The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Ditch experiment

Digging a ditch

I've spent most of this week with my brain in 2006, reading back over journals from that era as research for my upcoming ebook.  One thing that's struck me is how much rock we've thrown into our driveway, and how little difference there seems to be between 2006 and today.

Rutted driveway

I'd say that our driveway is moderately dry at the moment, but it still has lots of water standing in the ruts...and lots of ruts.  Part of the problem is that we focus our efforts on those ruts, and we keep changing vehicles so the orientation of the ruts keeps changing, but I think part of the issue is also that we're looking at the problem with the wrong perspective.

Although we'll probably fill our current ruts with rock as we've done before, I thought now would be a good time to experiment with ditching.  My sky pond project gave me an inkling of how moving water around can dry up certain areas, so Mark and I went down to the worst spot (pictured above) and dug a little ditch parallel to the curve on the downhill side (sloping into the center of the curve), then another ditch perpendicular to that running further downhill toward the creek (and sloping downhill).


The ditches were already filling up with groundwater as we dug.  In a few days --- barring rain --- I should be able to see results.  Is the part of the driveway uphill from this ditched zone drier than the neighboring driveway area?  If so, it'll probably be worth putting in more time this winter on digging ditches since it doesn't take all that long (although the effort is pretty intense cutting through the sedges and rushes).

As a side note, does anyone have tips on what to do with the ditch dirt?  I have a feeling there's a reason to mound it up on one side or the other of the ditch, but couldn't seem to work that through, so located it a bit randomly.

Prepare for spring with one of our chicken waterers, the best way to prevent coccidiosis and drowning in chicks.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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You might want to consider getting a roll of geotextile fabric and roll that out right on top of your muddy mess. then cover it with your gravel fill of choice, and you are good to go. I had a similar problem with my driveway (springs coming up all along the wet portion). I went to the local highway construction contractors, and they happily sold me a roll of 10' wide material. Best $300 ever spent!
Comment by Anonymous Wed Oct 23 08:44:24 2013
You might try looking at a forestry website for info on how to best manage you forest drive. NC has info on controlling runoff at and some info at or I'm sure grading or other improvements would be expensive, but might be managed in small sections over a long period. I know one of the things they practice is daylightiing which opens the area up to receive more sunlight to help with drying as well as dips to help with runoff. Our forest folks will often come out to areas to offer advise. Maybe VA offers a similar service and could provide some advise/pointers.
Comment by Tee Wed Oct 23 09:03:35 2013
It may seem odd but adding the dirt to the road could raise it up and allow you to crown it. It is wet mud now but will be dry dirt later. I would think you would want a ditch on both sides of the road which may require a culvert in some locations. With one ditch on the lower side the water escapes from beneath the road but the uphill water still collects under the road before reaching the ditch. Putting a ditch on both sides would essentially create a raised bed that will allow the road to dry out quicker. Paul Wheaton had a podcast on road building that may be worth revisiting (podcast 185 and 186.)
Comment by Brian Wed Oct 23 09:57:20 2013

Ditches will help, but only to a point. Is the roadbed native soil? If yes, then throw your ditch material in the ruts. Can't get much worse.

You could try throwing small branches, straw, or other fibrous/woody plants down and driving over them until they stick into the mud. But I don't know the long term effects of that. It would probably firm it up quite a bit though. Like an adobe brick.

If it wouldn't wash away in floods, I'd say crushed rock and gravel to raise it up a foot or more and stabilize it. You would still have to grade it and add gravel occasionally. Do you have a source of gravel on your property? You could lay large tree trunks along the side to contain the gravel better.

The ideal would be an engineered road, crushed rock, gravel, and concrete. It wouldn't have to be too thick if you kept heavy trucks off it. I have heard of some people pouring strips of concrete, but I think without a proper roadbed they would settle funny and make it worse.

Comment by Eric in Japan Wed Oct 23 11:01:05 2013

I received a publication from my local cooperative extension agent - [Managing Woodland Roads: a field guide.] It is excellent and has color photos. There is also a road specialist in the local watershed management council. I'm not sure what types of resources you might have available in your area: But in our area we can get at a minimum a free consultation and walk through with experienced expert. They sometimes have cost share grants available for larger scale restoration/maintenance projects, but often just a consultation can provide quite a few great ideas for the owner's own implementation.

Roads are an often overlooked challenge in property and homesteading management!

Comment by Charity Wed Oct 23 11:59:45 2013
I know you have lots of 5-gal buckets--so why not just fill the buckets as you go? Maybe later you will need this clay for something or other. You can also heap it on the downhill side of the ditch. Be careful of your backs!
Comment by adrianne Wed Oct 23 12:00:37 2013

Comment #3 is the answer.

Water travels with the least resistance. Build deep ditches on both sides least a foot or more. Plus raise your driveway higher than the ditches. Water will run off the drive into the ditch. You can mix the ditch dirt for the drive with rocks, gravel and such. It will stay dry.

An extra plus if you love crawfish!!!!!!

Perfect cool weather for hard labor.


Comment by Edith Wed Oct 23 13:41:33 2013

I hope it's understood that the ditches on both sides need to be parallel to the road. You will need a Tractor with a front loader to get it done correctly.


Comment by Edith Wed Oct 23 13:47:54 2013

Use the material from the ditches to fill up the ruts and make the road surface higher that the surrounding area, so that water runs off the road. For the same reason, road surfaces are usually concave.

Some quotes:

A good dirt driveway is a bit higher than its surrounding terrain and has side ditches lined with low-growing vegetation to prevent the ditch from eroding and undermining the driving surface. A natural surfacing, such as gravel or wood chips, holds down dust in the summer and slows down water in a heavy rain. Gravel or wood chips push into the surface over time to create a firmer driving surface.


Your goal is to create a level roadway that sits at a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding terrain to discourage water from running onto the road from other areas.

You'll need a significant amount of fill material to fix the road surface:

Surface your road with a 2-inch layer of gravel, chipped wood or other natural products. A good natural surfacing will ensure that you never have to grade your road again with a tractor

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Oct 23 14:53:03 2013

Why not make mini garden beds next to your ditches, you can plant your perennials and watch them regrow each year. As far as the ditches go, why not try filling in the ruts with the flat cinder blocks they sell at lowes. I don't know what they are called. But fill in the ruts with them then add gravel or dirt to keep them in place. Just an idea from someone who knows nothing about rut filling. I am still loving your blogs, thank you for posting.

Comment by john y. Wed Oct 23 21:06:16 2013

Looks like the road surface is a clay-heavy muddy mess.

I like the suggestions above to add the extra material to the driveway, but if it's all the same soft stuff that may not help too much. I DO recall that there are lower areas in the garden that could benefit from some added height to stay drier, no doubt this material would be just as useful there?

I've read that sand often gathers at slow spots in rivers, is there a place on or near your property where you can pull sand right out of the river? If so, I would add that to the surface of the driveway (especially when doing rut repair). Just as in making cob the sand will act as a binder and aggregate for the muddy clay and should improve the surface while use improves compaction and continues to work the sand into the material.

If you can't get sand then gravel, pea stone, wood chips and the like would help with this also, if not as much. As a last resort, using small logs or larger mill waste slabs (I forget what they call the rough bits with the bark on them now) to "pave" the worst sections would provide a clean (if bumpy) solution in addition to the ditch and diversion.

Comment by Mike Thu Oct 24 07:09:16 2013

If the water is not allowed to drain off somewhere then nothing will work. You can add material until hell freezes over but it will still be muddy and eventually it will all sink thus you are back where you started.

You must raise the drive, and allow for drainage.


Comment by Edith Thu Oct 24 12:45:31 2013

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