Thursday, May 12, 2011

A week with a garden tractor and backhoe

With as much earth moving as we had to do, we decided to just rent some equipment to help us get the job done and to save our backs from all the shoveling and moving with the wheel barrow. (In comparing prices, three days of rental are the same as the weekly rate, so for us it made sense to get it for the whole week.) Once we knew that we were going to have it available, we ordered manure for the garden and gravel for a new french drain that we needed to help prevent the flooding that we have had in our basement.

The majority of our time on the tractor was spent grading the area next to our garage, house and shed that faces an uphill slope. We needed a better slope away from the house and to either side so that any significant rain or melting snow would flow around the house instead of pooling up next to the house and seeping into the basement. A neighbor who has a lot of experience with home construction suggested that there should be at least a 2% grade away from the house for at least 10 feet.

Once the basic grade was set, we used the backhoe attachment to dig a trench at the lowest part of this grade to make any water flow even better. Unfortunately we ran into a lot of rock that the backhoe couldn't handle so the trench wasn't as deep as we would have hoped. At the highest place in the back it is only six inches deep, while in other places it is about four feet deep. This trench was sloped so that when we put in gravel and a perforated drain pipe, the water would flow into the gravel, fill the pipe and flow downhill and around the house. Again, it is important to make sure that there are not low sections where the water will be trapped and pool up. As a precaution, I wrapped the pipe with a fabric sleeve which is designed to keep silt from getting into the pipe and clogging it up.

What I didn't anticipate with this work was to hit a water line going to some secondary water tanks while we were digging the trench. This accident bent up the 1 1/4" line to the point of needing to replace a short section of pipe. The backhoe also detached the pipe from the valve about four feet away and six feet underground. Luckily our trench was about two feet away from this buried valve and nearly as deep. This had to be excavated by hand so the nearby trench made it a lot easier to dig it out without damaging the good water line. It took a couple of trips to an industrial plumbing store and about $500 in parts, but I was able to remove the faulty valve, get the parts to branch the line into the existing trench, add in a garden hydrant (faucet), and reconnect the line going to the storage tanks. This new water source will certainly be helpful for the garden. It isn't right next to the garden, but a lot closer that the exterior house faucets that we have had to use for the past two years. I plan to eventually install a couple more small faucets right next to the garden areas so that we don't have to drag hose and sprinklers around so much. Another faucet next to the chickens would certainly help there as well.

After all this critical work with grading and trenching, we wanted to improve the garden soil while we have the equipment. So we brought in a dump truck load of well composted and screened steer manure. It took quite a few trips with the scoop on the garden tractor from the driveway to the back yard where the garden is, but it was a lot easier than doing it with a shovel and wheel barrow. There is now two to three inches of this good manure over the primary garden and a scant amount over a second garden that we want to develop. We ran out of money to buy enough to cover this second garden well, but we have a plan for this. Because we were already having this gravel and manure being delivered, they threw in a load of partially composted steer manure at no additional cost. This benefits the farmer who doesn't have to store and process this manure, and after we pile it up near the garden that we can eventually use it, the pile should be able to compost over the summer and be ready to spread by hand either this Fall or next Spring.

Talking with neighbors about our big grading and gardening project, we discovered someone with a big rototiller that was happy to loan us for a few hours. If the weather cooperates, this will let us till in that newly spread manure. After a few years of adding organic material and tilling it in, that should break down the hard concrete-like layer of clay soil that forms here. No-till methods allow you to pile up compost knowing that the roots of the vegetables can reach down to get all the nutrients that they need while maintaining the natural health of the soil bacteria and earthworms that often are killed by tilling. (At least that it the goal!)