Attempting something you’ve only read about in books: sometimes it’s low risk (trying a new recipe) or it can be terrifying (anything to do with DIY electrical repairs or back-country medicine). Paying someone good money to dig swales across our new orchard has been feeling pretty scary, even after the damage has been done.
What is a swale? A natural or artificial depression that collects water The Wikipedia definition is as good as any I’ve run into, "The swale concept has also been popularized as a rainwater harvesting and soil conservation strategy by Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton and other advocates of permaculture. In this context it usually refers to a water harvesting ditch on contour."
We are not awash in water rights, and anything we can do to conserve the precipitation and irrigation water that reaches our land is going to be a good thing. Our new orchard site matches the ideal criteria: a moderate slope, light soil texture and less than 700mm (27.6”) of rain a year. The previous owner had issues in the past with soil washing onto the road when the irrigation flows got out of hand. We are hoping that the swales will act like a sponge to capture the rain and snow runoff that we do get, help hold and distribute the irrigation water higher up, and keep the soil from washing away. Right now they look awful.
The next step is to collect, scavenge, beg, and at last very resort buy enough organic material to load up the swales, creating a spongy liner. Just about anything will do: tree limbs, leaves, spoiled hay. Wood chips would be perfect, if I could find them. Someone has offered some baled cornstalks, if he has extra. The only things we don’t want are persistent herbicide-treated hay (Round-up and Milestone have no place on our land) and a large proportion of coniferous material. Heavily resinous plants, like pine and cedar, are said to be allopathic, and should not be a major component of the fill. How much is too much? I have no idea.
That’s the thing, there are plenty of inspirational videos on the Interweb touting the benefits of swales, but a shortage of actual how-to details, so we are improvising as we go. Our neighbor Scott and I used his laser level to stake out contour lines, and then he dug them in a day with his back-hoe. It was nip and tuck to see if we could get it done before irrigation season ended, but we did get the upper swale filled two different times, and once got enough water to start spilling down to the second one. It’s clear that the next thing we need to do, besides fill them up with good stuff, is build a few spillways to control the water flow between the levels.
But the next right action is to splatter the county with posters at the post offices and other likely places asking folks to bring me their waste rather than taking it to the dump. Save the planet, save a dump fee. I hope it works. The gap between book learning and hard-won experience can be vast and painful. This could be a terrible mistake. I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t have done it, but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to wait it out, watch how the water flows and fix the mistakes. We are committed now.