Author Archives: Jennifer

This is a continuation of the Collaborative Urban Swale project in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  See Part 1 and Part 2 for more information.

Once the basic prep work of the swale area was complete it was time to build out the French drain.

We decided to run the French drain along the southern edge of the swale (Donna’s side) to avoid the cement piers of Suzie and Morris’s carport.

Look at all that dirt that came out of a 24 x 24” trench!  It’s true what they say – soil “fluffs up” to about three times its mass when you dig it out.  One of the big challenges with excavation projects is what to do with the dirt afterward because there is always some left over.  In this case, some will be put back into the swale area.  Some of the rest will be used by neighbors.  Any that’s left over, Donna will move to her backyard and we will use it to design with later.


The trench for the French drain along the south side of the planting area.

We also wanted to widen the swale area a bit, so we decided to take out an 18” wide cement apron that ran the length of Donna’s driveway.  This left us with some large chunks of “urbanite” to deal with.  In true permaculture fashion, the problem of disposal became a solution when Donna (the homeowner) and Chip (the installer) rented a jackhammer and created some chunks of an appropriate size to put at the very bottom of the French drain.



Donna showing off some mad skills with the jackhammer.
Donna showing off some mad skills with the jackhammer.
The big chunks of urbanite will form the bottom layer of the French drain, helping to fill it up and saving us money on the amount of river rock we had to purchase.
The big chunks of urbanite will form the bottom layer of the French drain, helping to fill it up and saving us money on the amount of river rock we had to purchase.
Layering the French drain with landscape fabric, urbanite chunks and gravel.
Layering the French drain with landscape fabric, urbanite chunks and grave

We used Brad Lancaster’s book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2, to guide us through the French drain process, specifically pages 106-113.  You can purchase this WONDERFUL resource along with other books I regularly use from my Amazon store.

As directed in the book, we first laid landscape fabric in the trench to hold the aggregate rock.  The purpose of this is to stop root penetration into this area.  Note that we used a 24” wide bucket on the backhoe instead of a 16” bucket.  This left us with an 8” gap to the left of the trench which we had to backfill with soil.  Using the 16” bucket would have saved us from having to go back and do this – one of those “lessons learned” things that you run across each time you do a project.

The bottom layer of rock in the trench is the urbanite chunks, followed by some random gravel from Donna’s yard.  After that was used up, we still had to order about 3 cubic yards of river rock to fill the 15” deep and 15” wide gravel part of the French drain.

Now it’s time to cut the perforated pipe to length and put in the overflow drains.  Donna gets to use more power tools!

Cutting perforated pipe into sections to accommodate overflow standpipes.
Cutting perforated pipe into sections to accommodate overflow standpipes.

Next step is to lay perforated pipe on top of the rock, perforated side down.  You want to make sure the area is level along the length.  After the pipe is in place, the area around the pipe filled with additional rocks.

Solid pipe connects the downspout to the perforated pipe in the French drain.
Solid pipe connects the downspout to the perforated pipe in the French drain.

The perforated pipe, with its overflow pipes, is connected to the downspout by a solid pipe which drops more than the required 1/2” for every 10 ft.

Chip posing with the level perforated pipe in the French drain.
Chip posing with the level perforated pipe in the French drain.

All that’s left is to fill the space around the pipe with rock, with about 1-2” on top of the pipe, wrap the landscape fabric over the top and cover with dirt.

Urban swale ready for planting.
Urban swale ready for planting.

Voila!  The finished swale ready to be planted!  Notice the top of the swale is concave.  This area will be filled with woodchips so the surface is nearly flat and slightly below the level of the driveways.  The concave feature will catch additional water in situations where the French drain fills up and water comes out of the overflows.  If there’s still a surplus of water, we’ll be installing a level spillway at the end of the swale nearest the sidewalk.  The overflow water will be directed into the street.  To keep the woodchips from clogging up the spillway, we’ll plant some bunch grasses (either side oats grama or pink muhly) to hold back any debris while letting the water flow through.

Next up – Planting the swale.


Now that we have the project parameters we can delve into the design.  Below is an overview of the placement of the overstory trees, guttering and French drain as well as a detailed drawing of the understory plantings which include xeric shrubs, succulents and groundcover.  All plants should be able to thrive on rainfall after the initial establishment phase.

DS slide 3

 Plant List:

All plants were chosen for their xeric qualities; able to withstand high temperatures, reflected light and heat, and irregular watering. As many natives were used as possible. Items taken into consideration were: season of bloom, nitrogen fixation and food source for pollinators and local wildlife.   This is a typical Zone 4 planting and could be used equally well in nature strips and would thrive off local rains and harvested stormwater.

Click for larger view

Overstory trees:

  • Hybrid Cercidium “Desert Museum” - Thornless palo verde

Understory shrubs, vines and herbs:

  • Hardenbergia  - Lilac vine
  • Salvia x 'Trident'- Trident sage
  • Asclepias subulata - Desert milkweed
  • Sphaeralcea ambigua - Globemallow
  • Senna covesii/Cassia covesii - Desert senna
  • Eriogonum fasciculatum v. poliofolium - Flattop buckwheat
  • Aloe dawei - Dawe’s aloe
  • Hesperaloe parviflora - Red Yucca
  • Bouteloua curtipendula - Sideoats grama
  • Baileya multiradiata - Desert marigold
  • Gazania rigens - Clumping ganazia
  • A variety of seasonal wildflowers including various penstamons, salvia, Arizona poppies, toadflax, etc.

  DS slide 5DS slide 6

Sometimes, especially on urban permaculture projects where no one person has very much land and that land is pressed right up against a neighbor, it’s interesting to think about doing a collaborative project.  I’ve certainly done them at my place and now Donna is doing a collaborative project at her place.

The way the properties are set up in my neighborhood (and many others), two driveways abut each other, sometimes with a narrow planting area between them.  Historically, this planting area was used to grow a privacy hedge, usually out of oleanders.  However, oleanders can become hard to maintain after a time:  they can grow to be 20 feet tall and 8 feet wide or more and must be continually trimmed on both the top and sides to stop them from making the driveways impassable.  In addition, most of the oleanders in my neighborhood are 50-80 years old and have started to die off. 

Donna and her neighbors to the north, Suzie and Morris, have driveways that are separated by a 4 foot planting strip that was planted in oleanders.  Earlier this year, Donna decided to tear the oleanders out because they were getting old and ragged and also because she thought she might like to plant fruit trees there, instead.  She contacted me to see if I could design something that would be suitable and practical for both neighbors.

Location:  These two properties are located side-by-side in the Fairview Place Historic District in downtown Phoenix, Arizona (33° N, 112° W).

Project Parameters:

DS slide 1

Originally, there was a hedge of oleanders separating Donna and Susie’s driveways. Over time, the oleanders became diseased and needed to be removed. Donna and Susie wanted to replant this 4 ft x 80 ft (1.2 m x 24 m) strip with something that would: 

  • Provide shade for their cars/driveways
  • Provide shade for the south side of Susie’s house (sun side) and protection from the late afternoon setting summer sun (sets low in the NW) on Donna’s house.
  • Reduce heat gain from reflected heat from the driveways (Donna’s is concrete, Susie’s is compacted earth)
  • Beautify this strip and complement existing landscapes. Colorful flowers throughout the year were requested.
  • Be low maintenance
  • Be thornless. Plants cannot have thorns or sharp tips that would scratch cars (desert plants DELIGHT in having thorns!)
  • Be low water use. Donna is the one paying to irrigate this planting, but she has a concrete driveway. To get under the driveway would be a pain in the butt. So we decided on super low water use plants that could survive on rainfall after the first couple of years of being planted.
  • Shade passers-by on the sidewalk. A lot of people walk dogs or bike in this neighborhood and it desperately needs more street trees.
  • If possible, address flooding issues at this end of the neighborhood. During a typical summer monsoon (1” rain), the inadequate storm drain down the street becomes overwhelmed or covered with debris, causing the road to flood and floodwaters to overflow the curbing and flood people’s yards. This is mostly caused by everyone venting their rainwater to the street instead of to the landscape.

DS slide 2

The Design: Part 2 (coming soon).