Forms of the scythe have been in use since at least 200 B.C. The version of the scythe we know today originated in central Europe about 700 years ago. It’s interchangeably called the Austrian, European, or Continental European scythe, and is essentially a piece of steel that has been drawn out, curved in all planes, sharpened along its length, and attached to a long handle called a “snath.” It’s lightweight, encourages healthy movement of the human body, and can be peened to razor-sharpness with a robustness appropriate to the task at hand. When used properly and cared for competently, a scythe offers a shockingly high degree of effectiveness and efficiency for a hand tool. Adding one scythe — or, better yet, an assortment of them — to your arsenal of tools can enable you to diversify your farm, garden, or homestead to a degree you may not have thought possible.
Providing you with the ability to make hay cheaply and efficiently by hand is perhaps the most important benefit the scythe offers. Because it’s a tool that doesn’t require a huge capital investment (you should be able to procure a high-quality scythe for about $250), and because it’s so effective, it will put you in a position to make plentiful quantities of high-quality hay over the course of your lifetime, essentially for free.
A sizable supply of first-rate hay will allow you to perform a long list of agricultural practices you may not have previously considered viable for your small- to medium-sized acreage. Keeping backyard livestock will become possible because you’ll be able to grow and harvest enough hay to feed a milk cow or a small herd of sheep or goats through winter — thus adding milk and meat production to your agricultural activities.
Unless slugs make mulching truly impossible in your area, mulching your garden is immeasurably useful, with benefits ranging from moisture retention to erosion prevention to increased organic matter in your soil. If you’re a gardener, your plot is likely smack in the middle of a free source of mulch — your lawn. You can harvest tall grass for mulch with your scythe. You can also use a scythe to harvest materials for sheet mulching, which is the practice of making garden beds out of deep lasagna-style layers of mulch, compost, manure, and a weed-suppressing barrier, such as newspaper or cardboard. Simply place the mulch material that contains seeds — hay, for example — below the weed barrier. Above the weed barrier, use materials less likely to contain weed seeds, such as straw and leaves — both of which can be harvested with a scythe.
Hay is also beneficial when used in conjunction with chicken tractors. You can establish new garden beds by leaving your chicken tractor in place for a period of time and adding hay every day or so. The chickens will pick out whatever seeds are in the hay, add manure, and compact everything by walking on it. After a few weeks, a “mulch mattress” will be established, and you can then move the tractor to a new location and plant directly into your newly created garden bed.
Finally, making your own hay or straw can help greatly with composting. Ideally, kitchen scraps should be part of a bigger mix that includes carbon-heavy ingredients, such as manure mixed with hay or straw, a combination that’s also high in nitrogen and will add microorganisms to the mix. If you harvest hay and straw for your livestock using a scythe, you’ll also be producing all the necessary ingredients for incredible compost on a regular basis.
Harvesting Small Grains
Besides being an ideal tool for harvesting grass on a small scale, scythes can also be used to harvest small grains, such as wheat and rye. Dating back to the Stone Age, the sickle is among the first grain-harvesting technologies. A sickle is wielded with one hand while the other hand bunches and holds several tillers (stalks) for cutting. Eventually, the scythe also came to be employed in the grain harvest, often with an attachment called a “cradle,” which is a basket that neatly gathers the tillers and deposits them on the ground to be bound into bundles called “sheaves.”
Growing your own grain has many benefits. For one, you can grow enough grain — about 50 pounds — in just 200 square feet of biointensive garden beds to make a 11/2-pound loaf of bread every week for a year. Growing your own grains for bread represents a quantum leap in food security and independence. Feeding your own grain to chickens will make for the lowest-food-mile eggs and poultry imaginable. And with the ever-increasing popularity of craft beers and homebrewing, could there be a more quintessential homebrewed beer than one made with barley from your own plot?
The stalks of the harvested grains are, of course, straw. This means you’ll not only have produced your own grains, but also animal bedding; mulch materials; compost ingredients; and crafting materials for shoes, sandals, hats, thatch, and more.
Scything Around Trees
The role of the scythe in silviculture (the cultivation of trees) is a bit underappreciated. Some homesteaders are put off by the idea of keeping an orchard because of the challenge of keeping it mowed. The scythe is incredibly useful for mowing around trees. Simply mow as you would a meadow and, when you approach a tree, stop before you’re so close that you risk hitting it. Mow the rest of the way to the trunk with short, controlled, slicing strokes. Then, when you reach the tree, touch its base with the chine (the turned-up back) of the blade at the point (the part farthest from the snath) and slice away from the tree in short strokes, slowly making your way around the tree. This mowing technique will protect both the tree and your blade from damage and will eliminate the need to pull grass near the bottom of the tree in late fall to prevent rodents from nesting there.
Historically, European hay meadows and their surrounding hedges were dotted with pollarded trees — that is, trees whose tops and branches had been cut off to encourage new growth at the top. Pollarded trees were used for harvesting leaves that were then dried and used for “leaf hay” to supplement the diet of livestock during winter. These trees were easily mowed around with the scythe. Hedges were often cultivated as coppices, which means that all shoots were cut to the ground every year or two. This was done with special forstkultursensen, or bush blades, which are very short and robust and can handle the thicker, woody material they’re intended to cut. These bush blades are also useful in mowing marginal areas that may contain tougher plants, such as stinging nettles, wild blackberries, and tree saplings.
Austrian- vs. American-Style Scythes
Austrian (or European) scythes are lightweight and ergonomic, and their cutting edges can be custom-peened to suit the task at hand. American (or British) scythes are heavier, much less ergonomic, and can’t be sharpened by peening. Both work for cutting grass, grain, and other plant material. In my opinion, the Austrian scythe is superior to the American design because it allows your spine to remain straight and upright while you mow. A straight spine allows you to mow with less effort and lessens the potential for pain and injury.
Buying Your First Scythe
When buying your first scythe, be sure to consider the task at hand and select the right blade for the job. Avoid any kind of cheap “beginner” blade, as it’s important to establish good technique from the get-go, which can be difficult with a poorly shaped blade that isn’t sharp. Two reputable websites from which you can purchase a quality scythe are One Scythe Revolution and Scythe Supply.
The scythe is more than just a quaint curiosity. It’s a perfectly legitimate and reasonable choice for homeowners, farmers, gardeners, and others who want to diversify their agricultural activities, save money, reduce their use of fossil fuels, be less dependent on industrial products, take better care of their land, increase their autonomy, get to know their bodies and land better, and stop using noisy (and often dirty) machines.