Weeds vs. Tractor, and Other Thoughts on Scaling up the Garden

I’ve got a garden on the farm. It’s a plot 40′ wide by 100′ long, about 1/10th of an acre. That’s not much farm, but it’s a lot of garden, especially when done by hand on my free time. Just like you, if you’re not a farmer.

Though I cheated on field preparation by using a spader attached to a big John Deere tractor.

Weeds vs. Tractor

Many horsepowers make light work

Had I dug all those weeds under with a shovel, forked and fluffed the soil and raked out the beds by hand, it would have taken me days or weeks. As it was, it took me an hour, and it took Elana a half-hour to do the summer half of the garden again on Friday night (that link, by the way, goes to an f*ing cute video of Elana driving the tractor).

But that still leaves the planting.

And watering.

And weeding.

And harvesting.

There are non-mechanized short-cuts for these things, of course. Middle paths. There were the tools of the neolithic long before there were the tools of the industrial age, and the tools of the enlightment-era agricultural revolution to bridge the gap. And there are a few great examples of modern technology making small-scale farming or gardening much easier.

Each time the technology changes, farms get bigger — a great example of how new tools never actually buy leisure time in the long run. Farmers just produce more, and competition between them makes food prices drop.

But, if you’re a gardener rather than a commercial farmer, you do have the choice to cultivate less land with simpler, cheaper, smaller tools. A great approach, though a neighbor offering his tractor services will always be a hard offer to pass up in early spring.

Here’s a comparison of the tool kit needed at four different scales of growing, scaled by powers of 10:

Scale 1: Small Garden (400+ sqFt, 1/100th acre)

Bed preparation: shovel & digging fork, rake
Planting: trowel
Watering: sprayer or watering can
Weeding: hand hoe, or trowel, or hand-pulled
Harvesting: harvest knife & hand
* ~$100 *

Scale 2: Large Garden (4,000+ sqFt, 1/10th acre)

Bed preparation: rototiller & broad fork
Planting: manual furrower & push seeder
Watering: sprinkler or t-tape irrigation system
Weeding: various hoes, including wheel hoes, full-length hoes, and hand hoes
Harvesting: harvest knife, fork, & hand
* ~$1,000 *

Scale 3: Market Garden / Truck Farm (40,000+ sqFt, 1+ acres)

Bed preparation: walk-behind tractor tillage & broad fork
Planting: mechanized furrower & push seeder
Watering: sprinkler or t-tape irrigation system
Weeding: walk-behind cultivation and various wheel and hand hoes
Harvesting: small combine, potato harvester, knife & hand
* ~$10,000+ *

Scale 4: Small Farm (400,000+ sqFt, 10+ acres)

Bed preparation: tractor with plow, disc and/or harrow, spader, maybe a sub-soiler (ripper)
Planting: tractor-pulled seeder, and (still) transplanting by hand
Watering: piped-in or ditch irrigation
Weeding: tractor-mounted cultivators, and (still, in-row) weeding by hand
Harvesting: combine, potato digger, etc. + (still) harvest knife & hand
* ~$100,000+ *

Scale 10: Buffalo Commons (4 trillion sqFt, 100 million acres)

Bed preparation: NA
Planting: NA
Watering: NA
Weeding: NA
Harvesting: Spear
* ~$0 * (Man, if it wasn’t for our infatuation with private property, we’d a had this)

Long pumpkin rows, my Japanese planting hoe

Even at the 10-acre scale, we still do a lot of planting by hand.

When considering whether to spend the money on a new piece of equipment, there is also the consideration of how much more you could produce once you own the thing. For example, Eliot Coleman says you should be able to farm 5 acres with the same equipment I’d want for 1/10th of an acre, if you toss in a walk-behind tractor and a few implements (add $10,000). So, if I buy the tools, I might as well garden more, right? It’s a slippery, upward slope! But then again, if this year’s garden is mostly for seed, next year’s production garden will need to be quite a bit bigger…

And during my other free time…

…which amounts to about 30 minutes from 6-6:30 in the morning, I am working my way through the following totally awesome reading list:

I'm into some good books these days: Letters from an American Farmer (Crevecoer), Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding (Kingsbury), The Origin of Wealth (Baumeister), Acquiring Genomes: A Theory on the Origin of Species (Margulis), Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (Margulis), Grass-Fed Cattle (Reuchel)

I'm into some good book these days

The Origin of Wealth sucked me in with its lumping of economics and ecology into the same category: the study of complex, adaptive systems. A cool parallel to my organisms within organisms within organisms observation. Ahhh-some!

Wait! What’s that sound? Can you hear them? The hordes of lamb’s quarter, pasture-grass, dandelion, and bindweed? The invaders cry out in fear of my industrious hand! It’s callouses seize the sweat-polished handle of the hoe, cursing silently for some aid in the fight, a reprieve – a wheel hoe to wield against the ravenous multitudes! But bravely marching forth into the looooooooong afternoon…

And, this week’s gallery from the farm:

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