Why Build a Hugelkultur Swale?

Planting season is over and a lot of days in the Ozarks are scorchers!  We’ve mulched our garden, but we’re still having trouble with the garden staying too dry.  As we’ve mentioned before, our land slopes down to the valley and this results in water moving off of our land.  So, we did what any good Permaculturist would do…we built a swale, with plans to build more! This particular swale incorporates a Hügelkultur bed or is a Hügelkultur Swale.

What is a Hügelkultur Swale?

A huglekultur swale utilizes the swale, which is a ditch built on contour to hold water, and huglekultur, a garden bed design that is a succession of decaying branches and soil on which you plant and mulch.  The beauty of the huglekultur swale is that your garden is watered from the swale and fertilized by the decaying branches buried in the bed.

Sounds like a win, but could you benefit from a huglekultur swale?

Here are a few things to consider:

  • do you have very dry soil
  • do you have water systems on your property
  • would a long dry spell devastate your plantings
  • do you have rocky and/or unfertile soil

This design basically doubles the return on your investment!  The swale holds water which allows it to absorb into the ground.  The decaying wood in the huglekultur absorbs the water and slowly releases it to the plants surrounding it.

Whether you’re sold on this method or still on the fence, here is a breakdown of the steps to creating a hugekultur swale.

Step 1:  Determine Location

Observe where water is moving quickly off your land, unhindered. Locate your swale on the high point of your land (you can make successive swales going down slope.)

I am very excited…we have planned several huglekultur swales moving down slope for our fruit tree guilds.  I envision good times with the family enjoying fruit off the tree.  We basically want to create a sustainable food forest and the design of the huglekultur swale will help achieve this goal.

Step 2:  Find the Contour of the Land

The contour is where the land is level between points. This is important because you are trying to hold the water in the swale, if it is not level the ditch will simply direct the water to run down hill. Finding the contour can be done several ways (A-Frame Level, Surveying Transit, Rotary Laser Level)

We went the less expensive route and used an A-Frame Level.  Super easy/quick to build.  Here’s how we built our A-Frame.

Materials used:

  • 2- 6 foot 2×4 (these can be 8′ if you want a bigger a frame and can use any type of board from 1X2 – 2×4)
  • 1- 6 inch 1X2
  • 1 – 2 foot 2×2
  • 9 screws
  • 1 – nail
  • 1 -6 foot length of string
  • 1 plumb bob ( just something heavy to tie to the end of the string, I used a large Nut)
  • Drill 1- bubble level

Lay the 6 foot boards on the ground in the shape of an A and place the 6inch board at the top and the 2 foot board toward the middle of the A. Screw everything in place.

Place 1 screw in the middle of the upper crossbar leaving 1/8″ of the shaft out.  Tie the string around the screw and the plumb bob to the other end of the string. Place completed A-frame LEVEL on level ground using bubble level. Mark where the string hangs on the lower cross support.

I used whatever I had laying around and constructed this very simple yet effective tool in about 10 minutes. I have seen many other designs that are a bit more involved and they all work. For me this is a tool and it doesn’t have to be pretty or complicated it just needs to work.

Step 3:  Dig Along the Contour

Once you  have determined the contour, for as long of a swale as you desire, you need to figure out how wide to make your swale. This will in part be determined by the size of property. If you are working with a few acres or less you will probably not want a 10 foot wide swale. You will be digging the swale about twice as wide in order to accommodate the hugelkultur bed.   So, a three foot wide swale will need approximately a 6 foot wide ditch.

Step 4:  Build Hugelkultur Bed

Now to build your Hugelkultur:  start with larger logs (that most appropriately fit your bed) and add progressively smaller sticks as you build up. Between each layer of wood backfill the hugelkultur bed with soil, making sure to fill any voids between and under the wood. Top the bed with hay and/or mulch.

Step 5:  Plant

For your Huglekultur, you can plant whatever you like, but linear food forests rock!   A linear food forest is a succession of plantings along the downhill side of the huglekultur that range in height and like hanging out together (a.k.a. companion plants.)

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough room for a food forest because our garden is a few feet down from the huglekultur swale.  That’s one of the lovely things about permaculture, designing your land to work for you!  A couple of books which may help you improve your farm:

“No Work Garden Book” you can find it here & Sep Holzer’s Permaculture Book!  

Thanks for spending some of your day with us!  Want to grow more of your own food?  Check out our Free Food Security Series going on now!

Until next time…Have a blessed day.

Shaun & Alisha

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