Water Water Everywhere_ Handling Water The Permaculture Way

Water Water Everywhere: Handling Water The Permaculture Way

In permaculture we love to talk about food forests and forest succession. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of forests in the desert: lack of water.

Also probably improper management of goats grazing. 

Water is one of our critical survival needs: we can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food.

Unless you can’t breathe, the need for drinking water is the first “lack” that you’ll feel. We need it on a daily basis for optimal health.

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Water is Life

If you’re concerned about improving the health of your edible landscape, you need to think about H2O for your plants too. As it happens, permaculture deals with water more than probably any other subject, because it is so critical to stimulating life.

Permaculture has over the years developed several methods of water management.

In a previous article I talked about simple changes the owner of a small acreage could make to better implement permaculture.

As I hinted at above, water can have a huge impact on productivity of a food system. Look at any satellite image of the USA, you’ll see green where rainfall and Wasser are abundant, and brown or grey where there’s little rainfall.

What’s the difference between the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest and the desert southwest?

Water, mostly the quantity and frequency of rainfall.

So if you want more food (and food forest), you need to know how to guide, trap, and handle water in your system, as an integrated part of the overall plan.

Not as a slapped-on afterthought.

If you want to see a neat example of what permaculture can do, you should see the “Greening The Desert with Geoff Lawton” video. See here.

Note that a part 2 exists where Geoff revisits the site years later.

Geoff Lawton turns the Jordan desert (3″ annual rainfall!) into a lush edible landscape. He used several methods to retain water, one of which is earthworks. He moved dirt around to create slopes, swales and pools.

The overarching strategy is to make water take the longest possible time to exit your system.

That way you can have maximum benefit from it, and be able to re-use it many times.

Swales are not the only way to handle water. They’re also not always the correct way to handle water, and it’s possible to cause problems with swales or be unhappy with the water handling.

Water Water Everywhere_ Handling Water The Permaculture Way

Swales are like a tool in a toolbox. You have to apply the correct tool to the problem at hand.

There are many techniques that may be easier or better in some situations. With that caveat, let’s look at swales.


… are ditches that are dug exactly on contour lines, with the dirt piled up in a berm on the downhill side.

Swales are a tree growing system. Trees must be integrated into their design to get maximum benefit.

A key feature of their design is they don’t let water flow along them.

Why don’t we want the agua to flow in a swale?

Because we’re trying to make water take the longest time to leave, right?

Think about it. What’s faster: making the water seep into the ground, or letting it run off in a freight train torrent instead?

Permaculture designers usually put in successive swales downhill on parallel contour lines, and may be staggered so that if the water overflows one swale, it’s caught by the next, and so on.

They are also usually closer together on steeper slopes, and farther apart on gentler slopes.

Swales also usually incorporate some sort of packed dirt or rock overflow sill plate, kind of like the ones seen on dams, which should not erode under high water flow. The overflow can be directed to a pond or another swale.

Some thought should be given to what happens if the water flows downhill from this overflow point. You don’t want to wash out structures downstream.

Now, the swales can be any width, but the bigger they are, the more water they can handle at once.

Typically, hand-dug swales are smaller than machine-dug ones (duh!), but the operation is the same. Once dug, the swales are sometimes filled with loose mulch(sticks, leaves, compost)

Multiple cover crops should be planted and mulched to stabilize the new swale berm. Trees should also be planted on top of, and just below, the downhill swale mound.

One other thing to remember is that the swales, ditches, and ponds should all work together in a system made to slow down the water as much as possible.

Peaches, yum!

A complementary strategy in greening your desert is something I mentioned above briefly: trees.

Plant trees everywhere, but especially in/around the swales. Trees act as hydraulic pumps and bring water up from their deep roots.

They can moderate temperature swings, increase humidity and water availability to shallow-rooted plants.

Trees also act as a wind- and sun-break for more sensitive plants, and can act as an energy scoop.

They create more varied microclimates to grow a greater variety, A.K.A. diversity, which is always a good thing in permaculture.

Trees also give long-term stability to sloping grades and ecosystems, preventing erosion and increasing habitat for natural pest controls (birds).

They also can (and most should) produce food. In North America, think nut trees like hazelnut or walnut; stone fruits like peach, cherry, and apricot; other fruit like apples, pears, figs, persimmons, and pomegranates.

How great would it be to go into your backyard and pick a snack or dessert and eat it right off the tree?

Feel the juice is squirting out as you bite into the just-ripe fruit, dripping down your chin as you savor the perfection of your own delicious home-grown fruit.

There are many more ways to conserve and handle water.

There’s rain gardens, hugelkultur beds, rainwater harvesting, and greywater handling, to name a few. I added some last fall and are excited to see how they do.

Hugelkultur is a great way to get rid of scrap wood and decrease or eliminate the need for irrigation, even in hot summers.


Water critical to stimulating life and growing forests.

Swales are tree growing systems, but not the only or always the best technique.

Trees provide many benefits to water handling and conservation.



OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about water handling, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

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