Demonstrating the Effectiveness of Sub Surface Drain Tile Installation as an Integrated Planting Practice to Improve Soil Conditions, Tree Establishment, and Productivity of Fruit Trees on Sloping Claypan Soils with Poor Internal Drainage

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Barry Shortt
Wind Ridge Farm

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: apples, peaches, general tree fruits


  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Proposal summary:

    In the midwest heavy clay soils are common in the rolling hills surrounding the major river valleys. Fruit crops require good air drainage so sloping elevated sites are usually chosen. The slope also provides good surface water drainage but has caused serious topsoil erosion in many areas where clean tillage was practiced in com and soybean production. On our land this has left a fairly thin topsoil with an impermeable clay subsoil 20-24 inches below the surface. In our 20+ years of experience in growing fruit our most serious challenge has been getting peach trees established in the early spring, which is almost always wet, and keeping them vigorous and long-lived through periods of above average rainfall. We, like most other growers, plant peach trees into large augured holes as early as possible in the spring. Because the soil is clayey and is often wet the auger tends to smear the walls make planting "bowls" rather than holes which flood easily and hold water. This causes serious tree losses the first year and reduced vigor for years afterward. Regular applications of metalaxyl to control Phytophthora collar rot provides partial control but is expensive. Trees in the wettest areas die or have poor vigor and by the time a planting is considered mature there are many missing trees. This makes nutrient and weed management much less efficient and makes the whole block less productive. A less common problem is the complete loss of blocks of trees after unusually long periods of saturated soil as in October 2009. It has become clear to us that it is not economical or sustainable to replant these trees without significant improvement to our internal soil drainage.

    The installation of subsurface drain tile is a possible solution, but it is not widely practiced in Missouri and experienced installers are not available in our area. Those willing to travel here use very large equipment such as tile plows that don't work well in smaller plantings and they prefer large installations to maintain their profit margin. We intend to demonstrate that a grower with limited experience using University recommendations and locally available supplies and rental equipment can install an effective subsurface drainage system on a smaller scale. In addition, we believe that the trench used for laying the tile can also be used as a planting hole when it is placed directly under the tree rows. The process is simple: a trench is dug and the tile is laid then partially buried to hold it in place. At each tree location a 5 foot long trench is cut across the drainage trench in an X pattern at a shallower depth. This X shaped hole will provide plenty of space for the tree roots and will have back fill soil that is more granular and friable than the mud slabs that usually come off an auger. The soil around the newly planted trees will have excellent drainage and we expect that tree survival will be very good and chemical control of collar rot will not be necessary. The system must also be effective at draining the entire field in a day or two after heavy rains. We consulted with Dr. Kelly Nelson of the University of Missouri Greenley Research Center who examined our soil and gave us advice on placement and sizing of the drain pipes. We will use 3-inch perforated plastic tile placed 2-3 feet deep under each tree row. Those pipes will tie in to a 6-inch main line and outlet into a grassy natural watershed. The system will be laid out using an optical transit level and the trenches will be dug using a rented walk-behind trencher for the rows, and a tractor-mounted trencher for the main line. This design will have more than enough capacity to achieve a drainage coefficient of 1 inch per day.

    Peach trees will be planted by hand and drip irrigation lines will be installed to ensure strong root growth during the summer. We expect to lose very few if any trees to wet soil and we expect improved vigor throughout their life span. It is unlikely that the peach trees will clog the drain tile due to their high sensitivity to wet conditions.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.