The Three Tillers

My garden tools, arranged in order by size and (inversely) relative usefulness.

I’ve talked a lot over the course of this blog about the wheeled tools I use at Belly Acre Farm. It occurred to me that most readers wouldn’t have any way of knowing what I’m talking about, so here’s a brief rundown of the machines I use at the farm. Me being me, I can’t resist making some comments about the relative usefulness of each.

The big orange beast on the left in the photo is the tiller my mother-in-law gave me. I’ve written several times about how much I dislike using it, so I won’t repeat those complaints. But I will explain why I’m trying so hard not to roto-till the soil any more, even though the whole community around Mom’s house thinks I’ve lost whatever sense she gave me before she sent me off to college.

Roto-tillers are to gardening what the Kitchen-Aid mixer is to cooking. And if the goal was to make your garden soil as smooth and consistent as cake batter, that would be fine. But it isn’t, particularly the native clays that make up most of our soils around here. Once you beat all the texture out of the soil, it begins to bake like an unleavened batter, and by season’s end it’s flat and hard. Adding compost and other organic matter helps, but if you roto-till frequently and deeply, even the organic matter gets chopped up and distributed downward while lower layers of clay are pulled up to the surface.

If you need “official” word on the subject, I noticed recently that the cooperative extension agents on Making It Grow (from South Carolina ETV) now caution people to use their roto-tillers sparingly.

Remembering how my grandfather used to think about the soil, he used to laugh at people who used deep turning on their fields. They’re just bringing up the hardpan to the surface, he would say, so they’ve got to start over building soil that would grow anything.

During the time between when he learned farming and today, we became enamored of petroleum-powered farming and gardening. When roto-tillers came along, we loved them because they did such a complete job of breaking up soil. We didn’t think about whether that’s automatically a great thing. As one of my buddies used to say at work, doing the wrong thing rapidly and efficiently doesn’t make it the right thing.

In a nutshell, that’s why I’m trying to use my tiller as little as possible. That and the fact that it’s noisy, cantankerous, and given to emitting huge plumes of oily blue smoke.

The middle implement is my old-fashioned push plow. I saw it in the feed and seed store when I first started Belly Acre Farm and bought it as much out of nostalgia as anything else. My dad had one when I was a kid, and he continued to use it (or have us to use it) even after he went petroleum. (He didn’t buy a tiller until I had left home, though. His “beast” was a used David Bradley two-wheeled tractor that pulled scaled-down farm rigs like disks and cultivators.)

Anyway, when I saw this push plow I bought it without doing any research. It seemed like a good deal — just over $100, including a turning plow, a straight plow, and a cultivator. It ended up being hard to push except through newly broken soil, so I ended up using it mainly for laying off rows for planting. The cultivator was marginally effective at weeding between rows, but no more labor-saving than a regular hoe.

The blue thing on the right is my wheel hoe — probably the best thing I’ve bought to use in the garden so far. After the push plow didn’t help as much as I had hoped, I did some research and found several versions of wheel hoes available. Mine came from Valley Oak Tools, which sells online. The other common one is the Glaser, sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds and other catalog retailers. Both models have their advantages, but I selected the one I did because it looked more rugged.

After using the wheel hoe for most of last season, I wish I had found it before I bought the push plow. It costs more than a push plow, but it allows me to weed my entire garden in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the energy. I just push it down the rows and slice off all the weeds that show their heads. Even tough clumps of grass come up with a little extra effort. Because I plant closely, the 8″ blade covers the space between rows in one or two passes.

I’ve ordered the cultivator attachment now that I’m convinced the wheel hoe design is clearly superior. I’m still using the push plow to lay off rows for now. A furrowing plow is also available for the wheel hoe. If I ever can justify the additional cost, I’ll sell the push plow to the highest bidder.

Using a wheel hoe does commit me to planting in rows (some methods I’ve used in the past don’t use traditional rows), but I’m willing to make that trade-off. I never really enjoyed inching my way through my raised beds pulling weeds. I have recently discovered online information about bio-intensive planting, which does use raised beds without rows, so after further research I may change my mind, but for now the wheel hoe is my favorite tools.

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