Blazing Trails

Thu Jul 29 2021

We decided to use the wood chips from last week's chipping to spread on our land to make some nice hiking trails - but it's a slow process!

Blazing Trails
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They say in Vermont that "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes". It really does change that often. In a sense, it's weirdly familiar - the weather back in England is much the same.

The weather has been all over the place this week - one minute warm and sunny, the next minute severe thunderstorms. Which isn't great when we're trying to work on our land!

But we need to keep making progress, so we're taking every chance we can to get out to the property and keep working. The forecast last Monday was mixed - one forecast said cloudy, one said a chance of rain. Diana stayed back at the RV to edit videos, and I headed out to the property on my own.

Piles of Wood Chips

The week before we had rented a huge wood chipper and chipped all the slash and logs we had cleared from an area on our property.

Wood Chipping with the Vermeer BC900XL

We rented a Vermeer BC900XL brush chipper to see how quickly we could process our slash and log piles - can it really chip 9" logs?

Wood Chipping with the Vermeer BC900XL

It was great. Except now we had a giant pile of wood chips - actually, several piles!

My goal for the day was to use the tractor to move the wood chips, bucket-load by bucket-load, from the big piles up to our hiking trails where I would spread them out. We'd done a little test last week and it looked great.

Chipping Away

Building our dream home is going to take us a long time, but we've been chipping away at it - literally!

Chipping Away

The trails where we're spreading the wood chips are just for hiking - although we want them to be wide enough that we can get the tractor through if we need to. The wood chips won't last forever, but they should give us a nice walking surface for the next year or two and help keep the weeds down.

Wood Chips on Trail
Our little experiment looked good and we were excited to put more wood chips down.

It's important to note that most of the wood we chipped was spruce - a softwood that creates fairly acidic wood chips. As a result, it's not necessary the ideal source of wood chips for spreading on your garden, but it's perfect for the trails. We'll be making plenty more wood chips with hardwood trees in future that we can save for the garden.

String Trimming

Before putting any wood chips down on the trail, we had decided to remove the grass and ferns that were growing on it. The wood chips on top would hopefully prevent these from growing back up too quickly, leaving us with a nice hiking surface.

To remove the ferns and grass I used our new Dewalt DCST972 Cordless String Trimmer. It runs at 60V and comes with a huge 3Ah (9Ah @ 20V) battery. The great thing is that it uses the same battery type as all our other Dewalt Flexvolt tools, giving us lots of flexibility.

Dewalt also makes a 20V string trimmer but we chose the Flexvolt one for two reasons. First, the 60V model is much more powerful and would make quick work of the job. Second, and more importantly, the DCST972 comes with Dewalt Universal Attachment capability which means we can swap in other attachments on the same power head - e.g. brush cutter, edger, blower, hedge trimmer or more. Better yet, it's even compatible with attachments from other brands giving us even more choice.

It's been about a decade since I last did any string trimming, so I was a little rusty to say the least. Regardless, it didn't take long to quickly cut down the ground cover.

Tractoring Back & Forth

Since I was working alone, my strategy was to fill the tractor bucket with wood chips, drive it over to the trail, dump the chips, then spread them with a rake.

We planned to spread the wood chips in a fairly thin layer - just an inch or two thick. This way it would help to cover up some of the unevenness in the trail without making it too soft and spongy to walk on.

Each bucket load of chips turned out to be enough for to cover the trail about 5-6ft wide for a distance of about 12-15ft. Slow going!

After I had dumped the wood chips on the trail and spread them, I had to back the tractor up about 400ft along the trail to the nearest turnaround spot. I kept this up for about an hour and a half - each round trip with the tractor taking about 8-10 minutes, plus a few minutes to spread the chips.

Wood Chips Trails
At the end of my first session I was making good progress - this is exactly the look we were hoping for!

Unfortunately the wet weather from previous days meant the ground was soft, and the constant back and forth maneuvering with the tractor was beginning to take its toll on the soft trails, tearing them up along the stretches without wood chips.

Instead of continuing to do more damage, I broke for lunch then switched to another task - but that's for another post!

Wood Chip Pile
And we still had loads of wood chips left over!

Diana to the Rescue

It wasn't until Saturday that we felt things had dried up enough for us to take the tractor back on the land without damaging the trails any more.

But this time, I had support - Diana joined me to help.

I stayed on tractor duty, collecting wood chips one bucket load at a time and depositing them on the trail. Meanwhile Diana worked the string trimmer further along the trail, and spread each bucket load of chips with the rake as I delivered them.

With each bucket load, the trail extended a little further - as did my round-trip with the tractor! But thanks to the repetitive work, I was getting much more comfortable driving the tractor, especially in reverse! It didn't take long before I was down to a round trip time of just 6 minutes, and we were making great progress! We kept this pace up for about 2 hours before we finally ran out of wood chips (and energy!).

Wood Chips on Trail
With Diana's help we managed to spread wood chips on about 400ft of the trail.

In total, we managed to spread wood chips on about 400ft of trail. Driving back and forth over it with the tractor didn't seem to tear it up at all - in fact, it worked well to help compact the wood chips and make them even easier to walk on.

We know the wood chips won't last forever - maybe just a couple of years - and will need replacing as they decompose. But that's OK - it's a bit of an experiment to see how well it works, and we think the trails look great!

Brush Hogging

If you're not familiar with the term, a brush hog is a tool that can be attached to a tractor (walk-behind versions also exist) and works like a lawnmower on steroids. As well as cutting down grass and ferns, they can even cut through items up to an inch or more in diameter depending on the model.

Our plan had been to rent one of these for the day and along with our tractor, mow down the remainder of our trails to better define them and keep the plant growth down.

But since we had run out of wood chips, the ferns and grass would quickly regrow - was there any point renting a brush hog for this?

We came up with a better plan. Instead of a brush hog, we'd simply use the tractor bucket. The front loader has a float mode which allows the bucket to rest on the ground simply under its own weight - no hydraulic pressure pushing it down or holding it up.

With Diana walking ahead of the tractor and moving any large sticks, I drove the tractor down our trails. Then, once we had reached the end, I lowered the bucket to the ground, angled slightly forward, and reversed the tractor slowly all the way back down the trail. The weight of the bucket crushed the ferns and grass, nicely demarcating the trail in the dense undergrowth.

Trail Grading with Tractor
This is after just one pass with the tractor, crushing the undergrowth with the bucket to help demarcate the trail more clearly.

Again, this isn't a long term solution but if we do this semi-regularly it will at least help to keep the trails visible!

Grading the Staging Area

Our final job for the day was to spread out all the wood chips in the staging area and grade it. While we had done an initial pass at this, the area had been torn up a little by the tractor as I had maneuvered in and out to collect wood chips.

Between the tractor and the rake, we made quick work of it.

Staging Area
Finally the wood chip piles had gone, and we were left with a nice flat, open area to work in.

It's amazing what a difference we've made in this small space - what used to be full of dead and fallen trees is now a useful little staging area. It's large enough for the tractor to easily maneuver around in, and it's relatively flat too.

Our plan is to use this space temporarily for collecting logs, storing firewood, parking equipment and setting up our portable sawmill! Once we've cleared some more trees we'll have more options, but for now this is a valuable little spot.

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