Categories: Green

Just like the title above says, in this article we illustrate five fun techniques for small-scale earthworks that are sure to create a fruitful bounty once you start harvesting from your garden.

I’ve spent most of the last two years volunteering on farms throughout Central and South America, as well as a three-month sojourn through Spain, and in that time, I’ve learned a ton from the people I’ve worked with and, I like to think, shared a lot as well. I’ve been introduced to trees and plants I’d never encountered before. I’ve pruned and harvested in new ways. I’ve played with different composting, fertilizing, and bug deterring recipes and combination. It’s all been a blast.

But, for me, without a doubt, my favorite part of working in the garden is design, both the conceptual and menial, which I believe shouldn’t be exclusive. I like to come up with different ways to catch, hold and distribute water. I like scheming in easy solutions for delivering nutrients to the plants, providing habitats for wildlife, and grouping crops together into sensible guilds. I like to have a shovel in my hands, especially to improvise a bit as the design comes to fruition, as well as get a true feel for what the earth is like where I’m working.

Swale Paths on Contour (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

The whole thing just makes me feel like a kid again, building castles and moats, playing in the dirt. But, it’s much more than that. There’s nothing like seeing something work as planned, getting a good harvest off your design. Along the way, I’ve managed to pick up some techniques that still make me giddy at their cleverness, both in design efficiency and—something I can’t help but consider—appearance. I find myself mix-and-matching these techniques all the time, ultimately combining them into bigger interactive systems.


I’ve never worked with a tractor, backhoe, or anything of the like, so when it comes to swales, it’s always been relatively small, such as one might find in a backyard food forest or kitchen garden. That means maybe ten or twenty meters long and rarely over half a meter wide. In other words, they are just about the size of typical garden path.

As is the protocol, I’ve learned to put my swales on contour of the land, such that the water runoff catches and fills evenly into the trench to permeate the soil. Digging out the swale provides a berm or sometimes, depending on the slope, a flatter but raised garden bed on the lower side. In essence the design is super efficient because the swale and the garden bed are created with the same energy output.

For paths, I toss in a good layer of slow composting stuff like palm fronds, small branches, and coconut shells in the hopes that, below the pathway, it will absorb some of the water for later use and provide nutrients as it breaks down. On top of that, it’s a matter of what’s readily available, cheap (or usually free) and functional. Paths have been made out of good few layers of leaves. They’ve been made out of sand and gravel, separately and together. I’ve also considered shells from a nearby macadamia farm, old broken tile from discarded tile roofs, and even just dried grass or straw. Done correctly, the swale path could be dug out every year for a layer of compost on the garden beds it created. A cycle.

Magic Mulch Circle (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)


Mostly, I’ve used these for big, fast-growing and water-loving fruit like papaya, banana, plantain and coconut, and this is fairly standard practice. Essentially, a magic circle is a large, circular compost pit, about two meters across and one meter deep. The excavated earth is piled in a ring around the pit, roughly 25 centimeters high, and the hole is then filled with organic material. The hole catches water and traps nutrients for a guild of plants that are cultivated in the loose soil of the ring.

What I like to do is created a combination of magic circles, putting several of them in an area, such that they hydrate and feed the soil between them. It also makes for a wonderfully thick canopy of leaves and vegetation, and even just using the typical magic circle guilds, a nice layered forest is created. The coconuts outreach the papayas that are outreaching the bananas and plantains. A moringa tree or another legume can be thrown in the mix here and there. Cassava, perennial pepper plants, possibly coffee (on the outer reaches) and vanilla vines can fill in the middle space. Sweet potatoes and mint can cover the bottom layers. If spaced appropriately, larger canopy fruit trees, like maybe a jackfruit, can be planted between them.

Despite being large for many suburban lawns, I call them small-scale earthworks because they are something I do with a shovel, and in an afternoon, I’ve built one from start to finish, on more than one occasion. I would say that they do severely change what is happening to the earth around them, and if they are too close (only a meter apart), they’ll easily prevent the sun from reaching the ground. What’s more is that I’ve used the surrounding mounds to direct passive overflow for ponds and swales systems.

  Page Turn