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Cultivating Land: Tractor Plows, Garden Cultivators or Farming With Horses

When you're preparing soil for planting, there are several ways to go about it. In this excerpt, discover the pros and cons of garden tractors, tillers and horse-drawn plows.

| March/April 1974

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    A horse may not be the most efficient option for plowing a field, but it can be very rewarding.
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    A working horse must be fed with hay and oats in addition to pasture grass.
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    Digging a trench by hand is only advisable for small garden plots.
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    The best way to learn how to harness a horse for farm work is to watch someone who knows the process.

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Note: All content here excerpted with permission from Farming for Self-Sufficiency: Independence on a 5-Acre Farm by John and Sally Seymour. Copyright 1973. 

Come all ye honest plowmen, Old England's fate you hold! - Old Song 

Preparing Soil For Planting 

In spite of the teachings of the no-digging and no-plowing school of husbandmen, people still go on digging and plowing, as they have done ever since Neolithic times, and my guess is that they will go on digging and plowing as long as men live on this earth. For there is really no other way of effectively growing arable crops - at least, without the impracticable use of enormous quantities of compost.

Cobbett says, in Cottage Economy: 'As to the act of making bread, it would be shocking indeed if that had to be taught by means of books.' I would like to paraphrase that: 'as to the act of digging'. The only thing I will say about it, realizing that the flight from the cities is likely to include people who have practically never seen a spade, is that you should nearly always dig a trench when you begin preparing soil for planting: that is, remove one spit of soil (a spit is the wedge of soil cut by the spade) out in a furrow right across your piece of ground and dump it, then turn the next row of spits upside down into the furrow you have left. Thus you always have an open furrow in front of you to invert your spits into. When you come to the end of your piece you should, in theory at least, load the first lot of spits you dug out and dumped into a wheelbarrow and cart them back to fill up the empty furrow that has been left at the end.

One other way to till the soil  is to split your work down the middle and dig from alternate ends. You can then throw the first spit of each long narrow strip into the last furrow of the other. It is often admissible, however, to dig by inverting the spits in situ and not 'digging to a trench' when you are digging land over for the second time, or just loosening the soil around soft fruit bushes, or digging with a fork. But the serious self-supporter is likely to be more interested in growing food than in such counsels of perfection. But, in my experience at any rate, the more you dig the better, and it is better to dig badly than not dig at all.

If we wish to grow food on a larger scale, then there are three things we can do effectively. One is to buy an agricultural tractor for plowing fields. The other is go in for one of those little garden cultivators: either a rotovator or a mini-plow. The third is to plow by horse.

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