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Thoughts on using Roto-Tiller to make small swales.

 
Andrew Bartelt
Posts: 20
Location: Central Wisconsin
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Wondering if anyone has used a roto-tiller to make small swales. Here are my thoughts on why I think it would suit me and my property. I have sandy loam soil that sucks up water fast. Considering that my roadside ditches don't even hold water, I believe a large swale would be overkill, and that small ones would be all I would ever need considering the absorption rate here. So my thoughts are to mark contour, rent or borrow a walk behind tiller, till my contour lines and then shovel tilled soil onto downhill side and then shape, mulch, plant etc... I know an objection to tilling is that it compacts soil, but if it does that here, no biggie, because water will just absorb into side of swale hill, where I want water.
Thanks in advance, and if it works I will be sure to post results here.
 
Adam Klaus
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Location: 6200' westen slope of colorado, zone 6
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Hi Andrew,
Yes it could work. I would think though that the swale you create would be so shallow, that with just a little bit of annual freeze/thaw action, it would disappear within two years.
But as always, give it a try. Take pictures. Share your results. That's how we all learn!
 
R Scott
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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Adam may be right, but you could do multiple passes to overcome that.

It would be a lot of work shoveling the dirt, depending on the length of swale we are talking about. If your land is that loose already, a one or two bottom moldboard plow will do the job. FAST. Find someone that plows gardens and work out a deal.
 
Andrew Bartelt
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Location: Central Wisconsin
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Thanks for quick reply Adam. Freeze/Thaw is not something I considered. I foresee the filling in of the swale trench after a few years, but imagine the swale hill if mulched and planted into will remain. If after five years, all I have is an on contour few inch tall hill planted with herbs and shrubs, it will still be serving the purpose of keeping the water on my property, along with the fertility. I will document what I do, and will post on my blog as well as here.
Anyone else with thoughts?
 
Andrew Bartelt
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Location: Central Wisconsin
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Thanks R Scott. Is a one or two bottom moldboard plow something that would attach to a tractor? Because Not many draft horses left in these parts. But plenty of oldtimers with tractors.
 
Zach Muller
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Location: NE Oklahoma zone 7a
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I think this would work pretty well. Since your plan does not involve the routine tilling of the new planting areas you create, compaction should not really be much of an issue. One idea would be making a row of manure or other soil amendment on your contour line, then when you run the tiller you would be incorporating it, and when you shoveled it over you would incorporate it further. Good luck on it.
 
R Scott
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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A plow could be pulled by horses, but I was thinking tractor. Here is a link to a new one to see a picture (to remove all doubt): http://www.tractorsupply.com/en/store/countylinereg%3B-2-bottom-plow

You can buy one used for $200 on CL (less if you are patient), and most old timer farmers have one they kept for the garden.

That is how Mark Shepard put in his "keyline swales" to help grow trees in a very similar situation. He put them off-contour keyline-style to push the water back to the ridges. But I am planning to try the same thing on contour hopefully this year. I missed my opportunity this fall, the rains came at an odd time.
 
Craig Dobbelyu
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Location: Maine (zone 5)
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I've made swales this way. Start on the uphill side of where you want the swale to be and work your way down. This encourages the soil to go with gravity and makes the berm almost by itself. Make a couple passes with the tiller to really loosen the soil and do it twice as wide as you want the swale so that when you rake you have some wiggle room to play with the height and width. After that just rake the soil downhill so that the berm is as high as you want it and the swale blends in nicely to the landscape. Job done.



 
Andrew Bartelt
Posts: 20
Location: Central Wisconsin
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Zach. Thanks for the idea of adding amendments. If I have enough I will. Thank you.

R. Scott. Thanks for awesome reply. Appreciate the link and will read up on keyline swales, knew of them but always thought they were more a row cropping technique. (which this is I guess but with really wide paths )

Craig. Glad to here it has been successfully done, sounds like great advice. I will try this below the new goat pen we will put in this spring, to catch the nitrogen goodness. I will only need a few under 50 feet for this. Depending on how well it works I will till, if not I will ask around for two bottom plow, but will definitely plow for larger area in future food forest area.

Thanks again folks, you rock.
 
George Meljon
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Location: Southern Indiana zone 5b
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This is a good thread, thanks to all.
 
Dale Hodgins
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I like Zach's idea of adding amendments. Since your soil runs water a little too well, some clay could be mixed in. It will hold water and nutrients in place. Most sandy soils could benifit from the micro nutrients and hydraulic properties of clay.
 
wayne stephen
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Location: Western Kentucky-Climate Unpredictable Zone 6b
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My annual garden is on a south facing slope . In the spring / late winter we get alot of rain. The southern edge of the garden can be too wet to work with in the spring when you need to get things started. 2 years ago I dug a swale across the upper 1/3 of the garden with a rototiller . I made multiple passes and hand shoveling to achieve 18 inches deep . 25 feet long . I made the swale two widths of the rototiller . On the berm I planted alfalfa and set some comfrey root cuttings . { I was in a hurry }. The achieved effect is a much , much drier situation south of the swale . Easily planted with annuals . I agree that it is perfect for trees / shrubs and will evolve in that direction down the road . The last two spring / late winter rains has seen the swale fill to the brim repeatedly. I built 3 raised beds with deep furrrows above the swale which act as swale / berms which keyline into the larger swale . With these I have noticed less filling of the large swale and an even dryer situation below. An impalpable yield of digging this swale by rototiller and shovel is life to my years and years to my life { strenuous exercise } .
 
Lenny Johnson
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This is a cool thread. I did the same thing (rototiller and then raking/shovelling to make the berm) and it worked but was fairly difficult. Since then I've seen the BCS walk-behind tractors with a rotary plough. This shoots the ploughed dirt out the right-hand side, allowing you to pile up a raised bed. It could obviously be used to make a swale and berm as well, although you'd need a number of passes to build up the berm.

Has anyone used a BCS tractor? They seem useful cool as a permaculture tool on smaller farms.

Here's the swale I tested this on. Planted with two chestnuts, one black locust and several goji and saskatoon bushes.



Cheers,
Lenny
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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