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Swale Fail?

Editor’s Note: It’d be great if more people would share their successes and failures in similar fashion as Greg has below. The reason I say this is three-fold — 1) you get valuable feedback from readers on how to overcome your challenges, 2) readers can learn from your mistakes and thus hopefully avoid them, and 3) people new to permaculture will have a decent dose of reality as they start their on-the-ground work, and so won’t give up in despair the moment things don’t immediately pan out as anticipated! Send your articles to editor (at) !

Incredible results from the master after just three months in the same temperate climate as us.

Did you and our family have the same experience? Did you watch Geoff’s Food Forest DVD with mouth agape, saying “wow” to yourself at least a dozen times?

You saw it — plan, excavate, mulch, plant. Stand back and be amazed as your planned accelerated succession of productive plants unfolds.

We were lucky enough to have the property and funds to give it a try. I think we’ve failed. Here I’ll explain what we did, mistakes we know about, and the results. Maybe you can spot more mistakes and give us some ideas of where we can go from here.

Dutifully, we planned six swales, interfacing with an existing dam. We fretted over and calculated width, depth, spacing, length. We planned spillways.

Mistake: Assuming 85% runoff from our hard clay when 15% is more realistic. Though, as you’ll see, they’ve still filled many times.

I marked out contours with a water level before the gruff excavator operator, while double-checking my pegs with a laser level, remarked: “Wow, you did pretty well”. My pegs were right on.

The big day came and 500m of swales were dug. This was late autumn.

Mistake: Not cleverly sequencing the digging so as to keep topsoil on top. Though this may have been OK since it meant the grass root balls and the weed seed bank were buried.

Looks pretty good, but have you ever had that
“Oh my, what have we done?” feeling?

View of three of six swales we had dug those two days.
Were we brave or stupid? Anxiety reins and time will tell!

Excellent! Water fills them before we could even get mulch,
compost, and seeds distributed.

Mistake: Not having the knowledge of how to analyze the soil at depth and figure out that the soil was too heavy (clay) and so too hard in some of our swales to allow infiltration within three days.

Mistake: Some berms are so high that they must be drier than the flat ground down slope from them. Only when some enterprising taproot makes its way down deep will the magic of swale architecture start working.

We distributed mulch, compost and six species of groundcover seeds. The compost was nothing more than a dusting, the idea being to inoculate the hard (sometimes sub-soil) clay with microbes and fungi and to give the groundcover seeds a packed lunch.

Two months later. A – some standing water. B – thick groundcover well
differentiated from surrounding vegetation. C – happy dampness. D – existing dam.

Closer view of established groundcover

Mistake: Our warm season groundcover sprouted in our mild mid-north coast NSW winter, and I didn’t figure that out in time to replace it. Given Geoff’s “3-month” progress report in the video, I thought this would be OK.

So at first, things looked good. The cowpea took off, and much of the “junk” in the birdseed did too. We had an impromptu sunflower crop in the middle of winter. Later, the lupin took over from the cowpea. The groundcover was established.

We started putting in native nitrogen fixers — black wattle (Acacia melanoxylon), casaurina, and ice cream bean tree (Inga edulis).

Come late winter/early spring, 80 eager fruit and nut trees arrived. Outlay: about $1000. We picked up some 40 more native nitrogen fixers, inoculated leucanea seeds, and propagated our own bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), sweet potato, arrowroot (Canna edulis), black bean tree (Castanospermum australe) and more. Throw in some miracle trees (Moringa oleifera), bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii), saba nuts (Pachira aquatica) and all the other beauties that I dreamt of as a cubicle dweller just a few short years ago.

Mistake: Not hearing Geoff’s 4:1 ratio of N-fixers to productive plants in the video. We planted probably 60 N-fixers.

So here’s what happened. The cowpea and lupin died off in late spring and nothing that was next in the succession survived. The thick mulch the ground covers provided wasn’t enough to prevent the weeds and grasses from moving in. None of our other plants really took off except a few arrowroot. None of the other groundcover seeds ever germinated, or if they did I didn’t see them.

Oops, things are starting to look feral. Groundcover not dominant anymore.
Those are two inundated fruit trees you can see on the left (see yellow arrows).

Close up of our “Weed forest”. Fireweed, dock, thistles, horseweed, verbena,
grasses, and all the other typical pasture inhabitants found in NSW.

Worse, almost every one of the fruit trees has failed — some by plain old transplant failure, but most by having their tops broken off (yet not eaten) by wallabies. I get nature, but this just seems mean.

Most of the N-fixers are gone too. Not sure what’s happened to them, but I suspect rabbits.

Several of our poor darlings survived an initial leaf stripping, only to be stripped again and then have their tops broken off.

Nothing was particularly stacked against us — we’ve had good, normal rain (about 110 mm/month), and below average spring temperatures. The soil is hard clay and acidic, but Geoff works in NSW too.

Here are some pictures from today, mid-summer.

Success: A few of the N-fixers are doing OK.

Success: All of the Arrowroot we planted is growing, but will it be able to
resist the onslaught of grasses and weeds?

Success: Paulownia is happy. That’s supposedly the fastest growing tree in
the world so odds are with us on this one. Note the encroaching grass in the
foreground. The overly thick mulch in the form of bales was an experiment to see
if this one did any better than the others (so far they’re about the same).

Success: Some of the Bunya pine are surviving, but it looks nearly
swallowed by the incoming weed wave.

Fail: Stripped one (or more) times but having one more go at it.

Fail: My heart (and wallet) breaks at the site of this poor thing which came
back after being stripped, only to have the stem below its new growth broken.

Something for CSI: Brombin to evaluate.


  • Oversowing with a new groundcover species won’t work since nothing out-competes weeds in their time and space niches (that’s why they’re weeds).

  • It’s illegal to shoot wallabies. End of story I think.

  • Electric fencing is impractical because the growing grass would short out the fence – unless slashing 500m of swales is par for the course.

  • We might try those rigid tree guards but those are $5/each (the wallabies just push down the soft ones). $400 to protect $1000 isn’t a terrible idea, but there’s no guarantee that would be money well spent either.

It seems that on PRI we see a lot of successes documented so I thought I’d throw in a different experience and put the “idea hat” out there for anybody to chip in if they felt like it.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience with this well documented article. My heart goes out to you all! When I first read the headline, I thought I was going to be reading about a swale that literally failed: the berm giving way and flooding! I don’t think you have failed at all. The swales are working and succession is moving forward.

    A couple of questions:

    1) What is your intended use of the property? Is this a commercial or personal endeavor?

    2) Are there any domesticated herbivores?

    I am no expert, but here are some of my suggestions:

    1) Take it slower. Allow the weeds to grow, break up the soil, mine nutrients, and enjoy their moment in the sun.

    2) Start with one swale, or one section of a swale, and focus on creating a nucleus of “desired” plant and animal activity. I would try to create a guild based on early/mid succession and leave the fruit trees for a few years down the road. You could use “fortress plants” (ala Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden) to slow the infiltration of running plants into your focus area. I would suggest Russian Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) as part of your border since it spreads only by division. It should compete well with the weeds. We have heavy clay soil here (albeit a much smaller property) and our Russian Comfrey really enjoys being on a swale.

    By using plants that can be readily propagated, you could use the “nuclei that merge” technique (Edible Forest Gardens by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier). This will allow you to replicate what works on a smaller scale into larger areas.

    3) Instead of focusing on human yields, focus on weaving the ecosystem together. A complete nectary calendar and beneficial organism niche requirements would be my priority. While I haven’t tested this out yet, we are in the process of doing so. We want to bring together as many positive elements as we can, build the soil, then plug in our edible/productive species.

    4) Lastly, if you cannot have your own domesticated herbivores to help slow down the weeds on your other swales, perhaps you could interest a local farmer in some extra pasture?

    Good luck and keep your spirits high!

  2. Are wallabies attracted to bait? I’ve kept critters out of my gardens, including deer and goats, with baited electric wire. Hang one strand at about nose height of the animal you want to repel, and then put tags of aluminum foil about every three meters, with a swatch of bait on it. Peanut butter seems to work well for me. Animals are attracted to the fence by the bait, give it a lick and get a really good shock. They won’t try it again for months.

  3. Hi. First of all congrats for your decision and effort. I don’t think that your work is a failure. I am happy to see that the swales are working properly. Recently we
    have brought a 2.7 acre property (I live in the telangana region of Andhra Pradesh of India). So I thought a few things to do in our property and I hope they will be useful to you too. Regarding the fence do you have a normal barbed wire fence? If not maybe you should try that. And along with that all over the fence and behind it, up to a thickness of ten feet, we are planning to grow a thick patch of living fence cum wildlife habitat. This can be cut down a few years later to very less thickness. Now in this patch add all the acacia and other plant species that are hardy, thorny and/or bushy. Propagate them through seed balls. A small ditch, probably 1/2 feet depth and 2 feet wide, should be dug around the fence so as to hold water and the seed balls should be thrown here too. There should be a lot of biodiversity here. As the trees and bushes in this patch grow they will block animals and also I can cut them and use them as mulch etc.

    Second, what I am planning to do is after mulching the swales (which you have already done) just have several seed balls of many different plants. These have to be he ones whose seeds which we can get freely or very cheaply. Most could be wild plants and/or hardy perennials, herbs etc. Regarding those ‘weeds’ etc., I am planning to cut them down at some places every two weeks or so, at a few places not all the land, and use them as mulch. In those regions I shall add some more seed balls containing the type of plants I said about before. The main aim of this is to build up biodiversity and fertility in the soil.

    After a year or so, during the next rainy season (we have monsoon type of climate) I plan to add a few productive plant seeds also. These will be done in patches; clearing a small patch (maybe a few square feet and mulching it and adding the seed balls containing food production and other useful plants mentioned above). I plan to continue this for another year, clearing small patches and adding new plants, trimming the fence and doing chop and drop mulching every two weeks. Many cereals, vegetables etc., get introduced and hopefully some become self propagating. So after two years the land will have lots of biodiversity, fertility and also many edible plants which are self propagating. Because of the fence the unruly interference of large animals and humans is avoided. Also crucially the land will have passed the stage of domination by weeds and grasses because many trees (most of which hare wild) start to shade out them.

    Now during the second rainy season I plan to plant the main tress (layer 1 and 2 plants) in a carefully planned layout, because they take a long time to establish and mature, by clearing few square feet around the planting space and planting the tree with expert advice. These trees will not be planted all at once but in batches at different places with the appropriate microclimate. Also a small ditch should be present around the base of each tree, with a 2 or 4 inches depth and radius of 2 feet or so. This will help to hold rainwater and also we can mulch it so that the tree is not dominated by others. We can also establish supporting/nursing plants or establish the new trees near them. We start to cut down the living fence and reduce its thickness. Now I have to regularly do chop and drop mulching, watering in dry months and also establishing plants belonging to layers 3, 4, 5 and 6 at the appropriate places.

    I have this plan because I have noticed in many places where the land is fenced off from animals and humans and the rainwater can soak in, after two or three years many of the hardy trees grow very large and it starts to look like a forest. Due to chop and drop mulching by us and introduction of biodiversity it will be even better and accelerated. All this time I will maintain a record book and record all the observations. In this way I am planning to minimize the costs and chances of failure. The main requirement here is that we should not expect any reasonable harvest for at least three years.

  4. Oh dear. I’m going to choose my words carefully here. Greg thanks for posting this.
    In the first instance I like our friend above (FinchJ) thought I was going to be reading about mass failure about of a swale due to a weather BOM or a design flaw.
    To call the post ‘Swale Fail’ is misleading. I think you could have called it ‘Design Fail’. I saw nothing in your post that remotely sounded like any plan had been put in place, research into tree establishment or methods for keeping the animals controlled from your trees during establishment.
    I construct swales, implement tree planting systems as a professional Permaculture designer so I’ve had quite a bit of first hand experience at this type of work and work along side some of Australia’s most successful tree planter like Matt Kilby (
    I get calls most weeks from people telling me they have read all of Bill’s books, watched all the Geoff’s DVD’s and are ready to get into it and want me to assure them over the phone (For FREE mind you) that everything there about to do is correct.
    For people out there looking to do the same, I think your money would be better spent finding someone with professional experience to set out a construction time line and supervise some of the earth works. I’m not going to start pulling Greg’s project apart because what’s done is done.
    But to compare his results with Geoff’s DVD is giving others a false message. To quote your words here “We were lucky enough to have the property and funds to give it a try”. Nothing like a bit of experimentation, you could of spent that same money on one of Geoff’s intense courses offered at the PRI, got the first hand experience or paid someone to do it right the first time and you could well of been harvesting the fruits of our labour now. (DO LESS AND DO IT BETTER). DO only what you can manage. Geoff has 1000’s of metres of swale, but the difference here is he has hundreds or Wwoofers and students per your to help him manage them.
    We all do things a bit differently, and so I to Geoff. That paddock would have been better to deep rip it with a Yeomans Plow on the contour above and below the swale to 300mm deep, wait 3 months in that climate, deep rip again to 500mm to 600mm. Construct the swale, then wait for all the dead clumps of grass to die in the swale mound or you’ll get nitrogen drawdown for the decomposing green matter. Purchased tree guards from Matt Kilby and I at to stop all predation from animals up to small horses and protect your investment.
    I’m going to leave it there because I could go in all day. So people please, you don’t always have to learn from (YOUR) mistakes you can get it done right the first time and learn from people who have done it before then carry on your self and SAVE $$$$$.
    Greg I’m sorry you had to learn the hard way. Advice for all. Work smarter not harder. I don’t like hard work, thats why I design, research, test the ideas and find the best people to guide me before I set one foot on the ground. We don’t build houses with out a structural l engineer, so why should swales and tree planting systems be any different?

    1. Nick, Get your point about experience. Still since we are still in the land of new ideas and actually rather little experience, I would like to put forth a counter opinion. I think the fail is because the owner tried to much to big to soon instead of trying something smaller. There is nothing more frustrating than over extending then failure. Except hiring some guy who says he knows what he is doing and does a worse job than you could do on your worst day (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The whole point of permaculture is to discover new relationships and share those with others. Maybe some things are supposed to be for fun and others for money.

  5. I too, thought there must have been some “failure” when I read the headline. Sure, there are some sub-optimal successions going on here but there’s nothing that can be called a big failure here as far as I can tell. This land is certainly much better off for having the swales than not, yes? Keep seeding at various times of year, hit it with some dense grazing before that and do the rest of the classic approaches – the ‘ideal’ ecosystem doesn’t get started right away. Looks like a great spot… thanks for posting. Ben

  6. PS: those “Weeds” you have in there are great soil builders. Try to let go of a particular outcome you had in mind before you made the swales. The land will behave differently and offer many lessons in the process. You’re doing great!

  7. Thank you for sharing – great case study.

    I agree with Finchj – it’s not a failure by any means (also agree with other things s/he said).

  8. This is a success not a failure, keep up the great work Greg, we are all really at the cutting edge of this technology, every attempt is valuable. I put in 1km of swale in August 2011 and I am having all the same results and situations as you, I am thrilled with the results at my place, please don’t despair, everyone can learn a lot from your work.

  9. Many thanks everybody for the feedback, encouragement and criticisms. I need them all!

    @Finchj – intended use of the property is for it to produce as much as possible to first offset our needs, then later provide surplus for sale/trade. “Produce” would be all the things that swales can produce (as per Toby Hemenway): “Food, Fuel, Fodder, Farmaceuticals, Fertilizer, Fiber, and FUN”. I don’t know that I need to be more specific than that for a design.

    A small herd of cows are available, and we have grazed along the swales. To allow them on top I fear would mash the swales.

    Your advice to start slow and start with a nucleus is echoed by Kirsten of Milkwood. It’s a good one and we’ll certainly try something small going forward. I admit we’re in a hurry due to what I perceive to be the global situation. And, it didn’t appear that Geoff starts small on an installation. Practically speaking, the repeated excavator travel fees would be a big downside.

    @Finchj and @Ben
    As far as letting the weeds do their work – I disagree. The whole point of the design and implementation of food forests is to fast track the natural succession that would otherwise take many years. And no matter how far I let the succession go naturally and at it’s own pace, when I finally planted something the wallabies would take out my work. Plus, it’s not like I started with bare ground – grasses and weeds have had a long time to do their thing here.

    @BobBurns – as noted, electric fences are shorted out by our high grass.

    @Mihir – Yes, our property is fenced, but kangaroos and wallabies (and rabbits) go right through anything shy of a monsterously high and fortified fence. I’ve done experiments with seedballs on both bare and grassed ground and have never seen them work.

    @NickHuggins – Criticism much appreciated. I’ve contacted you separately for you to quote an on-site consultation. I did contact a professional, but like many of you, he was run off his feet. Unfortunately, he never responded with a quote.

    I did a lot of upfront design work and planning, which maybe isn’t apparent from the results. That’s not to say I didn’t still make some fundamental mistakes. I left out the details of my design and pre-implementation planning in the write-up for the sake of brevity. As I’m early on my learning curve, the outcome was disappointing but not entirely unexpected or unplanned for – we have the funds for more attempts and course corrections.

    In my experience with tree guards, the wallabies just wait for the tree to poke out the top, then munch it down to guard-level. Repeatedly.

    We considered deep-ripping but there were no Yeoman’s plows in the region that I could hire (I contacted the company even) – plus I don’t think that wouldn’t have prevented the problems above.

    The grass clumps would not have died after the swale was constructed – too much rain in this climate maybe.

    I see a lot of “you should have done it right” points but few details as to what specific mistakes I made that guaranteed the outcome as shown. That’s your forte, so I look forward to paying you for your time and expertise.

    Plenty of people build houses without structural engineers, but after making all the mistakes that can be made, they’re qualified (if still alive!) :)

    Thanks again all!

  10. $1000 dollars in lost trees and a failed succesion. I see why this was called a failure. Nick huggins comments are insulting. Doing permaculture design shouldn’t required hi paid consultants. That would indicate failure of the teaching of permaculture and the disturbing develipment of a profesional class.

  11. Hi Greg,

    You haven’t failed – you’ve learned!

    I have had wallabies here in my food forest for the past 6 years and they can be a nuisance / vandal. They really do just like ripping the top off a fruit tree and not even eating the leaves, bark, stems etc. Your fruit trees will eventually regrow, but it does put them back about 2 years over undamaged trees.

    However, you must admit that you are on their turf – and not the other way around – and there is probably not a lot of organic, mineral, nutrient rich vegetation around for them in the surrounding paddocks and forest. You’ve essentially made your place a supermarket for the local wildlife! My advice is to live with them, they can be useful as I’ll explain.

    A strategy for living with wallabies is to put chicken wire cages around each individual fruit tree. The chicken wire to use is 1,800mm high at 1.4 gauge (the wallabies can reach over 900mm, 1,200mm and 1,600mm wire, but not 1,800mm – useful for possums too!). A 50m roll will set you back about $200 and you’ll get about 25 cages to a roll. The lower gauge wire they can compress and break the tree. However, the cages are reusable and will have a long life. Use 1,800mm timber garden stakes as they eventually become soil and the wallabies can’t push them over. The top of the cage will not be supported by the stake, but this is OK as you’ll wire it together into a 2m circle around the tree.

    Once you have the cages setup, the wallabies will graze on any growth that pokes through the holes in the chicken wire – this is not a bad thing though. The cages will burn the tender leaf growth on the trees too. You can remove the cages after about 2 years of growth and reuse them – longer for the damaged trees.

    The wallabies then perform the function of pruning the lower branches off the fruit trees and fertilise the place for free!

    Another strategy to work with wallabies is to grow seedling fruit trees. Wallabies are addicted to novelty and will browse any new unprotected fruit tree. Seedling (ie. grown from seed in the ground) fruit trees on the other hand seem to grow up without being browsed.

    Another strategy to work with wallabies is to make the environment more suitable to kangaroos which will shoo off the wallabies. Wallabies are forest dwellers and operate as individuals, but kangaroos operate in a mob. Kangaroos also don’t browse on the fruit trees as they prefer herbage. To make your place better suited to kangaroos grow some nutrient rich herbage. Yes, this means having a large area of well fed, grass and pasture. You also have to keep it short because they prefer new growth to the older growth. Yes, the neighbours may think that you are odd because you are spreading compost, compost tea and composted wood chips onto your grassed area – they will see it as grass and weeds – I see it as a bribe to the local wildlife.

    If you shoot them, more will eventually move in and because they mostly forage at night you’ll never sleep well again! Much easier to live with them. Fencing is massively expensive and no guarantee as a wallaby can go both under and over a fence. A dog or dogs in a fenced area will keep wallabies away, but overall your eco system will be lesser because of it. Dogs eat frogs, insects, poo, reptiles etc…

    As to the growth that you have on the swales, that’s great – really. Mow it down to about 1/3rd of its current height and let it grow back again. Make sure you drop all of the cuttings where you cut them – don’t collect them for use elsewhere. What will happen is that the root systems will self-prune in the ground and the cut growth on the top surface both providing food for the entire soil food chain. The soil will eventually become too good for the plants that are currently growing and then you’ll be able to plant the eco system that you so desire. The plants growing now are the good guys and they are doing a lot of hard work breaking up that hard clay.

    By the way, 10 out of 10 for spreading the compost thinly. Not only is this more economical, I’ve found for some reason here that it works far better at encouraging growth and getting the soil life started than a thicker application. I’d love someone to explain why this is?

    Keep up the good work, you’re on the right tack – it’s just early days and let us know how it’s all going.



  12. Sorry, one more thing – my wife is the other novice designer at work here and we both have completed PDCs. One with Geoff and the other with Joe and Trish Polaischer. Throughout those and the dozens of permaculture books and DVDs, the message has always been “get out there and do it”, not “find and hire a professional”.

  13. Thanks Nick Huggins for all the practical advice. I would have thought that humanity did pretty well for millenia building houses without structural engineers. Question: do you consult hydraulic engineers before you build a swale?

    there’s a missing chapter of the fruit forest DVD on youtube:

    And here a link with tips on wallaby control:

  14. We had some earthworks mis-haps when we were green and keen. Large ones, actually (large for us, anwyay). I commend Greg for having the guts to share the downside of his best efforts, regardless of what he should or shouldn’t have done.

    To add to the brew, our two most notable sagas (one failure, one near-miss) at Milkwood in this realm have been the following:

    May all your dams hold water, and your swales be correctly designed, implemented and planted. And check those swale spillway heights in relation to the dam wall’s freeboard. Thrice. :)

  15. Hi Greg
    to help you first I need to know if you get frost on the site and if so how much and for how long?

    How much time do you have and do you have a motorized brush cutter?

    We can heavily re-seed the swales after cutting and when we know the lowest temperature ranges we can select the right seed and volume, then stage the event of succession and fruit tree establishment.
    The whole system can be staged according to your time available and ability to protect the trees from wildlife, we use cages on properties with wallaby issues like this one
    Timing of tree planting to season to get the best results for your input efforts are going to be crucial with your wildlife problem, but the cover crop can be continuously switched from Summer to Winter specie combinations all the time improving the soil ready for tree planting while being a distraction.
    A good consultant with good experience in project planning,implementation and establishment like Nick Huggins would be a great help to you and I can help you at a distance too.
    Let me know some details and we can get your site back on track and performing more in a way you can appreciate the results and know what to expect.
    Hopefully this will also help many other people fill in some the gaps and rough edges in their permaculture food forest designs and implementations.

  16. Great post Greg, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself though, it must have been a great learning experience, and there’s nothing major to rework. I reckon if you were looking at prospective sites to purchase, and the choice was between this same plot before you did any work, or the same plot as it is now, you’d still choose the latter ;¬)

    @Chris on the thick/thin compost thing, my take is that when it’s spread thin the established soil biota gets to work on it straight away as the balance is not disturbed too much, when it’s spread thick there’s a whole ruck of different microbes/species established in it, the soil/air interface has changed so the established biota (in the soil) now have a completely different soil/air interface and a ruck load of different competitive species from the compost. I reckon the extra time it takes to see results from thick compost is how long it takes the established biota to fight it out with the new additions until natural equilibrium is established again, plus the interruption of the soil/air interface probably means less air getting into the soil under thick compost which will negatively effect established biota. (just my rambling observations, I ain’t seen a science paper on it)

  17. This is a very useful story to share, thank you! The biggest advice I would share is to take the time to really get DESIGN. Design is not a collection of techniques and strategies; to the contrary it is what allows you as the system manager, observer, and participant to actually make informed choices and decisions. Allow yourself to arrive at the solutions instead of imposing them. The first thing that pops out at me is to go back to the principles of observation and starting small. Nick said this well as, “do less and do better”. If you had started on a way smaller scale you might have made the same mistakes, but they wouldn’t have cost you so much time, energy, money, and heartache. Scaling up is useful, but not before scaling down to learn first! Thanks for sharing and I hope you continue to improve upon your work.

  18. Hi greg congratulations for being honest first with yourself and then with others. I too have had the same feeling after watching geoffs dvds, reading bills books and looking at what nick huggins has been doing, all I agree masters at there craft. I would like to comment about nicks comment about have structual engineers design our homes. The problem with humanity as we stand is we have lost the ability to learn and do things ourselfs, we have become a generation of just go to work ( In a place we all hate) earn money and pay someone else to do all the worrying and build us something. One could just look at the poor designed homes we live in, high energy costs to run the homes and constant renovating due to poor workmanship and failed materials. I realize that this was a throw away comment by nick, however it felt somewhat negative to what you are trying to achieve in permaculture. I congratulate you for not to give up and just spray all the weeds with glyphospahte, like 80% of our farmers do. Remain positive, it is hard in a world just full of negative thoughts and feelings that all is lost. I too rushed out and thought I could do it myself with many failures lost money and much despair, however I have had wonderful moments when I see nature working with me. I too planted more productive trees than soil and companion trees, but had lorakeets helping me in my journy for I have had about 3 black wattles sprout in my forest as well as two casuarinas from the neighbouring bushland. I give my strength to all permaculturist weather we agree or disagree for we are all moving towards a better world on way or another.

  19. Hi Pete,

    Thanks mate! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but your rambling observations (!) match my observations on the ground. At first when I tried this with compost I went with the more is better approach. Not good.

    Interestingly, woody mulch applied thickly has the same suppressing effect too on the soil life. However, unlike compost, there are good reasons for applying woody mulch thickly to soil. I find here in a cool climate that it takes 2 years + lots of weed growth for woody mulch thickly applied to break down into really great soil for the fruit trees. Still, it’s worth it for the water retention and fungal growths.



  20. Nice work Greg! Thanks so much for sharing this out to the open-source global community!

    Looks like you did quite a bit of due diligence and hard work. Meanwhile, Mother Nature is teaching you all you all the rest of need to know in your co-creation. I started my interest in Forestry as a teen in Maine, and did a PDC last year – great fun!

    FYI, I put Paulownia on my property in eastern Pennsylvania many years ago for fast shade, and neglected (despite knowing better) to repeatedly cut-back the trees. This is necessary for sound density in the wood, which otherwise are pithy and break easily. The animals are taking care of that for you.

    Also, as a business management consultant with 30 years work experience in small and global enterprise I want to support you to trust your instinct, and never-mind professionals that are anything less than highly respectful. This is your journey, and as you can see there are many, like Geoff Lawton (as well as talented amateurs) who offer to support it in a respectful and nurturing manner.

    All the best!!!!

  21. Hey thanks heaps for posting this article and not being afraid to accept criticism and advice. Please consider posting a followup article when your system is cranking as I’m sure it will be in the not to distant future :)

    I’ve been interested in permaculture for 7 years now and the more I learn the more I lean towards hiring a consultant with a proven track record. System design is so location specific and dependant on such a wide range of factors that I know it will be a long time before I am able to make the kind of informed judgments nessecary to carry out a successful design. Until then I’m slowly working on my permaculture (and house building) skills.

  22. What a great conversation – excellent to have this note swapping and learning from each other’s experience, and to have people sharing instances of things not going to plan alongside the opposite. Bravo especially to Greg and Kirsten!

    After initially learning the basics from Geoff and others I’ve been designing and implementing swales for around seven years, mostly in wet-winter temperate Victoria but also in semi-arid highlands (Southern Ethiopia) and the tropics (Uganda). Some big, some small, some hand-dug, others by dingo, bobcat or excavator. Most have worked great, some have worked okay, and others no longer exist.

    I am more cautious about using swales than when I set out, yet I continue to recommend, design and implement swales when I think them an appropriate means to the end of slowing, spreading, and soaking in excess runoff. I’m still learning and any conclusions I’ve reached remain tentative, but if I try to list things I would have liked to have known before I started, here’s what comes to mind:

    -Never take anyone else’s word (including your own estimates/assumptions based on seeing a site when it’s not raining) about how much water a site sheds. Get out there in an extreme rain event or two and watch what the flow rate is down slope if and when field capacity is reached. I’ve seen water flowing down a small gully, disappear into an imperceptible hole in the ground just above a new swale, then pop up out of the ground below the swale and keep going! On other sites 95% of runoff is already infiltrating, in which case swales etc are probably redundant. It’s amazing how well healthy pasture infiltrates water.

    -If there is any likelihood of swales holding and infiltrating water when the soil is already saturated, trees are dormant, and soil life is largely in hibernation (such as is the case in many Victorian winters) design in and implement a drainage option. Cam Wilson has documented an example we developed together here:, where a swale can become a drainage trench with the flick of a pipe. Otherwise as David Holmgren originally pointed out to me, you risk leeching nutrients and waterlogging. Having a drainage option switch is designing to keep your options open and that is never a bad thing. Easy to add to existing swales too. Speaking of Cam’s writing on this matter, his more recent is a must-read.

    -Swales can block easy visual but more importantly vehicle and even foot access up and down a slope. I once had a customer break her wrist in a swale trying to climb over it! For another customer this was one reason the swales are no longer there. These days I make swales as subtle and smooth in profile as possible without compromising the required function. Low smooth mounds also make it easier to manually manage any undesirable growth whilst trees are establishing. Greg, yours look pretty good in this regard.

    -A swale trench is a long thin wetland supporting the germination and growth of wetland plants (rushes, reeds etc) which then slow water (and people!) movement along the swale trench. This can be counter-productive, especially when swales are linked to dams, so design your swale trench width in multiples of mower or slasher widths for easy maintenance.

    -I once walked a property with a respected holistic management educator who thought that any form of water harvesting earthworks (including swales, ripping, diversion drains, even dams!) on pastured properties, not to mention compost tea regimes and all the rest, should be secondary to well managed animal movement. He reckoned he’d seen this alone improving infiltration and soil health (at little or no additional cost to the farmer) to the point where such earthworks didn’t add enough to justify their expense and the land they took out of production. I don’t take a hard a line as that, but I took his point on board and am currently enjoying finding out how much is possible with tall grass mob grazing and nothing else.

    -Muck around with spade-dug trials and a hose to get your head around all the technical aspects of swales, such as ideal trench and mound depth; widths, spillway installation and height etc etc, not to mention planting timings and maintenance as mentioned above by Geoff. Once I had my head around this stuff I relaxed and now install swales more by feel (including the feel of the lazer receiver in my hand ;-)), but the time to get your head around such details is not with a 20-tonne excavator breathing down your neck!

    Cheers all,

  23. @Geoff, much appreciation and gratitude for jumping in.

    We get frost a few days of the year overnight and into the mid-morning. We’re 20km inland from Port Macquarie.

    We do not have a brushcutter but can buy one ASAP if req’d. We use scythes pretty effectively on other areas on the property.

    We thought we were spreading cool season (Lupin) and warm (Cowpea) but as noted in my write-up, they both came up at the same time. They did so well I thought they’d hold the grasses and weeds off for at least a few seasons while our sweet potato, arrowroot, leucaena, dunn peas, vetch, white clover and lucerne took hold. Wrong. Most of those were no-shows.

    We spread 100kg of seeds over the 550m of swales in early winter. That was 3x what I calculated we needed to cover each square meter with 35g of seeds.

    @Chris, @Matt – many thanks for the tree cage specifics and experience! Will try.

  24. perhaps u could get some road kill and put on /near the favourite trees or do up a sep holtzer brew
    if your electric fence has enough grunt it will keep the grass burnt off pretty well
    isaw a few weeds but not failures (failures are banks being overtoppecd) we all have failures even geoff,nick etc
    real permies dont spend much on trees they nick em off their mates ,propigate them from other permies etc
    good onyaforavinago

  25. Great online conversation topic. It is so good to see cause/effect of water management earthworks after a season or two of being exposed to the elements.

    Have you considered chicken tractors along the swales? Using the ground massaging talents of happy chickens would give you a size manageable, composted, enriched growing bed to re establish your green manure crops. 5 tractors moving at a metre per day would cover 35 metres per week. As you collect eggs, supplementary feed the chooks (they would get alot from the existing weeds and bugs) you could at the same time move the tractors along and sow your green manure crops in the worked over area. The chooks wouldn’t stay on same piece of ground long enough to de-stabilise the shape of the earth. The tractors could head up contour so they aren’t working through runoff from the previous days compost. Obvious allowances would have to be made to ensure chickens have the dry high side to keep their legs dry.

    Anyone out there mixed swales and chickens tractors?

  26. Well done for getting in there!
    We all have to learn by doing and its fantastic you’ve shared your work with us!
    At least your swales didn’t erode as I have heard them doing in dispersing clay!!
    And – there’s things growing where before there were none. its a start!

  27. One option I have used for wallabies is wind mesh, stapled onto a tomato stake. You only need one stake and the wrap the wind mesh around the plant giving room to grow widthways. The mesh will flop on the leaves, but stop the wallabies from getting to them. It may not work in all situations but it did for me in northern NSW. You can use it for other species just adjust the height according to the size of the herbioves. It probably wont work for cattle and horses as they will rub on the stake and push it down.

  28. G’day,

    Most people who know me know that I am not a big fan of the carte blanche applications of this particular tool called a swale. I have put a couple in here and there in situations where I determined through a design & decision making process that this tool could be appropriate, just as in others I have put in dams, graded water collection drains, roads, fences, forests & many other elemental tools. After my first 15 or so years of doing many, many projects around the traps it became incredibly clear that they primary tools for landscape restoration within my toolkit were largely absent.

    My biggest revelation however can be summed up with the following statement,

    “…Gaia doesn’t necessarily need ‘reconstructive earth surgery’, rather she needs a massage, acupuncture and some mineralised hydrotherapy, so put away your scalpels and treat the causes not the effects..”.

    There is also this thing of licence being given broadly to the application of landscape changing tools without the appropriate consideration or application of due diligence. Yeoman’s still very relevant ‘Keyline Scale of Permanence’ has landscape as being #2 on the scale and for very good reason: earthworks don’t go away in a hurry…this ‘surgery’ is rather permanent, any observation to landscapes of antiquity will show you that.

    So I would submit that this situation Greg has found his landscape in is one of many, and perhaps may not have come about where he considered an array of options rather than reach for this increasingly populist tool. Look at the cause as to why your water cycle isn’t functioning effectively and deal with it holistically (ie. triple bottom line). Consider the geology and evapotranspiration effects: am I going to create a boggy pasture somewhere else when the water springs up, can I handle the inevitable ecological response (plants & animals) when I advance too far with opening up the earth, does it make access difficult (consider closely Yeomans blueprint), landslip potential, waterlogging, clay dispersion and on it goes. Can I pay for the repair if I make a monumental stuff up?!?

    Can’t find a Keyline Plow? This is just another tool that people, including myself use where the decision making process provides this as a holistically viable outcome. It again uses energy and for many it & its copies/variants are not available to many across the world. I look at Keyline Pattern Cultivation as being next to planned grazing as being the next most holistically effective tool for restoring over broad areas water and mineral cycles.

    Our #1 tool is planned grazing and this is generally possible in most locations. This are low cost, accessible and with the right management the first port of call when it comes to the restoration of water & mineral cycles as they deliver an immediate array of holistic results. If you don’t have livestock yourself there are typically many local opportunities to access and utilise them under planned grazing.

    Strategically placed agroforestry systems following Keyline Patterns (be they block or strip plantings) and fitting in with a holistically developed landscape plan (ie. considering a range of methodologies including Permaculture) is another favourite tool as it is delivers an array of immediately positive outcomes.

    Naturally I could go on and my good mate & colleague Abe Collins and I have developed a list of some 40+ tools for accelerating topsoil development delivering some 20+ ecosystem services as an outcome.

    To close it is incredibly liberating when you apply some of Fukuoka’s foundational principles of doing less and observing more. Further to this following Savory’s advice of ‘planning assuming you are wrong’ also turns your natural human dominion of hubris into appreciative humility. Get your water under control by doing your level best to make every bit of your land absorb it. Putting a few earthen strips across your landscape is not making this happen necessarily. Swales are not a ‘green bullet’, though they might be part of the picture. A picture that should be considered “knowing what you don’t know” and using a well conceived decision-making process to arrive at what the optimal way to proceed and what tools to apply.

    Yours and Growing,

  29. Hi Darren, very interesting post – thank you. Are you still teaching? If yes where would I find the information?

    Matt Luthi

  30. @Darren,

    Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chime in. Much appreciated. But you seem to be assuming that, just because we put a swale in, we were naive about the big picture or simplistic in our thinking. Who says? What do you know about the design and decision making process we followed or even how much observation-versus-doing we did?

    Our problems aren’t really the swale as a landscape feature or actor in the hydrological cycle – they’re doing what I had hoped. It’s the vegetation on top of them which a) didn’t hold off the weeds like I had expected and b) suffered heavily from predation (90% of the nurse trees were eaten).

    What I’m thinking (today) is that, rather than a monumental, systemic mistake, we’re probably looking at just a few new strategies and a second go. Course correction, not brain transplant.

    I also reject the idea that swales are heavy handed “earth surgery”, but dragging 7 tines through 20 cm of the soil with a 100 hp tractor is “massage”.

    Thanks again for sharing the current state of your art and thinking. I always enjoy reading (and hearing) what you have to say.

    As news to everybody, we just had the pleasure of paying for a 1/2 day consult with Matt Kilby of It was money and time well spent, but that’s a write up for another day!

  31. G’day,

    Thanks Greg.

    You are right Greg I don’t know what process you followed. I was making a general comment around the licence people are given to do a whole array of things which can come back to bite them and adversely effect the primary client, who sorry mate, is not you.

    I can’t agree that Keyline plowing is the same as a swale in terms of its effects on effecting the landform. I’ve plowed many thousands of hectares and in most cases in the space of a year or in some cases months, you can’t see where you’ve been, whilst the same can’t be said for a swale. These are earthworks not relatively shallow incisions that facilitate across the whole plowed site soil development where the whole pattern of cultivation is followed. So when I come back to a site in 100 years+ and someone has built a 2m wide ditch with a 2m wide embankment it will still be there. If I come back in 1-2 years I won’t see where a Keyline plow has been. Yeomans Keyline Scale of Permanence makes all of this crystal clear: earthworks are in #2 Landscape & soil development is in #8 Soils.

    So indeed I hope that your project achieves whatever goals you have and that others out there embarking on their various adventures learn from your sharing of the problems and pitfalls, as well as your successes.

    All the best,


  32. Regarding Kangaroos and wallabies, please feel free to have a look at my remedies over on Permaculture global -Mudlark Permaculture.
    Greg, you certainly got an interesting assortment of comments, bit of an eye opener.
    I am all for loads of earthworks and interventions into the Hydrology cycle.
    Ultimately man is the one who has destroyed these systems and man needs to be the one to restore them, its a big job, but a great job.
    Good luck with everything.

  33. Howdy there — late to this post but I thought I’d chime in. It seems to me that the primary problem here isn’t with the swale itself, which seems fine, but with the basic task of protecting your plantings.

    We have a few hundred fruit and nut trees here in the eastern US, in an area about 2 acres in size (for now). Obviously this is very different ecologically from where you’re growing, but we still have to deal with pressure from weeds and herbivores, so maybe this will produce some useful ideas.

    Our solution to this is a mixed silvopastoral approach using sheep and chickens, movable electric fencing, sheet-mulch with a top-layer of perennial N-fixers for initial plantings, and drip irrigation for all new plantings.

    The sheep keep the weeds down and help fertilize the young orchard. Moving the portable fence into an overgrown area requires mowing a footprint. I use a scythe. I would estimate that it takes me 40 minutes every 2-4 weeks to move the fence. With mechanical mowing it would obviously be even more efficient. The fence is placed in narrow strips between the trees to prevent the sheep from eating them. The fence is also a way of protecting the sheep against predators, namely wild dogs. I should note that we’re using an “electronet” fence, which is what it sounds like, rather than a strand fence — it is not easy to get through.

    The sheet mulch guards the initial plantings from weed pressure in the establishment phase. A top-layer of compost and mulch seeded with perennial N-fixers generally gives the N-fixers enough time to establish themselves against the weeds. This increases the time it takes to plant a tree to (for us) around 15 minutes per tree, not including digging time. We also install a plastic tree guard to guard against rodent damage.

    Drip irrigation is fairly inexpensive and can, with the right slope, be pressurized by gravity. I plan to eventually transition my system to passive irrigation using swales, but for the time being drip is the sure way to keep immature trees safe and healthy. A conservative estimate of our establishment loss would be around 7%.

    It’s a lot of investment — easily equaling or surpassing the initial cost of the trees. But, as they say, you get what you pay for. The way I figure it, if the tree makes it to maturity, it will pay for its accumulated labor and inputs in its first productive year (obviously this is more true for some crops than others).

    Last and not least: herbivores. In our area white-tailed deer are the main wild ruminant. These animals are excellent jumpers and can not be easily fenced-out. Our solution to this is a secondary portable electric fence where pressure is high (most areas they seem to ignore). I don’t know how high wallabies can jump, but if it’s less than 5′, I would consider simply investing in a wire fence. This has the additional benefit of allowing you to experiment with other forms of livestock in your mix. If they can jump higher than that (as deer can), I’d recommend electric. These are very inexpensive, can be solar-charged, and are extremely versatile. In our case, we use the geometry of the fence to create a barrier that, though low, is too wide for a deer to feel comfortable jumping. So far so good. We could also experiment with farm dogs, but with all the other livestock we have, they may do more harm than good.

    I can’t say that our orchard looks particularly clean, and by mid-summer, it looks positively wild and out of control. Our system is not perfect and is still evolving. As ugly as it is, we’ve yet to lose a single tree to weed pressure.

    Anyway, good luck — I’m very jealous of your swales, not having taken the plunge myself yet.

  34. Hi David,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to explain all the details of your setup.

    Yes, our problems really are just twofold: herbivores and not getting groundcover established. Though, I’m still not convinced any groundcover can keep grasses at bay.

    We have grazed cattle between the swales, but that doesn’t really do much for the grasses and weeds that are competing with our plantings ON the swales. And, I get really nervous with them just a few metres away from our tasty few plantings that have survived.

    We are using tree guards now, and focussing our efforts on just a small section at a time. I’ll be covering this in a subsequent write-up.

    We too use scythes and like them better in most situations than our high-end petrol weed cutter. They’re a totally under-appreciated tool in the permaculture community! People think they’re just for the Amish or the Grim Reaper.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  35. Pest animals? – Good solid perimeter fencing, and a couple of loud, though not vicious dogs. You’ll lose some sleep, but go out when your dogs raise the alarm. Your nocturnal presence is a much better deterrent that the dogs themselves.

    Weeds? – Slash or graze for a couple of years until the soil reestablishes a natural biotic profile. Chooks might work well in reducing seed load.

    I think your swales look beaut! Don’t know about the infiltration issue though – deep rooted plants perhaps to break up deeper clay??

  36. From quite a distance mind you- Oregon, on the other side of the pond, in a very different, youthful landscape, tectonically and volcanically active, I’ve read this exchange with interest. I’m one of those highly paid consultants and teachers, so there’s a bias. On that subject, I gotta say that if I don’t give a good cost/benefit ratio to clients and students, I don’t expect pay or referrals.
    Anyhow, here’s what I see in the pictures: the cut of the swale is a bit glazed or smoothed, and the fill looks simply dumped and rough. So yeah, the absorption will go slowly and managing the weeds is a bit harder. I do, as one commented, try to avoid steep cuts (no slopes steeper than 1:2) and it’s not easy to scythe/mow rough ground. It looked like a pretty tough seed bed too. Most definitely a fairly ambitious start as far as scale too, for first time out.
    I do hold with the idea that swales *(see below) are a fairly rough intervention which will not disappear soon. I’ve recently been in the motherlode country of California, walking in massive forest which has easily seen remains of ditches used to direct water to placer gold mines from 1860 and thereabouts. Many swales I see are of similar dimension to those ditches. That said, in many cases there are already earthworks in place, such as roads that concentrate runoff, building more earthworks can be a very effective solution to problems they create. I’m curious about how long the dam has been in place, and how the swales were built.**(see below) But like many have said, ‘taint a failure in this case, just needs course adjustment. I gotta say my first try was a swale fail too- in that case due to the presence of gophers which naturally preferred to tunnel in the nice soft berms and caused several blowouts. I had the opportunity to fix the problem for no charge. It can take a while to become a highly paid consultant going that route, eh?
    *(or berms and basins- in the US “swales” are in the landscape architecture scene more like the old English- a small, mildly sloping watercourse with a quiet stream when it flows. In Lane County here we have a place called Camas Swale, and it ain’t a ditch- so I am often going with Brad Lancaster’s use of “berms and basins” for the typical permaculture “swale” and shorter swales I’ll call “retention basins” This helps me avoid losing well-planned jobs because of not communicating well with authorities who grant permits and permit grants and do other things with paper that can help me keep groceries on the table. end digression)
    **(my favorite tools for swale building: 1)a road grader: ungodly fast! or a tractor with a moldboard plow or for little swales, a walk behind tiller with a scraper blade or a cat with a multi-tilt blade. And yeah, I figure a swale I build is done when it’s possible to go across it at a right angle to the cut with a push lawn mower. nice and stable.)

  37. Doesn’t look like a failure to me. Time tells the tale and some pioneering plant species(weeds) are what it takes to open up the soil. I am a big proponent of large herbivores to manage forage growth. It does mean you will have to protect those trees though. I am working contour Swales into arid(less than 7 inches moisure/yr) rangeland in Montana . We are working with larger acreages so a ditching blade or moldboard are most efficient and pioneering species are not only welcome, but cheap cover crops. Our ultimate goal is to reinvigorate native range on our ranch, both for livestock and wildlife. We have a 100 year management plan because things don’t happen overnight especially with our lack of moisture and 80 day growing season.

    I guess I am saying don’t get discouraged, you are already well on your way to success.

  38. The swale manta has in fact seen many swales established where they are entirely inappropriate. Swales often fail with disastrous damage. In high rainfall areas contour l planting of Vetiver may bee much more appropriate…but there is no one size fits all … E except in instructional courses and manuals. The real world is another matter.

  39. My overall analysis of this is that there seems to be two camps:

    1. Broad acre farmers/ranchers tend to prefer to go with keyline plowing and holistic management. These people own or have easy access to: PTO tractors, two bottom plows, subsoilers, etc.. Moving cows in and out is not a scary endeavor. They own horse/cow trailers, etc. They are out on the land everyday, they make money on the production of agricultural goods and services.

    2. Ecological landscape designers who are planning ‘mixed, resilient homesteads/edible landscapes’ either for themselves or for clients. residential or commercial, seem to find that swales/ponds and tree systems work just fine for their purposes. I am in this category. These people don’t have tractors. Renting excavators once is actually easier, because there’s typically a whole host of other things they can do with the it in terms of landscape development. They are setting up systems early on and managing them less intensively than the previous category. Making a living on agriculture is typically not the prime goal for these folks.

    To me, neither is inherently right or wrong, it just all comes down to goals articulation and design that reflects that.

    I also think these two groups of people don’t understand the other very well… Within the existing ‘landscaping industry’, well designed swales are an amazing resource and a welcome improvement to horrible/erosive land shaping techniques that are the current norm.

    For farmers/ranchers, this energy input can be much lower but more constant (ie: yearly massaging vs reconstructive surgery up front).

    I do really appreciate Darren J. Doherty’s analysis on this issue, as I do fear many people who take a PDC might walk away thinking swaling everything will solve all the world’s problems.

    Looking forward to more opinions.

    1. Hi Tayler we have cows, tractors and many implements and we keyline rip, rotary hoe, power harrow, bed form, excavate, bulldoze and cell graze, with multiple swales and dams.
      There are two camps now but there will only be one in the end and everyone will be doing it all.
      We will all farm like gardeners and garden like farmers and the world will be at peace.

  40. Did you mulch the trees well? We’d have the same results sometimes if we didn’t mulch well. And we don’t when we do. If that makes sense: mechanically keeping the weeds down within 1-2′ of the trees is key for us until they are established. Nothing outcompetes grasses here except comfrey, pretty much.

  41. Sorry, I didnt’ mean for that last question to be rhetorical – upon looking at the photos again, it’s clear that there isn’t mulch or adequate mulch for the trees. To me, that’s the only issue I see here – and maybe lack of reseeding in the bottoms of swales. We find the trough needs to be seeded multiple times, at least, weather depending. The mowing or grazing is key for a bit to move the succession in a more optimal way.

  42. Hi Ben – The groundcover was supposed to be a living mulch. When it died off, we did mulch some of the trees but Kikuyu is happy to tunnel under mulch and pop up throughout.

    I owe everybody a photo-essay update. After 6 months of rainless spring and summer, even the weeds died off. The trees that have established are much taller (up to 3′), but we’ve still failed to “gain control” with Kikuyu dominating – apparently drought is no worry for it. Our current strategy is just to keep the Kikuyu away from the trees.

    This really has been a story about grass (nothing out-competes it so far) and that if you’re trying to replicate the results of a property with a continuous supply of WWOOFers and students, one had better have a continuous supply of WWOOFers and students :)

    1. If you have kikuyu you are really pushing the proverbial uphill. It is incredibly difficult to control without herbicide particularly when you are talking about it being in and adjacent to much valued plantings of anything. It will send runners through the root zone of your plants for some distance; pop up as you say through ANY type of mulch; it will survive drought as you have experienced; if it gets into thick shrubs or food plants then you really have to dig them up and relocate. We had to dig up several fruit trees and relocate them to another part of our property…the kikuyu free part of our property. It needs to be totally eradicated in areas to be planted. Then if small pieces pop up that were missed or have seeded you get them right out whilst they are very small and haven’t developed sub-subterranean runners. Then you have a chance.

      1. Electric net chicken fenced flock at a rate of 35 birds inside a 50 meter net for 10 to 14 days then moved along the swale. Then and intense plant up of cover crop seed of a fast growing legume species with added bacteria inoculated from farm supplies, seeded at a rate of 4 times recommended density. Then VERY densely planted to perennial growing cover cutting of sweat potato or singapore daisy is my favourite if you have wildlife problems (if you dare), then plant as many fast short term, medium term, and long term legume shrubs, bushes and trees as you dare (you could not plant too many) that can be cut for mulch latter as chop and drop to the system. This cutting of mulch needs to be done AT THE START of the rainy period od your year.

  43. Hi Greg and Danielle,

    Yeah, I have kikuyu grass here and have also had an exceptionally hot and dry summer. There are plenty of plants that out compete it. As Geoff wrote, you just have to plant very densely. That grass – at least here – doesn’t seem to survive being over shadowed by a low to medium story shrub and/or herb layer. Some herbs grow even faster than kikuyu grass and send out even more runners and are every bit as sun and drought hardy! Check out the photos:

    You can see the gotu kola escaping through the rocks in the first photo!

    Greg, as a suggestion, around fruit trees I plant as many comfrey and borage plants as I can get my hands on. The old leaves of this plant act as a self mulch and that keeps grass at bay too. Worth a try.

    Cheers. Chris

  44. Have you considered geese to control the kikuyu? They seem to have a preference for grass over other cover crops, and aren’t as heavy or damaging as cows for on your berms. I did my PDC at The Food Forest in Gawler, SA where they have a flock of geese grazing the grass in the orchard. Don’t know if it’d work the same in your climate though. Might be worth a shot if the kikuyu keeps invading after you try Geoff’s solution. Keep up the good work.

  45. Local ecologists have had our ear recently and gotten us scared about plants, but we’re re-infected with the “code red” mindset that we’ve got to repair and repair quickly. So, yes, we dare :)

    Singapore daisy is tough to find here in NSW.

    What do sweet potato and singapore daisy have to do with wildlife problems?

  46. Hi Ben. I just re-read your comment and would really like to see an update. As people share information, we all learn. As a disclaimer, I have never had a woofer or intern on this property and we simply tackle one thing/project at a time, whilst also trying to learn at what time of the year certain things must be done around the farm.

    When fruit trees are water stressed – as mine are here too – they do not put on much new wood. On the other hand, if you give them just enough water to limp through the heat waves (and I’ve had 4 in the past 12 months), they’ll survive. By just enough water, I mean 5 to 10 litres (as I’m on tank water and it is a finite resource). When the rains do come again – and they will – if they are well fed with a mulch and manure mix, they will grow and put down bigger roots. The bigger root systems will make them hardier for the following season. If the summer rains have failed once in your area, they will do so again.

    It is my observation that fruit trees that are over watered are much less hardy to shocks such as drought and extreme heat as they have smaller root systems.

    As a completely different point of view, the kikuyu grass is beneficial in that whilst all other ground covers die off, this one continues to grow at the same time as shading the soil and holding it together. You just have to look around your area to see what other plants are doing this trick.

  47. Greg, I am similar to you (if behind you by about two years) in terms of knowledge & experience, and I just wanted to say “thank you”, as this has been one of the most helpful articles I have read on this site (and I’ve read a lot). I am just heading into working on our homestead acreage & have been given much here to think about/take into account. It ain’t easy to show the world the holes in your (metaphorical) permaculture underwear. Good for you.

    1. Dear Greg ,
      I have been following your experience with interest , and some bemusement . It seems that PDCs ( I have not done one , but I have renovated thousands of acres of degraded lands )are heavy on swales . They are a neat trick for water harvesting sheet flow in arid lands but not at all the best option for a pleasant climate like yours . In fact well managed soil in your climate should not have any sheet ( overland flow ) . That is an indicator of compacted land .
      A ex grazing site like yours is inevitably compacted . When the weight of animals exceeds the soils Coulombs line it will plastically fail , compressing to semi ceramic . Penetrometer will read up around 800-1,000psi . Plant roots can’t grow easily in soil above about 350 psi , even less so when the soil profile has the air crushed out of it .
      The toe of a bulldozer blade exceeds 1,000 psi in downwards smearing force . The floor of the swale will be the slowest percolating place on the property . Opposite of the desired effect .
      Fastest way to inject air and water into the soil is to apply a fracturing force greater than the compressive force which ruined it . A thin tyne with 5 tons or more break out at the point will do it . An upside down airfoil will translate forward movement into downward lift and fracture soil upwards . Three or four passes progressively deeper will turn the entire surface area of the property into a sponge .
      Yeomans ploughs , used properly , don’t do violence to your soil . They instantly improve the soil structure so the trees you plant have a thousand times more volume available for root extension .
      The cheapest and fastest way to deal with grass and weed problems is to hire a tractor and slasher a few times a year . Cut the vegetation before it goes to seed .
      Trees planted into properly ripped ground are vastly easier to weed by hand or hoe . Grass pulls out of the soft ground . In a short while your preferred plants will have their roots a metre down , below grass root competition .
      Wings bolted to the tynes make it so easy to slice turf , which you then flip over to make the perfect mulch for tree planting . Onsite and cheap.
      Unfortunately swales make it hard , even dangerous , to use tractors or mowers for sheet mulching .
      It might be painful to realise , but pushing the swale in and smoothing it over could be the very best thing to liberate you from an inappropriate management plan .
      Its lovely to see people being so supportive of your difficulties but surprising to see the lack of understanding of soil physics in so many posts . Understand that science and your food forest will grow so many times faster .
      Best Regards
      Peter Marshall

      1. Peter yes it all works fine in all climates with swales and we have installed many of them and mechanical de-compaction system like key line and similar.
        Swales do more than just grow a large diversity of mixed trees although they are always tree growing systems which are crucial to their on going increased function, they also recharge ground water plus physical sheltering and beneficial increase of nutrient flows, and more.
        Good design should always be multi-functional in the permaculture design science creating a good holistic energy audit.

  48. Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for your detailed and technical response – and for your time. It is technical help like this which we have had a really hard time sourcing.

    We have Yeoman’s ploughed (on contour) the area between the swales, but have not had slashers through after because that seems counter-productive – slashers compact, requiring then another round of ploughing. True?

    It has been 2.5 years since this article, and the swales are now 3.5 years old. Much of our narrow experience directly contradicts your wider experience as related above. I don’t want to come off as argumentative or unappreciative, so I’ll save that discussion for a private Skype call, if that’s of interest.

    In the meantime, while I owe the community an update, please have a look at a photo I took just today (June 2014) with a 2011 photo for comparison.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment and educate us (and the community)!

  49. What an interesting and informative thread this is. Thanks Greg for the update. I’m sure you must feel that failure has turned to success, with lots of learning along the way. Thanks for sharing the journey and being the catalyst for the discussion.

  50. Greg ,
    It’s soil mechanics . A 50hp tractor with slasher will likely not exceed Coulombs line on your soil type . The Toe of an excavator blade probably will .
    Slashing at tactical times is a very cheap and fast way of changing floristics . Slash before the problem weeds flower and set seed , slash to increase soil OM , slash to lay down grass suppressing mulch etc .
    Many people in our region have wasted good money and slowed down landscape repair by building swales before understanding the basic soil science and silviculture needed to make them work . Often the swale design was reached by an afternoons visit by the consultant . The land owner rushed into the project with a sense of urgency . Of course we all want to fix the world in a hurry , but it takes years living on a site to really understand it . Swales mandate certain subsequent management styles and will often actually reduce your options .
    I tend to think a swale has failed if it has harmed the morale , bank balance , safety or peace of mind of its owners .
    There are many cheaper , faster , more socially appropriate management tools and techniques to repair , rehydrate , restart nutrient cycles and ameliorate the local climate
    It fascinates us that many PDC graduates turn up at our farm lamenting their lack of basic technique .
    Having just read Mr Lawtons above I can now understand why .
    Feel free to call .

    Best Regards


    1. Peter thank you for your comments. I believe you’re doing very good work on your site (we’d love to see some articles and photos by the way), but I suspect that, as is the case with not a few people, that you may not fully understand swales, compaction or the way they are constructed, and associated weeds and pioneering succession. Swales and their perennial plantings are often not followed through thoroughly enough because they are not a day to day emergency, as they are very long term stable but this often leads to an untidy representation of what is possible. I’ve had on my things-to-do list a detailed educational post with text, illustration and video in the hope that it will increase your and other’s general understanding, but will have to get to it when I can.

      I am sure you have a wonderful property with beautiful created features – please feel free to share your achievements here with a post also.

  51. Great post and I’m glad to see it still going after all these years! We run farm fit camps here in Nicaragua and incorporate agroforestry and permaculture techniques as part of our training. We focus on simple strategies that poor, rural farmers can easily understand and implement. Small swales, like cover cropping with nitrogen fixers or mulching, are among some of the interventions that have greatest effect for least amount of change.

    In rural Nicaragua, like many developing countries, good luck trying to find a humble campesino to invest in engineers or consultants for the “proper” way to farm or build a house. Our neighbor, in his mid 80’s, swings a machete and digs holes on a diet of rice and beans. He never had any specialized training or access to professional consultants, yet leads a happy life on his family farm. A 50 meter swale, about 40cm wide by 30cm deep, can be dug by a farmer or school kid in our soil profile in a day. The results, much like a simple banana circle, can be easily constructed and demonstrated. Here, appropriate technology is using hand tools and animal traction. If we had to rely on expensive machinery, farming just wouldn’t happen.

    I appreciate all the research being done, and strive to keep permaculture accessible to all those who can’t afford PDC courses. Hopefully we’re all on the same page one day as Geoff eloquently stated in his post on Feb. 28.
    Move with purpose,

  52. Thanks a million for sharing. I surely learned a lot in reading this great article. The comments are so educational in my current journey into the Permaculture world.

  53. I recently came across this discussion whilst looking for information on Swales and I just wondered how Greg’s Swales have evolved in the interval.

  54. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for your interest.

    I went to the trouble of taking photos and writing up a follow-up report just for people like you, but it was rejected by the new editors here. No explanation was given, even upon request. That was not very kind or professional given my effort.

    I suspect anything not rosy isn’t welcome here any more.

    I’ve stopped reading the site for that reason. I need realistic expectations developed from reading about both the successes and failures.

    So, I’m reluctant to add value to the site here in a comment. You’re welcome to contact me personally at gbell_spamless at yahoo dot com.

    Let’s see if I’m right about the editorship here – everybody subscribed to this email will get this reply, but will the comment still be up on the website in a month?

  55. Hi Greg,

    I live in Sri Lanka and own bare some bare land in a semi-arid part of the country. I don’t have much experience but one of the problems I’ve had is that much of my land is grassland that is either grazed by free roaming cattle or a different type of grass that is subject to grassfires during the annual dry season. I can’t afford to fence the place. The free roaming cattle eat or trample any tree plantings that I’ve made as do wild deer and rabbits – lost a small fortune on two tree plantings.

    I am experimenting with an alternative solution that might be of use to you.

    I’m planting some nitrogen fixing shrubs that cattle / deer / rabbits don’t graze on. Some were growing naturally on the site, but I am also buying seeds of some toxic nitrogen fixing species that cattle won’t eat (canovalia ensiformis – jack bean, Tephrosia vogelii – fish bean etc.). These plants have limited use beyond nitrogen fixation, weed suppression, and soil decompaction (jack beans are especially good for that) on my heavy clay soils. Once a shrub cover is established, I am hoping that the absence of food will deter the predators and that I can establish the food forest within my non-edible nitrogen fixers which will provide initial shade, ground cover, and subsequent mulch for the fruit trees.

    I don’t know if this will work but you might want to try an equivalent on a small patch of land to see if it works. The cost iand effort is minimal, but it might need a couple of years to see if it works. I recommend identifying a few possible options and trying them out on small blocks of land before implementing.

  56. Thanks for the ideas Dinesh.

    Interestingly, Wikipedia is saying that canovalia ensiformis is used for animal fodder – that only the beans are poisonous.

    Over the many years since this post, I’ve succeeded in using metal mesh tree guards to get my N fixers above wallaby browsing height.

    Other trees (fruit and nut) still struggle due to other issues – climate extremes recently (worried about that), ongoing tough soil conditions, and grass competition, which doesn’t seem to care about the shading being provided by my N fixers.

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