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City Kids Move to the Country – Part IV

Editor’s Note: This article was written in mid-December, when Queensland’s rains were nothing like that witnessed of late, and which have caused the catastrophic flooding in many towns and cities across the state. I mention this to ensure people realise Nicola was not being insensitive with timing of a Queensland- and water-based article. Our thoughts go out to all who have suffered in the recent deluges.

Pit-falls, projects and laughs from our Permaculture journey

If women knew diggers looked this good I think swales would pop up like weeds
around the globe. Gee whiz. Beats a four-tonne excavator in my books
– even if it had a swivel bucket.

Chris woke up the other day and declared, “I think I can dig those swales by hand.”

“Super,” I said, “go for it!”

Like most of Queensland, we’ve been inundated with rain, so the ground is soft and pliable, but thankfully, not flooded.

Chris is strong and energetic… it’s a perfect mix. As a bonus, I can put off phoning excavators for quotes indefinitely.

What I hadn’t planned on was my involvement in the project; apparently I’m quite good at shoveling dirt. And when Chris was ready to dig the second swale, I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a bus. Conveniently, our dog Jordie was overdue for a walk…. But, I returned home in time to help transplant more citrus from isolated mounds into the second swale’s banks.

Good luck little citrus, sorry to have moved you so many times.

In the beginning trees were planted in isolated mounds.
And we saw that it wasn’t good.

“Have you ever been whale-watching?” Geoff asked a fellow student mid-way through our PDC in Melbourne.

The student said they had.

“Well, now you can stop that and take up swale-watching instead!” Everyone laughed.

I dismissed his clever play on words, but now I can happily say I’ve tried this new activity-come-sport and I’m hooked. Before tonight nothing would have made me want to venture outside, listening to a down-pour on the roof while tucked up under the covers. But tonight, after digging our first proper swale (ie. level and along contour), I jumped at the chance to don gumboots and umbrella and check out our handiwork.

Like a kid who’d spent a happy afternoon building sand castles and moats at the beach, I couldn’t wait to see what happened when the tide came in. Except this time the water was coming from uphill, not down, and we were hoping we’d honed our earthworks skills to cope with nature’s onslaught instead of break the banks, turning the trenches into a swirling, crumbling mess.

I tramped downstairs. There was no chance of flooding if the swales overflowed since they’re downhill from all structures. I was just curious. With umbrella shielding the last of the rain, I peered out. Chris was bemused after we’d dug the first trench, saying it looked to be going uphill. However, thanks to the A-frame thing-a-me-bob he used to mark out the level ground, it was filled evenly with water from one end to the other. It was a simple enough device (like most things I’m finding in Permaculture – they’re not nearly as complex as I’ve led myself to believe).

To make it, Chris nailed two pieces of wood at one end, then a cross piece to form a capital ‘A’. From the top apex he secured a piece of string tied to a jar full of water, which swung freely down. Any small, heavy object would do. On the cross-brace he drew two vertical lines in the middle, marking either side of where the string hung. Holding the frame upright, he placed it along contour and jiggled one leg up and down the slope until the string hung between the two vertical lines. He spray-painted marks on the lawn at the frame’s legs then proceeded to move it along contour, placing the following leg where the preceding one had been. By readjusting the leading leg up and down the slope until the string hung between the lines, the frame worked for our small job as well as any surveyor would have, but without the cost.

Frogs jumped in as I walked along the temporary dam. I put my gumboot in to see how deep the water was so I could report back to Chris, who hadn’t felt the need to come swale-watching with me at two-thirty in the morning. It covered my toes, so it must be holding about 4cm of water. Free water! Harvested (that’s what they mean when they say water-harvesting! It really is ‘harvested’ by design) and right now, as I type this, irrigating our freshly (trans)planted citrus without our having to even get out of bed. Unless you want to go swale-watching, that is.

“If you tried reading a car’s manual end to end, that would be pretty weird,” said Geoff.

“It’s the same with this book,” he said, holding up Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. “It isn’t really intended for bedtime reading. But here’s a tip, at the end of each chapter is a designer’s checklist and that provides a useful summary of what’s covered in the chapter.”

Despite this piece of advice I tried to read it cover to cover. Just for fun. It looked very impressive beside the bed and on the coffee table. As it turns out, I’m not a hardcore theorist after all. But I am glad to say it works as a manual. Once Chris started digging I raced inside with numerous unanswered questions, only to find all the information needed on pages 167–9. Why didn’t I see that before? Probably because there’s nothing like the possibly of an eroding, muddy mess of clay and weeds at the bottom of your front steps to motivate looking up an index. The process is pretty simple. Any kid playing in the sand at the beach has done it. As adults we seem to have lost touch with our inquisitive playfulness and willingness to try things, just to see how they work. I can be a bit serious, worrying about pros and cons, while Chris, on the other hand, knows how to be a kid at heart. Which makes us a good team. He jumps in and starts projects, while I look into the details, pretty much always finding it’s not as hard or complicated as I’d feared.

During the PDC and on pages 228-9 of his manual, Bill Mollison explains how important it is to mulch and plant into any freshly moved earth, so I spread hay from the trench to the other side of the mound, covering our virgin swales. I’m glad I did because we’ve had persistent rain since and the hay has protected the dirt mounds from erosion. I’ve since planted comfrey, arrowroot and lemongrass cuttings from Dee’s place and will soon add herbs raised from seed in the shade-house.

One of the first things I learnt when introduced to Permaculture is that it’s based on three ethics; care of the earth, care of people and fair share of surplus.

“Honey,” I said to Chris as we were driving home a couple of months ago, “just think how we’ve come to have a van-load of free building material.”

We’d visited Tania Copell, a fellow Permaculture Noosa member, who now owns the property Geoff Lawton owned and set up years ago. Back then, he planted bamboo by the drive-way and around the numerous dams, which Tania now harvests with the help of WWOOFers each year. She has very generously shared her long poles with us for free. We’ve used them to build the roof of the shade-house, tee-pees for the cucumbers, a four bay composting system and soon we’ll make trellises for the beans, luffas and chokos. It struck me how Geoff had generated a surplus by his design, and over a decade later people he’d never even met were benefiting from his actions.

I suppose this kind of surplus is being created in back-yards, on acreages and farms the world over. I’ve been thinking about how such tangible, useful and practical, almost forced generosity (the bamboo keeps on growing!) isn’t something I’ve experienced in any other movement or industry. While success is usually measured by bottom-lines and profit margins, money doesn’t inherently promote sharing of surplus. How can you define surplus of money? There’s no expiry date; it doesn’t go mouldy or have the shelf life of nectarines and bananas. You can store it, hoard it and invest it. But share it? I’ve been surprised to find a ‘gardening movement’ can produce abundance, caring and connection, and do it in an ethical, intelligent and fun way.

Since becoming members of Permaculture Noosa in April 2010, other members have shared their bananas, chokos, eggs, sapotes, pumpkin, rosella jam, chocolate cake, thousands of seeds, hand-drawn garden designs, bamboo, building techniques, garden tours, herbal remedies, information, numerous cuttings and plants. The surplus of this region and group, combined with people’s generosity has left us feeling overwhelmed at times. I’ve wondered ‘Is it unique to gardener’s and specifically Permaculturists, where using design to work with nature automatically leads to an abundance?’ We’ve experienced firsthand the ‘invisible structures’ set up by the group and are incredibly thankful for the help we’re receiving along the way.

On that note, we visited Dee’s friends’ place last week and got to see first-hand the design she was suggesting for our orchard. Tracy and Phil have been involved with Permaculture much longer than us and had established, ironically, what we’d initially tentatively drawn for our design. Only their property shows more confidence, simplicity and multifunction, stacked through time and space, than we could have imagined at our novice stage. Let me explain.

When we came home from the PDC we spent the first night attempting to design our recently purchased one and a half acres. We could see the value in capturing water run-off from the sloping block by digging swales along contour. Unfortunately I was put off by fear of the cost. Plus we didn’t envisage the stacking possibilities; planting the orchard, herbs, and other edible plants along the swales, increasing the earthwork’s usefulness. So instead, we planted the orchard in aesthetically pleasing, isolated mounds.

Dee grows strawberries around the base of their fruit trees.
They work as a grass and weed barrier and provide tasty treats
while working in the garden.

Enter Dee and Ian Humphries. That’s when they shared their experience mowing around individual trees (frustrating!), the ease of irrigating long rows instead of isolated mounds and suggested considering north/south orientation to make best use of the sunshine and in our case, water run off.

Mowing around ‘isolates’ isn’t the most efficient way to spend your time,
Dee and Ian assured us. Although their orchard still provides them with
fruit year-round in reward of their efforts.

At Tracy and Phil’s place we saw how easy it could be. Not only did their design take into account all of the above, it also:

  • produced its own convenient mulch, ready for harvest at the base of the trees in the form of lemon grass, arrowroot and comfrey which can be ‘cut and dropped’
  • lessened the overall length of edges compared with isolates, making them easier to maintain with cardboard periodically laid over the invading lawn
  • incorporated nitrogen fixing support trees to help provide wind-breaks while the fruit trees were established. Pigeon pea was their chosen species and provides a hit of nitrogen released into the soil with each pruning. Down south you could use Acacias or tagasaste. They also grew vegetables and herbs along the swales, stacking their yield by packing more into a space that was already irrigated and maintained.

First swale sighting!

Dee points out to Chris the multi-function of the swale achieved by ‘stacking’
plants in the ditch, on the mound and along the edges,
according to their water needs.

Seeing such a system in action and getting a sense of its scale gave Chris the motivation and confidence to try his hand at digging our swales. It’s worked out well. According to Mollison we can widen the ditch and move more dirt onto the mounds as the ditch gradually fills with silt over time. The purpose of the swales is to create humus (not hummus!) and help our orchard become established by holding water, allowing it to soak into the ground instead of run straight into the dam. Water from our shower is already piped down to the orchard, so we simply dug a ditch directing the flow into one end of the top swale. We won’t be growing leaf crops with that water, only mulch and citrus, and we will only use coconut soap in the shower so it should be safe for the soil and for us. At the other end, we found the house’s downpipes are emptying rainwater via another pipe, so Chris extended the swale to harness this surplus too, until we install rainwater tanks in future.

Ooohh, I do love those straight lines

Lemongrass is planted in the ditch, as it loves water. The fruit trees are planted
in the mound of the swale to provide them with much appreciated drainage.
Between the fruit trees are pigeon pea bushes — small trees that release nitrogen
into the soil when they are pruned, replacing the need for expensive and
environmentally unfriendly artificial fertilizers. As far as I know,
Acacias would also do the job.

On the lower side, behind the fruit trees, arrowroot is planted to provide
mulch when it’s cut and dropped on the ground. Arrowroot grows rapidly
in our climate. In addition, bush basil and other herbs such as
pineapple sage are planted on the mound, further extending the yield
from this intensive and diverse system.

An infant swale

We’ve tried drawing designs numerous times in the past few weeks. They are sketchy and continuing to evolve. I’ve taken heart remembering two things: 1) my process-based method of working as an artist, where I approach paintings not with a concrete idea of what it will look like but knowing the tools I can use along the way to help achieve the desired result, and 2) something Geoff left us with at the end of the PDC.

He said, “After learning the concepts in this course, you can’t do any worse than what’s already being done out there,” motioning to the university grounds, suburbs and beyond.

I don’t think we’ve done any worse. In fact, at this stage I think we’re a couple of swale lengths in front.

Phil and Tracey walked Chris through the process they used….
It’s not hard. Just pile dirt from the ditch below, on the lower side of the slope,
plant your orchard in that, and happy days. Even with 600mm of rain
in three weeks, everything’s survived. The combination of drainage and
irrigation is genius. Genius, I tell you. Thanks Bill et al. It makes sense.

Swale-watching, the sport taking the world by storm. (Ha! I just made that up).

Proud parents of three infant swales.


  1. Nicola! how have you guys [and the baby swales] held up during the flooding? I have enjoyed reading about your journeys and do hope that you and Chris are OK… best wishes from all of your readers :) :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your story: living on a suburban block ourselves I think manual swale digging is a more likely and affordable option than hiring some kind of machine…although we do know an Engineering friend who can drive a bobcat!

    Watching the sheets of water pour off our back lawn and down our driveway, I certainly wished for swales, but at least I now know where they need to go!

    Best wishes from (now) sunny Toowoomba where we’re still coming to terms with the event, which in the words of our Mayor, “never happens so shouldn’t have happened but did happen”.

  3. haha, i love you guys! It’s great to see other young aussies digging swales by hand. We’ve recently been putting in a food forest on the far side of a very narrow 2 tonne bridge. We’ve been experimenting with different sized swales and will be really interested to see how the smaller ones turn out.
    An interesting point to note was that the grass was much easier to cut through during the wet, but the soil was much heavier. We’ve been extending the swales gradually in the dry using very sharp shovels from Green Harvest and working at night to avoid the heat/sunburn.
    All the best!

  4. The purpose of the swales is to create humus (not hummus!)

    Nicola – given your climate, I’m thinking you could grow chick peas, no? And if so, then you’re fully able to not only produce humus, but to also produce hummus out of your humus!

  5. Congratulations Nicola and Chris, for another comprehensive
    report on your achievements to date. As Matthew suggests it will be interesting to hear how your swales and other efforts have survived our recent excessive downpours. As mentioned previously
    you would be welcome to visit and join us for lunch at our community garden in Maleny, one future saturday.
    Obviously it’s in a sorry state after the recent testing times,
    however when it suits email me. [email protected] Brian.

  6. The issue with digging is that one normally expends a lot of energy moving one’s own body, rather than the soil. It is much more economical to instead use this approach which eliminates much of the body movement:

    It’s also described in the PDM, but I actually found that quite cryptic.

  7. Hi Nicola,
    I read your post some days ago but it was only this morning (It takes a while sometimes for ideas to emerge) that I remembered something from PDC (which you haven’t mentioned and may not therefore have considered) that may give you some extra hours of undisturbed rest instead of midnight swale-watching for fear of swale walls being swept away.
    Do you remember the concept of overflow sills? Where a section of the normal uncompacted swale wall is replaced, usually at one end of the swale, by a compacted level sill at a lower level than the wall to allow excess water to trickle over and become part of the catchment of the next lower swale. At your scale of things perhaps a sill of 1-2 metres in length and around 50-100mm lower than the wall, depending on the depth of the swale, should do the trick.
    Overflow sills are usually placed at alternate ends of swales as they descend the slope and if you want to retain any overflow at the bottom of your site you could include a dam of appropriate size to the scale of your swales. That shouldn’t be a problem for someone who displays the sort of grit and determination that Chris does.
    I think there was a post not too long ago that explained this in more detail and of course you could get more input from Geoff’s Water Harvesting DVD.

  8. Hi all!

    Thanks so much for your concern and comments. Apart from being cut off from home (I stayed with friends), and Chris being stuck at home for five days due to two rivers cutting us off, we were unscathed during these horrendous floods.

    Amazingly the swales worked a treat. I don’t think they will get an opportunity like this again to prove themselves like they have, fluctuating up and down, moderating the rainfall for weeks at a time. Just when I thought they would overflow, the rain would ease for an hour or two and the level would drop. Even their relative small size was enough to cope with 100mm a day for a couple of days straight. Bernie – I remember the sills you mention – thanks! If we ever have more rain than this, I’ll know what needs to be done. In fact I might put them in place just to be safe.

    Thomas – thanks for the shoveling tip! We are about to dig another swale tonight (this time to stop water pouring under the house) – so we’ll give it a go :) and save our backs.

    Sara – I’m so sorry, as is the state, the nation and I think the world, about what happened in your town. I think everyone’s still recovering from the shock. I’m really glad you’re ok and thanks for your comments.

    Chris! – great to hear you are busy with food forests and swales too! I’ve been amazed how the small swales worked. And our top one is almost completely clay, with the lower ones comprised of looser soil, so my theory that it depends on how friable the soil is doesn’t seem to hold up. I’d love to hear how yours go.

    Brian – thanks for your email address and reminding me of your invitation. I’m busy painting madly for an exhibition for the next six weeks, so it will probably be after then that I get up your way. Keep reminding me in case I forget again – it’d be great to meet up and see the garden. I need all the visual and hands-on help I can get!

    Thanks again everyone for your comments. It really makes a big difference, knowing people enjoy what I’m writing, and prods me to get back to the computer for the next update.

    Stay safe all!

  9. Hey, so true – didn’t I come over to paint and leave with the fattest cucumber I’ve ever seen? Delish, thanks chic x

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