The Great British Swale Off.

By Andy Williams.

Let’s face it, swales are exciting. It’s one of the things that really engages people when they first come across permaculture design, and with good reason. They’re easily constructed even with hand tools, don’t require inputs or maintenance if properly installed and really work. Swales have become somewhat unfashionable lately however, with their suitability for temperate climates being brought into question. As someone who has installed them on a wet Scottish field, I thought I’d add my opinion to the debate.

The fact you’re reading this suggests you know what a swale is, but in case you don’t they’re basically a ditch and berm dug along the contour of land, to catch overland flow of water and hold it until it’s absorbed into the ground. They’re used extensively in areas of low rainfall, or where rains come in infrequent but large events. Swales recharge aquifers, and can bring dried up springs back to life downslope. All good you might think, but swales are not without controversy. Some permaculture ‘celebrities’ are huge advocates for swales in wet climates, whereas other big names insist that other techniques can achieve the same result more effectively. So how is anyone supposed to know which advice is right? I’m no expert (and frankly, avoid anyone who claims they are; they tend to be keyboard warriors) but I’ll explain my reasons for installing ours.

A large part of the site design is transitioning from an open, exposed field into a silvopasture/agroforestry system of perennial productive trees and shrubs over pasture, essentially a cool temperate savanna system. Our field is a foot of compacted topsoil over solid clay. In winter, every step squelched underfoot. At first glance we’re the last place on earth you’d think would need more water in the soil, however the water holding capacity of our land isn’t great. Once that foot of topsoil is saturated, any rain becomes overland flow. And after a few weeks without rain, the water that was being held in the soil begins to run out and plant growth slows. If we put in drainage, as is common here, it would help keep the fields more usable in wet conditions but in summer we’d still have no resiliency to drought. Drainage ditches do exactly that, drain. Summer or winter, gravity still works, and any overland flow runs away. Without drainage however, the topsoil is too wet in winter for most productive tree species. Building berms or mounds to plant on is one solution for that, which also has the advantage of providing deeper topsoil for getting trees established. What we could do with then, is a drainage ditch that we can ‘switch off’ when we want, combined with a berm for planting on. That sounds an awful lot like a swale now doesn’t it? We’ll come back to the ‘switch off’ feature shortly.

We initially installed one swale with a retention pond at its end, for wildlife habitat. It was meant to be an experiment, to see how it performed over the summer. This was the summer of 2018 however, so we watched it do nothing but bake in the sunshine. For three months. Day after day, warm winds desiccated the exposed soil. The swale ditch itself was bare clay at its bottom, and soon resembled fired terracotta. In February we’d planted a row of hybrid willow cuttings down the southeastern boundary of the property. By autumn they’d reached knee high. Hardly impressive for willow under normal circumstances, but during the summer of 2018 just surviving was impressive. We’d put more of the same variety onto the swale berm in May, not really expecting much from them. They didn’t just grow, they flew up, putting on 8 feet of growth by autumn. In hard packed, poor soil.


The only place on the croft that things were thriving was on the swale. Spare tomato plants we’d put out just to avoid throwing them in the compost outyielded the ones we kept by a factor of three. Purple sprouting broccoli grew huge and healthy. All with zero irrigation, zero fertilisers and no attention whatsoever, through 60mph winds even. I suspect that there are a few factors coming in to play here. In the case of the willow, being planted into bare soil, without grass competition, will have certainly made a huge difference. The vegetables will have done better with the protection of the berm. But no matter how beneficial the microclimate, nothing grows well without water. Without rain, we were relying entirely on dew fall. Once the sun was up, about 1.30am in midsummer, that dew was hit by intense sun. But on the south side of the berm, that moist soil is in deep shade for hours, making it available to plants for longer. By the middle of summer I’d seen enough, and installed another two, each with a retention pond.

During major rain events, overland flow runs into the swale and goes into the pond at its end. Once the pond is full the water back-floods the swale. Each swale and pond has a broad spillway, and once the swale is full, it slowly over-spills here, where it won’t cause any erosion, and is picked up by the next swale down. This summer I’ll fit a pipe monk to each of the swales, giving us the ability to decide whether we want to prioritise filling the pond or the swale ditch. This is our ‘switching off’ function I mentioned earlier. In drought conditions this could well make the difference between harvesting fruit, nuts and timber or watching trees die.

This spring I intend to expand the swale systems. I’ll put two new swales in, between the existing ones, so that every other swale has a retention pond. There is a large barn, not owned by us, uphill of the top swale. I’ve installed a small ditch to catch the runoff from this roof. This ditch is four inches higher than the top swale, and a pipe drains the water by gravity into the top swale. This gives us a huge amount of water to play with, so I’ll double the size of the pond on the top swale and run some pipe to give us pressure fed natural irrigation water across 90% of the croft. The three original swale berms are planted to hybrid willow, giving us easily processed stick wood for fuel, cuttings, woodchip and eventually material for producing biochar. The new swales, once installed, will be planted with fruit and nut producing trees and shrubs. We’ll graze between the swales, which will increase the organic matter in the soil and deepen the topsoil while animal manures are washed into the swale ditches, fertilising the trees. The trees and shrubs will push roots deep into the heavy clay subsoil, increasing water infiltration as well as also increasing the organic matter in the soil. Over time, the water holding capacity of the site will increase to the point where it’s productive even in drought years. I’ve been told repeatedly that drought just isn’t an issue here. I was being told it even last summer, while farmers were deeply worried about lack of grass growth. As I write this it’s early March 2019. Rainfall over winter has been far lower that usual, and it’s been so warm in recent weeks that the trees are already budding out. The land is far drier than is typical for this time of year. If we have another drought this year, things will get serious very quickly. Here in Caithness we have comparable rainfall to Kent, and the croft lies just below a ridge. without overland flow from uphill, we’re reliant on rainfall completely. The earthworks we have installed give me a massive amount of peace of mind.

So, why don’t people like swales? A number of reasons, most if not all of them perfectly valid.

  1.  They permanently change the land, and its hydrology. They do, sort of. But so does planting a tree. A tree sends roots down sometimes hundreds of feet, and permanently changes the way water is infiltrated as a result. A swale is just a ditch cut into the topsoil. I can fill that back in should I choose, and the field would be pretty much flat again. A swale is no more permanent than a drainage ditch.
  2. They can have unforeseen effects on land hydrology downslope. True. But here, downslope is Loch Watten. There are springs all over the place, and all the fields have mains water supplied to drinking troughs. It’s just not a problem.
  3. Keyline design does exactly the same, with less permanent change. Pretty much, yes. Keyline is a system of land design that equalises moisture across the landscape by the use of a specialised subsoiling plow that shatters the subsoil without disturbing the topsoil much at all. At the same time, seed is planted into the furrow. The plants send their roots down into the shattered subsoil, and over time the topsoil layer deepens. It is a remarkable technique that’s well proven. It does take a tractor and a keyline plow though. We could possibly hire a neighbour with a tractor, but importing the plow would cost a great deal for the 5 acres we have. The topsoil deepening effect can be achieved by rotational grazing, albeit more slowly, which we plan on doing anyway. It would take years for the soil to be deep enough to plant fruit trees without them drowning in winter. One of the major benefits of swales, for us, is the microclimate effect. Keyline does nothing to change microclimate. If we had another 20 acres it’s certainly something I’d use, as I’ve said it’s a proven technique, but it’s just not practical at the scale of our croft.
  4. They can cause landslides. Yes they can. In land that’s prone to slipping, swales can be disastrous. We’re on a gentle slope over solid clay here though, it’s hard to imagine land less prone to slipping.

So, what should you do? My advice is to listen to all the conflicting advice available. Weigh the pros and cons, and how they apply to your context. And that’s the key thing here. It doesn’t matter what any expert says, no matter how experienced the individual, when that person doesn’t know your land, and what you want to achieve. Blanket statements saying a particular technique is always appropriate are dangerous, but so are blanket statements always condemning a particular technique. These things come in and out of fashion, but fashion should have zero influence on your decisions when you’re going to be living with the consequences for a very long time, and so is whoever works your land after you.


Observations from 58 1/2 degrees north.

By Andy Williams.

There’s no denying it, we’re a long way from the equator in Caithness. It’s presented some interesting opportunities in site design that to be honest I’d not even considered before we moved here. Permaculture design literature will tell you not to do anything until you’ve lived on a site a whole year, so you’ll have observed it in all seasons before finalising your design. That sounds like excellent advice, but how many people can afford that? In a real world setting, most of us buy land with a view to generating an income from it, living on it, or both. It’s impossible to do much of either without putting in a garden or putting up some kind of structure, so inevitably a certain amount of design work happens immediately by necessity. In reality, I suspect most people designing and implementing a permaculture system do something along the same lines as we did, get essential things built/planted/running immediately after settling on the layout of the main structural elements of the site, while keeping everything crossed that we’ll not notice something major in six months time that we should have done differently.

Our land slopes vaguely to the northeast. Across most of the northern hemisphere, a south-facing slope is considered the ideal for agriculture because of the solar gain. Land with a 5 degree slope to the south has the same solar gain as flat land a hundred or so miles to the south. Since morning sun is considered cooler and less intense than evening sun, an east facing slope is generally better than a west-facing slope. Slope really plays that big a role in microclimate. Thing is though, up here the sun isn’t always south. At midsummer, the sun rises and sets only slightly either side of due north. And that means that for almost half the day a north facing slope is getting that lovely increase in solar gain.

So, let’s look at what that means to us with our northeast facing land. In the middle of summer our field has direct solar gain until well into the afternoon, then has less intense gain through the late afternoon and evening. Since we have 20 hours of light here in midsummer, that’s a lot of sunshine for land that doesn’t face south. In winter of course we have the opposite effect and the sun crosses a very narrow proportion of the sky. Our swales, and therefore also our fruit and nut trees, run on contour along the slope. We’d always planned on putting fruiting shrubs and dwarf trees in front of the main tree rows on the southwest side, where they’ll get good sun through spring, summer and autumn. I’m also now planning on putting early maturing varieties on the northeast edge too, to make the most of that light. I’d always planned on a self-powered subtropical greenhouse to the south of the veg garden, with the north wall insulated to minimise heat loss during winter. Now I’m also considering a couple of simpler large polycarbonate greenhouses for extending our short growing season. With the extremely long summer day length up here, the growth is incredible. With a little playing around with the timings we should be able to harvest and preserve the summer gluts and still get another crop established before the days get short.

We’ve changed very little of the design over the last 6 months, what we have has been mostly adding to it rather than significantly altering the layout. One such change is to the duck ponds. We’d originally intended to place them immediately to the south of the subtropical greenhouse, to reflect as much of the low winter sun as possible into the greenhouse. This summer we’ve decided we’d really love an organic swimming pond, so that’s taken the place of the duck ponds next to the house. Ducks are still on the plan, but their ponds will be a little further out, below the bottom swale spillway. Another change is inside the house. After one winter of having to burn coal we’ve decided we have to switch to wood. You can’t use coal ash in the garden and just generating that much waste for landfill doesn’t sit well. So, next summer we’re replacing the old back boiler system with a rocket mass heater in the lounge. It runs on stick wood, a surprisingly small amount of it, so we can be completely self-sufficient for fuel by 2019. We’re going to plant more willow. A lot of willow. Any surplus can be mulched or turned into biochar, making our home heating system not just sustainable but regenerative.



Earthworks update.

By Andy Williams.

It hasn’t rained. It hasn’t rained in a very long time. We’ve had one brief shower since early May, roughly eight weeks ago. Now normally I’d be loving the opportunity to get so much done out on the croft, but we have a lot of bare earth baking in the sun, waiting for rain to sprout the meadow seed mix we’ve spread everywhere. The existing pasture is coping with the dry conditions well, but everything we’ve planted is struggling. In late winter we planted well over 700 bare root trees. They’ve done well, but a few weeks ago trees that were healthy started suddenly dying, When we pulled back the mulch around the base of a random tree, we found that the soil had shrunk so badly that it had left a huge crack that took two spadefuls of soil to fill. Every tree was like this, apart from the willow.

We’ve had to barrow soil to every tree and shrub we’ve planted, remove the stones holding the mulch down, remove the mulches, fill the trenches, reverse the process, then water them all. It’s taken some time. While we were at it, we added a scoop of slow release fertiliser to the fill around each tree. It’s not something we plan on doing in the long term but these trees have had a very rough start and at this point their survival has become the priority. Under the circumstances, I’m comfortable bending the rules occasionally to accelerate the establishment of the system. This is extreme weather, and once established the systems should be resilient enough to cope with such events easily, but only if we can get it there. The earthwork systems we’ve installed should make droughts like these practically irrelevant, but only after they’ve actually had some rainfall to harvest. Is it any wonder I’m frustrated?

One silver lining to it being so dry for so long is we’ve been able to see some of the wildlife benefits of the earthworks. Even when they’re bone dry, hard baked soil with no plant cover, the birds love the earthworks. The crest of each swale berm has a healthy sprinkling of bird droppings. Many bird species won’t search for food very far from a perch, and for some species fence posts just won’t cut it. Instead of an unbroken field of grasses and scrubby plants it’s now got high and low points, sheltered and exposed spots. The diversity of birds in the field has already started to increase as a result, and now occasionally at dusk we see a barn owl hunting. I often find evidence of bird kills on the very highest points of the berms, though I couldn’t say what species is doing it. The berms will eventually be planted to productive tree and shrub species, so will really benefit from the enrichment.

This week, after much sulking  thought, I worked out I could just about get a hose to the lowest earthwork. This is a stepped pond, with a curved berm behind it, shaped to catch and reflect the southern sun. It has a contour ditch to one side that collects overland flow and directs it into the pond, and should the pond fill completely during a major rain event the ditch will act as a level sill spillway so the berm won’t blow out from the weight of the water. There are several level platforms cut into the sides of the pond, the largest being the highest, just a couple of inches lower than the height of the level sill spillway.  In the event of the pond becoming overfull, first it’ll soak the top platform, then start to soak into the berm. Only then will the spillway kick in, so the water can’t get any deeper. It means that should we choose to, we can release water from further up in the landscape, flood the pond and soak the berm to water the whole area. The back of the berm has been planted with willow cuttings and then the whole area has been seeded with a meadow flower mix. It’s a small pond by agricultural standards, but even after months without rain it has a couple of feet of water in the bottom. Once it’s greened out the plant roots will knit the soil together and it’ll be a source of permanent water as well as being one of the most sheltered places on the croft. When the willow on the back of the berm has grown, it’ll be woven together to make a dense screen that will really shelter the whole earthwork from the wind. I dug a lot of big stone from this pond, so I’d planned on adding them to the berm to act as heat stores. If you’re going to add piles of stones to an earthwork though, you might as well make them comfortable to sit on. I’m going to rebuild the first of the stone seats I put together, but it’s hardly a priority.

With the hose just able to reach the end of the water collection ditch I was able to finally test it all. You can spend all day double checking the levels, but until you see water in it there’s always a niggling doubt in the back of the mind. This is the only truly finished part of the earthworks. By the time I’d finished this one, the sun had baked the soil so hard that trying to work it with spades is just brutal. I’ll post the other parts of the system as they become finished, because in the raw form they really don’t look like much. Have a look at these two photos for the contrast.

I don’t expect the pond to be full very often, and almost never during summer. If it’ll hold a couple of feet of water when it hasn’t rained in months however I’m sure it’ll be significantly higher for most of the year. Most new ponds seep a lot more water than they do when they’re older, clay particles washed into the pond are drawn into the tiny seep spaces and partially block them, making the pond to hold water better. You can buy preparations to give a pond a head start, or to fix a leaky pond. Other techniques use ducks to manure the water, because duck poo has particularly fine particles. We don’t have ducks yet but we do have clay. I’ve mixed up a tub of clay and water into the consistency of double cream. I’ve watered a third of it down and added it to the pond while it’s full. The pond already seeps very, very slowly, so any improvement should be significant. When the pond is full it’s over 8 feet deep in the middle. It’ll be interesting seeing what sort of depth it settles at. The next phase of the earthworks isn’t going to be built for at least a couple of years, but I’m so pleased by how this pond turned out that I’m really looking forward to it.

It’s the suspense that gets to you.

By Andy Williams.

It’s not often you find yourself waiting impatiently for rain when you live in the UK, but that’s what I’ve found myself doing for the last 36 hours. Here’s the thing. I’ve read all the books, researched online, then read the books some more. But until I see my earthworks dealing with a real rain event, there’s going to be a niggling doubt there. And it’s not rained in a week. It’s meant to rain tonight and tomorrow so I’m keeping everything crossed while muttering at the dark clouds on the horizon.

Today , after finishing tidying it up with spades, we’ve planted the berm of the swale up a little. We’ve put in the only proper apple tree we have, that a friend kindly gave us. I’ve carved it a little niche in the berm and lined it with stone to protect it while it’s little. We also put three autumn olive bushes around it. They’re a nitrogen fixing fruiting shrub that should do well here. We’ve put in 40 hybrid willow as a nursery crop, along with a few sycamore we found growing in the old garage. The plan is to replace them gradually as we buy the fruit and nut varieties we want. They can be chipped to be turned into a mulch that will encourage the fungally dominated soil we want to develop on the berm. We’ve put in four black locust on the end of the berm nearest the veg garden. They only produce a thin canopy even when they have leaves and will be coppiced routinely once they’re established so won’t cast any shade. We’ve added several buddleia for pollinators and even a few marigolds.

This is a very new swale, and it’s all bare earth. Covering that fast is vital, to prevent erosion of topsoil and stop invasives from moving into the open niche. We have a bee-friendly meadow seed mix ready to go on tomorrow, assuming it gives us some rain, but in the meantime we’ve seeded the berm with vegetable seeds. you know all the half empty veg seed packets that build up in your tin? All those saved varieties, bits shoved in unlabelled envelopes because ‘of course I’ll remember’? Wild seeds collected on autumn walks? We put the lot in a tub, added some sunflower and rocket seeds, gave it a good mix and spread the whole berm with it. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get some veg from it.

Under a foot of topsoil the ground is hard clay here. It’s hard work getting into it even with a mechanical digger. This means the bottom of the swale ditch after a week of wind and sun is like concrete. I plan on broadforking it (you know, assuming it ever rains) to break it up a bit and planting daikon radish fairly thickly to decompact the subsoil. In the meantime, I’ve put a sandbag across the pond entrance to keep the ditch from emptying into it. Hopefully a little soak should soften it up.


The pond…. I really had meant to dig a very small one. It had to be small, I’d already decided where the berm was going to go! But then I hit water and had to reconsider. I’m delighted with hitting reliable ground water, but it has made us evolve the plan. We’re going to enlarge the pond, to make better use of the water. Basically, the digger is coming back for a few days.

Still no rain. You know, in case you’re wondering.

Well, well.

By Andy Williams.

I went for a walk along the new earthworks this morning. We’ve yet to do the fine work with the spades so the pond in particular is still a little rough, so I wanted to see how much digging I’m in for this weekend. What I found was almost two feet of water. Superb. The top of our field is the ridge in the landscape, so it’s from the water table. This area is covered with wells and springs, but you can’t just sink a hole anywhere and hit water. We have a deeper, older ditch that was originally dug to take the water from the barn and it’s occasionally wet at the bottom (oo-er!) The new pond has water barely a metre down, and it’s not rain water. I noticed when I was using the digger that at one point I had water flow, but this is a lot more than I was anticipating. If this is reliable through summer it’s a huge deal. Over time we’ve always planned to take the croft off grid, so reliable water for livestock makes life a lot easier. What’s stunned me is that this water already has a pond skater. This pond is less than 24 hours old and someone’s moved in.

There’s a spot right at the top of the field that’s reliably wet. If we can develop that into a functional spring, we could gravity feed that water to anywhere on site. It’s starting to look like the site design has acquired another pond.

That’s no ordinary ditch…

By Andy Williams.

I know, I know, it’s been ages. I promise we’ve been very busy though. One of the frustrating things about having this blog is that when we’ve been doing interesting stuff we’re generally too busy to spend long blogging. We’ve had a couple of weeks of good weather, so have cracked on.

The front garden is almost finished. We’re waiting on a load of wood chip to be delivered. Once that’s spread over a load of cardboard it should take out the ground elder and few flowered leek. We’ve kept some of the leek in a pot, for something a bit different in the herb garden, but it can get away from you in the ground.

We finished marking the swales in the top field. We’ve bought a load of reclaimed timber to build a decent shed and some other reclaimed bits and pieces for the back garden. I’m sure I’ll blog about them when we get to it.

Best of all however is we’ve made a start on the earthworks! We hired a mini digger to level the shed site and booked an extra day to get a few other jobs done quicker. I must admit, I love it. It just gets things done so much faster and easier, it’s worth every penny. I’ve dug the lower swale and made a start on the integrated pond. I’ve designed it to work a little differently from a conventional swale. Rather than hold water until it infiltrates into the ground, this one drains into the pond at the end. It can be turned very easily into an infiltration swale, giving us the option to regulate the hydrology of the site throughout the year. The digger goes back after tomorrow so I’ll not manage to dig the other two this time, but it’s encouraging to see some of the main system components going in.

It still needs a little tidying with spades to finish, and I’ll need to go out during the next major rain event to tickle the spillway from the pond, but you get the idea. That digger will be back to visit again very soon I suspect.

Chicken of the woods.

By Andy Williams.

I’ve always enjoyed spending time outside, even as a kid. As an adult, when I could afford better toys, I went through the whole bushcraft thing. Wild camping, friction fire lighting, foraging for wild food and so on. It was that interest in wild foods that originally motivated my research into alternatives to industrially produced food. We experimented with all kinds of foraged ingredients but nothing is quite as exciting as finding a prime mushroom spot. A few years ago we were exploring some ancient woods and came across chicken of the woods. It’s a gorgeous fungus, top of our wish list, but unfortunately this example was old and woody. In its prime it’s said to be similar in taste and texture to chicken meat. Still, now we knew of an infected tree we just needed to come back earlier next year and we’d be sorted! We’ve never found it on that tree or any other in all that time.

Fast forward to deep winter at the croft, and I came across chicken of the woods inoculated dowels on a gourmet mushroom specialist site. I scanned the list of woods it would work with and saw ash among the species recommended. We had an ash tree that needed to come down. Beautiful. I stuck to the shiitake spawn I needed at that time for inoculating sycamore logs and stumps, but never looked at that ash tree the same way again. Yesterday it was the ash tree’s turn. I removed the branches but left seven feet of the trunk and branch stumps on the roots. I ring barked it, and drilled plenty of holes for the inoculated plugs that I’d ordered a month previously. The seller recommends at least fifty plugs for a tree this thick. I used a hundred and twenty. I *really* want to eat chicken of the woods. You can buy special white wax for sealing the plug faces but it’s just white cheese wax really. Why be white? White is boring. I went with red. The tree looks….. unusual. I rather like it.


While I was at it, I’d ordered a load more shiitake spawn. The stumps of the sycamores lie very close to a stone wall, so I can’t ring bark them with any kind of saw. I’d been a little light with the plugs I’d tapped into the stumps during the winter, my main interest had been the logs cut from them and I’d only put the extras into the stumps to use them up. This spring however the stumps have started sprouting new shoots. Small ones but still, not ideal. They’re very close to the house and those trees were big enough for the roots to be potentially causing problems for the foundations. I decided to reinforce the shiitake inoculation. A lot. I’ve yet to inoculate the severed branches of the ash, but after they’re done I’ll put the surplus plugs into the stumps too. This is how they looked before the sealing wax.

Now they look just as odd as the ash trunk does. Sooner or later people are going to work out this isn’t your average croft. I’d like to point out that I’ve made no groan-worthy puns like not having mush-room for farming, or being a fun-gi. That’s the other Williams. You’re welcome.