Using Swales for Water Conservation in Your Garden

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Water conservation is a crucial part of gardening, and there are many ways you can conserve water in your garden.

One of the most effective methods is by using swales.

Swales are trenches that can help slow down water runoff on your property, conserve water, and reduce soil erosion.

In this blog post, I will guide you through the main principles of swale building, including site selection, trench digging, berm building, and maintenance, so you can create a beautiful and sustainable garden.

Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a beginner, this post offers you valuable insights on how to conserve water while creating a lush oasis in your own backyard.

Let’s get started!

Understanding Swales

Swales are a method of capturing and recycling rainwater in your garden. Instead of letting rainwater run off the surface of your property, a swale is designed to catch and absorb that water, allowing it to slowly filter into the ground. These are especially useful in areas prone to drought or water scarcity.

Swales work by slowing the flow of water and allowing it to sink into the ground. They are typically sloped to direct the flow of water downhill and designed with a berm or raised area along the downhill side. By catching and holding the water, swales prevent soil erosion and encourage the growth of plant life.

There are several types of swales depending on their purpose and design. A contour swale, also known as a contour ditch, follows the natural shape of your property and is designed to capture runoff water. A keyline swale is used to channel water and can be used in conjunction with a contour swale. Finally, a French drain is a type of swale used for improving drainage in wet areas.

If you’re planning to use swales in your garden, it’s important to understand the different types and their intended purposes. With proper planning and design, you can create swales that will effectively capture and reuse rainwater while adding beauty and functionality to your garden.

Swale Placement

Choosing the right location for your swale is key to its effectiveness. When selecting a spot, consider the natural flow of water across your property. Ideally, you’ll want to place the swale in an area where water naturally collects.

Other factors to consider when placing your swale include the type of soil, sun exposure, and what you plan to plant around the swale. If the soil is too sandy or has too much clay, it may not be the best spot for a swale. Similarly, if the location doesn’t get enough sun, it may affect your plant choices.

When it comes to slope, a good rule of thumb is to have your swale slope at a one percent grade away from any structures. This will help prevent water from pooling near buildings and potentially causing damage.

Overall, taking the time to choose the right spot for your swale is essential to ensuring its effectiveness in conserving water and helping your plants thrive.

Building Swales

Before building swales, choose the right location in your garden. Determine the natural flow of water and place them where they will capture the most runoff.

To build a swale, start by preparing the site. Remove any plants, rocks, and debris from the area where you plan to build the swale.

Next, dig a trench that’s six to twelve inches deep and as wide as you want your swale to be. Once the trench is dug, mound the soil on the downhill side of the trench to create a berm. The berm should be at least three times as wide as the swale and rise about four to six inches above the surrounding ground.

To prevent erosion and to keep the swale from leaking, it’s important to line the swale with a layer of impermeable material such as landscape fabric, clay, or plastic.

After the swale is lined, you can add organic matter, such as a layer of mulch, to the bottom of the swale. The organic matter will help to retain moisture and provide nutrients for your plants.

Building swales is a straightforward process that requires a bit of planning ahead of time. Once your swales are built, they’ll help to create a healthy, thriving garden while conserving water at the same time.

Plant Selection

When it comes to selecting plants for your swale, it’s important to choose ones that can tolerate wet conditions. Some good options include water-loving trees, such as willows and cottonwoods, as well as shrubs like elderberry and dogwood. In addition, many wetland plants such as blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, and fragrant water lily can thrive in the wet conditions found in swales.

It’s important to plant your swale strategically to ensure that your plants will grow properly. You should place taller plants in the center of the berm and shorter ones towards the edges. This will help to create a natural, layered effect that is not only visually appealing but helps to stabilize the swale’s soil as well.

Once you’ve planted your swale, it’s important to mulch around your plants to help retain moisture and suppress weeds. Organic matter such as straw or wood chips make great mulching materials. Be sure to keep the mulch about two inches away from your plant stems to avoid rot and promote air circulation.

By choosing the right plants and following these planting strategies, you can create a beautiful, functional swale that will improve water conservation in your garden while providing a natural habitat for wildlife.


Maintaining your swales is essential to ensure they remain effective at conserving water and sustaining your garden. Here are some regular maintenance practices you should consider:

  1. Inspecting the swales: Regularly inspect your swales to ensure they are functioning correctly. Check the level of the berm and ensure it is high enough to hold water. Also, check the swale for any sign of erosion or damage, which can reduce its effectiveness over time.

  2. Irrigation: While swales are designed to capture rainfall and store water in the soil, you may still need to irrigate your garden during dry spells. When irrigating, avoid damaging the swale by using a gentle, slow-release watering system.

  3. Controlling weeds: Weeds can be a particular problem in newly established swales, as they can quickly overrun the area and outcompete desirable plants. To keep weeds under control, apply a thick layer of mulch to the top of the berm. This will help to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist. Additionally, keep the area around the swale mowed to prevent weeds from spreading to the surrounding garden.

By carrying out these basic maintenance practices, your swales should remain functional over the long term, providing valuable benefits to your garden.

Benefits of Using Swales

Swales can help conserve water in your garden by slowing down the flow of rainwater and allowing it to seep into the soil. This helps reduce the need for watering, as plants can access the water over a longer period of time.

Additionally, swales can improve soil health by allowing water to penetrate deep into the ground. This supports a healthy root system and provides much-needed moisture during dry spells.

Using swales can also enhance plant growth by creating a consistently moist environment. This is particularly beneficial for plants that thrive in wet conditions, such as water-loving vegetables and fruit trees.

Finally, swales can help reduce soil erosion by preventing water from running off too quickly. The berm created by a swale can help catch sediment and keep it in place, helping to maintain soil structure and fertility.

Overall, the benefits of using swales in your garden are numerous and make it an attractive option for those looking to conserve water and improve soil health.

Potential Downsides of Using Swales

While there are many benefits to using swales in your garden for water conservation, there are also some potential downsides to consider. For example, swales can be difficult to build correctly, and if not constructed properly, they can actually increase the risk of water damage to your home and property. Additionally, planting too many water-loving plants in and around the swale can lead to overcrowding and even erosion if not properly maintained.

Another potential downside of using swales is that they can be time-consuming and labor-intensive to construct. Even if you have experience with landscaping projects, building a swale requires significant planning and effort, from digging the trench to sculpting the berm and lining the swale with weed cloth. If you’re not prepared for the work involved, a swale project may quickly become overwhelming.

Finally, it’s important to note that swales are not a one-size-fits-all solution for water conservation in every garden. The effectiveness of a swale depends on various factors, such as the slope of your property, the type of soil in your garden, and the amount of rainfall your area receives. Before you invest time, energy, and resources into building a swale, it’s crucial to evaluate whether it’s the best fit for your specific garden conditions.

In spite of these potential downsides, I still believe that swales are an excellent option for water conservation in many gardens. Although they require careful planning and regular maintenance, the benefits of a swale can be significant, from improving your soil health to reducing your water bill. So if you’re looking for a sustainable and effective way to conserve water in your garden, I encourage you to consider incorporating a swale into your landscaping plans.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, using swales is an efficient and eco-friendly water conservation method that can provide significant benefits to your garden.

From reducing soil erosion to improved plant growth, swales can help you create a beautiful and sustainable outdoor space.

If you have never tried using swales before, I encourage you to give it a shot!

Which swale placement or plant selection strategy are you going to try in your garden?

Send me a message and let me know!

If you found this blog post helpful, please share it on social media to spread the word about the power of swales for water conservation.

Thanks for reading!

Author: Scott Sanders


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