Our gardens in many lights

mardi 17 octobre 2023




Let's talk about statism and ugliness. We buy interior plants with the limited perspective that we do when we buy a trinket: We rarely take into account that the bought plant will grow and change, that it as needs (changing ones) and if they are not met, it will cause the plant to be distressed and it just might affect its appearance.

Often our patience is limited: if the plant is not in perfect shape, we will simply throw it away until another perfect plant catch our eye at our next visit to the store.

For many years now, I've been the proud owner of a beautiful  Begonia Rex, Escargot variety (top picture with a figurine of my mascot, Grimace la Limace). In summer, I place it on the back patio out of direct sunlight. But this year, I haven't been particularly kind to the plant. Although I acclimated the plant to the outside gradually at the beginning of May, I placed her right in the sunlight, so the leaves have burned. And whatever was left of the leaves were killed by a night frost (of which I presumed wouldn't be so bad. It was).

So I was left with the results of my many misjudgments, a sad, brown trunk that by all account looked dead. Somehow, my laziness that started all this persisted and I just left the pot with the dead looking trunk on the balcony, just in case it would come back. For two months I saw the evidence of my failure like this. 
And eventually, a couple a days a go, I noticed a tiny leaf! And a second one!
There's also a couple of weeds in there, if you noticed the one right in the middle of the spiralling trunk.


 That begonia won't be a dashing beauty tomorrow, but it is proof that, sometimes, with a bit of patience (and water), they can be tremendously resilient if we just give them the chance and they will forgive us the mistakes we put them through, even those we believe to be fatal.
And this story as happened to me so often! Here's a couple of other close-calls of the year (yeah, just this year):
The 4 plantspictured here almost died: The tomato plant was started as a seed, but I tried to reuse really old seed starter dirt. It's the only one that survived and I'm really surprised it did!  The basil was almost dead (you can still see many dead stems) because I messed up the transplantation and I placed it outside right before one of our deluge of rain. Since the pot doesn't have a hole, it was left in mud for many days. The parsley was in the house, facing a north window. Now it's starting to look green again, but for a while it was mostly yellow. And finally the coleus (red leaves) was on a table and was thrown down so many time by the wind that I was sure it would just die.

It's the first time I have a Calathea plant and learning how to tend for it was painful. Instead of testing the earth to feel how much water it needed, I systematically watered it every Monday (too much and not enough respectively). After a while of this treatment, the leaves started to brown completely. Starting to water it with more care (meaning, feeling the dirt with my fingers to figure out if it needed water or not), new leaves started to come out, but I can tell you that for a month or two, it wasn't a beautiful plant to look at! I nevertheless got it right: you can spot new leaves in this picture (the purple on the outside, soft green on the inside tubes coming out of the ground).

Another variety of Calathea. This one, we always got along, I never came close to kill it (I do have some successes, sometimes too!). Even there, the prettiest plant will give you the occasional yellow leaf but who cares: it is the process of life, be it ever changing.

I also have an orchid plant that for two years didn't flower. I now a lot of people who told me out of exasperation that they have tried orchids but they just wouldn't flower, so they were thrown away. From my experience, this is normal. It takes timer and energy to flower! Doesn't mean it's not worth it or that it should be thrown away
By the by, here's a little trick about orchid: this plant was given to me with a sprig of artificial flowers (that you see right now in the picture). So while it is not flowering, I pin this fake sprig and the plant may flower whenever it wants: I'll be there to appreciate it when it does, otherwise I'm quite satisfied with the fake flowers.

The ultimate goal of this article was first of all to shed a light on our (my, specifically) mistakes. I've had plenty already and will surely continue to have many in the years to come, maybe because of my inexperience or my laziness. Secondly, I would like this to be a reminder that plants are not static object equal to our other trinkets, they are living things that will grow and change and just not always be beautiful (just like us, really). But even when we think it is over, if we give them the chance, they may yet surprise and impress us! 

Isn't she dashing, now that we are in October?


jeudi 11 mai 2023

The season's end and grape pie



NOTE: This article was written in the fall of 2022, but it took me until may of 2023 to publish it.

 The pandemic, world's events and life's general chaotic state affected our ability (and will) for publishing gardening articles on this blog. Looking at it, the last publication dates from June 2020... But our gardens have kept on going even if it wasn't particularly newsworthy enough to publish.

creamy oats with garden peaches

After 10 years of marvellous peaches, the tree was cut down this year because it had been sick for years: a type of chancre spread and eventually won against it even after I repeatedly sprayed it with a recommended solution. I will keep a vivid memory of it and will most likely try my luck again in the future with a new tree

There is a plant in my garden I haven't fully talked about yet and it is a roaring success. It's a Concord grapevine that's been planted - Oh - about 12 years ago. It is running the length of the balcony with a somewhat startling hardiness. I actually have to hack it back throughout the growing season because it always tries to climb the black cherry next to it.

Cat in the grapevine 2021, we can see a tiny cluster of future flowers against kitty's fur.

The harvest is pretty good too. There's enough fruits to make about 2 medium pies or one really big one. En terme de récolte, elle n'est pas mal non plus. The pie itself is amazing and is this home's favourite pie.


Concord grapes have the peculiarity of having a pulp that's very solid, not loosely gelatinous. The pips are also big and hard to take out of the pulp, which makes it easier to eat them with the pips, something I'm not fond of personally. I prefer these fruits as a jelly, jam or juice, even if it takes a long time to prepare

To prepare them, each fruit as to be separated from the cluster - the branch holding them all together. Then, when you press on them, the pulp will pop out of the skin. You have to do that. To. Every. Fruit. It's a long process, is all I'm sayin'.

The left picture show the operation. The metal bowl contains the skins, the pot to the right as the beads of pulp (containing the pips) and the black plastic pan as the unaltered fruits.

When cooking the pulp in the pot for a small amount of time, the pulp becomes softer and it is then easy to pass this jelly through a sieve. That way, you can take out the pips. You combine the jelly "sans" pips back with the skins and there you go! It's ready to be cooked it with sugar. My favourite recipe comes from this site. There's other fabulous recipes on there too, for Concord grapes.

This year was a fabulous year for the harvest. There was a lot of fruits to enjoy!


Grapes are perennials and they are the last big harvest on my yard. Of course, there are still somme herbs and annuals like tomatoes and beans to be harvested but once the grapes harvest as been done, the rest is all slowing down, fall settles nicely with it's fiery colours and I'll close down the garden, dreaming of my next grape pie!

vendredi 7 août 2020

good herb, bad herb

Bulbs and bubbles (the french version is more musical, sorry! I wanted to make that word play for ages.)
First of, I won't be doing the postmortem article I always do at the end of a gardening season for 2019. Everything's been said in this article and I haven't taken more pictures last year, so I have no material to make one.

We are in Spring 2020 (alright, summer - but I started the article in spring). The pandemic has an interesting effect: with the confinement, there seems to be a lot more people who decided to start a garden. My conclusion is in no way scientific, but my own observation when I tried to order in May from Veseys, the home page was saying that they were filled up in orders and couldn't take any more at that moment since adding to the fact that they had sanitary protocols for their employees and customers, the demand was also higher than usual. While I was writing this article, the situation seems to be back to normal. So I went shopping close to my home and many of the nurseries were out of stocks on some plants.

Didn't matter - I turned my eye on other favorite websites of mine:  Heritage Harvest Seed had a similar message to Veseys ; Solana Seeds was submerged (I managed to order late one night and I'm happy to report the seeds arrived fast at my door); and Richters Herbs had some troubles: a lot of varieties were out of stock and even when I ordered plants at the beginning of May, they arrived the day after I started writing this article, on the 10th of June! On the good side, the service was amazing: they would respond quickly to my emails and look at the beautiful plants I received from them!
Some herbs: tricolor sage, two variety of rosemary (Tuscan Blue and Spice Island), 3 Grapefruit mints, du silver thyme and Caraway thyme.

Once planted, herbs are interesting for rock arrangements since many of them need a good drained soil to grow well. Rocks are beautiful and work perfectly in that aspect.

Mini-me helper from the height of her 2 and a half years.
But lets come back to the start of Spring. Firstly, it was a weird spring: here near Montreal, we still had snow at the beginning of May and a heat wave at the end of that same month. Further of from Montreal, there was reports of snow in June! There wasn't really a spring to speak of.

That's a problem since these times are also hard on critters coming out of winter. What can they eat

Weeds and their flowers are a good place to start!  This article from Radio-Canada (sorry, french only!) makes a point about dandelions and how important that plant as become and how much it should be welcomed. Personally, I always loved dandelions. The yellow pompom followed by a funny fluf as always cheered me up. They remind me of childhood. Here's a field of them that's full of life - at least in my eyes!
Better than green turf.
I also noticed ground ivy (lierre terrestre in french, Glechoma hederacea in latin) also produce beautiful purple flowers that pollinators really relish. I have a lot in my backyard. Louise adds that it a favorite of chickens - adults as well as chicks.
Buffet is opened!
Decorative Onion (on the first picture of this post, with the bubbles) is also a favorite of pollinator, just as shown here with this bumblebee. What I mean in a nutshell is that "weeds" are not necessatily bad. They play an important role even if - to our human eye - we see them as a problem! 

I won't elaborate to much on the edible value of weed: First of, I don't have a lot of experience and I am not a fan. Unless famine strikes, I'm not gonna inflict upon myself a dandelion salad or other just for the kick of it.
Of course, there's the fact that these plants tend to be invasive. Since they grow quickly, they will fill any "hole" generally inconveniencing whatever is slower to esptablish. So while the garderner waits for his carrots to sprout, it's a heartache to witness a dandelion sprouts instead on the second day (and they generally don't come one at a time!). Plants taking an opportunity to quickly grow where nothing else does as it's advantages. Look at the picture below: A beautiful violet grew there and hopefully will like the place and come back. Sometimes, the unplanned plant is a joy to have and should be kept! (Comment from Louise: the leaves of the violet are mucilaginous, but can be eaten in spring and early summer - added to a salad, a soup or stew. For the flowers, they're amazing just like that, to nibble on (reminds me of childhood) or also in a salad for color).

mercredi 10 juillet 2019

Successes and Failures 2018, part 1

Same article from last year:
Year 2017

Better late than never! It's been more than a year since we've published anything... What a shame! The crickets are loud in the garden.

The picture above is very representative of the garden of last year, abandonned as it is, the sofa swallowed by the vine (cats don't seem to mind, however). You will surely have guessed that a great many things happened in my life and pushed gardening out of my immediate thoughts for the 2018 season. It was even felt in 2017, in the recap article of that year. The big news was this: there's a new baby! Born in the very cold days during the christmas week of 2017. There's also the fact that I want back to study at university in fall of 2018 but even that had started before baby was even in the cards. I'm sure you will allow that this is indeed a lot of things to keep one occupied.

Let's leave these details and check how the garden did anyway, because even if I wasn't taking much care of it, plants do have that tendency to grow on their own, without a human constantly hovering over them. A note, this article is indeed about last year's season, 2017 even if I'm writing this in July 2018.

Like 2016, the big success are the perennials. Annuals, left to their own devices, have never been successful in my (lack of) care. I'm mostly speaking about annuals that demand a lot of attention like tomatoes, peppers, etc. I was better prepared for the 2017 season, putting energy on herbs and that did really well. Basil, thyme, parsley, chives and sage where abundant for the fall harvest and I had enough to last me and my family the entire winter. Speaking of, I do appreciate coming back to those easy to grow, forgiving plants.

We feasted on strawberries and juneberries, Louise took care of the red currant harvest et there was a lot of rhubarb too. By the way, red currant and rhubarb make a great jam for anyone who's interested.

Basil made an excellent pesto.
But there was so many failures! Because I didn't have time, didn't have the energy. The raspberry stalks dried out as soon as they made fruits and the peaches were absent; they were on an "off" year. Tomatoes and beans gave very little and I never dug the potatoes out. I didn't bother with the grapes either, leaving them for the birds. In a nutshell, I barely tended the garden in 2018!

A strange visitor on the front door: Worthwile info, he had to climb 3 concrete stairs to get there! That's more energy than I've had the entire summer!
What now?

What's the result of such a lack of work? We are now in July of 2019. Here's what's coming out of this lack:

 One thing that worries me is the peach tree. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, there it is: a tree, almost leafless except at its extremeties.

I went to my favorite plant store with 3 dead branches. They told me it was a fungal disease called gummosis. They recommanded a spray of copper powder mixted with water. It's the first time I'm ever doing something like that, I don't know if it's gonna be successful or not, but if I wait more, I'm pretty sure I'll lose the tree. Its state is already advanced, so I'll talk more about this in later articles, once the situation evolves.

Funny enough, it's still growing peaches this year! (picture below).

In spring of 2018, it was also clear that the garden was invaded by strawberry. My main bed is about to get swallowed in three-leaves plants - even the giant hosta couldn't quite make a full-proof barrier - but let's just be honest in this beginning of July, while fresh, local strawberries are not yet on the shelves of most stores, I won't complain too much: for a week we enjoyed delicious fruits everyday, as much as we want!
Main bed filled with the red fruit: the hosta on the righ and the daylillies on the left couldn't stop the invader!

One of the harvest. Singular.
The first juneberry harvest is imminent and I just finished my lime tree (linden tree) flower harvest, a harvest I hadn't done in 2 years.
For the first time in years, the potatoes have not come back. So this bed got the annuals load of the year: 2 broccoli plant, one tomato, some nasturtiums and marigolds, basil and thyme (let's hope it will survive since that last one is a perrenial). the tuft of grass down right is garlic chives and it's been there for ages.

Front and center: garlic planted last fall and right behind there a green vine. That's a new plant I bought this year, a blackberry plant. Since I don't know if I'll have time this year again for the garden, I didn't buy too much annuals and concentrated my attention on perrenials as much as possible.

So where do I go from there? I'm really not sure what I'll be able to accomplish this summer, I'm still very busy beside the garden! But I can start here, by trimming the grape vine over the couch and reintegrating myself in my garden, little by little. Who knows where this will lead me indeed?


mardi 1 mai 2018

The purpose of swales and how to apply it to strawbales.

       The swale technique :

Water is one of the great forces of nature.
It is a source of life and energy that we can
slow down, accumulate and redirect as it flows
down towards the lowest point of a property.
We can take advantage of this precious resource
in many different ways.

     A principle that is essential in permaculture is to retain water on your property as long as possible, to take advantage of all its benefits, in as many manners as you find uses for it. Evidently, this applies when and where it is logical and profitable to retain and/or slow down rainwater.

     Swales are earth works designed to slow down the water flow passively to benefit more fully from this resourceA swale is made of a ditch (an elongated depression in the ground) and a berm (a mound or bank of earth serving as a barrier). They are constructed perpendicularly to the slope, and they redirect the water flow to prevent sudden floods and erosion by managing water movements in a gentler way.  This implies that they must be level. In other words, they follow the contour of the terrain. On a topographic map, the contour lines are represented by curved lines that allow us to visualise hilly and mountainous areas and to know their altitude. The swale has exactly the same altitude (the same height relative to sea level) along all its length.

     Swales can be spaced along the descent of the slope, each one lower than the other, like uneven, but leveled, stairs. At one end of the swale, water can overflow gently into the other swale. When building swales, it is necessary to design and construct them carefully to prevent their destruction and even cause landslides, especially  in areas with steep slopes or heavy rainfall. 
     (There is another earth work that I don't know well, the Keyline technique, which differs from the swale. The ground is less disturbed, the water is not redirected and it's possible to make parallel lines. This video will further explain its advantages. My understanding is that both systems - Keyline technique and Swales - each present advantages that differ a bit. Look at this video of Geoff Lawton explaining this.)

     Swales apply basic principles similarly to rice fields, whether on mountainside or on flat terrain. But while rice is planted directly in the water (since it doesn't mind this treatment), usually, vegetables will be put on the berm, to avoid drowning. Each time the ditch accumulates streaming water, the berm will absorb and store it, allowing plants access to water well after the ditch will dry off. Also, with passing  seasons and with a good vegetation cover, the soil's capacity to retain water will increase.

     Usually the berm is the ideal plantation spot, protecting plants and trees from floods while giving them access to the water that has been retained in the ditch. But in areas liable to flooding, a wide enough berm may also be used as a dry pathway, readily accessible even after heavy downpours.

     Various examples of working swales :

     When applying the earthwork technique of swales, we can redirect the water in excess where it can serve other uses before allowing it to exit the area. In this first example from "PermaculturePA", we can see a spillway directing rainwater away from a building into a small pond, oxygenatinig it at the same time. Once the pond is full, it overflows passively into a swale, which is used to irrigate what seems to be a young orchard. By the way, swales have the effect of improving the growth rate of nearby trees.

     In this other example, on a hill side, a series of swales gather a big volume of rain water for young plantations. The excess water flows down into an existing pasture. We can plant a diversified vegetation, including trees and bushes, for instance to shelter wild life, and to stabilise an nourrish the soil and grow diverse crops, from lumber trees to berries, herbs and traditional vegetables. 

      This way of slowing things down gives water enough time to penetrate deeply in the soil. At the lowest pond level, the volume of water becomes important enough to form a reserve in case of a drought. Once constructed, this system works passively, e.g. without human intervention or mecanisation. 

    But a water pump could be installed in the lowest pond, making it possible to bring back the precious resource uphill.  And if its spillway feeds a small descending brook, a small turbine could also be installed, which could produce at least enough electricity to make the water pump function. A reservoir of a few thousand liters are one more insurance against an eventual drought. Anyway, this system already accumulates enough water in the soil to allow the plants to withstand long streches without rain.

The swale also works well on flat terrains. The one presented here is 3/4 of an acre and its owner take advantage of a building's roof to collect rain water. He directs it into his swale and can accumulate an impressive amount of water.

 Portions of deserts has been rehabilitated with swales, just in a matter of months. 

     Micro-swales may be installed in a small thirsty urban garden and obtain good results in a few time and with little effort. In this example, the rain water collected by the house gutters was already accumulating in tanks. From now on, part of the surplus go in the little swales and, with the passing months, the ground, formerly arid, is now able to retain enough water to sustain planting.

    Swales and my gardens :

      Going back to my own property, I'm blessed with a swale that I never intended in our front yard. Look at the following photo.

In our frontyard garden, at home, the cement pathway (at the right on the photo) starts at the foot of our porch stairs and winds through the flowers up to the city sidewalk. And all along, it is  lower than everything that is surrounding it. In fact, to step on this pathway from the sidewalk, you have to take a step down. Therefore, it creates a 5-8 cm (2-3 in.) recess, perfect to collect and retain rain water, which has no other escape route than the surrounding soil that absorbs it quickly. No flood. With the help of the natural layer of mulch produced annually by the plants themselves, I never need to water these flower beds, even when we have a dry spell.

This snap shot had been taken a few month after we took possession of our woodland. On the opposite side of our entrance way, relative to my position as a photograph, construction material, bushes and trees block the view to another open space, which is located just behind, and which has become our vegetable garden one year later. Nevertheless, we can appreciate how flat is this field.

 On the farm, the vegetable garden is located on this small, level plateau that stands raising over the surroundings. It receives a lot of sun and is somewhat protected from strong winds by a few bushes. But its configuration does not retain rain water effectively. My husband worked during a whole summer digging long, deep trenches to bring running water to the garden and to the paddocks. Right now, our main source of irrigation is our surface well, located in a much lower spot on the property. 
     In each event of a power cut, we must do without our electric water pump. Therefore, during a drought, a prolongated blackout would be very hard on the garden. We would have to rely on our pond and transport the precious water up the hill, a tiresome task, obviously, or to buy or rent a  generator. Naturally, I want to reduce that risk. We have a few reservoirs, including one 1000 litres. But right now, we don't have a mean to collect rainwater directly on site.

      In July and August 2017, we erected a summer chicken coop next to the vegetable garden. This will enable us to collect rain water from its roof into a series of rain barrels. I would like this to be one of our 2018 summer projects. But in 2016, I also started to encircle the garden with a swale to retain rain water before it flows towards lower parts of the properties. 

On the Northern side of the vegetable garden, the declivity is quite important (around 4 feet - 120 cm). The barrels on this photo are at the garden level. I was standing 4 feet lower when I took this snapshot, taken in 2014. 

     The following photo shows a swale dug in the soil. It is the narrow ditch of earth right behind the cardboard-covered mound that we see on the foreground. This mound is made of the earth and sod that was dug to from the ditch. There is also cardboard behind the ditch. It's used to smother the grass, at least temporarily.The ditch and the mound are perfectly level from one end to the other.

The Eastern and Southern outer limits of the garden are not made of strawbales. So I built a swale directly in the ground, in a conventional manner. We can see quite easily that this earthwork follows the circular limits of the garden, horizontally from on end to the other : just look at the black stakes and the white string running towards the South-West end of the garden.The rain water is gathered by the swale and can only escape by being absorbed by the soil. I deviated from the general rules of using swales by planting my 36 rhubarb plants in the bottom of the ditches instead of on top of the mound. I'll explain my choice in one of the following paragraphs.

      At the end of this swale, on the right of the photo, you can note a small flood barrier made of packed earth (it's dark brown, as it was not yet covered with cardboard). This spillway is a bit lower than the mound. Our cat is heading right towards it. In the event of an overflow, the water can spillover through this end without eroding the mound itself. Up to now, it never happened. Furthermore, I have yet to see standing water in this ditch. It will happen, eventually, but for now, the soil is still too thirsty and it will probably take a long time to recharge in humidity.

      You can notice the slumping strawbales behind the swale. Some of them were already 3 years old on this photo of 2017. They are a little higher than the swale. But towards the North (on the right) they go down a slope that gets steeper as it goes. I would need to make another swale on this side too. But I could have done it in the first place with my bales. Except that I did not know how at the time. Now I know and I'll explain myself a little bit later. Back to my earthen swale for the time being. 

        Normally, as the bottom of the ditch is supposed to fill up with water on a regular basis, it is not considered a logical planting spot. After all, most plants don't appreciate frequent floodings, even for short periods. The ditch may better serve as pathways once they dry out. But some plants do like these occasional events. Just think of all those species growing at the bottom of road ditches.

    When planting on an arid site or in a spot that cannot accumulate water (as on the top a a small hillock  opened to the elements), the most probable danger is to lose plants to droughts. And it is exactly the case for my garden. Therefore, I prefered to plant my rhubarbs in the ditch instead of on top of the mound, so they can readily make profit of every drop of rain. Up until now, it works well. As I said earlier, I've never seen enough rain to fill up the ditch and flood the rhubarb. On the mound itself, I intend to experiment with  complementary crops, starting with oregano, which has the reputation to be invasive under certain conditions. I bet that my rhubarbs will hold them at bay ! Anyway, we will see what we will see. (Hélène's commentary : "Bof, it's not that bad ! Not as bad as mint or lemon balm, after all !" Thanks, Hélène, for this reassurance.)

There are different tools to find  the contour lines on a land. This video presents the A-Frame Technique (it's the one I used to build my swale; you can see my A-frame level on the last photo in this article.) It's easy and cheap to build one and easy to use it. Laser levels are expressely made for that task, but they are expensive surveying tools. I heard that it's possible to rent them, though.

     How to shape into curves an alignment of strawbales ?

      Decomposing strawbales are naturally absorbent and they stand above ground. Therefore, they can form a berm. Between each row of bales, the pathways can act as ditches. Good ! I don't need to dig - or at least, not much. But unless some heavy equipment is used to level the ground perfectly, the creation of a swale entails to put the berm along a natural contour line, in other words, to form the berm into a topographic line, which will be more or less curved, as you can see in this video (in French) presenting another perfect example of a swale

     I decided to remodel the design of my garden to make sure that the beds would follow the terrain contour, at least in the parts where the slopes are the strongest. In the spring of 2016, I tackled my two lowest beds, with the idea of working a few more beds each following year. It will take time, but I'm in no rush.
     The next photo shows my ditch situated in the lowest spot of the garden, blocked by its berm made of strawbales, which is very short and straight. At each end, the terrain starts to elevate. In other words, my strawbales are sitting in a small natural depression. All around it, the ground raises again in a very gentle slope.

           3.        2.           1.
     1. Here is the garden's lowest and shortest strawbale swale, planted with strawberries. It's about 12 feet (3,6m) long.

        2. A pathway (covered in brown paper bags) is flanked by two strawbale beds (1 and 3). It's the lowest ditch of the garden.

         3. We discern only the extremity of the second strawbale bed. Though it is not apparent on this photo, this bed is higher on the slope than the first one.

    The spot where I stood to take this photo is  already about 8 inches (20cm) higher than the strawberry bed. 

On this photo, the strawbale berm forms a straight, short line. It is filled with strawberry plants, along with a few orange marigolds (Tagetes). The ditch, covered in cardboard, runs behind the berm, forming a curved pathway and joining with the black surface of a wider pathway, on each extremity of the berm. By wrapping itself around its berm, it takes the form of an elongated letter "C". The black surface in the foreground is 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) higher than the ditch. You must take my word for it, since it's undetectable on this photo. Despite this weird configuration, the rule is followed :  the ditch must be level along all its surface area, to prevent water from running into a mini stream to the lowest edge. The second berm, located behind the first, is 8 inches (20 cm) higher and just happens to follow quite the same curve as the ditch. We see this second berm almost in its entirety, only its extremity to the left is outside the photo frame. Young strawberry plants are nested in its right extremity. 

     My problem, with the second swale's strawbales, was to build forming a curved line, my strawbales holding a rectangular form. It's not that complicated, when we think of it. All we have to do is to place tightly the strawbales besides each other, but to move them on their lenght, in order to put them out of alignment with each other, just like in figure number 2.

   Figures 1 and 2 show a strawbale swale filled with water after a rainfall event

                                    XXXX «««««««««««                  Figure 1 : cross-section of a slope
          XXXX ««««« ((())         ))                               arboring two strawbale swales. 
     ((()      )))                                                            

      Both strawbale berms are represented by XXXX. Their function is to harbour the plants and to retain the water trapped inside the two ditches long enough that both the soil                and the straw can absorb and store it.  


      In the second figure, you see an aerial vue of the two same swales, but only the lower ditch is represented.
     The berm to the right is already full of growing plants (in green). Between both berms, the ditch is temporarily flooded (in blue). Normaly, it serves as a pathway. In a relatively flat garden that is not flooded, usually, the rainwater will be absorbed swiftly by the berms and the soil at the bottom of the ditch. Then, the pathway will be functional again.D
                                                                  Figure number 2 
                                                                                                  presents the aerial view of two
                       ((())))lololol)))))(                         garden beds, separated by a pathway 
                    XXXXo     DoooXXXX                     (in blue). Each block XXXX  represents a 
                      XXXXoooIoooXXXX                    single strawbale. 
                      XXXXooTooooXXXX                    Each strawbale is a component of the berm.
  PLANTS--> XXXXoo CooooXXXX                 Each strawbale will harbour plants XXX
  PLANTS-->  XXXX  oHCooooXXXX                eventually. Each strawbale is squeezed in 
  PLANTS--> XXXXoo    oooXXXX                  in place against the neighboring bales,   
                     XXXXoo  DooooXXXX                   with no empty space in between. 
                       XXXXoo OooooXXXX                 We can see that it is possible to position
  STRAW -->  XXXXoooU  oooXXXX                them out of alignment in order to form a
   BALES   -->  XXXXo   ooooXBXX                 winding path.  
                 -->  XXXXo oL o     oXEXX                 By grouping several strawbales alongside, 
                       XXXXoo I    o oXRXX                 we form a berm which follow the contour of 
                     XXXXoooNo  oXMXX                  the terrain. 
                     XX   Xoo  GoooXXXX                  Between both berms, the ditch's width may
                     X X  Xoo   oo oXXXXX                 vary significally and quite often, but its 
                     XX   Xoo  Aoo  oXXXXX                bottom remains level.
                     XX   Xoo So ooXXXX                  In each of its extremities, we can create a  
                   X     Xo    ooooXXXX                    spillway on the ground in order
                   XXXXo  oAooXXXX                    to create a micro dam, 4 to 8 inches 
                 XXXXo  o   ooXXXX                    (10-20 cm) high to retain water even more.
               XXXXo  oPooXXXX                   Whether from a rainfall or a watering 
                   XXXXo  oAooXXXX               session, water ditch will be trapped 
                         XXXXToooXXXX               between both berms, giving it time to
                         XXXXo  oHooXXXX               humidify them, creating a reservoir
                      XXXXo  oWooXXXX                for the plants growing on the
                        XXXXo  oAooXXXX                   strawbales forming the berms.
                         XXXXo  oYooXXXX                         
                          XXXX           ooXXXX                           
    SPILLWAY -->      (  (())))lololol)))))(
         Higher than the ditch, but lower than 
         the strawbales. It allows any excess
         of water to overflow there instead of
        disturbing the bales.
         Note that in the first weeks, the strawbales won't be able to absorb much water, because they are not decomposed enough yet. But given time, they will absorb more and more. Plus, the root system of the plants will go straight to the bottom where any moisture they need is much more available

    Conclusion : 

  The more uneven terrain you have to work with, the more your swale system will be  winding and the more your ditches will vary in width. Therefore, don't expect your garden to look as square as a bunch of city blocks. After all, perfectly straight lines are rare in nature.     

     Sure enough, this curving garden will bring charm, but along with it will come a few inconviences. For instance, imagine yourself rolling a wheelbarrow up a pathway which would be uneven in width. But on the other end, it would also mean moving it on a level terrain. Much easier. Or a row cover, being rectangular, would be more difficult to adjust over such a bed.
     And finally, I don't see how I could fit a chicken tractor over such a winding bed. It would be too much of a challenge, not even counting the difference of altitude between the rows on each side of your bed (one being much lower than the other if the slope is steep.
      In this case, enclosing my chooks inside the perimeter of an electronet could be an alternative.

     But smartly built on the right place, swales can prove themselves valuable design to make a garden working optimally, making its irrigation much more naturally with the help of the laws of gravity, while cutting on one's work load and the need of pricey equipment.

Here, you can see where the slope starts on the eastern edge of the vegetable garden. Before constructing the swale around the eastern and southern sides of my garden, I erected the black poles of our portable electric fence to find the contour line of the garden's edge. First, I planted the poles without any instrument, and then, I used the wooden instrument in the foreground  to place it more accuratly. This instrument is an A frame (built by my husband). It's a simple homemade level accurate enough to find the contour lines on a property with sufficient precision. And you know what ? My first estimation wasn't bad at all and I had only a few adjustments to make before starting the digging !