Nov 2009: Swale+Food Forest in Ohio, USA: Parkwalk Permaculture

100 foot swale.  Great guild designs.  A contribution to the great reskilling.  An infusion of energy  into the Cincinnati Permaculture scene.   A teaching team formed.  People making lots of connections personally and intellectually.  In short the course was a huge success. The course was delivered with the phrase patterns to details in mind all along the way.  It really  followed  the core model design process of visioning, assessment, conceptual planning, master planning  which  leads to that seed  being  born in the middle.  The design is dynamic always pausing for more observation so that the  re-evaluation can happen.

Thus we started with a visioning exercise  that  was  multifunctional with a name  game and getting to know others that you didn’t before.  Next observations of the site lead us into our assessment that  this property has huge potential to store lots of water because of  the given topography and roof collection of this house and  the  neighbors.   It was also identified that  this  site has diverse micro-climates because of the varied orientation and long south-facing.  Other observations include deer traffic, noise pollution from the busy intersection it sits near, and the feeling of heavy clay under our feet but developing humus in the garden beds.

Cincinnati Permaculture
students observing water resources on site, notice the clay pipe and the black plastic one

To come closer to those details, Doug delivered a concise introduction to permaculture slideshow including the history, ethics and principles as they relate to food forestry and rainwater harvest.  Keeping with the old adage that we are all students and teachers at a permaculture course, Dee came from the audience and gave us the low down on rain gardens as a strategy to harvest rain water.  Drawing from her vast experience with the mill creek watershed council, Dee eloquently made the analogy between a pie pan and a rain garden.    With its shape and some holes in the bottom and some plants planted in them, that’s a rain garden.

Peter from the civic garden center wielding an A-frame

Following a splendid lunch on a sunny hillside with temperatures reaching 70 degrees, class turned to practical skills behind constructing a swale and map making.  Students learned three techniques for finding level which is the key to swale making- Aframe, bunyip and laser level.  Before digging we laid out lots of contour lines to better examine the topography of the hill and evaluate why the swale spot was chosen.  It was the highest spot possible to collect all six downspouts of the roof that are deposited in the backyard while allowing for access and not attempting digging on steep hillsides.  With that digging of a nine foot wide swale commenced, four and half ft. on the trench and four and half on the mound while totaling a hundred feet long.

Many hands make light work

After just one hour’s worth of digging, the students and teachers had contributed to the digging of this massive ditch and mound water harvesting element.  The ground was of perfect moisture content for digging.  So after two weeks of no rain the ground was still a bit moist but relatively dry.  We did hit one spot with really heavy clay and managed to unearth lots of limestone rock along the way.  It was good fun though with students learning about gentle entry and exit angles for swaling and how to work as a team and use tools appropriately.

Super Sam and Swale to run-off rescue

Day 2 started with a revisioning process as we began that design process circuit again.  It helps to know where you are going so that you can get there by the end of a day.  These exercises allow students to take more charge of their learning experience by realizing what it is they are hoping to accomplish in their learning time.  Following that we embarked on observation of forest ecology which helped keep the patterns to details flowing. 

Whitney, John and Dee found a beautiful spot of the Mill Creek that features a small waterfall out in front of the Parkwalk property.  The Mill Creek is the watershed we are hoping to improve the water quality of with this swale and food forest workshop.  After making observations, students shared them and we expressed some interpretations and stories from there.  The surroundings feature a regenerating the following stages of succession: a hillside with a near monoculture of Black Locust, a scrubby patch dominated by Honeysuckle in the understory, and also an older forest that displays the diversity of the mixed mesophytic eastern deciduous forest.  It truly is a remarkable forest composed of many layers and food just like we want our forest garden to be.

To understand more details about design, we employed another design technique called Random Assembly.  This exercise has been adapted by Doug to show how 3-d modeling can be incorporated to bring this excercise even more alive.  We set up a mock interpretation of the site and then students laid down their card which had an element.  The element had a functional analysis done on it the night before as homework, yes HomeWork! on the weekend.  This exercise allows for interconnections to be made and then switched around to  make the design even more energy efficient.

Sam and the Biological Sponge

To get students more familiar with species and their functions within guilds, we played a guild build game for three different areas of the site that featured different challenges and orientation.  This excercise displayed the fun and creativity that flows into a permaculture workshop.  One group developed an alcohol producing guild, another developed a one person teepee to view their guild, and the other a lovely jasmine vine to welcome you throw the front door.

To round out the day, some more practical skills were displayed and practiced so that we can make our food forests diverse but not spend a fortune on doing so.  Sam led a mushroom inoculation display and Doug a propagating of plants demonstration.

Students drilling and plugging the spawn
shiitake spawn drilling and plugging

At the end of the day a lot of thanks had been given and a buzz was in the air of how to connect more often.  The network continues to build in Cincinnati and I think this will keep the momentum flowing through the deep, icy recess that is winter in Cincinnati.

Following the workshop there was still some work to do on the swale.  The following day, Doug worked long and hard because of the expected deluge that the weather station was reporting in the morning.  It never materialized but some more digging and terracing with logs did happen.  The bottom was dug deeper throughout to make more capacity for the water and to more easily use the a frame to check level.  That heavy clay spot revealed to be a bit of a seepage spring.

Seepage Spring

Despite the fact that it hadn’t rained in over two weeks water was found at the bottom of the swale when first examined the next morning.   There must be an impervious layer somewhere under there shoving the groundwater upward.  When you look downhill from there you also notice that the vegetation is different with no goldenrod stalks leftover as they simply don’t grow there.  So we will have to adjust our planting for that resource, not a problem.

sticks supporting the swale mound

To help with the stabilization of the steeper banks, I laid logs behind the berm with  stakes supporting them on the downhill side.  These logs will help with soil movement and give food for soil fungi as they came out of the nearby forest so they probably have that biology ready to consume them.  I also increased the edge on the uphill side to gain more material for the steep parts to really build up those areas.  I really went uphill with the digging in the area where the three eastern pipes outlet because there was a valley beginning in that area.  Thus in valleys you move “up” the landscape to stay on contour.  That night I went to take some pictures with flash as  a friend told me it is a great way to capture definition on earthworks.  While doing so I came across a visitor in the distance.  I think it was a racoon but all I saw was the eyes in reflection of the flash.

notice the small glowing eyes in the distance at the top

On Tuesday we saw our first bit of rain when I woke up.  I rushed outside to do the last bit of terracing as the rain picked up.  It only rained for about 20 minutes but the roof produced the expected concentrated runoff on the eastern and the western side pipes.  It filled a bit which helped me to determine the level in the bottom of the swale.  Water is an amazing resource for that.  So as of right now this is how it looks.  I want to do a bit more digging and before we get any significant rain I will do the mulching.

The Permaculture Pirates did it!! run-off rescue

Sam came over to do a bit of wrapping up logistics when it started to rain hard.  After assuring him just twenty minutes earlier that he didn’t need to stop home before he heading over to pick up work clothes, we ran outside and started digging to ensure the swale was working properly.

swale with water
Barefoot Sam shovel in hand digging till dark

The swale seemed to be holding to much water at the east side so we used the water as our level and dug deeper and wider in parts.  This allowed for the water to be more evenly distributed and for greater retention capacity.  Further digging happened on Wednesday and the first seeds were put down.  Paw Paw from Iowa and Eleagnus and Maypop from Arkansas.  The swale is holding up to our expectations.  However the community of Parkwoods called to express their concern over the project as we had not done a resource consent over it.  So the problem becomes the solution- we will simply have to do in-depth drawings of the project and really plan out the food forest before I leave for Paris.

swale with water cincinnati permaculture
swale capturing the roof run-off, notice the water spewing from the clay pipe

After another weeks worth of work the swale is finally finished.  After this big night of rain it really hasn’t rained much so I haven’t seen the swale in action.  However as the water receded I was able to use these varying water levels to check level along the way.  I continued to dig a bit deeper and shave some earth off the sides to make the water holding capacity even greater and to find that level.  I also continued to etch away at the north side of the swale (the beginning of the swale where the grass meets) to increase edge that side and reduced the entry angle since I made it deeper.  This all gave me more soil, which I needed because of the varying slopes of the hill.  Where it was flatter on the west side, there was more dirt and a higher mound.  So I shoveled some from there to the steeper parts on the eastern side.  Also that increasing edge dirt ended up there.  I may have made a bit of a mistake there with using the swale bottom as a path in this wet and sloppy conditions.  You can cause the bottom to seal, similar to what you would do with some pigs in a leaky pond bottom.  However I think this will change with the cover crop helping to break up the clay.

winter rye and sweet clover seed soaking

So that was the next step.  So I soaked the seeds, sweet clover and winter rye, for about six hours.  You do this to speed up the germination process.seedbed preparation fro broad cast seeding After that I broadcasted seeded once I prepared a seedbed.  I did this by using a rake and putting “grooves into the clay” by pressing hard down on the metal rake and dragging it across the exposed northern hillside and swale bottom.  This just helps to provide some more surface area for the seed to connect to and catch on if a heavy rain did ensue and want to wash it all to the swale bottom.  To help protect the soil further, I lightly mulched the seeded area with straw leftover from a Holiday Decoration.  It came in handy, as these two little bales were perfect size for putting done just enough.  You don’t want to put down too much so that sun can reach the seeds and help with germination and warming the ground temperature.

Once that was finished I turned my attention to the swale mound.  Before mulching it, I wanted to introduce some biology to the mound and get some more organic matter there.  Thus I went into the local forests and selectively harvested rotted logs for those mentioned properties above.  soil biology inoculationI decided where to plant the blueberries on the mound and did some soil amending to hopefully get better growth than our other two.  So I dug the holes for them, and then backfilled with rotten logs and humus from the breakdown of these.  Blueberries like more acidic soils and ones with lots of organic matter, which the swale mounds lack.  I did it this winter so that that organic matter can break down even further over the winter.  Across the top of the rest of the mound on the eastern side, I sprinkled a layer of decomposing wood and forest soil.  Following that I heavily mulched with leaves to protect the soil and prevent weeds seeding in.  Along the backside of the mound I used the brown paper bags that the leaves were stored in for sheet mulching to prevent the grass from coming in right away.

I still had 20 bags of leaves left and my Mother wanted to put them in the forest but I decided to use them in other beds on the property.  To make them a bit more aesthetically pleasing and easier to keep in the beds during our windy winters, I used the lawnmower to shred them into a finer consistency.  This is another example of increase edge as the fungi and bacteria have more surface area to break down this soil building material.

bacteria food- simple sugar: molasses

So I distributed them around the fern bed back by the back porch, the raspberry bed got a thick covering and the gooseberry bed on the north side got a healthy dose as well.  It will help with less watering and less of a need for fertilizer next year.  I still had five or so bags left and wanted to add them to the swale mound but thought I would chip them up as well.  So I raked off the ones that were on the western side of the swale mound and combined it with these five bags and remulched that western section.  When you chip it, the volume is severely reduced so I couldn’t do the whole mound.  However when doing this, I used those last bags and other brown paper bags that were lying around to sheet mulch.  This time I soaked the bags in a molasses water solution that had some of that forest soil left over in it as well.  Molasses is a good tool for stimulating the bacterial growth.  Worms really like brown bags and cardboard and one way to speed that process up is by giving the bacteria some simple sugars to chew on.  So I laid those down again at the bottom side so that the grass had a thick barrier to climb.  I have tried two different establishment techniques essentially on the mound.  One is chipped leaves with molasses soaked bags while the other side of the mound is forest soil and decomposing wood.  It’s always good to do scientific research because as permaculturist we are still experimenting with the tools that are available to us.

the first stone being laid

The last task was to clean up and finish the spillway.  Since it is such a large swale and will spill a concentrated flow on occasion, I put a lot of work into ensuring that erosion would be reduced on the mound.  Because I built up the overall level of the mound, I was able to bring the level of the spillway up.  So I put more mud down there and then laid a large flat limestone rock on top where the water will initially spill out.   I then laid rocks down hill on a very slight decline and supported them underneath with other rocks so water flow would be like a several-stepped waterfall.  It would have otherwise been too steep which would have eaten away at the mound and could have compromised it.  Now it has an aesthetically pleasing water feature which doubles as stairs so that there is another access point.  We shall see how it functions, as I had to import more soil to sure up the sides of it so it would spill on the rocks.  That was a part of cleanup process from the mud clumps that had been flung out during the digging.

stone steps and spillway

So really the last part is the planting.  We decided to do it in the spring.  We have planned it out according to zones and sectors.  The far eastern edge will be planted with Red alder to be used as a coppice and a less managed zone while also being a wind break.  On the western side will be the berry section that will need to be accessed quite frequently during ripening season.  It is closer to the raspberry section, which will also need that attention.  The space in between those sections will be planted out with that intensity of use factor in zone planning.  It’s exciting to have this project here when I return from Europe.  So thanks again to those participants and everybody who made this happen.

Here at the bottom is some before and after photos just to see how dramatically this swale changed the look of the lawn.


8 Comments on “Nov 2009: Swale+Food Forest in Ohio, USA: Parkwalk Permaculture

  1. What a beautiful swale!!! Looks like a really awesome workshop. keep up the good work. so inspiring to be able to read about it here. thanks.

  2. sam–so happy to be flowing alongside, and at an expansive distance with the likes of you down there in Cincinnati….Yes, I’m interested in teaching and partnering with Mid-west permi-folks…and yes, looking to put a PDC together for folks in Michigan in the next year….looking for nearby teachers….so let’s talk….ALSO, while you were digging swales, I was rubbing elbows with some corporate folks at a conference sponsored by a Michigan based organization called Local….here’s a link with a slew of great presentations—-especially fond of Robert Costanza’s on Eco-Economy and “What it is we really want”….mine, always inspired by the long chain of connections here, there, emerging, and with the gracious guidance and heart connection with you and the others I spent time with over the past year and through our teacher training in NY….here’s the link: Let me know how we can consider working together….take good care and CONGRATS on your amazingness! `penny

  3. These are the lamest people I have ever seen, all they did was dig a ditch and soaked some seeds in it then they put hay on it . . . making a rain barrel from a drain pipe with a screen over it is a much more effective way of capturing rain water.

    • Hey Brian, not sure if you have ever tried to capture rain off of a roof, but when you do some simple calculations you see that a 55 gallon barrel as you suggested is not quite sufficient. It fills up in about a two minute downpour. The swale is meant to infiltrate water in where as tanks are for storage. We are planning on setting up two 275 gallon tanks, reused from Coke Co. with your suggested setup with the excess overflow running into the swale. These kind of systems allow for water reuse during dry periods where as swales are just meant to complete the hydrologic cycle by letting water infiltrate into the ground. This mitigates the polluting effects of runoff and ensures a higher groundwater content. See in Permaculture we address a function (slow and sink water) on our site with many different elements- rain barrels, swales, rain gardens, contour hedgerows, mulch…. It’s a design science and I hope you have fun with it. One last thing is we finally planted the mound out with food bearing crops and flowering herbs. So the swale itself is multifunctional- increases infiltration, increases food production, increases beneficial insect food and so on.

  4. Wow, this is all fascinating. I am such a novice, but with some help hope to dabble in building a couple guilds in Dayton on the over 9.3 acres that is Camp Fire USA in Huber Heights. Guess we’ll see…

    • would love to work with you guys on that when I am back in April from farming abroad. I have a good friend in Dayton that i have been wanting to visit for some time up there and could stop by in conjunction with that. What is your camp about? ciao

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