculture techniques, the use of swales is extremely site-specific, so I’d like to give a few tips and thoughts about using them in my biome, the Great Lakes region. If you aren’t already familar with swales, here’s a great “basic” introdcution from PRI

(Water-harvesting micro-swale/ditch system at Lillie House)
The impact of swales can be nearly miraculous, especially in dry, wet tropical or Mediterranean climates where rain comes infrequently in large events and run-off is a big problem. But, as respected Permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield points out, they might not always be appropriate: 
In the Great Lakes region, we get most of our precipitation in the Fall and Spring, though we’re lucky to get ample water through most of our growing seasons. Our relatively short growing season means there’s a large advantage to having well-drained garden beds that warm up quicky and can be planted early in the season. Some areas in our biome may also have mucky clay soils that get easily water-logged. So a few indicators you might want to include swales in your design would be:
1. You have to deal with excess water from hardscape features such as a roof. 
2. You’re on a slope and you know you have a problem with erosion or losing water to run-off. 
3. You want to establish a tree-based system like a food forest or orchard. 
4. You have a lot of land to deal with and you need to collect water from a large area using “extensive” methods that are easy to implement. 
Some counter-indications might be: 
1. You already have trees where you want swales. 
2. You have mucky soils and already expereince problems with draining. (Though in some special cases swales could actually improve drainage.)
3. You have a very steep slope or no slope. 
4. You only have a small area to work with (as we’ll see when we do the math below, a swale will be a better tool if you have a collection area of least 20 feet or more.) 
If swales don’t seem to make sense, there are other means of water collection and infiltration, such as ponds, “passive swales” (wood debris gabions layed on controur,) infiltration basins, keyline plowing, wicking beds, etc. For example, at Lillie House we use a network of a wide variety of tools to intensively manage water on our urban site. 


Once you’ve decided to use swales, put some thought and planning into their design. Poorly designed swales do more harm than good. Make sure you get the size right. I have seen swales “blow out” because they were too small for the water they’re meant to handle. These “swales” do the opposite of the Permaculture water mantra: slow it down, spread it out, infilltrate it–they actually concentrate water and direct it, possibly right towards your basement or favorite crop! 

On the other hand, I’ve seen swales that were too large, completely destroying the landscape hydrology and infiltrating water so deeply that no plant will ever have a chance at getting to it. Over-sized swales can also be a trip hazard and a danger to humans and wildlife passing through the garden. I know of a whole set of swales right next to sidewalks where kids live and play, that look like 3-foot deep death pits. These were installed by a “professional landscaper,” positioned where they’ll only ever get about a gallon of water in a major rain, but are super-sized to hold hundreds of gallons at once! I’ve even seen some “swales” dug below the water table, becoming permanent ponds. 
Worst of all, I’ve seen a few projects (in person, and AT LEAST a dozen more online) where folks dug deep swales right through established forest they intended to keep, needlessly wasting energy and harming the forest floor and roots of their trees to no benefit at all, as established forests in our region are reliably as good at harvesting and infiltrating water and stopping erosion as a swale!    

To size your swales, there are several tools that can help you out. University extentions often have recommendations specific to their regions on sizing rain gardens, which essentially perform the same function of catching water and infiltrating it. 
For most people, the rain-garden alliance is a good place to start:
Their tools will let you play around with your soil type, slope and catchment area. For example, assuming a clay loam soil, and a spacing of 20′ between swales, it suggested a volume of 7.2 cubic feet per linear foot, or about 1,5′ deep and 4′ wide. On sandy soil, it recommended much smaller swales, just 3 cubic feet of volume.

(The basic math is pretty simple to figure out if you want to do it yourself. You need to know the size of your catchment area (in square feet) multipled by .6 will tell you how many gallons of water you’ll collect for each inch of rain you receive. Next you’ll need to test the infilltration rate of your soil. These two pieces of information will tell you how much water your swale needs to hold. Finally, 1.3 cubic feet will hold 10 gallons of water.) 

This set of rotted wood swales is fed by our downspout and is planted with water-loving plants including Marshmallow and Valerian. In heavy rains, water cascades down the side of this system and into another set of swales. 

In our small-sale urban environment, with sandy soils, these little swales are hardly noticeable during the growing season, yet they’re just the right size for the job. Though they looked small at first, I have never seen them be over-burdened, even in the heaviest rains. 


Gardening Advice

When people see our garden, they often start asking me for gardening advice. 

Unfortunately, these days, I rarely have any to give. 
As a Forest Gardener and Permaculture enthusiast, I actually go out of my way to be a really bad gardener, and I try to encourage other people to do the same. 

When I used to garden conventionally (organically, actually) I used to try my best to provide everything that the plants need. So I tried to keep up with the best science on how and when to water, what kind of fertilizer or compost to use, how and when to weed, how to manage pests and treat diseases and so on. 
Now, I try to forget all of that!
Instead, I try to design gardens so that nature does all that work for me, the way it happens in natural ecosystems. Nobody ever weeds, waters, or fertilizes the forest, because the forest does all that work, or rather, the complex interactions between the various beings in the forest does it. 

And to help my garden build the connections that will work well, I try to find ways to do as little “gardening” as I absolutely can. 
But I do have some advice about that: 
1. Build high-diversity gardens with lots of plant, fungi and insect species. Ecologists believe that high diversity builds highly resilient, healthy ecosystems with few pest and disease problems, and that includes our gardens. 
2. Think of the health of the whole system. Make sure the garden harvests lots of water, sun and a variety of organic mulch materials to feed the soil. 
3. Learn about Polycultures and use them. These maximize yield in both time (by partnering plants with different harvest times) and space (by partnering plants that use different root depths and nutrients.) They also confuse pests, privide predatory insect habitat and build that diversity. 
4. Learn about Forest Gardening and Permaculture. 

Permaculture at Lillie House

What does “Permaculture” mean in the context of what we do at Lillie House?

Most of our BIG problems–on the personal level and the planetary one–are caused by the way we try to meet our needs. I used to feel discouraged from doing anything about them because all these various problems are so big and often our attempts to intervene in them only make things worse. On top of that, I felt trapped in the system, unable to escape from contributing to the problems myself, like a cog in some destructive machine. Then I discovered a way I could get out of trap and do something positve about all these “problems.” Permaculture is a system for designing human habitats to meet our needs and create beautiful, rich lives without screwing everything up, by starting first with 3 ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Respecting Limits. (Different folks have different ways of wording that last one, but that’s the version most relevant to our approach.) It’s methods are based on emulating and working with nature, instead of against it. 

There’s an ancient Taoist story that demonstrates the value of this approach, from the philosopher Chuang Tsu (which I’ll paraphrase) about a carpenter and his apprentice walking through the country side when the apprentice stops to stare at a tree. The master whacks the apprentice on the head: “come on! We haven’t got all day!”

“But master, this is the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen! How can you not even notice it?”

“Baw!” the carpenter says, “that tree’s useless! The branches are gnarled and twisted and the wood too old and brittle to make anything out of!”

But that night, the tree appears to the carpenter in his dreams, and says:

“Who are you to judge me? It’s only because of my “uselessness” that I avoided being cut down long ago. And so my branches remain to give shade to the animals, my fruit feeds the squirrels and the fish in the stream, which in turn feed larger animals, and my leaves feed the silkworms that in turn feed the birds. And so, without doing anything “useful” I care for all the beings around me.”

The ancients well understood concepts like ecosystems, trophic levels and keystone species. 

Of course, that tree can feed us, too. In fact, for all of our evolutionary history up until 100 years ago, almost all the beings on this planet, including humans, met all of their needs–food, clean water, waste management, shelter, clothing, and even spirituality–through ecosystem services.

But that implies that we live within the limits of what the tree can provide. 

If not, we have to do that work ourselves. First, we’ll have replace the tree with some other system, so we cut down the tree. Then we’ll need to till the soil. So we’ll need tools, resources, and workers, which requires us to cut down some more trees. You see how this gets complicated pretty quickly. Once our crops are growing, they’ll need clean, healthy water, but since we destroyed the ecosystem that used to clean our water for us, we have to build a water treatment plant and an irrigation system and so on. And once the crops are growing we’ll need fertilizer, and herbicides and pesticides, which come with their own cascade of problems. Once we harvest the crops we need storage and distribution systems, and warriors to defend our store. And we’ll need social heirarchy and oppression, because we’ll need to get people to maintain all these roles and carry all these new burdens. You see that inequity is a built-in prerequisite of this way of meeting our needs. And then we’ll need landfills, and sewage systems… And that’s just the start. Next we’ll need a whole new layer of “solutions” to address all the problems we just caused! 

You know the song: “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. I hope she lives in a country with a good health care system!”

And before we cut down the trees, all these services were provided by ecosystem functions, without the cascade of unintended consequences. You start to see why archeologists and anthropologists say our hunter-gatherer ancestors only worked 10 hours a week, while OUR burden grows larger each year. 

When we attempt to address all the symptoms created by the way we meet our needs without fixing the problem, it’s difficult not to just make things worse and create more problems. Or worse–violently pass our problems off on others while patting ourselves on the back. We need solutions that are more “radical,” which means getting to the center of the wheel, getting to the cause and not the symptoms. That’s what Permaculture provides: ways we can meet our needs that naturally enrich life for all the beings around us, instead of causing harm. 

It’s about emulating the tree. 

Selecting Plants for a Food Forest

With 10+ years of experience in observing planned food forests and similar “wild” ecologies, as well as 3 seasons of co-evolving with a home food forest, I’m just starting to form some good conclusions about what makes a really good forest garden in the Great Lakes bioregion. Interestingly, some of those opinions are quite different now than they were a dozen years ago when I first became passionate about the concept of forest gardening.

When first introduced to the concept, here are some of the criteria I would have had for a successful food forest:
–High yield.
–Would focus on productive trees.
–High percentage of the common fruits I liked to eat–a true “fruit forest.”
–Lots of sunny edge for the annual veggies I was used to.
–Focuses on the future potential of a mature forest garden.

–Low maintenance. 
–Could produce a large percentage of my dietary needs.

With experience, that hasn’t exactly been changed so much as refined to a more nuanced set of goals. Now, my ideal forest garden would be:

–Appropriately and flexibly yielding. A good forest garden provides things in amounts you can use, when you can use them, without becoming a burden. A really good forest garden is flexible enough that it can be scaled back to produce for a family’s needs without becoming a chore, but could be quickly adapted to provide a yield large enough to provide excess for distribution if needed for friends, trade or income.
–Focusses much more on the understory. This is, afterall, what differentiates an forest garden from a regular “orchard.” At least early on, the understory is capable of providing much more of value than young or middle-aged trees. Think about your diet now, the vast majority of it doesn’t come from trees. When I go foraging in mature woodlands filled with edible canopy species, it is still largely the understory species that I’m there to collect!
–Appropriate and well-planned selection of trees, focussing most on easy, no-spray tree species and support species that provide ecological functions. Right now, on an acre, I’d focus 95% on species that are both very easy to grow without spraying or extra care, and also easy to harvest and use with minimal processing, such as Paw Paw, Persimmon, Honeyberry, Blackberry, Raspberries, Asian pear, Heartnut, Hazelnut, Mulberry, Nanking Cherry, Elderberry, and Hardy Kiwi. I’d also focus on plants that provide greens, such as the Toon Tree, White Mulberry and Linden. Only then would I plant a few more difficult things like apples or plums, focussing only on the easiest and most disease-resistant species. Personally, I’d probably save difficult specimens like dessert apples and green gage plums for green-houses, espaliers or zone1 treatments. 
–Lots of sunny edge for a large variety of useful plants, mostly perennials. This would include a lot of high value perennial vegetables, self-sowing annuals, medicinal plants, fiber plants, plants for fuel, plants for crafting materials, etc. Oh, and room for a few high-value annual vegetables.
–Focusses on “succession” and getting an early yield every year.

–Flexible maintenance. Can provide yields with little “work,” but can be quickly “scaled up” to provide high yields with higher levels of input. 

–Can help me meet a wide variety of my needs, including building materials, heating, spices, herbs, and medicine as well as food. But more importantly, it greatly enhances life by providing high-quality, high value foods for relatively little burden. And perhaps most importantly, it provides an extremely beautiful living space and creates a very rewarding relationship with nature and the ecologies we inhabit.