Trenching for Drip Irrigation

We’ve known since we first began planning our little farm at Longleaf Breeze that it would contain a drip irrigation and faucet system. The real work begins this weekend, as we use a rented trencher to open up the earth for pipes running all over our “core campus.”

Please don’t giggle at my calling it a system; everything is small at Longleaf Breeze. Our plan is to install 10 faucets at various points, plus a drip irrigation run for the future greenhouse and the blueberries and a more complex drip irrigation system on Veg Hill. We will be able to control the drip system from inside the shop.

It’s great to see the work actually beginning. Yesterday I drove 1-Ho to Auburn to pick up a Vermeer RT200 hydraulic trencher from Southern Rental. Cost is $186 per day, and the full weekend counts as one day. I chose Southern Rental even though I could have rented a trencher for less and closer by. The reason I elected to go there is that Bob Clayton, the manager at Southern Rental, is a neighbor of ours, and Jeremy at Tallassee True Value recommended him. Bob has generously agreed to let me drop the trencher back at his house rather than having to truck it all the way back to Auburn myself. In addition, I don’t think the ones available closer to me were quite as versatile as the RT200.

The first problem I encountered was that I couldn’t figure out how to lift the boom to get the trencher off the trailer. What I eventually realized is that the RT200 has a dead-man control in the form of a button on the right hand lever that controls the forward and backward travel. Nothing happens, and I mean nothing, unless you’re holding down that button. It took me a good hour just to get used to operating the trencher.

The RT200 is a “walk behind,” which more accurately would be “walk backwards in front of.” The best operating configuration is to pull the trencher along behind you, except you don’t pull it because it’s self propelled. You can see where you’ve been easily, but seeing where you’re about to go (and compensating in reverse for where you WANT to go instead) is more complicated. One of the casualties of my early trencher education was the cage on the northermost orient pear tree in the east orchard, which will now need to be replaced.

I eventually got the hang of it enough to cut a trench from the east orchard to the barn orchard. It has a drunken sailor look, but the pipe it will contain is 3/4″ (very flexible), so I think we’re okay. I chose that run to be the first one, because it’s also the least visible. My hope was that as I get more familiar with the RT200’s operation I will be capable of cutting straighter trenches, which will be essential when I start cutting the path for the 1 1/2″  pipe. It’s not as flexible! Alas, my dreams were dashed. The solution we came up, admittedly not available to everyone, was to make it a two-person job. I operated the trencher, and Amanda stood at the end of the line so I could see her and looked behind me at the target. From her vantage point, she could tell instantly if I was getting off course and was signaled by pointing in one direction or the other. The RT200’s hydraulics are sufficiently delicate that I could make minute directional corrections, and we were able to cut more or less straight lines.

One of the first things I’ve figured out is that you can travel uphill, but you must trench downhill. The RT200 doesn’t have the traction needed to trench uphill; it just bogs down.

I also suspect I’m going to need to replenish the gas tank during our job. The motor needs to run at pretty high RPM for the trencher to operate effectively. Because of a variety of tasks we had to do at the farm, I didn’t crank up the trencher Saturday until after lunch. It was almost nightfall when we finished, but we did finish trenching Saturday night.

Now begins the process of installing PVC pipe in the various trenches and connecting it to the exhausting water supply. More about that later.

The video runs about a minute and is pretty boring. We didn’t think to shoot any video until the end of the ditching work was nearly complete, so what you’ll see is the slow, delicate process of threading the needle between two infant blueberry bushes.

2 thoughts on “Trenching for Drip Irrigation”

  1. It isn’t as easy as it looks. I did 4,000 feet this last year and have at least 100 risers over 5 acres. You’ll be very happy when this is all done.

    Here’s a hard-learned hint – always mow very close to the ground on the side of the trencher where the soil will be piled. It makes it a lot easier to return the soil into the trench when backfilling, especially if you use a rake at any time.

    For folks who don’t mind water only a foot or so below grade mow the entire area closeto the ground and beg, borrow, or steal a middle buster. If the ground is hard/dry you may have to go over the same trench a few times but it is fast, cheap and works well. And at the end of the day you have your own middle buster for the price of renting a trencher.

  2. Tony, I stand in awe of your accomplishment. My total trenching work was probably less than 1,000 feet, and we were exhausted at the end of the day!

    I actually thought briefly about the middle buster, but the nature of our system was that we were “threading the needle” in several places – couldn’t get Tractor in there without tearing up everything in sight. Also, we needed to trench through the tar & gravel implement apron, which is only a little easier than trenching through asphalt. We probably needed the trencher.

Leave a Reply