How To Create a Swale with a Tractor Box Blade (Hint: Don’t)

So one of earthworks we are looking at putting in is a swale (water harvesting) “ditch” behind our house in between the house and the new garden. The best and most well known way to do this is with a mini-excavator which I have been waiting on renting. In the mean time, I wanted to try something (anything) to get this guy in before planting next weekend. (The swale has to be done before this upcoming Saturday).

I still am borrowing the tractor from a friend so I decided to try and use the box blade attachment I’m borrowing to scrape up the top soil (then the sub-soil) and I would just clean up the the sides by hand. At least this was what I envisioned happening. It definitely did NOT work.

This is where the swale is going.

I sprayed some lines, this is (if I remember correctly) 6 feet apart.


The first pass definitely indicated this thing was not going to rip up the soil quite how I envisioned it. The problem is that the back end of the blade doesn’t have any pressure on it forcing it to chop into the soil.

You can see its not really digging in.

I dug out the bottom a bit by hand to try and get the blade to fall into the ground, and then drag up some soil. This worked more than anything else, but still required an immense amount of manual labor.



This was where I decided “I’m done”.

I am finally renting a mini-excavator to take care of these small earthworks. I can definitely say that this kind of setup is not made for digging any kind of ditches.

4 thoughts on “How To Create a Swale with a Tractor Box Blade (Hint: Don’t)

    1. Christine

      It has a decent amount of clay for sure, but not an alarming amount where we will have drainage problems most likely. When we have done some of the simple soil tests (the water in the jar thing and squeezing it through your hands), there definitely is a bit of sand and silt as well. We will be posting some more pictures here soon of what it looks like.

  1. Christopher

    I could be wrong, but it looks like your problem may be that you couldn’t set your shanks deep enough to really get any depth below your box. I just ordered a box blade/grader with the intent of using it for micro swales in my chickens’ 1/10th acre of open area. The equipment from Everything Attachments allows you to cant the blade at an angle, cutting a wedge into the ground and piling the material on the downhill side of the contour line. My intent is to run the 4′ box blade at as steep an angle as I can achieve and then dress it up with my backhoe. It doesn’t look like many others are using subcompact tractors and box blades for this type of work, but I’m convinced that it can be done (at least for small scale earthworks). I’ll have to document and report how it goes at Permaculture Global. Thanks for putting yourself out there…

    Currently enrolled in Geoff Lawton’s 2014 Online PDC

    1. Mike Post author

      I definitely agree for the most part with your assessment. I think the shanks being able to dip low enough would have really changed things. I put them as low as I could get, and tilted it as much as it would go, but it just wasn’t going to work out. I think a large “plow” like pull behind would really do it. I am definitely interested in seeing how that goes. Being able to build your own swales as cheaply as possible is something I’m interested in for sure. While the cost for the mini-excavator work, really wasn’t all that bad, it would be nice to have something on hand that I could “just do it” with. A tractor tool would be it.

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