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Hand-powered market farm: share your experiences and tool recommendations  RSS feed

 
Evan Morgan
Posts: 5
Location: Central Maine (5b)
bee fungi trees
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Hey! Fantastic to have you here Zach!

My partner and I are starting a small farm in Maine this year. We have about 1/3 acre on a friend's property. I am quite invested in working in a way which takes advantage of our human labor. We had a tractor till through our growing space this fall, to break up heavy sod. Hopefully that is the last mechanical intervention on the space. I built a large hugel mound sowed with rye, marshmallow root, some sunchokes, and we planted some garlic, and spread a layer of hay mulch over the growing space.

I would really like to do all the bed forming by hand. I understand this will be a lot of work, but my thinking is to fork deeply, flip the pathway soil onto the beds, break that up and add some compost and amendments in the process, with a permanent mulch situation and under sowing on beds that will be transplanted into. I hope to transplant most crops, but some will be much easier to direct seed like radish turnip carrot etc. What kind of experience does everyone have with providing a nice tilth for planting on hand shaped beds? And what tools might you recommend for the job? I am thinking if I can get away without double digging for initial bed formation I would like to, hence the forking and just flipping/moving the pathway earth.

Thanks everyone!


 
Maureen Atsali
pollinator
Posts: 354
Location: Western Kenya
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I am not Zack, but I have a ton of experience working by hand. I am in a remote African village, and there is no mechanization.  People plow by hand, or with cows.  I use a tool called a forked jembe which is handmade by welders in a nearby town.  It has about a 2.5 foot handle, with a smallish hoe-like head facing one direction, and a three pronged 4 inch fork facing the other.  My phone doesn't seem to agree to post photos, but that's my all time favorite tool. If anyone is really curious you can email me and I can share the photo that way.  I can plant and weed without deeply disturbing the soil, and the weight of it seems to use less energy than any other digger/claw/forked tool.
 
Mike Jay
Posts: 534
Location: Northern WI (zone 4)
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We created 3' wide raised beds when we started our garden.  The only mechanized work we did was to have the site/sod tilled up 4-6" deep.  WIthin a few days of that, I had the paths and beds all laid out and before we stepped on any of the soft soil, we shoveled the loose dirt from the paths up onto the beds.  It took about two days to do a 60x120 foot garden.  Our soil was decent and we didn't have any amendments to add at the time. 

Now we mulch with shredded leaves in the fall, spread what little compost we create when we have it and mulch in the summer with more leaves and grass clippings.  I broadfork it in the spring to try to break up the hard spot where the tiller stopped.  I'm not sure if I should call it "hardpan" but in our sandy loam there is a clear spot where it goes from soft soil to hard.  It's about 8" down so my carrots are just fine even with it there.

I'm really glad we moved the dirt right after tilling when it was still soft and fluffy and easy to get a shovel under.  I was actually able to use a metal grain shovel to pick up a fair bit at a time but each shovel load was very heavy.
 
Evan Morgan
Posts: 5
Location: Central Maine (5b)
bee fungi trees
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Maureen - I looked up the tool. Looks like what I'd call a grubbing hoe on one side and fork on the other. Seems like a great hand tool! I assume you get pretty close to the ground when you chop/rake/hoe with it? Glad to hear you do it all without mechanization. I believe this is the way I want to farm this site and our future homestead. It seems right to be using the human body to do the work, as our ancestors have done. How much space are you working with for growing, would you say? Thanks!

Mike - Sounds like it was pretty straightforward. You incorporated all the grass and roots into the beds? And did you do this in the fall or spring?

Thank you both so much for your ideas. I am very excited! Good amount of seeds started indoors including a number of perennial vegetables and fruits. 
 
Mike Jay
Posts: 534
Location: Northern WI (zone 4)
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Evan Morgan wrote:Mike - Sounds like it was pretty straightforward. You incorporated all the grass and roots into the beds? And did you do this in the fall or spring?


We did it in the spring as soon as the area dried out.  There weren't any significant roots other than the grass.  I think after a couple weeks we raked the beds to get rid of any grass chunks that were near enough the surface to survive the torment of the tiller.  I'd guess that 90% of the grass stayed buried in the beds and we removed the rest.  If we could have covered the area with a big black tarp for a month prior to kill the grass, it may have made that task even easier.
 
Maureen Atsali
pollinator
Posts: 354
Location: Western Kenya
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Evan,
We have 2.5 acres, but not all of that is actively cultivated every growing season.  Our soil is heavy clay, and prior to our taking over this property, most of it was a sugarcane plantation. The soil was so dead and eroded that even the weeds didnt want to grow.  Yes, I suppose I work quite low with that tool.  There is a regular jembe with a longer handle which is used for heavy plowing, that's used in an upright position with an action like swinging an ax.  It seemed really hard to me at first, to do everything by hand, now I kind of love it. Its kind of therapeutic and relaxing, the repetitive motion is almost meditative. I am a woman, and slightly disabled, so it makes for slow going, but it is SO satisfying when I look back at the work and know that *I* did that.
 
John Duffy
Posts: 38
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Hi Evan. If you're determined to do the work with hand tools, may I suggest http://www.easydigging.com/   ; Their tools are great quality and reasonably priced.  I personally use one of their ridging hoes and I absolutely love it! Upon using it for the first time, I thought it was quite heavy. HOWEVER, it turned out to be  a lot less work due to the weight of the tool and the length of the handle. I used it to till up my whole garden. Didn't even use the tiller. It is a quality tool that will last a lifetime.
Best of luck to ya
 
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