One thing that is often on the minds of many horticulture enthusiasts living in Australia is the catching and storing of water.
During summer some area's soils, including where we are in Hobart, will dry out so ferociously that some will form cracks big enough to stick your hand a good 30 centimetres into them.
When we first bought our place in mid summer 2012 we walked across the lawnscape and had to be careful not the slip into the cracks and twist our ankles -- seriously, they were that big.
So as soon as we could we shaped the land to catch, slow and sink water into the soil in every possible way.
First up, we had an excavator come through to terrace the back half of the block.
All the terraces are angled slightly back on themselves to guide the water into the slope rather than letting it slide off the slope. We also designed the key artery pathways to be swale pathways.
These are placed on the inside of the terrace where they catch all the excess water that the terraces guides back into the slope.
But let's back up a minute and make sure we're clear on what a swale actually is.
A swale is a ditch dug on a contour - this means that water is not draining in one direction, instead it spreads evenly across the slope and sinks into the soil.
Traditionally, the earth that is dug out is placed on the downhill side and planted out with with a mixture of perennial and annual crops (but always perennial to ensure that the earth is stabilized with good long-term root structure).
A hot tip is to remember that you always need to plan for flood and have an overflow system, even when you live in the second-driest capital city in Australia.
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This can be a pipe or drain which directs the excess water to another swale, pond, orchard, dam or storm water drain. It will all depend on what is appropriate for your property. The great thing about this water system is that it's passive, and can reduce the workload.
We're still going to install drip line irrigation, but through this passive water framework and mulching throughout the warmer months, we've drastically reduced the need for irrigation and that's a major step in the right direction in creating a stable and resilient system.
Do you need an excavator to create swales?
You don't need an excavator to create swales. As someone who rented for over 10 years and lived in 25 houses I'm passionate about affordable, transferable and effective strategies which can be scaled up or down.
Swales can be hand dug and be one metre long. Always come back to its function, which is simply to catch and store water in your soil. You can obviously do this on small or large scales, while renting I would often dig swale paths with my mattock, as seen left.
These particular swale were quite small, so we increased their capacity by laying ag pipe, which we could then plug a hose into from a laundry and bathroom.
Using grey water to irrigate crops is not smiled upon. However, please keep in mind we put no nasty chemicals in there and alternated where the water was directed to, so there was no build up of any nutrients which can affect soil health and no water touched the surface or leaves of plants.
In our experience, when managed properly this is a great way to return water to the soil instead of sending it down the storm water drain.
So there you go, swale paths are for all shapes and sizes and can play a clever and effective role in catching, storing and sinking water into our thirsty landscapes.
- Hannah Moloney and Anton Vikstrom are the founders of Good Life Permaculture, a permaculture landscape design and education enterprise regenerating landscapes and lifestyles.