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Tilling by hand

 
Posts: 7
Location: Utah
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Anyone else have to till by hand? I don't have a rotatiller, so I've had to depend on digging up roots with a shovel, and sifting with a pitchfork and my own bare hands.
It's a work in progress, but it's been very grounding and soothing during some difficult days.
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Location: Upper Midwest - 4b
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I have. It's nice work, when done in manageable portions, and produces a much nicer end product than you'd get with a tiller. We moved last year and had to dig a new garden, and started way too big, and had a friend till it with a tractor mounted tiller. The weeds were terrible. Digging small sections each year (as we'd be doing at our old house) would have been the much slower, but perhaps better route. Sheet mulching and not digging at all would probably be even better still.
 
pollinator
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Not anymore. But when I was a teenager, my garden was double-dug entirely by hand. I think it measure around 20ftx30ft, but it was an odd shape so it's hard to be sure.

I'm not strong enough for that anymore, but at the time it was therapeutic.
 
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Since you must till by hand, why not consider using a no-till method?

Maybe this Thread about to till, not to till and why will help:

https://permies.com/t/65316
 
Posts: 62
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Nice garden spot you got going there!

My first garden was all by hand...a mattock, a hoe, shovel, etc...you are right, it's very enjoyable work!

I moved to a larger place, so obviously that means larger garden :)

I picked one of the flatter spots here to establish a garden for convenience. Well, that turned out to be on top of a ridge and I should have known better but decided to keep moving forward since I've added machinery to my tool kit.

I think this spot would have been difficult if not impossible to grow certain plants/crops if not for my tractor. I LOVE the idea of no-till, but I don't readily have 2' of compost to just add on top of this large a spot.

I used a single ripper and a scarifier bar to pull out all of the rocks you see surrounding it, and grade it relatively smooth. I think a mounted tiller would have been damaged in this terrain, and I don't have the back anymore to dig this much out by hand!

Believe it or not, still TONS of handwork though to get the rocks in the bucket and place them instead of just dumping them off somewhere.

To me, it's a one-and-done deal...meaning the tractor will probably never again be in there. The rocks are out, the ground has deep fractures for water and nutrients to infiltrate, and now it can be worked by hand and wheelbarrow in no-till fashion. I have already used an old hay bale I found down in the woods from when they used this land for hay, to mulch it (see it on front of the tractor)

I think it really depends on a person's location, and what their goals are. This part of KY is known to be loaded with rock, and I want to take carrots and sweet potatoes to market!!!

Don't get me wrong here, there is a lot of $ tied up in the machine and of course it's a moral battle for me with the fuel consumption and noise and manufacturing of this tractor etc...but I hope the good work I intend to use it for justifies it to a degree?

I'm reallllllly looking forward to planting and harvest time, which will be done the old-fashioned way, like you :)
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pollinator
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Sure, I use a shovel on my older beds. I've been tilling them by hand and amending them for more than a decade and now they're full of great dirt and producing pretty darned well. I take great pleasure in all this free exercise. No need to waste money on a gym membership! But I am going to try no till on a couple of them this year, if the bugs will let me. It's totally up to the bugs I'm afraid.

But I live in red rock country. My property is 90% rock and 10% pulverized 'concrete'. (rock/dirt) Can't dig into that with a shovel! For 11 years my most used and abused tool and constant companion has been a Collins ax. (A mattock, to be precise.) Actually I'm on my 2nd mattock now.  I broke the blade on my first one a few years back and proudly showed it to all my friends, neighbors, co-workers and even a few astonished strangers! In fact I've been swinging it every day for the last 3 months or more, all winter. I created a new 12' x 12' strawberry bed under a beautiful juniper tree where the berries will get shade during the hottest afternoon sun. I dug 10 huge holes to plant some fruit trees and just planted my first Elberta peach yesterday.

And to save money I just the other day finished a 60' trench from the house out back to the garage so a plumber can run a water line for me. Not much dirt left after I hauled about 25 wheelbarrows of rock out to my front yard. In fact I told the plumbing lady over the phone that was scheduling me that I had already done the hard part. That I had already dug the ditch so the young guys wouldn't break a nail or anything when they were here working. She laughed. Then yesterday I met the plumber. Turns out the dude is even older than I am!! Good thing I dug the ditch!

Oh! I just realized that I am wrong. It rained for 2 days this winter and I didn't go out. And I don't work in my gardens on the first Wednesday of every month. That's 'senior' day at the grocery stores! Gotta stock up on supplies.

And Cole, I like your attitude! Happy gardening everyone.
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Finally, Siesta time for my Mattock!
Finally, Siesta time for my Mattock!
 
Anne Miller
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Cole said, " I LOVE the idea of no-till, but I don't readily have 2' of compost to just add on top of this large a spot.



Cole, why do you need 2' of compost to just add to the top if you were to do no-till?

I no-till without "2' of compost to just add on top of this large a spot"? So I just don't understand?
 
gardener
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Hey, welcome Trinity!

I also do it all by hand- to get to my garden you need to go through my kitchen, and no equipment is going through!!
I'm in rocky clay, so it's a mattock. I've bent forks.

I'm with Anne though- no till is great, and you definitely don't need 2 feet of compost or even woodchips to do it. I use rotted down bokashi and rabbit litter, and whatever garden waste I have. My space is 7m by about 10m, so I'm not producing crazy amounts of organic matter.

After double digging when we started the garden, I decided to put in hugel beds. Dug down about a foot and a half, put in waste wood, branches, twigs, leaves, kitchen scraps, rabbit and dog hair, whatever I could find, and covered it over. I've done it to every bed, and the results were and still are superb. Totally recommended!
 
Anne Miller
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I also do it all by hand- to get to my garden you need to go through my kitchen, and no equipment is going through!!
I'm in rocky clay, so it's a mattock. I've bent forks.

I'm with Anne though- no-till is great,



Similar to, Tereza, my garden tools are in my silverware drawer. Usually a large tablespoon like is for eating soup.

I do use a garden spade.

My first garden after moving to this location was about 5' x 5' of hard caliche. I opened a package of blanket flowers to sprinkle the seeds.  Half of them blew away as I covered the with a little seed starter mix that I put in a strainer to dust the ground.  Those blanket flowers came back every year from the seeds that dropped from the flowers.

I just don't need fancy equipment or compost or wood chips.

Usually, vegetables are planted in the raised garden beds that dear hubby made.  Those are usually transplants that I dig a hole large enough to put the plant in and cover with the dirt I took out of the hole.  For onions, I use a pencil to make the hole and slip in the little thin transplant.
 
gardener
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I began chop and drop seven years ago in this spot. Every fall when I plant winter peas a thin layer of compost goes on top to protect the peas.
I am a huge fan of one time tilling; got to get the contours right. After that chop and drop is my only action. That’s seven inches of new soil in seven years. I only dug this hole to replant a pomegranate tree.
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master pollinator
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Cole Tyler wrote:
Don't get me wrong here, there is a lot of $ tied up in the machine and of course it's a moral battle for me with the fuel consumption and noise and manufacturing of this tractor etc...but I hope the good work I intend to use it for justifies it to a degree?


IMHO you have nothing to apologize for. You have acted in a reasonable and practical manner, using the tools available to you.

If you want contrast, consider the few cupfuls of diesel you used vs. the volumes of diesel required to run big rigs for thousands of miles with loads of so-so vegetables.

Happy growing!
 
Posts: 21
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I do the majority of my soil work by hand, deep till with the grub hoe and shaping with the concrete rake. Last year I got a small cultivator that works with the rest of my electric set up, I only use it on the top couple inches to prep for seeds but it does save me quite a bit of time when trying to prepare a seed bed. I have very heavy soil in my area so getting fine enough particles to plant in can be hard unless the moisture level is perfect the cultivator gives me more flexibility.
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gardener
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I love to dig.
I dig beds by hand at my house,  my mother's house, my sisters house, all kinds of places.
I do not love quarrying stone.
My grow lot had a house on it, and a lot of that house it is still there in the form of rock,concrete and brick.
By the time I was done putting up the fence, I had given up on the idea of digging beds.
I even gave up on digging holes for the fence posts.
Instead I drive  steel posts and bind the wooden uprights to them with stainless steel wire and pipe clamps.

All the beds over there go on top of the ground,  and consist mostly of compost.
Trees and bushes go in the ground, and it's a struggle every time.
I have planted some annuals in the rocky soil of my grow yard, but only as cover crops.
Even the famous torpedo radish ends up growing mostly on top of the soil.

I save the digging for the front yard my at my house.
Terracing has really paid off in that location.
Other than bed shaping, and occasional aeration with a fork,  I'm no till out of sheer laziness.
Turning all of the soil in a bed every year seems counter productive.
Covering beds with autum leaves or hay, or even cardboard seems to be enough to preserve tilth and deter weeds.


 
Cole Tyler
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Anne Miller wrote:

Cole said, " I LOVE the idea of no-till, but I don't readily have 2' of compost to just add on top of this large a spot.



Cole, why do you need 2' of compost to just add to the top if you were to do no-till?

I no-till without "2' of compost to just add on top of this large a spot"? So I just don't understand?



I don't know, guess I was being silly. I live in my own world sometimes and convinced myself, no facts included, that I would need massive amounts of good stuff on top of this rock shelf if I were to ever grow anything :/ ...and I consistently prove the idea of "do as I say, not as I do!" because I am probably being impatient, and overworking and overdoing things as usual. 39 yrs old going on 16

Sorry to discourage anyone, not the intention...lots of possibilities and techniques out there that will probably work better than how I do things!
 
Scott Stiller
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Nothing to apologize for Cole. The ways of permaculture are often slow and require some patients. I moved to where I live now with a 100% permies mindset and the stubbornness to make it happen. That’s not for everyone though. If I started over today my only thought would be food security ASAP. I often get caught up in my uncompromising thought patterns but that doesn’t mean you should.
We’re all in this together and thrilled that you’re here.
PS: That garden pic you posted is gorgeous!
 
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When starting a new bed I typically do a nice deep double dig to break up the soil down deep and get an idea of what's going on down there. I pull out any big rocks, bricks, tree roots, antique hardware, etc that I find. (Gardening in town, in one of the oldest settlements in Kansas, I've pulled up some pretty interesting things. Tons of bricks!) After that, I try to keep the tilling to an absolute minimum by heavily mulching with tree leaves every fall and just disturbing the soil as necessary for planting and harvesting. It's sort of a two-extremes compromise between heavy tillage and no-till that has worked very well for me so far.

All my digging and spading is done by hand since I don't do enough tilling to justify the expense of a tiller,  and a regular tiller wouldn't work in my preferred application anyway. Plus I am terribly ungifted when it comes to mechanics. Seems like every machine I touch has a very short life expectancy.

I also tried a new experiment last fall by forming soft-sided raised beds in my vegetable garden. I dug out the paths between the beds down two shovel heads deep and piled the soil up onto the beds. Then I filled the trenches with full paper leaf bags and topped them off with loose leaves. That should give nice, deep rich soil in the beds and meanwhile I'm composting tons of leaves in place that I can either leave there as a moisture reservoir and worm and mushroom farm adjacent to the whole length of all my beds, or dig out the compost and spread it up onto the beds next fall before repeating the whole process with new leaf bags and leaves.
 
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Visitor's comment: "I noticed that you do a lot of digging."
 
Posts: 71
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We have a big tiller but I hate using it;  I'm gettin' up there age-wise, it's HEAVY, and like others have said, not much mechanical in my abilities.  
My fave tool for a long time has been a mattock, with a not-very-sharp spike on one end, and about a 3"-wide blade on the other.  It's exercise!  It's a way to build up the rock pile!  But I have a Black & Decker 20V Max cultivator that only goes down about 6", and it mostly wiggles the rocks out of the ground, as well as pulverizing the dirt nicely.  It's a little thing, but I've had it since 2015 and I love it.  Once you've dug it into hard settled dirt (but it's not tough enough to dig up grass), bit by bit, about 8" at a time, you can swing it through the lightened, pulverized dirt and pick up any rocks it runs into by bending over and throwing 'em into the rock pile.  Mostly my rocks are, oh say 5" or less.  Mostly.  

I keep thinking I oughtta buy a flat-bottomed spade, but every year, make do with the pointy-bottom shovel.  And it's as though there's some season-related timer that goes off in my head, and wham, I'm suddenly interested in digging (that's Spring!)  

I scrutinize my dirt!  Years ago I'd made about a three-foot x two-foot x two-foot bin of kombucha;  the scoby got about 3" thick (or more, can't remember but it was HUGE);  I'd spread kombucha all around the area I was gardening in;  and over probably 10 or more years since then, the dirt has turned from brown to a lot darker brown.  I don't know if the kombucha did it, but I suspect it did something.  There's an area of the back garden/yard about which I've started saying "it's under a fairy spell," because it just FEELS different, kind of magically different.  Just a couple jujube trees, some goumi bushes, and tansy and grass growing there, but it feels like a magical bit of the yard.  Kombucha did something?  I dunno!  

This year I did something similar to what you said, John Harper, I dug about a foot-deep ditch between soft-sided (meaning no physical sides) about 3-1/2' x 25' beds, piled the dirt on top of the beds, as per inspiration from Peter Chan's Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way.  (His beds are 3-feet wide on the tops, 6" high, with a small ditch on either side of the bed.) (I love that book, btw!) But I put old rotted firewood (mostly oak) down in the ditch, covered it with dirt, then just used rocks from the rock pile to mosaic-together about a foot-wide path on top between beds.  I know, those rocks are gonna sink and eventually I'll have to get them out of there AGAIN.  But for now, I'm figuring the old firewood will soak up rain, release it if needed ... and that old rotted firewood just seemed like it would be a good thing to put down there.  Without having to dig up the whole garden bed!  A couple years ago I'd leaned a shiitake log against the middle of the woodpile;  I've seen the beginnings of fungi on the wood;  ah well.  Will just wait and see.  

Yeah, digging does make me happy too, and I do consider it exercise.  I want to keep the ol' muscles viable!  But I've learned I have limits, that's another thing;  don't strain yourself too much!  Know your limits and RESPECT them.  
 
Scott Stiller
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I loved reading your post Jenn! I also like the look of the garden bed you described and would love to see some pics of it.
Thanks for hanging out with us here at Permies!
 
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Anne Miller wrote:Since you must till by hand, why not consider using a no-till method?

Maybe this Thread about to till, not to till and why will help:

https://permies.com/t/65316



Hi Anne, I started the thread you recommended. I feel honored.  I just wanted to weigh in that over the four years since that thread I've Swung hard to the no-till side.  I think Diego Footer is right that roots are the best way to get biomass deep into the soil. And the fungi are a very important member of the soil-building team. Chopping them up with a rototiller creates a step back in soil health. Tilling should only ever be a one time event  for very poor soil.  
 
Jenn Lumpkin
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Hi Scott, I haven't posted any images on here and have no social media;  any suggestions (since I THINK I have to post images somewhere else and then use the "url" to post here) for a good SAFE internet place to save images?  

Or, is there a thread about "how to post photos images" on permies?
 
Scott Stiller
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Hi Jenn! I’m afraid I’m a terrible one to ask about posting pictures unless you use an iPhone. Even doing staff stuff is difficult because I see everything in mobile view.
If, indeed you are using mobile view it’s fairly easy. Before submitting a post you can choose to add an attachment which can be pulled directly from your photo album.
For any PC related ways I’m going to defer to others. If no one answers soon I’ll talk to other staff members about it. They’re super smart and helpful!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Hi Jenn! Photos can be uploaded directly in the "Post Reply" screen. Small size files are much preferred.

A couple of links with photo posting info:

https://permies.com/t/31696

https://permies.com/t/170255

 
Tereza Okava
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Scott Stiller wrote:For any PC related ways


PC is the same- when you go to post a reply, there is the big empty box you type into, and underneath are two tabs-- options and attachments. hit attachments, upload a file, and you can choose the file. (for ages I didn`t know this, and I also fooled around with image hosting, even though I totally didn`t have to. whoops!!)
 
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Currently tilling by hand to level ground before adding topsoil and compost. It's tough work, but there are too many rocks in my soil to work it any other way. Glad to know I'm not alone in this feat. I personally like working the earth with my hands. I feel more connected and satisfied with my labor  in a way I don't receive when using easier methods. Maybe I'm a masochist? 😂🤷‍♀️
 
Jenn Lumpkin
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well I could post this one;  garden is a mess right now with cardboard covering all kindsa stuff  (mostly to keep the chickweed down), but will make the attempt to post a photo!  
Thank you, Douglas Alpenstock, for the links!  
I re-sized the photo to make it smaller;  ah well will see what happens ...
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garden area spring 2022
garden area spring 2022
 
Jenn Lumpkin
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oops, and thank you too, Tereza, what you described is about the same as in the links about how to post photos;  (only briefer)  and yep, YAY!  It's so great when something works.    whaaa haha!  
 
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for what it is worth we do no til gardening. when we first moved to northern virginia we rented a rototiller and the dirt and rocks were so bad, my daughter and i made NO progress, couldn't get it to grip the dirt. so out of necessity we looked at other methods. our favorite is the ruth stout method and that is how we started. every year we add stuff to the garden depending on what we have available---composted manure, composted ramial from the road crews nearby, leaves, compost from our regular household compost pile and of course ruth's and our favorite---hay that we make ourselves, not straw as their is no nutrition in it. we did not put down cardboard. we didn't have any and when a weed comes up, we just put more hay in that spot or actually bend over and easily pull it out. it is so easy and it works for us. everyone has to find their own way, but if you til the bed initially, please think about no til for the future. deb
 
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