Swale Gardening, A Beautiful View for All   

Expanding Nature’s Path 

When it comes to our swales, two things have been clear to me as a Coral Gables resident: 1) You are responsible for the maintenance of your home’s swale AND 2) Tossing your dog’s poop bag in the trash pile of another swale instantly makes you a public enemy – and yes, they all know it was you. Beyond this, I believed swales simply created a buffer between traffic and pedestrians where you could also park a car. 

My home’s swale came with a lone young oak tree and grass so dead it had its own tumbleweed collection. Attempts to liven it up included replacing the sod and thinking it a possible violation. Driving around I admit I often felt “swale envy.” There were those who knew how to properly beautify them compared to the vast majority, like myself, who did not. My immediate neighbors were equally clueless. 

As it turns out, there is a city Swale Planning Package Program instituted in 2017. More recently – in May – Commissioner Rhonda Anderson sponsored an amendment to the package to add native, resilient, and colorful butterfly pollinator plants that do not require irrigation once they are established. Our city’s Greenspace Management director, Deena Bell Llewellyn, selected plants that will naturally stay short enough for swale plantings and don’t need fertilizer to look great. And summertime is an excellent time to add plants to swales because the afternoon showers help them establish quickly. 

Now ready to landscape beyond my property line, I will use the newly updated swale package to decide my next gardening steps. 

Here are the options to consider: 

Option One: Grass. This is preferred by many. For sod, shade tolerant grass such as Palmetto St. Augustine is recommended, with a height of 3”- 4”. 
Option Two: Residents may include the following suggested plants in their swale (though other appropriate species may be approved): Natives: Dune Sunflower, Beach Creeper, Blue Porterweed, Spider Lily, Boston Fern, peperomia, Yellow Lantana, Sunshine Mimosa, Indian Blanket Flower, and Frogfruit. Non-natives: Green/Variegated Lirope, Flax Lily, Burle Marx Philodendron, Wart Fern, Red Congo, Perennial Peanut, Mondo Grass, Asiatic Jasmine, Purple Queen, and Pentas.
You may choose to plant the entire swale area with a combination of low growing flora, but plants must extend fully from the sidewalk to the edge of the road, at a maximum of 30” tall. Hedges along the road or sidewalk are not permitted. 
Option Three: Especially in areas used for parking or in heavy shade, you may add swale plantings and decorative crushed stone or shell. Those approved include granite, oolite (limestone), and coquina shells. 

The first option of grass requires no Public Works Permit or Restrictive Covenant Agreement. The second option requires a Public Works Permit, a Restrictive Covenant Agreement, but no permit fee. The third option requires a layout plan for a Public Works Permit, a Restrictive Covenant Agreement, a Certificate of Liability Insurance, but no permit fee. The fourth option includes an application with a review fee of $200, a Public Works Permit, permit fees, Restrictive Covenant Agreement, and Certificate of Liability Insurance. 

“Even though residents may pull these permits themselves, we encourage the use of professional landscapers, so it is professionally done, and grading is done properly,” advises Llewellyn. “Grading is an important objective of swales to direct proper runoff. We don’t want the water to pond.” Another suggestion she has is to call 811 or visit sunshine811.com, a free educational resource call center, to help you avoid hitting underground pipes and cables when digging. 

In addition to decorative and practical purposes, swales serve an environmental role. They stop water runoff from roads, driveways, parking lots, and other hard surfaces, thereby reducing pollution; they promote greater nutrient absorption (fertilizer runoff) which means less nitrogen and phosphorous in our waterways. Every swale is a tree- growing ecosystem. In climates like ours with tropical downpours, trees roots will moderate the saturation levels as opposed to it collecting on the surface. Tree roots also stabilize the landscape. Essentially, swales only make sense when they are used to cultivate trees. (If your swale lacks a tree, or the tree appears unhealthy, contact Public Works.) 

So, with native plants removing toxins from water, preventing run-off, providing habitat and food for wildlife, and beautifying our city, my decision became easy. Go for it, and with Option Two. My proposal shall include a selection of colorful pollinator plants to encircle my oak tree. While signs may not be permitted on our swales, I hope to create one as nature intended – welcoming butterflies, birds, and bees, with a nicer view for all to see. 

Our City’s Public Works Department includes the Greenspace Management Division to provide guidance for residents about ideal plants and tree options. Residents can call 305.460.5135 or email PWGreenspace@coralgables.com.

*Photos by Grace Carricarte