When I tell folks that we use mainly hand tools I sometimes get a quizzical look. I imagine they are picturing us hand picking individual weeks or sowing seeds individually. I’m going to try to shed some light on our processes over the season so that farming without a tractor on a small scale makes more sense.
One thing we focus on all season, especially in the spring, is bed preparation. Most of our beds are 3’x100′ long. This year we have about 128 of these beds to work with. I’ve estimated that planting one bed can take from 1 hour-2 hours depending on how weedy and how much compost/soil amending it requires, and what crop will be going in. It might seem crazy/daunting to look at 128 beds and extrapolate it out which could take between 128 to 256 hours (3 -6 weeks of work for one person if you did it straight through). Luckily our planting schedule doesn’t look like that and I plan our weeks around what needs to be planted and what labor is available.
We mulch most of our beds in the fall and try to make sure they are pretty well weeded. This makes things a bit easier for us in the spring. We rake back the much that was protecting the soil.
Next step is to weed the bed as best as we can using the wheel hoe while not stepping on the bed so we avoid compacting the soil.
Once weeds are loose, we go back and quickly rake the bed relatively flat and remove big chunks of weeds by hand, making small piles in the pathway to go back and pick up later. Since this bed was being planted in carrots, we take an extra step and use the broad fork to make sure its nice and loose and aerated for those beautiful sweet roots! Working backwards is important so as not to compact soil.
We took a soil test before this season and our soil is has a 6.0 pH and has about 2% organic matter. I used this info and the other details on the soil test to plan what I would add to the beds. The most important thing is compost! We add about three wheelbarrow loads per bed. Great for building bicep strength as well…
Next I add in 15 Ibs of lime (per the recommendations from MSU on the soil test) as well as a bit of greensand, bloodmeal and rock phosphate. The compost we used is not sifted to our liking which adds another step–rather than just raking flat, I have to work in gently with a fork and loosen huge clumps. We’ve made sure to order finely sifted compost for future use to cut out this step all together.
Almost there! Now we rake the bed flat. Carrots are very tiny seeds and require a very finely prepared soil.
We use a 6-row seeder from Johnny’s Selected Seeds to accurately and efficiently plant the seeds. I’ve found it helps to go over the bed once with the seeder without seed to compact the soil first.
Finally, we can go back and fill hoppers with seed to finish. We do 6 rows total in a 3′ wide bed. We did one bed with early orange carrots and the second bed with 6 rows of our own special mix of rainbow carrots (orange, white, red, purple and yellow!)
This system definitely takes longer and requires physical work, but I truly believe that over time our soil will be healthier for it. Already from last season the plot we worked last year is loose, has 2% more organic matter and has tons of worms! We’re on the right track!
To give you an idea of what the 6-row can do, here is an example of lettuces we planted weeks earlier. Once you get the details down on the seeder–it really pays off in terms of time and accuracy. We love these hand tools!