by Jeanne Tetrault
You can dig your postholes in the fall and set the posts in the spring. It’s fairly light work to clean out an already-dug hole. There are lots of methods of setting posts, extra time tamping them in will give your posts long-lasting strength. Tamping is the packing of earth in around the post. It is best done with a heavy pole or pipe whose weight will join with your strength to pack the earth. We use a 5′ piece of old iron pipe with a cap on one end. The pipe has more weight than a shovel handle which we used to use, won’t give you slivers and its small diameter lets you tamp really tightly. First put a little gravel or sand in the hole to create good drainage. Set your post in and straighten it by eye or using a carpenter’s level. When you have some earth packed in, recheck the post for straightness. We usually mix gravel and earth, putting in 2 or 3 inch layers of each (earth first gravel next) and tamping well. The more care you give to tamping the earth solidly, the stronger your post will be. Another method is to fill all but the top 5-6″ with sand, put in a layer of grael and tamp well. This takes more physical strength and a much heavier tamper but is said to last longest and stronger. After tamping this, fill to the top with sand and pack again. Our gravel-dirt method also works if your soil is muddy.
Setting posts is a nice two person job. Take turns tamping and putting in the dirt, gravel or sand. The rhythmic circling of the tamper, the touching of earth, metal, stone and wood can become a beautiful ritual. Another part of farm work that blends music an purposeful work.