Food Forest Earth Works Planning – Part II

In Part I I discussed how we laid out a small portion of our property for Phase 1 of our food forest. Now lets take a look at how the swales were dug and mulched.

I used the 18 inch wide bucket on the backhoe to trench about 12 inches deep along my marked paths.  All removed soil was deposited down slope from the trench.  This deep narrow trench certainly isn’t typical of the swales I have seen previously, but given my limited heavy equipment experience it was the most simple solution, and should catch water just fine.

Here you can see a raw trench/swale immediately after digging with the backhoe.  It is very rough and will require a bit of shovel work to clean and level the uphill side and smooth the bottom – but it is quite level in terms of depth.


Because this is a relatively small area with poor soil I decided to have a significant amount of compost and mulch delivered on-site while I had the backhoe.  I had 35 yards of a steer manure compost blend, and 35 yards of wood mulch brought in.  The compost isn’t of the highest quality, but it has a significant amount of organic matter in it which should pay dividends over the next few years.


Unfortunately these came on a tractor trailer which could only drop them at the entrance to my property, about 500 feet away.


After the swales were dug, I used the backhoe to carry the material back to the swales, around 2 yards at a time.  The compost was laid down on the berm first, and smoothed with the bucket.  The wood mulch was then laid on top.

Here you can see the material being laid roughly into place on the berms.


Here is a great picture taken via aerial drone that gives you a sense of scale, and lets you see how the three swales are laid out.  It is great to see that island of rich compost and mulch nestled in the arid landscape.  Note the significant soil damage done by the backhoe during the many trips to move material to the swales.  This is definitely something to watch out for.


Next post we’ll get into planting!

Food Forest Earth Works Planning – Part I

Our first major project after acquiring Six Hands Farm is to get started with Phase 1 of our food forest.  The goal for Phase 1 is to prepare and plant a small portion of the land we have set aside for a food forest.  We are tackling 1/2 acre, of a total 10 acres we will eventually establish.  Our hope is to better identify species which will be successful on our property before investing in the larger area.  We’ll also be able to learn a lot in the process and use that knowledge to our advantage in Phase 2.

Quick Facts

Climate: semi-arid

Zone: 6a

Annual Rainfall: 9.1″

In this area water is the primary concern.  We laid out three swales to help catch run-off as it flows down the shallow valley.  Each is around 120′ long.

layout_swaleTo lay out the swales, I devised an inexpensive solution.  I used a quality, precision lazy-suzan bearing, and mounted it to a tripod.  I then mounted a high power laser pointer (from Wicked Lasers) to the top.  It is a bit of a hassle to level, but once ready it can be rotated to cast a bright dot on contour 360 degrees around the tripod.  The 2-watt laser can be seen for well over 2000 feet in full daylight.  Ideally one person rotates the laser, while another places flags in the ground to mark the contour line.

I had access to a 3d printer to print mounts for the laser and tripod, but something could easily be constructed from wood.  Total cost for my design would be ~$350, but in my case was only $10 for the bearing.  If needed you could use an inexpensive laser pointer and do your layout at dusk/dark.

Here you can see the flags laid out marking the southern most swale.  This area was cleared of brush with the backhoe first to make it easier to lay out the contours.


The backhoe used to do this work was a Case 580N.  I rented this from United Rental and it was delivered and picked up from my property.  A backhoe certainly isn’t the ideal tool for any part of the job, but it is capable of doing the job of multiple machines which significantly reduced my cost.  I used the backhoe to clear brush on the site, dig swales, and transport compost and mulch.  I have minimal experience with these machines, so the quality of my work was pretty rough – that said, it would have taken weeks to do the same work by hand.