Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Creative destruction

Behind the chicken coop - can you see the swale?

If you remember this image, from the "Do nothing" post, I said we were in the midst of making some creative destruction, in this area too. Part of the reason it's overgrown at all, is due to poorly designed access. It was started many moons ago, when we first dug the swale, but never finished properly.

In order to improve the efficiency of maintenance in this area, is was time to tackle it with a more thoughtful design. Here's what the area looked like, after mowing:


The swale (or dip in the landscape) is easier to see, when the grass is kept under control. The swale is meant to manage water flow. Keeping the swale neat however, is quite an undertaking. What cannot be seen in the image, is how sheer the sides of the swale are. Because the mower blades, cannot actually reach beyond a certain point, the grass grows straight up. The only way to trim in that space, is with a brushcutter, or line-trimmer. As shown above - a deceptively neat edge, but an exception to the rule.

Most of the time, we just run the mower through - leaving long tufts of grass on the edge of the swale, where the blades cannot reach.

The old swale design, with sheer sides
illustrated grass, is where the mower couldn't reach

To initially dig the swale, such a long distance by hand, we dug straight down. Which created the issue with the steep sides. It worked for many years, as an efficient water management system. In the same amount of time though, it was an unnecessary chore to balance the mower, on the edge of the swale.

More often, than not, we would give the edge a wide birth with the mower - promising to come back with the brushcutter, to tidy up. It rarely happened though. Maintenance is such a time consuming chore, starting with the right design, makes life so much easier. It was well overdue, for a rethink.

Fixing the existing swale

There are remnants of where the unmowable grass would grow, in the newly extended swale. We've lost some flat ground, to create a more shallow pitch of the swale wall, but the benefit is complete mower access. No more balancing acts, or promising to come back with a different piece of equipment.

Losing the flat ground, is what initially concerned us. Living on slopes as we do, there's such little flat land to begin with. Why would we want to create more slope, on purpose? The new swale wall doesn't have much of a pitch though. In fact, not having a sheer area to avoid walking (where you could twist your ankle, if you fell in) has actually opened up the area to traverse.

There's more work to be done, in this area, but happy to have made a start. There's actually more swale, behind me, I've completed. Which is why it's taking so long.

Geoff Lawton, talks swales

The above video, is not the definitive guide to swale building, but it gives an overview of some of the considerations, you should take into account, nonetheless. All swales are going to be different, based on how much land you have, topography, rainfall and surrounding infrastructure.

Our swale is such a mite, compared to some of the more arid land, swales. But it sure did create a big headache, maintaining it! Glad we're onto fixing it now, so access will be improved.

This kind of creative destruction - taking a stablised area of vegetation, and sheering it back to the bone (ie: the soil) will create better vegetation management, in the long term. So it makes it a little easier, causing such destruction in the short term. The end goal, is reconnecting the growing cycle again - but making life that little bit easier, afterward.

Do you have an area in the garden, you avoid, due to poor access?


  1. I do love swales. I wish I had the energy or the equipment to dig more of them. I'm currently eyeing off the top paddock that is used for grazing, and wishing for some swales to hold the rainfall moisture in that paddock for longer. It's on the list of things to do next time we hire a bobcat for a weekend. Wouldn't it be great if all the mowing could be done in one go, with the one piece of equipment? I generally do the mowing with the push mower and go back the following day with the brushcutter to finish off. Just don't have the energy these days to do it all at once. However, our grass is non existent in the house yard during summer, so there's one advantage to our dry season, although it becomes a dust bowl with three dogs galloping about.

    1. I'm really feeling it, this time, Sally. I would have been a decade younger, the first time round, lol. Being careful, so I don't get any silly injuries. It's something we have to be more weary of, now we're at the mid forties point. That's when things start breaking!

      You won't regret paying for a bobcat to put swales, at the top of your pastures. It will be the first grass to recover from a dry period, when the rain arrives. And it will hang around longer too. In keeping with Peter Andrews, the cattle will migrate up the top of the hill (for all that tender grass) to fertilise the rest, down hill. Of course, it's always as time, money and resources permit! They don't always occur at the same time, lol.

      I'm really hoping we can get the mowing done, with one piece of equipment, on the top swale. :)

  2. Great video from Geoff Lawton....a lot I didn't realise about swales, re slope rainfall and distance apart.

    So in the photo of your swale, now more obvious, it looks as though the high side is on the left of the photo? And the water runs off that slope to fill the swale? What about the ends of the swale? I presume you've made it so that the water doesn't just run out. How did you do that? My swales are only small, behind most of the fruit trees and I've 'turned up' each end to ensure that water stays in the swale. Your swale looks much longer than any of mine. My longest would only be about 2 metres, but they all work well. When I go down the back after heavy rain, they're all full. I summer I fill them twice a week with the hose from the main water tank.

    1. Love Geoff's insight on any topic, Bev, as it often has so many layers. Makes for adapting to different locations, more achieveable, with different options to choose from. All very site specific.

      You're correct in your observation, of where the main water flows into the swale. However, we have a ridge right in the middle of our property, and a street above. Which normally sheets the water away from the ridge (on both sides) so it doesn't flood down the front of our property. The exception was the 2011 floods, when there was so much water, it had nowhere else to go, but down. I reckon the house would have flooded, if we didn't have that swale - such as it was in the beginning.

      Because the swale is on contour, we don't have to worry about turning up the ends. It fills up, without overflowing. However, it does have a spillway at either end, to allow for water to escape when the swale is full. When it does leave the end (shown in the photo) it goes down slope, to fill a banana pit. Unfortunately, since the drought conditions over the past few years, all our bananas have perished. However the pit is still there, to caputre overflowing water from the swale.

      I think your swales serve their purpose, really well. Especially if you're watering your plants in dry conditions. As the soil is normally hydrophobic. Giving that extra area to spread out and sink in, keeps water at the roots of the plants, instead of sheeting down, someplace else.

    2. Thanks, Chris. My swales are sort of on contour too, but you don't get much contour in only a metre or two of length. They work to hold water and that's the main thing.

    3. I hear what you're saying. Now that I think about it, I've had shorter ones elsewhere, I've butted the ends with soil. I think it all depends where your swale is situated on the contour.

      Our front swale, spans around 50-60 metres. The high ridge is in the middle of that. So where the overflow drops off (on either end) is where the land is lowest anyway. That's where I want the overflow, for excess water to escape. On shorter swales though, you may not have that natural drop-off point.

      You've actually reminded me of an experiment I did, with an extremely short swale feature, around a small tree. I've been meaning to post about that, but other things in life demanded attention first. I hope to get around to it, in the not too distant future. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  3. It sounds like you have changed things, with the swale, to make it easier to maintain and mow, Chris. I am guessing that improves access to the area and perhaps you'll use it more or it will be easier to use for it's intended purpose? Meg

    1. That's the hope Meg, to make mowing easier. But we'll have to observe how that goes. Something inevitably shows up, to improve the design further, lol. Renovating the coop to capture water from the roof, is what led to redesigning the swale, in the first place. So it's all connected to the chickens. It will lead back to them returning to the loop, in future. I hope. ;)


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