Permaculture Berms & Swales

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Updated August 22, 2022
Berm Swale Full D

It's time for a new, very important project here on the Tiny Shiny Homestead! Berms and Swales will help us protect our property from flooding, wind, and fire while providing a way to catch, store, and divert water.

Because we live in the desert of SE Arizona where water tables are dropping and wells are a poor investment, we're turning to permaculture inspired designs to catch rainwater not only off of roofs, but with the ground on our property as well.

Berms and Swales are ancient techniques making a big comeback, showing us the way forward to create a sustainable, beautiful oasis in the desert that perfectly blends with the natural topography of the land.

These work by creating depressed trenches or swales on contour with your land that catch flowing water, as well as mounds or berms on the opposite side that can be planted with trees and grasses.

By planting native trees along our berms we can create fire and wind breaks, privacy screens, food forests, and even mulch and firewood over time. Their roots fortify the berms, and allow us to catch, store, and most importantly divert water during heavy monsoons to safe areas on the property.

This means we're creating more organic matter which leads to the soil storing more water which leads to sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gases. Plus the concentration of trees leads to increased diversity of animals and habitats which creates a symbiotic relationship with the land.

So yeah, berms and swales can be pretty awesome, and we’re excited to start this process.

Permaculture Plans - Our Big Dreams of Greening the Desert

If you’ve watched our Permaculture Plans video, you know we’ve already been working with Rudy Poe planning our entire property, and he’s used topo maps and sheet flow calculations to help us plan where our berms should go.

This article and the following videos will be focusing on the berm and swale installations on our property, so let's get started!

Step 1 - Planning & Marking the Main Berm & Swale

Today we’re focusing on the main berm and swale that cuts right though the middle of our 6 acre parcel and will help us determine our final house placement.

Rudy’s going to help us mark this important berm and swale, make sure we’re on contour, and fine tune our plans as we start implementing on the actual property.

Step 2 - Excavating the Main Berm & Swale

After marking where our berm and swale should go, it was time to bring in the heavy machinery! Let's take you through each step of the dig, and show you the process.

Step 3 - It's NOT WORKING Right? Half of the Swale Isn't Catching Water

The next step in our berm and swale project is to bring Rudy back to help us figure out why the North half of the swale isn't catching any water. We check contour and do some detective work further up past our fence.

Step 4 - CHIPPING OUR OWN MULCH in the Desert? 

Before we can seed our berms and slopes, we need mulch to lay down to help prevent wind and water erosion as well as retaining moisture. But we live in the desert! Mulch is very hard to come by so we invested in a small wood chipper to make our own.

Champion Chipper Shredder

Step 5 - WE BOUGHT SOME TREES!

What an exiting day, friends! We head to Parkland Tree Farm and buy the remaining 65 trees for our berm and swale. Can you believe it? We're so close!

Step 6 - TREE PLANTING PARTY- Community Helps Plant Berm & Swale

Such a huge day for our homestead! Our local community volunteered to help us smooth the berm and swale, lay the grass seed cover crop, and plant our trees, and work on various other digging projects. We could not have done this without them!

Step 7 - WHAT'S LEFT? Cleanup Work on the Berm & Swale Project

The berm and swale wasn't finished yet! After our big planting party we still had more trees to plant, secure, and mulch around. We also fortified our culvert area with rocks from our wash.

Step 8 - DRIP IRRIGATION? Yes, please! Berm & Swale Project

The last major final step in our berm and swale project was to run and connect drip irrigation to all our trees. This was important to save us not only time, but water as well since we're limited to how much we can haul in.

Step 9 - THEY MADE IT HAPPEN! Tree Sponsor & Donor Thanks for the Berm & Swale

Our berm and swale project would not have been possible without the support of our Tiny Shiny Tree Collective! These amazing folks sponsored trees and donated to help us realize our dream of greening the desert. Today we show you the process of sending them tiny instant photos and donating the trees we couldn't plant to those in our community.

Fujifilm Instax Mini 90

Full Project Build

Don't have time to watch all 9 videos? Here's a 1.5hr recap of the whole thing from start to finish with additional thoughts seeing the swale in action after a month of monsoon rains.

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Jonathan Longnecker

About the Author

Jonathan Longnecker is the strongly opinionated tattooed and bearded half of Tiny Shiny Home. He loves making music, designing brands, building websites, exploring the outdoors, and living off-grid.

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Posted July 06, 2022


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