Home & Shop Companion #0006
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It has been a lovely warm day here today, my favourite time of year. The delicate light green leaves on the hawthorn from just a week ago have now transformed into robust mid-green, and the damson blossom is waning as the apple buds are starting to open. There has been activity in my vegetable patch in the field too. Molly, my 21 year old mare, was well enough to help with the final part of the ploughing, but while she was out of action, I took the opportunity to use Lucy to graze down the grass weeds, confined behind a dead electric fence for a short time each day, to make ploughing easier and as a preparation for her stomach before I turn her out properly.
The last bit of ploughing didn’t take very long, the LCP plough with its wider cut making it a quicker job than with the smaller plough. I also set the plough an inch deeper, to make a more efficiently shaped furrow slice, to get all the trash and weeds buried and to minimise any plough pan. As you can see from the first picture, the LCP also left the ground reasonably well broken, so after rolling the same day and cultivating the next, the seedbed was coming along, good enough, had it been more level, for an overwintering cereal crop. However, it was not fine enough for root crops, so I rolled it again, cultivated again and then ran over it with a light set of harrows. On a bigger area I use four of these sections behind a single horse, but moving between different garden patches and different implements, here it is easier to use two.
I then turned my attention to the potato plot, cultivating it again, nearly as deep as the cultivator would go, and then flattening it with the roller to give an even surface for the ridging plough. Even though I have used a single horse on this small patch, it is much easier to use two horses on the ridging plough because I can see where I am going by looking between the horses. For making the first furrow, the wheels are put wide apart to keep the plough stable, with the clevis set centrally. For subsequent trips, I move the wheels in, so they don’t run on the excavated soil, and at each end, flip over the bout marker which scratches a line for the next furrow.
When making potato rows some people use a wide doubletree the width of two potato rows, so the clevis always remains central. Otherwise, to keep the plough in line when using a narrower doubletree, you have to move the clevis across, either by having two pins in the clevis and allowing the draught chain to move across on its own, or, as I do for only a few rows, reposition the clevis at each end.
The potato patch is the one I had trouble with when ploughing with my little plough because of the clumps of grass weeds, and the lack of time to allow the weeds to decompose meant that making the potato rows was difficult too. Compared to a normal plough which wants to keep itself anchored in the ground, the ridging plough is more fickle, wanting to follow the least line of resistance, so the straightness of my rows left something to be desired. Once I had made five rows [I usually plant 4 or 5 rows depending on the size of the potatoes] I tied the horses up to the barn while I went to plant. This is a hand and bucket job; I just walk along the furrow dropping a potato in front of my foot, and if it bounces forward I push it back into place with my other heel as I step forward, so the potatoes end up about 16 to 18 inches apart.
This year I made sure to have my knife with me to cut any large tubers in two to get more plants, because if there ever was a year to make sure you grow enough food, this must be it. As it happens, the tubers were small, so I didn’t need to divide any, and I actually had enough for six rows. Then it was back to the horses and the ridger, this time with one wheel mounted centrally to split the ridges over the potatoes. After the first row, those who use a wide doubletree put one horse in a finished furrow and the other on top of the ridge which will be split on the next turn, but it is hard to get a horse to walk on a soft ridge, and although I tried it once with Molly working as a single, I couldn’t get it to work. But putting each horse in their own furrow works just fine, you just need to move the clevis for the plough to follow the correct line, and the horses don’t seem to squash any of the potatoes. Splitting the ridges is harder than making them, especially with soil that isn’t worked to an even tilth, and the plough can even come out of the side of the ridge if you’re not careful. This year it happened once, annoying as it is, so I did return down the same furrow to straighten it out later. This job is one when you really appreciate steady horses that keep in their furrow.
When doing work like this, it is easy to see how some people might think that working horses is all unremitting hard slog, when conditions aren’t ideal, and you end up hot and sweaty, somewhat dehydrated and perhaps a little short tempered. After all, with a tractor, you set the plough more deeply or drop a gear and power on through. After getting the potatoes in, into somewhat lumpy ridges, I am slightly inclined to agree, except that had I not been out of action last year and had planted a cover crop, or if it had been dry enough to get the ploughing done earlier, or if I had waited a few more weeks before planting, or if I had used the bigger plough and ploughed at the same depth as the root patch, it would all have been much easier. Farming, even on a small scale, and gardening for that matter, is not just about getting one job done, it’s about what you did before, and the effect today’s work has on what comes next. I know, for instance, that I can continue to work the potato ridges to reduce or eliminate the weeds while the potatoes are growing, and by getting them in now they are going to be bigger and earlier, and a step ahead of potato blight which often comes in August.
Even amongst the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, those of us who live on the land are extremely lucky. Especially in the current situation, when you think of those confined in tiny apartments or with no home at all, we are lucky to have space to move, lucky to have contact with the natural world and lucky to have something constructive and valuable to do.
So, if you can, keep busy, and keep safe,
P.S. The garden patch is divided into four sections, each only 6-1/2 yards wide and about 50 yards long, with crops in two and green manure in two, Nordell style.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.