FINALLY Tilling the Garden. Late Spring Sucks

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Getting the garden together this year has been a long, arduous process. Like many farmers in Missouri, we’ve been sitting around the last two months with our thumbs in in our bums, waiting for the weather to be decent enough to get in the garden. It’s been really cold and really wet for a really long time.

We have tough clay soil and it’s important to not work it when it’s wet. Clay soil compacts easily when it’s wet and can hard pan. Hard pan totally blows. It’s when you create a hard compacted layer in the subsoil. The wet clay becomes compacted and later when it dries in the summer heat, it turns hard as a rock. When this happens, the top soil may be loose and fluffy but the plant’s roots may not be able to punch through the hard pan layer that is underneath it. It’s basically like paving your garden beneath the surface. It’s a really, really bad thing to do. Hard pan is a great way to unintentionally and sometimes permanently damage the soil.

The trick to avoiding hard panning wet clay soil is that there is no trick. You just have to wait until the clay soil has dried out enough that the danger of compaction has been alleviated. “But Such and Such Farm, how do you know that your soil is dry enough to work with?” Well my friend, there are many fun old school farmer ways of assessing soil moisture and they’re all a little different. Some people say to pull a shovel’s worth out of the ground and throw it up into the air. If it breaks apart a little in the air, and busts apart when it hits the ground, then it’s dry enough to till. Others say to grab a handful of soil and smush it into a ball. Then toss the ball into the air and let it bounce on your palm a few times. If it easily breaks up, it’s ready to go. Still, other people say to pull a shovel’s worth of soil out of the ground then look at the sides of the hole and see if the soil is all packed together with a bit of moist sheen on it. If so, it’s still too wet. While other farmers say that if the springtime dew on the crab grass is as tall as a junebug, you might as well grab a shovel that’s a crooked as a dog’s leg because your just piss’n in the wind. I reckon ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper I could shoot the wings off a squash beetle, all while shittin’ in tall cotton there, young feller. Ok, we made that last one up but you get the idea. Lot of different old farmer methods.

At any rate, all the rain and cold, cloudy weather kept cockblocking our garden game. Just when the soil would be almost dry enough, and we were all like “Yeah! We’ll be able to till the day after tomorrow!” Nature would be all like “Uhhhhh… NOPE!” And then it would rain or late snow its ass off. Stupid late ass snow. Taking its sweet ass time to evaporate. Jerk.

But a few weeks ago, we seized the little window of opportunity that we had and finally got in the garden to till! In your face late spring!

First thing we did was plow in our cover crop. It all started last fall when we planted annual winter rye in the garden. Cover crops are a great way to add organic material into the garden (which acts as a green manure), control erosion and suppress weeds. There’s many different types of cover crops out there, but our local extension office suggested winter rye so we gave it a shot. We wanted the winter rye to reach its full potential before tilling it in, however we’ll have to wait to plant for 2 weeks after we tilled it in. The two week waiting period is very important because as the winter rye decomposes, it will release a natural chemical that keeps seeds of other species (vegatables and even weeds) from germinating. This is called alleopathy (that’s your .50 cent word of the day).

Now back to plowing. Plowing basically turns the soil upside down. A lot of people also plow after they finish harvesting in the fall. Many times this would be the point where manure or compost will be spread over the field then plowed under, allowing it to rot underground all winter. We’ll have to do this next year because we didn’t have a plow last fall. So for now, we’ll only get this one springtime plowing in.

We use a tractor implement called a 2 bottom plow. However, there are 1 through 3764065377325764574 bottom plows (seriously, look it up. There’s competitions). The number of plows a tractor is able to pull is directly related to how many horsepower the tractor’s engine has. Our tractor has a 34 horsepower engine and the rule of thumb says 15 horsepower per bottom plow (15×2=30 therefore our tractor can pull a 2 bottom plow). After we plowed, we let the soil dry out again and as usual, it took friggin forever. However, turning the soil upside down with the plow GREATLY speeds up the drying.

The garden is plowed and dry enough to till
The garden is plowed and dry enough to till

Now it’s tilling time! The weather is right, the soil is looking good and we’re going for it. We use a roto-tiller that runs off the PTO on our tractor. In case you didn’t know, PTO stands for power take off. It is basically a little spline gear that sticks out the back of the tractor that is directly connected to the engine drive. The tiller receives its power from the tractor using this PTO spline. Tillers are pretty sweet. However, you gotta be careful because of all the soil prepping methods, PTO driven roto-tillers have the largest impact on the soil. It’s important to try to make as few passes over the garden as possible. Make sure the tractor is driving as slow as it can while the tiller is spinning as fast as it can. That’s the way to do it. Lots of people will only make one pass with a tractor and tiller and then come back through with a walk behind tiller to break the soil up even finer. We don’t have a walk behind tiller, though. But it’s on our wish list. We’re fixin’ to get one, I reckon. (hehehe)

Spreading the black gold on top of the plowed soil
Spreading the black gold on top of the plowed soil

Because we have this tough clay soil, the most important thing we can do to improve it is add TONS of organic material. And I’m not using the word TONS in any sort of exaggerated sense. I literally mean, thousands of pounds of organic material spread over the field and worked into the soil over the course of several years. It is what it is. However clay soil ain’t all that bad. In a way, it whoops other soil’s asses. Clay soil holds nutrients better than sandy or loamy soil, and is much less susceptible to having its nutrients leeched out of it by rain. Clay soil is notorious for its poor drainage, however the upside is clay soil will not erode away nearly as easily as sandy or loamy soil. Its drainage can be improved by adding more organic material. In the end, of all the different types of soil, clay is one of the more challenging to work with. But no biggie. It just requires a little more hard work and we ain’t no slouches round here!

There's Nice Guy Ted!
There’s Nice Guy Ted helping us spread out the piles of black gold compost. Spreading it by hand with a shovel means a lot less tractor compaction in the garden and it’s really not that much more work. You get a much more even spread with the shovel or rake.
Spreading out the black gold before tilling it all in
Spreading out the black gold before tilling it all in.

Running a roto-tiller, or any PTO driven tractor attachment for that matter ain’t no friggin joke! It is serious stuff, and no giggle-giggle-laughy-laughy-haha-funny time! It’s potentially very dangerous. Many a careless person has met a very painful, gruesome and untimely end after getting a bit to close to the spinning tines of a root-tiller. There are plenty of awful ways to go, but getting pulled into a roto-tiller is way up there on the list. Although the goal  is to till organic material into the soil, you do not want to BE the organic material.  Granted, some people have had a brush with a roto tiller and survived, but they sure don’t walk right, or get too many dates. In the least, it will not cut, but tear your foot right off, and hopefully not pull the rest of you in right after.  Can’t stress this enough, BE CAREFUL. And for the love of God, put the dogs inside!

Dave tilling in the black gold
Dave tilling in all the good stuff
On the left: after tilling. On the right: Before tilling
On the left: after tilling. On the right: Before tilling
When it's all said and done, we're left with beautiful black nutrient rich garden soil!
When it’s all said and done, we’re left with beautiful black nutrient rich garden soil!

Hey. That’s some good lookin’ dirt! Now it’s time to make some beds. Since our garden is pretty small this year, we just dug the walking paths by hand. Took about two days, no big deal. Next year our garden will triple in size, and only get bigger from there. There ain’t no damn way we’re hand shoveling like, 2.5 acres worth of walking paths. Fuck that! We will be getting a bed shaper next year. This means our beds will be a little smaller which is cool, because there will be more of them! This year we made 4′ wide beds and about 18″ wide walking paths. Next year because of the wheel width of our tractor, we will have 32″ wide beds and 18″ walking paths. Sounds good to me!

Rows are formed and ready to be planted in!
Rows are formed and ready to be planted in!

4 Responses

  1. May 20, 2013

    […] and waiting and waiting for the weather to cooperate with us, but now that we finally have the garden tilled and the beds made, we’re ready to get into the […]

  2. June 14, 2013

    […] tilled it all up to create a loose open soil. For more adventures in plowing and tilling, check out this post, and these new […]

  3. July 30, 2013

    […] of nutrients and organic matter. Enter BFC Compost in Perryville. We first used their compost in this year’s garden and we can really tell a difference in the quality of our plants. BFC is the only place in the […]

  4. March 17, 2014

    […] means we’re still right on schedule with our spring planting! Which is a HUGE improvement from last year, when we weren’t able to get into the garden until almost May thanks to the late spring we […]

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