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.

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