ABC: Slow, Spread, Sink it

To 'get water to do her job' (to bring fertility and Life), as designers we aim to Slow it, Spread it & Sink it into the ground.

There are many ways we can slow, spread & sink water in the landscape, in order to re-hydrate & ensure we don't let this valuable resource turn into a major erosion factor.

The best methods, as always, are whatever works best in each specific situation, so there are no recepies in terms of techniques, but there are general principles and natural laws (such as gravity, capillarity, hydraulics, fluid dynamics, etc.) which can be observed in a direct form on one's landscape (if we obey the primal principle of doing good protracted observation, over time) before we figure out how to best design with the key & vital component of water in each particular situation.

Water Movement Into Aeration Holes

This is a clip from the classic Water Movement in Soils made by Gardner & Hsieh at Washington State University in 1959. It shows how water moves easily into an aeration hole that has been filled with sand, but that when the aeration hole loses its connection to the soil surface, a hydrophobic condition may occur.


Very compacted soils (typically where machinery has been compacting the soil or bad animal-management) can be 'ripped' (with a Yeoman's Plow, see below) to progressively increasing depths, as summarized in this diagram (from the Permaculture Designers Manual) to allow water & seeds to enter deeper and so eventually more weeds to grow deeper roots.

Yeoman's Plow

The Yeoman's Key Line design method has been used for many decades around the world as a way of better way of understanding and managing water in the landscape.  

Vídeo de YouTube

See a large selection of videos on Yeomans' Key Line Design here

Ripping is  one of many techniques employed but, as always, it is the underlying science and principles which have to be understood properly in order to know which techniques to use when and where, and how to adapt them to specific local conditions.   

Although there are doubts as to the effectiveness of ripping (or 'keyline plowing', eg. as these researchers state - who did a very linear kind of experiment), there are countless farms designed with this system across the world which testify to its effectiveness, especially when used together with other methods 
(eg. adding compost teas to the tractor, as it makes sense to suppose that opening the soil in this way will make absorbtion of all kinds of useful materials (water, seeds, compost, micro-organisms in compost teas, etc.) much more likely and effective.


A swale is a particular kind of ditch which is designed to collect and hold water on contour (so that it has more time to sink deeper into the land), rather than drain it away.

Vídeo de YouTube

You can see more videos about permaculture swales & swaling here

Contour-level Tools

from Permaculture in Brittany
We used the A-frame to mark out the contour and then, when I’d dug out the swale, I hammered in pegs of wood and used a 2.5 metre straight edge with spirit level to check the level of the bottom of the ditch (see photo). 

Ultimately, the most accurate way of checking your swale is level is to look at it when it first fills with water. 

The surface of the water will always be at the same height, so if you have a reasonably even puddle the length of your swale, you’ve surveyed and dug your swale well. 

You can adjust the swale after it’s rained, so it really is quite easy to get it spot on


from Permaculture in Brittany

The idea of an A-frame is that the two legs of the triangle are equal and a line with a weight (plumb line) hangs off their intersection. The connecting bar, attached at the same point on each leg, is marked at its centre. 

When the plumb line cuts the centre mark, the two legs are at exactly the same height. 
We use this property to walk the A-frame across the land, shifting the moved leg up or down the slope until the plumb line shows they are level. 

We then mark that point and swivel the other leg around, repeating the levelling, and so on, leaving a line of pegs that mark out the contour. 

One problem with the plumb line is that the bob swings like a pendulum and takes a while to settle, or needs a partner to steady it at the bottom. 

We got round that by attaching a spirit level at eye height on the crosspiece, whose bubble settles quickly, so speeding up the process. 

Photo shows Gabrielle using our A-frame.

Bunyip Water Level

from Permaculture in Brittany
Water will find its own level and the Bunyip exploits this. 

You get hold of a transparent length of pipe and almost fill it up with water, so you can see the level of the water a little bit down from the end of the pipe. 
Wherever the ends of the pipe are, even out of site of each other, once the water level has settled, it’s at exactly the same level, both ends. You need somebody on the other end of the pipe. 

When you move the pipe, both of you clamp your thumbs over the end, to avoid spillages. When you’re in position, you need a little coordination to get approximately the right level. 

Release your thumbs—lots of shouting is in order—and if the level races in one direction, thumbs on quickly and one of you adjust up or down accordingly (try it and you’ll see, an error says a thousand words). 
With a little patience, you will get the hang of it 

Video - how to make a Bunyip
Step by step Process of how to build and fill a water level

Laser Auto Level Kit

what professional surveyors & topographers often use, and if you have the kit, it has its advantages for earth-works
(and dis-advantages)

There's a dialogue related to this page in the Integral Permaculture FB group (click icon to go there)

There's a dialogue in our FB group on this subject (click icon to go there)