Sunday, March 24, 2013

Plowman's Hunch

 Watch the skies. That sounds like the line from a 1950s flying-saucer film, but it also applies to working the soil.  This late winter in Virginia has been a soaker, and the soil was become a mire where a tractor could sink up to the steering wheel.

Dry spells have been infrequent, so when we had one and our future garden-spot looked right, I hooked an old two-bottom plow found in the woods to my John Deere 3038 utility tractor.  I have plowed exactly one time before, with the Ford 8N mentioned in an earlier post, and I found plowing to be a precise art.  The purpose of a plow is to break new ground, not work in compost, manure, or other organic matter. For those trying to work the land sustainably, plowing is, by definition, something seldom done. But doing it well can make all the difference between a new mud-hole and a new field of dreams.

A plow has very few parts. A cutting edge breaks the soil, followed by the plowshare we all know is beaten out of an old sword, and above the share is the curved moulding board, which turns the sod grass-side down. It's a brilliant invention. In my collection of antique farm implements left out in the woods, I have two plows.

For the new field I chose not a two-bottom without a wheel, but one with a trailing wheel behind and a coulter wheel before, a clever addition that cuts the sod and leaves a knife-edge line on the final cut. I could see how straight my plowing was, and then correct accordingly.

The sod was plowed in 30 minutes. Sounds easy? It was, but if you look at the first photo, the soil is full of hummocks that are far from ideal for planting.

I started thinking about how much a small disc harrow would cost, since they are usually the second step in preparing a field by breaking clods and smoothing the soil. There was not way to take a tiller out there. I follow a minimum-till practice with soil, except when new or when I need to lightly turn some organic matter into the two few inches of soil.  Trudging by our beehives, I saw just what I needed, a large disk harrow buried deep in the forest, but not deep enough that the tractor could not back up and get hitched.

This shows the disc-harrow along with some other implements that got saved. They'll get wire-brushed, primed, and painted in John Deere green in about a month, a yearly ritual for all of my equipment (the Ford gets its gray and red colors, of course).

Before posing this "beauty shot," I went ahead and harrowed the field first, knowing that I'd not have a chance for many days: rain, and maybe snow, were in the forecast. The photo below shows me working with an implement that really pressed the 3038, even in 4WD, to its limit. I went slowly and listened to the motor.

We have a really large tractor available, a 2155 diesel, but it's hooked to a large rotary cutter for other work. I already had the disks on the smaller tractor, so this fool rushed in.

The old fencing on the ground, taken down from our apple orchard, will soon be buried for a groundhog barrier. I avoided it of course; snagging it would have made a mess. Though the front wheels spun in a couple of times, soon the whole field was done. 


Not a moment too soon, either! Here's the same field the next day. I'm glad I'm learning to pay attention to the weather.

When the ground gets dry again, it will be time for some lime and slow-release fertilizer. 

My long-term plans are to avoid any inorganic fertilizers, but for the first year, given the soil test showing low-PH and missing minerals, the garden gets a cocktail. Next time, it's manure, wood ash, and compost only.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Roman-Road Building on The Farm: Festina Lente

Image source: "Looking down the Roman Road 3 km from Calderbrook, Rochdale, Great Britain" by Nigel Homer. Creative Commons License for reuse.

It worked for the Romans, who began their road bed with a course of packed sand, then piled on rubble and tamped it. Thus the fate of their enemies' buildings that the ever-pragmatic Empire wanted gone! Here's an extant bit of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, where I made a brief visit in 2009 during a longer walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales.

My local, Central-Viriginia bit of Roman engineering is neither so malevolent nor thorough. After moving to the old family farm, I found myself in possession of many piles of broken masonry, chunks of cinder-block, and odd stones with a bit of mortar attached. These oddities congregate in un-mowed areas and crop up every winter.

As I clear areas for planting or an expanded bee-yard for our hives, I began to tote the rubble to a road that runs through bottom-land below one of the out-buildings. It's been churned to mud by my tractors as well as a few heavy trucks bringing contractor dumpsters. I've been dealing with a Depression-era predecessor who bordered on hoarding, as many of his era did.

We have a lot of non-useable debris on the site too. I find old boards ripe with rusty nails, thousands of feet of of soggy insulation, decayed plastic containers in heaps that the prior owner wanted to save up "just in case" but never got around to re-using. Getting this stuff--and there are literally tons of it--out requires a heavy vehicle to travel over soft ground.

The bottom road is now the sort of mud that the Soviets honored, in their remark that their two best generals during the German Blitzkrieg were General Winter and General Mud. I've seen photos of Panzers up to the top of their treads, mired deep, in mud that later froze them in place.

We don't have tanks rumbling around or the Red Army to come "remove" them, but to keep my pickup truck or tractor from vanishing, gravel alone--at $400 delivered for 20 tons--won't do.  For the purposes of illustrating futility, I took a small scoop of "crusher run" gravel in my loader and spread it on the sea of mud.

 This will vanish quickly, as would a thin layer of larger #3 stone, purchased for roughly the same price. We are only a few miles from the quarry, and they know me well there. But before losing expensive stone deep in mud, an inexpensive road-bed needs to be established.

My technique is simple: toss in the free rubble I have, with flat sides up, break down larger chunks with a sledgehammer, then run the small tractor over it while doing chores. Here's the shot of the muddiest spot after a few passes:

With work, that will get smooth enough to hold a level bed of #3 gravel;  I will pay the boys at the quarry for 10 tons of that stone; placing it will be the subject of another post.

Timing is key here: if I wait until the dry summer we will likely have, the grass will be tall and the road dry. Setting stone now in late winter works beautifully to establish a road bed to last for many, many years.

I wish for a cohort of Legionaries under my orders, at times like this. Not to conquer the next county, but to get our pathways and roads sorted out. Every soldier carried tools that could make a road, and it was common practice to keep the legions employed doing public works for the Empire. It kept them busy and out of the sort of trouble that armed men, in groups, are likely to stir up.

Without such help, save for a fellow named John Deere, I get to work. Yet as the Romans would say, my practice is "festina lente." I make haste, slowly, before the weather warms, the snakes and the grass emerge, and the garden must go in. Thinking before doing will make a good road, as I am no Roman.

But how I love their roads and fashion sense.