Swales? Or Not To Swale?


In my blog 8 Rainwater harvesting methods for large and small-scale agriculture, I introduced Swales in the checklist.

Each of those eight methods of rainwater harvesting works, you just have to find which will work best for your purposes and your land.

In this Blog post, I’m going in-depth into Swales.

I am going to take you knee deep in the trenches of swales.

I will go over:

  • Types of swales;
  • How to build a swale.
  • When other methods may be better designed for your site than a swale.

Types of Swales

There will be two types of swales mentioned:

  • On contour swales;
  • Water-transporting swales (or diversion ditches).

On Contour Swales

An On contour swale is a Permaculture rainwater harvesting design that keeps everything on a level.

When the water is on a level than rainwater will all be absorbed evenly.

If you do not make the swale contour than the water would flow to one side or the other, and preventing this flow is what makes the water become passive rather than destructive, as is the case with water draining en masse and quickly in one direction.

Water-transporting Swales (or diversion ditches)

Water transportation swales are designed to move water safely without causing erosion, as opposed to infiltrating it.

Water transporting swales drop in one direction at the rate of 1 % (many times the drop is 1% but you would need to verify the drop percentage in your field).

A 1% drop is sufficient to allow water to flow efficiently toward a storage point or drainage—at the same time, it is slow enough to allow sediment carried in the runoff to drop out of suspension and collect in the ditch bottom (in heavy rains a great deal of soil can be deposited).

9 Steps To Build A On Contour Swale

1. Plan your swale site

You want your swale site to be slightly up-hill from your concerned area.

Take some stakes and run a line between them for the length of your swale.

The Swale must be dug on contour and, have the bottom to be level.

2. Attach the line to the stakes

By doing this you can tell if the land is at the same elevation when using a line level water or laser level.

Your swale may be diagonal across your slope, just stagger your swales so that runoff can’t get by.

3. Pound in stakes once you’ve found the contour for your swale.

A good swale width is wide enough for you to get in and dig.

4. Dig a trench

All the loose dirt goes on the downhill side of the swale, heaped up into what is called a “berm”.

Which holds back the rainwater that fills up the swale.

5. Make sure the bottom of your trench is flat and level

6. Begin filling your swale with Gravel or to stimulate the natural compost like starting with leaves

7. Add the bulk material such as rotting wood

8. Add final materials such as straw

9. Dig more swales and plant your beams!

There are directions with images to follow if you go here!

When to build a Swale

One reason to build a swale is to take a destructive path of rainwater that’s causing erosion.

This will cause the rainwater to change the path so it can allocate the nutrients, silt, and organic matter.

Swales are also perfect for those of us wanting to build no-dig garden beds, as digging the (swale) paths provides the necessary topsoil.

Additionally, a swale is best used in reforestation of degraded, mostly-bare, arid or semi-arid hillsides, to direct water to trees.

A great tool to use in calculating a swale is the calculator.

Note: This is just a tool that gives you an idea. Please verify the calculations with a Permaculture Professional.

When Not to Swale

Should I swale that?

This Image is a great reference if you’re asking yourself if a swale is appropriate.

The image breaks down by slope, soil, hydrology, management, ecosystems and available resources.

Should I Swale That?

The original image is from Ben Falk of Whole System Design, we modified the image to bring more details. 

In some cases, instead of using swales, you can use the Keyline Design!


In my experience as an agronomist and as a farmer, I have had experiences where a swale was the right design to use and a time where I had to tear it down and start over.

A swale may not work in every location, each individual site, every climate or every situation.

They are just one method of rainwater harvesting systems out of many.

A swale without trees can possibly be even more damaging than a destructive flow of water.


Scroll below for links…


Giuseppe Tallarico

Giuseppe is a versatile and results-oriented Agronomist specializing in Permaculture, Food Security, and Environmental Management Systems dedicated to consulting large-scale farms through the transition to sustainable and regenerative agriculture to achieve maximum profitability naturally while creating a greener abundant earth for generations to come. Giuseppe is an Accredited Instructor by the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia and a permaculture consultant for the government of Jordan. Giuseppe serves the world permaculture community as the founder and General Manager of the World Permaculture Association, the head of the Urban Permaculture Laboratory Educational Center, and manager of Rigenera, a Permaculture consulting company. https://www.giuseppetallarico.com

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 12 comments
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[…] course, at this stage, you should also make sure that all paths are marked, and any swales or ditches for natural irrigation (if required) have been […]

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, we will make sure to correct the label in the picture. We appreciate your keen eye and attention to detail. Thank you for visiting our site and for your continued interest in permaculture.

    Best regards,
    Giuseppe Tallarico


Good collection of videos and instructions here! One problem though: the Ben Falk picture is mislabeled- in the Hydrology part, the dry landscape on the right is the brittle one and the high water table one on the left is non-brittle.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Thank you for bringing this mistake to our attention. We apologize for any confusion it may have caused. We will correct the labeling on the picture as soon as possible. We appreciate your feedback and will make sure to double check all of our content in the future. Thank you for visiting our website and for your support of our mission to promote sustainable land management practices.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

Greg Sungreen

I think I’ll be choosing to swale after reading the excellent article shared here. You’ve mentioned the benefits of swales here, and I love it. So I will use swales from now on.

    Giuseppe Tallarico


    Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read our article on swales. We’re glad to hear that you found it informative and that you’re considering using swales in your own permaculture projects. As Giuseppe Tallarico, I can tell you that swales are a great way to conserve water and improve soil health, and I wish you all the best in your endeavors. If you have any further questions or need any assistance, please feel free to reach out to us.

    Best regards,
    Giuseppe Tallarico.


Why brittle landscapes are not suitable for swales? Whatever the rainfalls, we must capture it. This would hydrate the land and feed the plants. It may reverse the desertification. Am I missing something?

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Hello, as Giuseppe Tallarico, I appreciate your interest in the use of swales in permaculture. While it is true that capturing rainwater is an important aspect of permaculture, it is also important to consider the overall conditions of the landscape. Brittle landscapes are characterized by a lack of organic matter and a high level of erosion, which can make them less suitable for the use of swales. In these landscapes, the soil may not be able to retain water and the swales may not function as effectively. It is also important to consider the potential for damage to the landscape and the surrounding ecosystem if the swales are not properly designed and maintained. However, it’s not impossible to use swales in brittle landscapes. It’s just more challenging and requires more attention to detail in the design and implementation.

Iris Smith

Thank you for mentioning that digging the trench will prevent all loose dirt from building up into what is known as a “berm” on the swale’s downward side. My grandfather works as a farmer. He wants to learn how to tile a farm area. I’ll advise him to hire a contractor to dig the trench.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    Great suggestion! Hiring a contractor to dig the trench is a smart idea to ensure that the swale is properly constructed. Additionally, your grandfather may want to consider consulting with a permaculture designer or a professional with experience in farm tiling to ensure that the swale is designed to effectively manage water on the farm and improve soil health.


Great post! I am a big fan of swales as a tool for water management in permaculture systems. I have implemented swales on my property and have seen firsthand the benefits they provide in terms of increasing water infiltration and reducing erosion. I also appreciate the way that swales can be integrated into the overall design of a permaculture site, working in conjunction with other elements such as terraces and contour planting. I think it’s important to note that while swales can be a powerful tool, they are not always the best solution for every situation and careful site assessment is crucial in determining if they are appropriate. Overall, I believe that swales are an important part of any permaculture design.

    Giuseppe Tallarico

    I completely agree with you. Swales are an excellent tool for water management in permaculture systems and I have also implemented them on my property with great results. It’s also important to note that swales need to be integrated into the overall design of a permaculture site, working in conjunction with other elements such as terraces and contour planting. I think that careful site assessment is crucial in determining if swales are the best solution for the site. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, it’s always great to hear different perspectives on permaculture design.

    Giuseppe Tallarico


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