Digging ditches and trenches is a fairly common but nevertheless unpleasant do-it-yourself job. You may need a drainage ditch, a trench for a foundation or a trench to bury pipe or conduit.
Depending on the type of ditch or trench you need and the size of the job, you have many choices of available tools. All of the do-it-yourself methods involve hard work, but some are not as hard as others.
For small jobs, a shovel will suffice. Many types are available. A long-handled round-point shovel is the best general-purpose digging tool and will work well for many jobs. If you need a narrow ditch, a tile spade (sometimes called a “sharpshooter”) is preferable. These tools will be easiest to use in soft, sandy soil.
A garden rotary tiller can be useful for digging ditches, especially in hard soil. One approach is to make a few passes with the tiller to loosen the top 4-6 inches of soil, remove the loose soil and repeat until you reach the desired depth. With a rear-tine tiller, it is possible to use a hiller-furrower attachment on the tiller to dig a shallow ditch as you till (Figure 1). This works well for shallow drainage ditches.
If you have a garden tractor or a compact utility tractor, there are some common implements that can be helpful in ditching and trenching. Tractor-mounted tillage tools such as a rotary tiller, moldboard plow or disk harrow can be used to loosen the soil and then the loose soil can be moved with an angle blade, a scoop, a front-end loader or a box blade.
Several companies make small walk-behind trenching tools that have a vertical toothed blade on a horizontal axle, driven by a small gasoline engine (Figure 2). These tools will dig a narrow, relatively shallow trench that can be used for such jobs as installing irrigation lines or wiring for landscape lighting.
Power Chain Trencher
A chain trencher is probably the ultimate way to dig a major trench (Figure 3). These tools can be walk-behind or ride-on and are generally self-propelled. They can be rented or hired. Only the smaller models are readily available to homeowners. They will do the job, but they require a great deal of physical effort to operate and control.