Permaculture in Action: Swale Repair

In October of 2017 PermaBlitz #2 took place at a rural home in Butte Creek Canyon. The ~8-acre property is gently sloped in some strategic spots which provides considerable water harvesting potential. When the design team looked at how water was utilized they noted an existing on-contour swale that needed a bit of help.

What is a Swale?

How a swale works

How a swale works

A swale – which is a dead level ditch on contour – stops water from rushing over the land and instead sinks the water into the soil keeping the soil moist for longer periods of time while also aiding in groundwater recharge. It’s important to regard swales not just as a method of slowing and holding water but as a tree growing system. Tree roots stabilize the landscape and moderate the saturation levels by utilizing the water held in the soil. The illustration shows water in a swale as it sinks and plumes slowly down through the land. A mound or berm is used to plant trees downslope from the swale and a level sill spillway allows the water to passively flow to a predetermined area, such as another swale, a pond, much basin, etc.  One important goal in permaculture design is to re-use water as many times as possible before it flows off the land.

Existing Swale Problems

The PermaBlitz design team noticed that the back cut of the swale was too steep, the bottom uneven, and the level sill needed improvement.  Additionally, if the swale were to fill up, the overflow route took the water to only one apricot tree before moving down to a mulch basin. To gain insight and to problem solve, the design team drew up a Water Overlay for the property.

PB#2 Water Overlay

Water Overlay for PermaBlitz #2. The swale that was repaired is directly above DS-5 (downspout 5).

The design team decided to reshape the existing swale’s back cut, re-level the bottom of the swale and move the level sill spillway to different location entirely. The Host told us that this swale had never filled up with water, but with a recently installed 2,680-gallon rain tank, overflow water would now be able to move into the swale. During winter, water would certainly fill the swale and overflow. Note in the Water Overlay illustration how the water will now be able to move to several trees instead of the one. This zig-zag pattern SLOWS water and allows it to SPREAD out before SINKING into the ground.

Swale Repair Process

pb swale repair1

Reworking the swale

The first 2 steps in the swale repair was to smooth out the back cut and then level the base of the swale. The back cut was reshaped with a gentler slope for stability and so the overland flow of water would slowly move into the swale rather than cascade over the almost vertical cut that had originally been made. The bottom of the swale was re-leveled to allow water to spread out and evenly fill the from the bottom up to the level sill spillway.

Swale (12)The final step was to move the location of the level sill spillway and to make it wider. Wider sills allow for a more passive water flow. The Host had leftover paving stones, so these were re-used to stabilize the soil on the sill. Lest we forget the Oroville dam spillway debacle, level sill spillways are a very important design element -always plan an overflow route that will move excess water without damaging the land!

PB#2 Swale (11)

The new wider level sill spillway allows overflow water to gently move to the next area

sill overflow

Example of water moving over a level sill

This other photo shows an example of a swale from a different property that has filled up during a heavy rain event. This level sill spillway allows water to passively overflow to a pond lower on the property. Note, again, the width of the spillway. It’s wide! If spillways are too narrow, water will gain speed and pressure over the area and increase the possibility of erosion during times of intense rainfall. Gauging how extreme rainfall may be at times is another very important aspect of rainwater harvesting. Determine the volume of rainwater collection potential by doing some basic math using the calculations found here.

Finished Work

PB#2 Swale (5)

Swale repair finished

PB#2 Swale (1)

Rooftop rainwater from the downspout flows through a pipe and daylights into the swale here

To Build a Swale or Not?

There are many things to consider before making a swale. Here are just a few:

  • Do you need a swale, or are other methods more applicable?
    • What might work better? Keyline, mulch basins, wattle across contour, etc. Earthworks are a disturbance and a smaller intervention may be best suited for the site.
  • From which direction does water enter your property? How does it flow through and where does it leave?
  • What is the degree or percentage of slope on the area intended? A swale can be used when the slope is less than 15%.
  • What is your soil type? Has a soil percolation test been done?
  • How would water flow into the swale? Where is runoff coming from? Is there enough water flow to need a swale?
  • Calculate your largest one-day rain event. Will your swale be big enough to accommodate that event? Ensure the level sill spillway is wide enough to allow the water to passively flow from the swale.
  • Stay at least 10-20 feet from any foundation. This distance ensures that water seeping into the ground won’t cause moisture problems with the building’s foundation.
  • Always check for underground utility lines, water mains and irrigation pipes.
  • Make sure to place the swale at least 20-30 feet from a steep bank.
  • What will be planted on the berm and in the swale and up and down slope from them? Keep in mind, swales are a tree planting system, without trees and plants the swale could fail and cause more problems than you are trying to solve.

Remember, swales are one part of an integrated plan or design and permaculture is all about integrated design. Based on the Ethics (Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share) and the Principles we utilize the design methods to configure what is needed to meet our vision and goals. If swales are applicable, then we have to make sure we do our due diligence and factor in all the variables for success. Good design is based on rigorous observation and thoughtful design.

Permaculture Principles Applied


Use Small Slow & Solutions

Small & Slow Solutions: By moving the level sill from one side of the swale to the other side – a fairly easy job – we were able to move water to mulch basins for three more trees, rather than just the one tree. Spreading and sinking water throughout the landscape is always a key design goal in permaculture.

“Work at the human scale so you can build and repair everything. Many small strategies are far more effective than one big one when you are trying to infiltrate water into the soil.” -Brad Lancaster


Catch & Store Energy

Catch & Store Energy: This principle tells us to store energy when it is abundant. Water falls into that category and in the winter, when our rainfall is generally abundant, earthworks can store thousands of gallons of water in the soil.

Rather than having water run erosively off the land’s surface, encourage it to stick around, “walk” around, and infiltrate into the soil. Slow it, spread it, sink it.-Brad Lancaster


PermaBlitz #4 is October 20th!

PermaBlitz #4 is in Paradise, where we will be learning more about rainwater harvesting. The pads (base) for large above ground rainwater tanks will be built which will be used in a “wet” rainwater harvesting system. Learn more in our previous blog post or click here for details on how to RSVP!



PermaBlitz cover collage

Permaculture in Action: Lasagna Beds

On April 14th, 2018 Earthshed Solutions held its third PermaBlitz at a rural property in Paradise. The ‘Blitz Hosts, as part of their goal for the property, wanted additional raised beds so they could increase the amount of food they produced.

lasagna bed in design

Section of the Permaculture Design for PermaBlitz #3

Ahead of the ‘Blitz the Hosts constructed two raised beds to match existing beds on site. One method recommended to the Host, was to use resources on site to fill the 24” high beds. This style of bed is called a lasagna bed. Like the lasagna you eat, it is filled with layers, but instead of noodles, vegetable/meat sauce and cheese, it is filled with layers of brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) organic materials.

The empty beds were first filled with wood, twigs and leaves from the owner’s property.

This was the first carbon layer. Carbonaceous materials are things like: straw, cardboard, newspaper, wood chips, shredded paper, leaves, corn stalks, etc. These materials generally have a Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ratio of over 60:1. Examples are (all are approximate): leaves are 60:1 while certain wood chips are 500:1.

Next, came a layer of nitrogen material: bunny poo, grass clippings, fava bean plants, and coffee grounds.


The bed filled with nitrogen materials: bunny poo, grass clipping and fava beans plants and coffee grounds.

Not all “greens” are the color green. Some, like manures and coffee grounds, are brown or black. Other nitrogen sources are: feathers, hair/fur, actual green plant material, alfalfa, spent brewery grain, fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen, etc. The carbon to nitrogen ratio of a green is less than 60:1. Examples are: urine, which is 1:1 while horse manure is approximately 30:1.

Water was applied between each layer to help fill any holes and wet the material. Applying water is important to ensure biological activity begins to take place in the layers.

The cycle was then repeated: brown layers approximately 3-4” thick then a green layer approximately 1” thick. The final layer on top was 12” of soil – a mix of good garden soil and mushroom compost which was then topped with straw to protect the soil until it was ready to be planted.

lasagna bed -filled.cropped

Lasagna beds filled and ready to plant

There are many methods to creating a lasagna garden. For the Host’s purpose, these beds used materials on-site so they weren’t hauling anything to the landfill or buying anything other than the mushroom compost. And in approximately two years, most of the material placed in the beds will decompose down to rich, wonderful soil.

Here is what one of the lasagna beds look like in September, 5 months later!

Permaculture Principles Applied


Obtain a Yield

Obtain a Yield: Two more raised beds = more food on the table. Food can account for a substantial amount of our ecological footprint, so it makes sense to grow our own. Not only from a cost perspective of buying organic produce at the store, but knowing the food is pesticide free, grown in healthy soil and is nutrient dense. Another yield from the PermaBlitz was the yield of building community: 30 people working hard and learning = priceless!


Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services

Use and Value Renewable Resources: Where possible, we need to use resources at hand. In this case, wood, twigs and brown leaves for carbon materials and the grass clipping, bunny poo and coffee grounds for nitrogen materials which will eventually become healthy, biologically active soil. The wood and twigs were too small for the fireplace so rather than burning them, they were put to use in the lasagna beds. Composting this material produces substantially less greenhouse gas emissions as compared to burning! The grass clippings came from mowing the fields and meadows and the coffee grounds came from the kitchen of both the Hosts and friends and the bunny poo was a gift from friends. All of the resources combined came from the site itself or from around the
local bio-region ensuring we are valuing our renewable resources.

These permaculture principles are just two of the 12 principles that we ensure remain the backbone of all of Earthshed PermaBlitz designs.

PermaBlitz #4 is October 20th!

At this ‘Blitz we will be doing many more projects and activities which apply the permaculture principles in several ways. Learn more in our previous blog post or click here for details on how to RSVP!

PermaBlitz cover collage

Permaculture in Action: Designing a PermaBlitz

October’s PermaBlitz #4 is underway with the Host site assessment and base map complete and the concept overlays in the works. We’d thought we’d share how the PermaBlitz magic happens by detailing some of things that occur to make each PermaBlitz such a great day. But first, who are the people who put on a PermaBlitz?

The Earthshed Solution’s PermaBlitz committee are the folks who do all the leg work for a PermaBlitz. This group of volunteers is comprised of the design team & interns, board members and others committed to helping bring free permaculture education to our community. They organize the ‘Blitz, strategize the flow of the day, detail out the projects and activities based on the Host’s design and work hard to ensure a fun day is had by all. They’re super awesome, huh?!

Specifically, it’s the design team and interns who draw up the permaculture design for the Host. They follow a structured approach to begin but, when making design decisions later on, they utilize a very non-linear methodology. Does that sound confusing? It probably does but it really isn’t. Let’s tackle this one step at a time.

Step Zero: Permaculture Principles

Throughout the process of developing a PermaBlitz design the permaculture principles are closely followed and at the forefront two usually standout prominently:


Observe & Interact

Observe and Interact: Observation is a key activity in permaculture. Every property, no matter the size or location, has individual needs and by keen observation and study we can develop connections that are site specific and customized to the Host’s wishes. The Host’s observations of the property: seasons, frost patterns, direction of cold winds, hot, dry areas on the property, etc. are invaluable to thoughtful and protracted observation. David Holmgren notes, “Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration.”


Design from Patterns to Details

Designing from Pattern to Detail: 

The property is studied, in detail, for its overarching patterns: sun, wind, rain, etc. We try to use these patterns to benefit and fulfill the Host’s wishes. Looking at the “big picture” first, allows us to consider details later. Patterns are also found everywhere in nature, like a spiral (think of a nautilus shell or a cyclone) and can be a source of inspiration for a designer. An herb spiral is a quintessential permaculture technique that uses both pattern and edge. However, if a Host asks for an herb spiral, we determine where it would be appropriate, or if it is appropriate at all. If it isn’t appropriate, we come up with a different idea that best suits the site and needs of the Host. David Holmgren describes this principle as, “by stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.”

These permaculture principles are just two of the 12 principles that we ensure remain the backbone of all of Earthshed PermaBlitz designs.

Step One: The Host Questionnaire

Each PermaBlitz starts with the Host filling out, as best they can, a comprehensive questionnaire about their property, themselves and their goals -both for the long term and for the ‘Blitz itself. Before stepping foot on the Host’s property, the questionnaire and other information is studied by the PB committee and the design team draws up a simple map (using Google Earth) which is used for notes and measuring the ‘Blitz target area.

JGHirtel Target Area.3.1

PB#2 Google Earth map

Step Two: Host Visit & Site Assessment

The Host Visit and Site Assessment is the second step in a PermaBlitz. The entire PB Committee meets at the Host’s home, usually in the morning over tea and coffee, and spend upwards of 3-4 hours talking, walking and discussing the Host’s goals laid out in the questionnaire. This is a great opportunity to get to know the Host, enjoy some quality time outdoors and to ensure everyone is on the same page moving forward.

The visit often goes something like this:

  • Review the Host questionnaire and fill in any additional information
  • Use a simple map to note existing and goal oriented elements
  • Mark and measure the ‘Blitz target area for the scaled base map (structures, permanent objects, utilities etc.)
  • Walk the property, ask questions, listen closely, take pictures, take notes, and most of all observe!

Step Three: Research

The next step is done off-site with the design team and interns and is the most linear part of the design process. During this phase they use P.A. Yeomans’ modified Scale of Permanence as a baseline.

  1. Climate
  2. Landform
  3. Water
  4. Social & Economic Factors
  5. Access & Circulation
  6. Vegetation & Wildlife
  7. Microclimate
  8. Buildings & Infrastructure
  9. Zones of Use
  10. Soil
  11. Aesthetics & Experience

Drilling down into more detail for each category is crucial because this research is heavily used in the design process.

For example, under Climate, the design team finds the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, the Koeppen Geiger climate classification, rainfall information, hot/cold extremes, etc. It’s especially important to make note of rainfall information and historical patterns; like annual high/lows, 24 & 72 hour maximum rainfall etc.

The highest recorded 24-hour rainfall event is used when determining rainwater catchment areas, for the number and placement of swales and more; as are topography maps. The contour lines on a topo map are utilized for noting patterns in the landscape and determining the severity of slope. This information provides insight on the feasibility of using swales, building ponds, the need for terraced gardens etc.

Keep in mind though, reality is often very different than what is seen on a map. Try and remember this old adage, “the map is not the territory” and always, always use site ground truths (direct observation) in design.

Aerial view (left) VS. On the ground reality (right)

Step Four: Design Methods

After the research is performed and observations recorded, the design team starts working with the design methods. This is where the fun really begins because of all the out-of-the-box thinking that inevitably happens.

The PermaBlitz design team utilizes six different and interactive methods for designs. There are many, many permaculture design methods to draw from and based on past experiences the team found these 6 to be consistently solid methods as well as fun to work with; which is really important when teaching both interns and the community.

The Design Methods our team utilizes are:

  • WAS (Water, Access, Structures)
  • Functional Analysis
  • Random Assembly
  • Relative Location
  • Microclimate Analysis
  • Energy Efficient Planning (EEP which includes Zones of Use, Sector Analysis and Slope)

While not strictly a “method” let’s not forget the Ethics and Principles of permaculture -which are the foundation for all decision making.

Design methodsAs shown by the arrows in the diagram, this process moves back and forth, in and out, across and sideways. In other words it is not linear! All the methods are interwoven with one another and often several drawings and overlays are produced as a result of the teams’ various design ideas.

For the sake of time and space (because detailing the design methods could be its own article) let’s describe a situation utilizing the Design Methods. Because it’s such a precious resource here in our Mediterranean climate, let’s keep with the rainwater element mentioned in Step Three: Research.

We have a rooftop from which rainwater can be harvested so let’s start by asking questions:

  • How much rainwater can we harvest?
  • Where should it go?
  • What can we do with the water?
  • What kind of plants to use?

Gaining an understanding of how much rainwater can be harvested and its most beneficial use utilizes a lot of the research done previously -as well as the Design Methods in parentheses below.

Always allow for Observation and Feedback as you go along as a Check & Balance for feasibility (the center circle in the Design Methods diagram). There’s no point in spending a lot of time on something that will not work in reality. Moving on…

How much rainwater can we harvest? Calculate the square footage of the rooftop (WAS -Structure) then find the total volume of water within a 24-hour maximum rainfall event that could be harvested (Observe/Research).

Where should it go? Determine where the rainwater could go while ensuring some open space for walking and wheelbarrows (EEP -Zones of Use & WAS -Access).

What can we do with the water? Figure out the best spot to sink the rainwater in the landscape (WAS -Water) so that it can be used by plants and/or infiltrate the soil recharging aquifers and reducing erosion (Observe/Research, EEP -Slope).

What kind of plants to use? If the rainwater is sunk into the ground using earthworks use perennial plants like fruit trees, edible shrubs and wildlife hedgerows. If stored in a tank with a hose attachment, then annual plants will do great. Also, always consider where overflow from the tank will go. (Functional Analysis, Microclimate Analysis)

Can the water be used more than once? (Relative Location) Maybe for an outdoor sink placed next to the annual beds or for chickens or … (Random Assembly).

Step Five: Concept Designs

Meeting the Host’s goals and wish list items are a top priority, but the context in which the property is found determines the overall design. After filtering the goals and wish list elements the base map is transformed into several drawings and overlays using the design methods and finally into a (often singular) concept design that is presented to the PermaBlitz Host.

From this concept design the Host will often make some minor changes and a working master plan will be drawn up. From the working master plan Projects and Activities are chosen by the Host and PB Committee to take place at the PermaBlitz. And it’s these Projects and Activities that are best part of a PermaBlitz!

Want More?

If you’re interested in gaining firsthand knowledge and experience in permaculture design, join us! There are many ways to get involved in our hands-on PermaBlitz education program.

  1. Attend the Pre-Blitz Chico Permaculture Guild Gatherings. These are held the two months prior to the ‘Blitz and are introductions to permaculture in general as well as a first-hand insight into the upcoming PermaBlitz. We’ll use all the information gleaned from the assessment and analysis in an informative slide show presentation and interactive forum. You can check out the schedule here.
  2. Attend a PermaBlitz as a participant. Nothing beats a full day working with others, learning useful skills and eating a free lunch! Currently we host two PermaBlitzes each year in April and October. You can find more information about how to attend on our PermaBlitz page.
  3. Host a PermaBlitz. Hosting a PermaBlitz is a great way to improve your landscape, get free labor for implementation as well as a permaculture design that you can utilize for years to come. Hosting is based on reciprocity where every Host must attend Earthshed events to enjoy the benefits of having so many hands helping install permaculture projects at their property. You can learn more on our page dedicated to Host information.
  4. Join the PermaBlitz Committee! As mentioned we currently host tow PermaBlitzes each year. We would love to do more but we need more people to get involved. If you want to help bring permaculture to more people in our community -more often- join our PermaBlitz Committee! You can contact us at


PermaBlitz cover collage



Permaculture in Action: Wicking Bed


During the design phase for PermaBlitz #3 the PermaBlitz design team recommended a wicking bed system for the Host. This particular type of system would efficiently utilize their well water to irrigate annual vegetable plants in their fenced edible garden. A wicking bed is a self-watering garden bed. The water, held in a reservoir at the bottom of the bed, moves upward by capillary action to water the plants in the soil above. It is estimated that this type of system can save anywhere from 40-90% of water used.

wicking bed system design

Wicking bed system design

Pre-‘Blitz Construction

Before PermaBlitz #3 took place the Host constructed an outdoor sink using an old cast iron sink. A three-way valve in the plumbing was installed so that water, which may not be suitable for vegetables in the wicking bed can be diverted to the mulch basin. The sink was placed just outside the fenced garden and will be used to rinse vegetables from the garden and rinse pots from the fabric dying process (the Host works with natural dyes, specifically their abundant Toyon shrub).

Continue reading

Earthshed Blog -hey, this is new!

Welcome to our first Blog post!

We have a few PermaBlitzes under our belts, several Hands-On Workshops over the last few years and countless photos of it all, so now we have loads of Permaculture in Action examples to share with you.

Our aim is to help you learn about permaculture design through our volunteer work in the local community and how specific design elements are being implemented in our unique bio-region -the beautiful northern Sacramento valley and foothills beyond.

Stay tuned for fun and, hopefully, inspiring posts in the months to come. You can always keep tabs on us by following our blog right here on the website, signing up for our newsletter and connecting with us through social media.

And now a little teaser for the next post