Making: Landscaping Improvements & Tractorfying

Saturday morning, after working the bugs out on the Peoplenomics server (new security update, CHMOD issue) it was time to get on to the first Make project of the weekend.  “Purdying up the yard.”

The first thing you do is touch off the pile that’s been accumulating for a few weeks.  The idea is you light off one side of it using what we call a “cactus burner” and then push the unburnt side into it.  That way, you’ve got great control of your fire.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal if you live inside a city and the fire department will be there in less than five minutes.  But, out here in the Outback, one respects the volunteer fire department, pays the annual membership dues promptly, and then watches all outdoor fires like a hawk.  Even so, we have had two fires near us already where I was one of the people on tractor-back making sure the fire stayed contained.  A drought’s on the horizon, and we expect the Texas Forest Service will be busy this year.

(Continues below)


People sometimes don’t appreciate how much damn work can be done with a small to medium sized tractor.  Let me show you a “before and after” of a stand of yaupon at the base of a keeper tree.  The first picture is from the tractor looking at the victim plant.

This second picture is a pass down and back later.

Less than 90 seconds.  Gone, mulched, done, and off into the deep woods.

There is some debate locally about what to do with yaupon.  Oilman2’s son, who’s been known to tractorfy a bit here ’round, is allergic to the stuff.

I’m none too fond of it, either.  On the other hand, since NPR has a story over here on the interesting past of the yaupon, maybe a hashtag (like #saveyaupon) will pop up with us at the center of a Trump-sized hate movement.  There’s just no telling, these days.

Still, American holly or just a damn nuisance, some of it near the house had to go.  So did a number of small trees that were blocking some of the young pine stands coming up.  You use the tractor bucket like a gigantic weed puller and then get the offending tree on the bucket and head for the fire.

When you get there, you drive into it as you dare.

This is one of those “judgement” things city slickers don’t think about.

OK, you need the tractor because it’s the main line of fire defense should the weather have been drier and the wind up.  But, in order to keep the fire heaped up (and thus burning clean, not spread out and smoky) you like to dump fuel into the middle of the fire.  But the tires will burn, so you are quick in, quick out.

Once the small stuff has been piled on, you go looking for big dead-fall.  Trees that have fallen down on their own.

You can see how far this downed tree hangs off the bucket on the right.  It dangled just as far off the left.  So, getting to the fire is a series of Z-turns through the woods; first the right side goes by a close tree, then a hard turn right to get it past the next tree on the left, and so on.  A diesel ballet.

Eventually, something always goes wrong when you are tractoring.  No, not if you’re a gentleman farmer on a manicured property. Nothing goes wrong there since you have unlimited funding.  But here?  Uh….

Out here in the Outback, it’s a constant battle to keep Ma Nature bound and tressed-up just so.  She, in turn, responds by getting the tractor stuck in soft ground at a low spot.

I’d taken on a LARGE defiant tree, maybe 20 feet long and fatter than me.   There was no alternative but to do an end-push to get it to open ground where it could be more easily moved.  The only way to get there was through a shallow drainage ravine.  Four-wheel drive or not, that’s where I got stuck.

The old farmer has lots of options, so that getting stuck is not the end of the world.  In fact, it can be an excuse to stop work for coffee.  One way to get out of such a predicament is to push the bucket down and using the power-tilt of the bucket, digging the teeth in – thus creating a great-big lever on the front-end.

That’s an easy one sometimes because you don’t even turn off the machine.  Just lock up the 4-wheels and let ‘er rip.

Except this time, it just dug in further.  The second option was to see what was holding me in position.

Answer: the brush hog.

Solution:  Lift the front off with the bucket to take the strain off the top link of the three-point. Unhook the top link, and  then pull like hell.  That worked.  Dragged the brush hog on the lower links.

After fighting a bit more with the big defiant log – this time armed with a hundred feet of 5/8ths line (Texans call it “rope” but remember, we lived on a sailboat and a 11-years of sailing sailing the salty seas hasn’t rinsed off even 15-years on).  Finally, I said to hell with it. Articles to write, beer to drink, and so on.  The ham gear needs to be used, too.

Besides, the rain had picked up – it was 11:30 AM now.  Another axiom of “working your land” is don’t do heavy work when the ground is really wet.

Soil around this part of the property has lots of clay in it and this means if you compact it down, too much, it is a bugger to get much of anything to grow in it.  Think planting in concrete. So, the tree gets to sit in a new place for a while longer.  A chainsaw will be applied at the right moment in the future.

With the rain was coming down, and now semi-soaked, it was nice to visit one of the dead cedar trees which we have left untouched so our wildlife has good homes.  The hawks and the owls like it.  Pretty tree, too.  It may be standing longer’n us:

Who said making landscape improvements can’t be gnarly?

purist on the topic of Making things might argue that landscape work is not “making” per se.  I’d suggest, any time you sculpt anything – metal, wood, and today even the forest, it’s all part of the continuum of making that distinguishes us from the Apes.

Even the ones who don’t look up from their phones.

Write when you get rich (or done),

21 thoughts on “Making: Landscaping Improvements & Tractorfying”

  1. Hi George,
    In the process of reading your new “Dimensions” book I have a few questions….
    On page 100 in your discussion of isogonic lines, you present a graphic and ask the reader to “look at the solid green line”, but somehow I can’t find the color green in a monochrome graphic.
    Same problem later on with page 107 with the graphic of Earths’ magnetic field where you cite “blue readings around the Eastern Caribbean” and “deep red areas in the Southern Andes”.
    George, why on Earth would you reference colors in a monochrome printed book? Just askin’ :)

    • The book was originally published electronically – with colors.

      The main isogonic line (N/S was in the mid Altantic in Columbus’ time. And is now coming up through Texas/Louisiana as the isogonic progression moves west.

      Good point!!!

  2. Hey George

    Looks like your having fun. I have a tire hint for you. I have many tractors and use them for everything from plowing snow, harvesting 80 foot 20-30inch diameter maples, and field work.

    I know it’s a pain, but swap those R-4 construction tires for Agriculture tires.
    It will amaze you how much better you will get around in the woods and mud.

    They will clime over those little logs no problem.

    The R4 tires tear up the lawn a little less,but I can patch the lawn much easier than having to dig or pull out my tractors.


    • Agreed.

      Lugs tear up a lawn more than turf tires, but probably not that much more than the nonskids, and I haven’t stuck a tractor since I went to them. My 2wd L&G and the snow blower/broom now run Vredestein 5-rib on the front; my garden tractor, Firestone 3-rib (F2), because pulling a mower, pushing a blower, or dragging a tiller through the muck requires serious preemption against side-slip. 4WD got “multi-angle” (curved) lug.

      Not that you’d ever need to know George, but if you run ag tires in snow, rotate them L-R so they’re running “backwards,” for much better snow-traction…

  3. Yo George,

    A couple of notes:

    1. You ARE a “gentleman Farmer” as the real definition is “one who is out-standing in his field!”

    2. Regarding Yaupon (which we have in abundance here in SE Louisiana); the story goes when the native “Indians” were going to war they would chow-down on many mouthfuls of Yaupon to get a really good ‘buzz’ enhancing their courage and they probably didn’t feel much if they were on the receiving end!

    3. You sure like to burn stuff but that is a really small pile. You should have seen some of mine after Katrina & Rita. All of my burn piles are hundreds of feet from the house (which has a metal roof) and I always run a water line out before light-off. When the local water co. started up back in 1987 I had them run 1 1/2″ out to the barn to eliminated any pressure drop. I run 100′-200′ of ABS Roll Pipe to whichever one I’m torching. I have as much pressure under flowing condition at the delivered end as I do at the house. I also the downwind side of the pile (if there is a light wind) so the whole thing doesn’t so the whole thing doesn’t go up all at once. I had one get away from me once – never again!

    I appreciate your tales of the goings-on at your ‘ranch’.

    Al B
    Longtime Peoplenomics Subscriber

  4. I don’t even try to pick up big stuff any more. That poly/nylon/polypro camo rope HF sells is cheap, and will drag tons of tree trunk. If it breaks or gets burned — no big deal. A loop dropped over my hitch ball and a clove hitch on the branch or trunk is usually sufficient…

    • I always use a chain if I can’t carry a tree on forks or a bucket. Chains may break eventually, but they won’t snap and recoil. I’ve broken 3/8″ chain doing heavy tractor and skid-steer work, but it can never whip back on you.

      For tractors, I love OLD Red, as in MF. I almost never have to actually buy a part – other than filters, etc. A skid-steer or two is really handy, and having two working machines(at least) means that one can extract the other from bad situations. Diesel is the ONLY way to go. Too many reasons to list.

  5. In the great state of Texas you have the Yaupon, up here at El Rancho de Chaos in the state Misery we have the damned cedars. They can reclaim a pasture and play hell with a fence line in a couple years if left to their own. I’m certain you have the them there as I recall it was supposedly President GW’s favorite thing to do on his vacation time. Some of us “younger” rancher/farmers will get it with a chainsaw and then grub the stump out but us older and thus wiser will simply go at it with the brush hog and any number of nifty mowing attachments specifically designed to maintain fence lines.

    You need a grapple for your loader bucket. Believe me once you install that bad boy you will never want to go without it again.

    73 Jim in MO AD0YQ

  6. Benn trying to make an intelligent decision about a new tractor, harder as I get older, and am down to Big Green or Orange. I guess if Kubota is good enough for George should be good enough for me! Great advice about the tires, I will see if I can buy new with those installed.

    • I’m not so sure to leave out big red. Big Orange had a $1500 not covered by warrantee problem at 160 hours or so. If I were buying today I would likely go with Mahindra as most bang for the buck, a nice ways of saying paying for metal not branding

      • My 2620 orange cracked the bottom plastic attachment tube on its radiator. $500 to replace, no means to repair. Just now the starter solenoid wont engage. Oh boy

        • Telling you, dude: When OM2 and the nut in the outback agree, we’re telling you look Red as an option. I would if it were up to me again. But when orange was hot (2004) it was a fine beast for the time. Not sure how the red’s hydrostatic trans would hold up, either. But today? I’d opt for gear mashing and simple – maybe 30 hp and a bigger bucket – but the smaller runs trees better and while I love the tire advice – not till the factory equipped wear out – and another owner may have it by then.

    • Green has an extensive dealer network. It and Orange are both really high in both quality and price. Mahindra is the new kid on the block, but I’d consider if I were buying new, because it is time and durability tested. Northern States seem to like Ford / New Holland midsizes more than anything else. I’d go with whatever has the best parts network near you…

  7. Since it was brought up, I’m with George for the Mahindra. Mahindra is what is left of the old International Harvester tractor line. I have an old IH, and buy some parts from Mahindra – because they mostly still fit.

    Myself? I’m too poor to buy new, so I just buy old IH and fix them. Did get an old Kubota B2600 baby tractor for mowing, and after some fixins, she is running fine too.

    Avoid Deere – the saying here (in rural reality) is, “Nothing breaks like a Deere.”

    Avoid gasoline – the diesels are easier and more robust.

    • Yeah you don’t have to worry about not getting that ethanol gas I mean you know that’s tough clogs everything up like you were saying I saw one of your post long time ago talking about how that stuff klogs everything up yeah you need regular gas from the good old days

    • I love my old Deeres. Surprisingly, the only one I’ve had trouble with is the diesel — The gassers, both L&G, a 318 I bought new in ’86 and a used 445 I’ve had for years, are both approaching 2k-hrs and have been near-flawless. My only mods have been to replace the lines with gasohol-proof ones, and replace the original JD starter relays with vintage (from back when Standard made all the bits out of real copper, and they were repairable) NOS Blue Streak relays.

      Word on the tractor gossip wire is JD started sourcing electrics from China, back about 2000, and anyone who needed a starter/generator/alternator, or an electric PTO would be miles ahead to locate an electrical shop and have their original (Japanese or German) parts rebuilt.

      I suspect new orange and red tractors have Japanese electrics. New blue or green ones? I dunno, don’t care, and can’t afford to ever find out anyway…

  8. Hey George,
    Me again with a sync wink involving your book.
    As you’ll recall yesterday I was busting your chops over the book being monochrome but with references to color on graphs. As you explained, it was originally a Kindle version, etc.
    The reason I’m writing is yesterday the wife and I were out getting wiper blades and groceries, and I noted a single engine towing a sailplane. Didn’t look like he was trying to gain altitude either, so I figured he was on a training mission.
    Anyway, I’m grilling chicken on the patio later with an adult beverage, reading your book, when I turn to page 112 and read (regarding lenticular clouds) “sought by glider pilots because of the strong rotary winds” followed by your comment on the world’s record for altitude.
    Wait! That’s not all!
    So, thinking this is a sync wink, I run into the house and show the passage to my wife, who gets a laugh from it (synchronicity is our middle name), and I go back outside to look up and see the tow plane and glider fly directly over our patio.
    We’ve lived here 5 years; first time this has happened that I’m aware of.
    I’ll let you know if anything else weird happens while reading “Dimensions”.

  9. I had ag tires on my small tractor, but got too many flats clearing brush here in west central Kentucky(lots of thorns). Changed to R-4s and haven’t had a flat since. Around here black locust are a scourge. Lots of thorns, very fast growing, and the wood (and stumps) don’t rot. Massive PITA when clearing for more pasture. Makes good firewood though.
    Been having lots of rain, paddock is a swamp even though its on the top of a ridge, hate clay almost as much as I hate drywall work, but guess what type of soil is around here? Tractor jack, timbers, come-along along with the front loader has always gotten me unstuck. Though sometimes I look like I’ve been mud wrestling afterwards.
    James Johnson, ex-nuke

      • When clay is dry it’s like concrete when digging, and when it’s wet every shovel full has to be scraped off the shovel. Working with it can drive a man to alcoholism. Taping, mudding and sanding is just as bad. I can get it looking flawless, but hate doing it (most workers don’t meet my standards, and I can’t afford the ones who do).


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