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 3 comments
How To Make a Forest Garden Happy DIY Home

[…] 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 […]


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.

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.


Leave a Reply: