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Clearing an overgrown field with a scythe?

 
Nick Lenarz
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My wife and I recently moved to the Missouri Ozarks, and I am in the process of reclaiming some fields that have been allowed to grow and die back over several seasons. The thatch is CRAZY thick, over a foot in some places! I am attempting to clear them using my scythe with a 26" ditch blade, but I am having a bear of a time. The snath is properly sized to me (from Scythe Supply, so I hope it's correct- all I did was send them my measurements), I have the haft angle correct, and the blade is as sharp as I can make it, but it doesn't seem to cut well. I can almost hear the grass laughing as it bends out of the way, then springs back up on my return stroke. Sometimes I will simply stand in one place and swing, swing, swing, gradually whittling away the number of blades left behind.

Due to the thatch, if I don't keep the tip up slightly, the tip tends to 'spike'- it dives into the first patch of old grass and weeds and jams right down into the ground- ouch! The poor thing would make a 'beer can crinkling' sound, if that makes any sense. Hope I haven't done any damage. If I keep the tip up, the belly of the blade 'bounces' off the thatch, and only cuts the little bit of really tall stuff that has managed to grow up through the dead stuff. I eventually switched to using my wife's scythe, outfitted with a 20" grass blade, which worked pretty well against the thatch, but a) dulled quickly, and b) doesn't work well against the occasional heavy weed or sapling hiding in the grass.

After I got finished clearing an area, I mowed it with a lawn tractor, because it just looked horrid. What was under the thatch was these clumps of heavy grass... seriously, it didn't grow like normal grass, all spread out; these were random clumps anywhere from 4-10" in diameter at the base, with all the grass stems growing from the clump, and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING next to it. Just bare ground! What IS this stuff?!

I need to send my ditch blade back for repair, as a few choice saplings saw fit to crack my blade near the beard (eek!). In the meantime, a few questions:

1) Why isn't a ditch blade a good one to use for clearing an unruly field? I figured it would have been perfect for the job.
2) What's up with the clumps of grass?
3) Any good suggestions for clearing old pasture and random fields? This is wearing me out, but I REALLY don't want to have to call in a mower (noisy and expensive), and I think it would be too dangerous to burn (wildfires, anyone?)

TIA,

Nick
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Some kinds of prairie grasses are "bunch grasses" that is, they make a big solid clump, with bare soil between the plants. Some birds such as quail need bunch grasses because they can't move easily on spreading grasses, they need to run on the dirt.

 
Lloyd George
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long overgrown is not all that great for a scythe...those heavy clumps get tough....try this though...make short....very short slicing strokes at the heavy stuff and try to get it off at ground level..if you leave the lighter stuff and go from clump to clump...then go back and hit the lighter stuf, you ought to be able to cut with longer strokes...I would be willing to bet that if you had someone come in and cut the field with a flail mower, then scythe mowed it every couple of months it would be ok...now, me, to relaim a field like that, being the lazy carnivore that I am, I would go pick up a flock of sheep, a herd of goats, and a gaggle of geese, and let em go to town, while I carved at the ugly stuff a bit at a time....eat well too. don't forget the chickens...path of least resistance.
 
Craig Dobbelyu
pollinator
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Location: Maine (zone 5)
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forest garden hugelkultur
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I'm in the process of reclaiming some heavily overgrown fields myself. I had originally thought of mowing the whole thing with a bush hog, but eventually settled on heavy duty weed trimmer with a steel brush cutting head. I cut pathways through the field and open up specific areas. I'm also able to allow desirable species to thrive by trimming around them. I've restored about an acre of wild blueberry, raspberry and blackberry but selectively cutting this way. Now as native fruit, sap, fodder and lumber trees grow I can trim around them and manage them as well. I've been able to define a lot of edges and tons of natural habitat. The trimmer also works well for cutting overgrown grass with lots of thatch. I cut it as close to the ground as I can and then pile the cutting to use as mulch once it dries. Now that I have control over certain parts, I could switch to using a scythe but I can't imagine trying to cut through all that thatch without the help of the gas trimmer.

Of course goats would work great too. Unless there's things you don't want them to eat.
 
Kylie Harper
Posts: 28
Location: Zone 6, Kentucky, high water table
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Hi Nick, I just got a ditch blade (actually, it was the shortest grass blade, works both ways) from Scythe Supply to clear some crazy overgrown weeds (waist high) that were inaccessible with my mower due to really soggy ground. This is my first scythe! Is this your first scythe, too? If so, part of the problem may be technique. It took me awhile to understand the most efficient motion to make with the blade. It really is an arcing motion - hacking or "golf clubbing" won't work well except on the thick-stemmed monsters.

This is what I do (I am using a right-handed snath)... keep in mind I'm still a beginner, so someone may come on and say "what horrible technique!" but it has worked for me in conditions similar to what you describe - overgrown field.

*Keep right arm mostly straight
*"Steer" with left arm
*I have to push down slightly with left hand and pull up slightly with right hand to stop the tip of my blade from going into the dirt.
*Rock side to side (and moving forward in small increments) with feet. It seems that a rhythm is helpful in consistent cutting.
* It's really all about the abs, too!
*Don't look too closely at the stuff you are cutting! If you think "Oooh I want to get the stubborn patch of grass" and you reach to take a swipe at it, it's not as efficient unless you're making an arcing motion with the blade.
*If it's really thick, go ahead and hack at it in short motions.
*Let the area rest for a couple of days for some of the weeds that you missed to rise back up, and then go again if you want.
*Cut in the early morning when the grass is still a bit wet.
*My weeds were too thick (and my arms too weak) to go all the way around to my left side, creating a windrow. So, it does look messy.

I hope that helps...
 
Fred Morgan
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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Angle of the blade to the snath is very important, it should be more acute than 90%. Secondly, sounds like the blade isn't sitting right on the snath, or the snath is not the right size for you. Adjust it until it is easy to use.

The number one skill you need to have is how to make it sharp, and I do mean sharp. Long grass is easier to cut than short, so start on your lawn till that is easy.

Best advice? Learn with someone who knows what they are doing.

 
Fred Morgan
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Location: Northern Zone, Costa Rica - 200 to 300 meters Tropical Humid Rainforest
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But, to continue, if it is really thick, and really bad, and you don't want to use a brush clearing, try a machete - there are ones for grass that are just fine for this.
 
Dennis Mitchell
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I can cut green grass just fine. The dried stuff just bends over.
 
Dave Miller
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Location: Zone 8b: SW Washington
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I have some grass that grows the same way in my yard - super dense clumps. I usually scythe it just before it goes to seed. After that it gets really tough. Also early in the morning is best, the grass seems to have more moisture in it then. I try to pile the cuttings on top of the cut clump grass, which really slows it down or even kills it if I keep it covered long enough. So you might give that a try.

Also I don't try to cut it right at the ground - if it is really tough I cut it a bit higher. I am not trying to make it look like a lawn.
 
paul sanass
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I've seen thatch like that and I'm afraid that its way too much work for me, so I'd say if you have no animals to eat it all off, that getting a tractor and topper in would be the quickest option and keep the resulting harvest as mulch. Thereafter if you keep on top of it mowing it with your scythe should be much lighter work.
 
Morgan Morrigan
Posts: 1400
Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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Pigs and goats. Cant live without my Hitachi trimmer....

Post a plea at the post office and the feed store for a temp to come in and tear it up.

Is field fenced ?
 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1969
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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bee books chicken forest garden fungi trees
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I have bunch grasses too. I have been thinking about getting a sickle to use on this sort of tricky stuff for a while and I finally ordered one but haven't gotten it yet. It might be slow, but easier than going over and over something. Has anyone used a sickle with success?
 
Nick Lenarz
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Thanks to all for your replies! A few responses to your comments:

* I do have a Ryobi gas trimmer with string head, which can interchange to a bush blade. I'd wanted to try this with the scythe because I hate the sound of that machine.

* Also, I do not own a tractor with a bush hog or mowing deck, just my lawn tractor (MTD Tradesman 12.5), which cannot handle the tall grass, either. If I scythe the grass first, then mow it, I can get it down, if I keep it in 1st gear.

* Goats will not eat grass or thatch- they're browsers, not grazers like sheep- but they WILL skip past the grass and head straight for the garden, or the orchard. Or the rabbit food. Or anything you DON'T want them to eat. Can you tell I am owned by goats?

* The field is fenced, but it also contains the house and garden- the fence is to keep the goats OUT of the people area. I'd have to re-fence it to get other animals in there, and hope they'd do anything other than complain. HA!

* The blade is, admittedly, not that sharp, but it is as well-peened and -sharpened as *I* can get it. It's cut me but good a few times when I slipped with the stone. I need to send it back to have it repaired, perhaps they can sharpen it for me too. The site states it can only be used with a bent snath, which I have. I have the haft angle set to 3" (tip below beard), which was also as recommended. I have yet to check the lay, pitch, and balance, as indicated at http://scytheconnection.com/adp/snathmaking/snath2.html , but that will be coming. I think, despite their description, that ditch blades really aren't that good for clearing overgrown fields. My wife's 20" grass blade worked better even when dull.

* This is my first scythe, but I've been using it for almost ten years now. I've got a variety of swing patterns, but I do know enough by now to not chop, not 'golf swing', not lift, etc.

A neighbor said the previous owners raised turkeys, which ran around in the common area, and that they had the yard just about stripped to the dirt. Plants, being the opportunists they are, grew as fast as they could, and to the victor goes the spoils. The tallest grass won out, and shaded their competition to death, which explains the bare dirt between the clumps. Hopefully, as I get the 'clump grass' taken down, other grasses will grow up and flourish.

Guess I just have to keep at it!
 
Nick Lenarz
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A sickle would be a bruiser to use... I would have to crawl about on my hands and knees to mow... no thanks!
 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1969
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
69
bee books chicken forest garden fungi trees
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I don't mean to use the sickle for mowing, just to get the stuff the scythe or reel mower bends down uncut. For touch ups, not the whole thing.
 
Nick Lenarz
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Ah, I get ya. I've seen them used around garden beds and such where you're already going to be down that low, but wasn't sure where you were going with it. Unfortunately, the stuff that the scythe bends back uncut is pretty much everything. I really ought to take a pic of this stuff so you can see it.
 
Nick Lenarz
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Well, in spite of my attestation that I've sharpened the blade as well as I can, it's obviously not good enough. Even after peening and honing, I ran a VERY careful thumb down the blade... and found that, while it is quite thin, it is NOT sharp. AT ALL.

I discovered this when, after honing again, I ran the blade slowly along the ground in an arc. I read someone posting that you should be able to cut as easily with a slow movement as with a fast one, to show that you don't *need* to swing the blade quickly. When I encountered a clump of grass, the blade immediately hung up... and the tip went diving for the dirt! Rotten bastard!

So, seeing as how I obviously know shinola about the sharpening process (in spite of having been moderately successful in the past), I will send the blade back for repair, ask Scythe Supply to do the job while it's there, and order a new anvil while I'm at it (I used to have a peening jig, but lost it in a move). I've been using a 5# cross-peen mallet and a length of railroad rail as a flat-face anvil of sorts. Nothing like trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver... I tried using the mallet as a narrow anvil, but that was even worse.

Oddly enough, in spite of having undergone similar abuse, the grass blade continues to hone up just fine, and cut like crazy. I may switch it to my snath while my blade is out, and finish the remainder of the yard that way.
 
Lloyd George
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peening on a flat anvil is a delicate art...
 
Nick Lenarz
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Yes, and I got to learn that the hard way! Woops. I'm going to wait a bit to send the blade in, so I can save up to get that fantastic Schrockenfux anvil with the guide and rest. There's no way I'm going to be able to get a peened row that straight by hand, at least not yet.
 
Nick Lenarz
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Long-term update:

In the process of moving moved things around, I found my peening jig! It was in the bottom drawer of my toolbox, with all my hammers, all this time... <blush> Just got covered up by handles and other things. One log with a hole drilled in it and some loving ministrations with the jig and a 16-oz ball-peen hammer, and that blade was THIN! Honed it up and put it back on the snath, and it was like brand new- no more bendy grass, I was cutting like a pro! Well, like a seasoned amateur, anyway.

So, if anyone finds this thread in the future, I hope you've read this far: PEENING IS EVERYTHING. If your edge is unpeened, no amount of honing, or even sharpening with a file or one of those handheld knife sharpeners, will ever make it as good. Peen, hone, and be done with it!

Nick
 
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