Earthworks & Earth ResourcesSwales

Hugel Swales May be a Bad Idea

Ok, so this conversation has been addressed in the correct way and was explained by Jack Spirko at This very bad idea, Hugel-swales on contour, should not be done!!!!! We can however accomplish the morph on small scale as explained by Jack Spirko, but not in the true “this is how to build a swale” and “this is how to build a Hugel.”

Again, do not do what I am about to explain on contour. Keep this off the hills, sides of mountains, and certainly off of cliffs. If you want to ask if you can do it on a hillside 10’ long and 50’ wide, I can’t tell you that. I am not an engineer, but I have been using this strategy to build soil on 2 homesteads.

I have always had small homesteads. Both of which were primarily made of stone that was almost impossible to use a pick on. I read about swales and Hügelkultur and wanted to employ both of these techniques to build my soil on a small scale.

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Let me tell you why I wanted swales. The ground in my area is made of shale with less than 2” of top soil. I don’t even believe it’s that much because it’s mostly made of grass roots. I gave up tilling and wanted to break up the shale. I found out, one spring, that under my mulch pile the stone broke up and was workable after only one winter. The soil was consistently wet and from freezing and thawing that it had broken up enough to get the leaching compost through the ground. Between the moisture and compost, I finally had one area 10’x10’ that was really healthy. So, having a swale to catch and hold water was really appealing, even though I wasn’t using them in the way that Sepp uses them.

Now I wanted “Hugel beds” to make soil. I had a lot of access to wood close to home so it was ideal to use a variation of the Hugel Beds. Obviously with a small plot of land I was not going to be bringing in a dozer. All I needed was a shovel and pick as Jack Spirko explains in his video. I’m small time and again that’s why this works.

“The proper execution of a hügelkultur would be piling it up at or perhaps just slightly below grade then covering it with soil. A true Hugel is approximately 30% wood core and 70% soil. It is 1.5 to 2 meters tall; the angles of the sides are at 70 degrees.”

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Jack Spirko

My “Hugel styled beds” are a smaller version of these “Real Hugles.” My beds are dug 3’ wide and 2’ deep. I then fill with stumps I cut into 2’ sections standing on end so they wick up moisture better (I hope). I toss in some wood chips and cover with a healthy amount of manure and active compost. I know some people don’t like the fact that I am building an active compost pile under my bed, but it works for me, and I been doing it for at least 10 years. Back to my “Hugel styled beds.” Now, I put the soil I removed from the initial trench I dug. Lastly, I put a heap 6”-8” of aged compost on top of the whole bed. Then it’s ready for planting, and in 3-4 years, the mound is healthier than ever.

What I do to put them together may not be the most efficient method, but it is the only way to do it on a small my plot of land. I build my swale directly above grade to my Hugles. So, they catch the water and hold it long enough to absorb more water than they would have if they were not there. I also protect more of my soil from runoff. Yes, if I were on a hill and this setup was scaled up, I would probably flood the church below my house, as Jack Spirko said on his video. That is why this should not be done in any large scale. If you’re wondering how large is large, Jack said it is best if you are using anything other than a shovel!

So, yes, some Hugel snobs may not want me calling this Hügelkultur, so I will not. I am going to say this is a “Hugel styled bed” that catches water like a small swale. Someday, I hope I will own a few acres to build true swales and Hugels, but part of permaculture is accepting what you have and making it better.

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I will tell you what I do with my “Hugel styled beds,” and how they performed. The first winter that I built one it stayed much warmer than the surrounding area, so I plant my winter spinach, kale and goji berry plants on them. It makes it much easier for picking since they are taller, and my goji berries, on my “Hugel styled beds,” grow about 3-4 weeks longer than the ones on regular soil. The second year, I like to plant tomatoes on them, but I have to put a handful of crushed oyster shell at the bottom of each hole to keep the blossom end rot out of them. Years after, I put anything I like in them and don’t have any issues, but we do have quite a bit of food.

In regards to the size of my land, I have ¾ acre of land and a slope of about 15 degrees. The peak of the hill above my plot is only about 200.’ Please do check out Jack’s article and video on the link above: it’s the best that I have seen for an understanding on why you should not build Hugel swales on any large scale on contour!


  1. I would agree that leaky hugle swales are not ideal on a large scale. It is one thing to have small mounds that retain some surface runoff but to channel 500gpm plus is just waiting for a blowout and sedimentation of the area downstream.

  2. Good article, thanx.

    I build HugelSwales to great effect on my small urban property, 1/5 of an acre, no slope. It gives my land texture to make it more dynamic and captures rainwater.

    In fact last year my small fruit orchard made it through the punishing California drought without a drop of irrigation for the first time ever, I am dry farming apples, pears, citrus, and persimmons.

    They are all hand made with help from friends, and they work wonderfully. My newest one is also my largest, about a 15 foot circle and 6 feet high, it’s still just wood, soil will be added shortly, and it sits, literally on top of a swale that was dig out 4 feet and filled in with woodchips. In fact most of my paths are dig out trenches filled with wood chips, my paths are swales in disguise.

    Two things:

    Sepp Holzer doesn’t build Hugelkultur on sloped areas, for OBVIOUS reasons. This is the type one error here. I have studied under Sepp directly, and this is from the horses mouth. So it ain’t the swales that are the problem, they just exacerbate it.

    And Sepp doesn’t use swales, generally.

    1. Hello Seth,
      Do you share the name of the movie star or is this your hobby?
      Well, thanks for the comment and I really applaud your system that apparently must be proven. Any chance you can grow without watering you should. You should share what you do and post some pictures.
      You not only are producing food efficiently but you seem to get your community to work together!

      Thanks, Rich

  3. Ive been making hugelkulturs on swales for several years now and love them. they call them wood cored swales i think. I cant think of a better large scale project.

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