The Gordon Gnohm

Play along at home, read Future Farmer in The Braidwood Bugle every Wednesday. 

Passive Land Hydration Pt 8 Swales in Action

As we learnt last week, a Permaculture Swale offers many benefits for your landscape if you are looking to grow grass, trees or tucker. A Swale is also a beautiful feature in the landscape. I use them as the basis for every design. Once the harvesting and distribution of water is sorted, everything else falls into place.

Initial Uses

The original idea was to use Swales to rehabilitate degraded landscapes where popular farming practices reduced fertile land to dirt. The idea quickly grew into a very elaborate and versatile design philosophy. Landscape Designers all over the globe took this philosophy and created new ecosystems where once there was only barren earth.

A Swale will work in any landscape on earth, sandy deserts, hardpacked clay, rocks, my place, your place, any place. The idea has now inspired many, and great leaps forward are being made where folks had given up.

Fully Degraded Landscape

Some of the most eroded places on earth have been transformed by the application of a Swale or three. Deserts in Jordan, India, China, Turkey, Africa, Mexico have all been transformed by building topsoil and passively hydrating the land. People are growing tucker again and have created somewhere to live and thrive. 

Pioneer species get planted into the trench of the Swale when your locale has minor rain events each year. This trench will be the wettest spot on the property, and therefore the best place to start a tree. Wind will have little effect on plants hidden in the trench, but as soon as the trees grow above the trench, they will start to impact wind speed and water loss.

Leaf drop directly into the trench starts the composting work immediately. Applying plenty of mulch in the trench will support this in the initial years. As the pioneer plantings emerge, the mound will begin to support plantings. Mulching the mound will reduce water loss if mulch is available, otherwise Living Mulches must be utilised.

Once the mound is functioning, plantings can now occur below the mound, and above the trench to protect the Swale from summer sun. With the introduction of compost heaps, chickens and mulch pits, a functioning ecosystem can be created in any desert in 7-10 years.

Declining Landscape

Most of the farmland in our great country is in ill health. Stripped of topsoil, the denuded, compacted, eroded, hydrophobic dirt attempts to sustain plantings and absorbs endless costly inputs. 

A Swale or three will harness water and create a nutrient sink at the top of your property. Gravity will distribute it downhill, through the soil slowly. Native pasture seed, already in the soil, will start to colonise downhill of the Swale to flourish in the improved conditions. You will see this change in the first 2-4 years.

Utilising runoff from roadsides, driveways, tank and dam overflows will prime the system with as much Skywater as possible. Waterflow issues can be harnessed for great benefit, redirecting it across the property evenly, for storage in the earth. 

Trees started on the mound will quickly make deep roots, stabilising soil and providing shade. Place a Swale every 10-50m downhill and you will create lush strips of pasture between them. Placement is dependent on steepness of country, soil profile, available catchment, and of course the end use. 

Swale End Use 1: Pasture

If the end use is to run stock on pasture, permanent fencing can be installed around the Swales. The strips between the Swales can be easily grazed in a regenerative manner with temporary electric fencing between the permanent Swale fences. Animal can be easily moved onto fresh pasture daily leaving behind beneficial deposits. Chickens can be run a few days after the cows, to consume the bugs and parasites attracted to the manure. Scratching it into the earth as they go.

This Week

Our garden had its first frost, the latest I’ve experienced. It only fell on the areas that have new plantings, everywhere with established foliage was spared. The dense plantings that protect the mulch from sun, also create their own microclimate amongst the leaves. Increased humidity increases temps, limiting frost impact.

Frost was evident outside the garden in decent amounts, covering everything metal but it only lasted an hour or two. The Microclimate created in the garden is doing well to maintain temps higher than our bush or open country. 


The Basil, once 2-3 feet tall, is now melted, my last set of brassicas planted in their place. Snow Peas didn’t grow fast enough to offer protection, but they have started to flower. The nasturtiums are slightly melted now too.

Our vegetables are set to harvest in around 60-90 days, this means now is your last chance to get brassica seedlings in. Don’t despair if you haven’t yet. Spring may arrive late, and you will get an extended opportunity. If you started succession planting your brassicas in March, you will likely be seeing heads forming about now. 


At this time of year, I’m still planting Snow Peas where there is room and I’m looking to plant Broad beans. Broad beans are a great harvest in early Spring, and they produce a lot of biomass. Traditionally folks like to dig them in, but it’s not necessary. I leave the roots in the ground by stumping them, because the roots are where the microbe habitat has been created.

You can add the bean stalks to your compost heap, feed them to your chickens or leave them on the spot. Mulch over them for best effect. A thick layer of stalks will work, if you don’t have mulch to spare.

The fleshy Broad Bean plants are accustomed to frost and cold. This hardy feature allows me to plan protection for early Spring plantings. Last year I planted Corn in September amongst the Broad Beans, with great success. This year I think I will prepare for early Pumpkins and Zucchinis.


I filled a tired bed with Parsnips, Carrots and Beetroots. You can plant roots all year round to fill spaces in the garden and I always have some on hand, stored in the ground. They sometimes bolt to seed in spring, so now is the last time to get them in for surety. 

The Potatoes have been harvested, finally. The medium ones have been chosen for seed, the rest have been stored. We will rotate these to a new spot in August. 

Come swap a yarn on Saturday, at the Braidwood Markets, top of hill in Ryrie Park.

Stay Awesome.

The Gordon Gnohm

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