When preparing your soil for planting, you may deem ploughing unnecessary or inappropriate. In this case, there are other machines that you can use to prepare your fields. Some of these options will also be better suited to a smaller budget and area.

Options range from tractor-mounted rotavators right down to small, hand-held tillers.

Rotavators

For preparing soil that doesn’t need deep working, but which still needs breaking up and the incorporation of fertilizer etc, one can achieve the whole process in one operation with a rotary cultivator.

In tractor-sized models rotary cultivators are PTO-driven and are called rotavators.

If you have larger lands to work, say more than a couple of hundred square metres, you will find that running over it, particularly if it has been previously and recently worked, with a rotavator behind your tractor will leave the land smooth and clean, with a good tilth (soft, fine soil) of a depth of about 15cm, in which to plant your seedlings or seed.

For conventional tractors from the smallest models upwards small rotavators of 1m working width and wider are common. On full-size small tractors, for example in the 20-35HP/18-20kW class, these will be Category 2 implements, of which new and used implements are widely available. However, if you have a mini-tractor such as are common in nurseries and stable yards, you will be limited to a less-common Category 1 implement.

If possible aim for a rotavator with a working width equal to or exceeding the wheelbase of your tractor, so that the tracks of the tractor’s wheels are loosened and turned over by the implement as one works. (This is clearly not necessary if one is working the land into ridges, where the tractor’s wheels run in the furrow between rows.)

But beware: Detractors of rotary cultivators believe that repeated working, over years, with a rotavator results in fine, broken-down soil that compacts easily. The way to overcome this is to ensure that sufficient organic matter is incorporated into the soil each season.

Walk-behind tractors

An alternative to a ride-on tractor might be to buy a two-wheel walk-behind tractor. These are usually single-cylinder diesel machines, with belt drives and long, slewable handlebars (so that you can walk either to the left or the right of the tractor as it works, whereby avoiding the dust and debris being kicked up by the implement.)

preparing soil
Walk-behind tractor.

These tough, no-nonsense machines are very simple in design, having few moving parts, which makes maintenance and repair easy. They are not, however, designed with either operator comfort, or safety, nor environmental concerns, in mind.

They can be had with a variety of implements, some of which attach to the front (eg, sickle-bar cutters), and some of which attach under the motor to the rear, (eg a single-share plough, rotavator or mower).

Another optional attachment is a drawbar with a seat for the driver and a drawbar trailer which incorporates a driver’s seat as well.

If you opt for a two-wheel tractor be aware that you will be buying custom-designed implements for it. In other words, you can’t fit it with conventional Cat 1 devices. This can sometimes render the purchase of such machines uneconomical when compared to the cost of a good used conventional tractor and second-hand implements.

Tillers

These come in all sizes, from units which fit onto a brushcutter shaft for small garden beds and sometimes called a multitool, up to models driven by one-or two cylinder diesel engines and fitted with cleated tyres which ensure the spinning tines remain at a certain depth, don’t dig in too deep, and which drive the machine forward. In between are a variety of sizes, with various working widths, some fitted with wheels and others not.

preparing soil
A tiller like this Stihl BC230 is useful for small areas.

Small tillers can also be used for preparing soil in small areas, but not to any great depth. These are best suited for hobby farmers, and weeding.

Apart from successfully preparing softer soils for planting, rotary cultivators ~ particularly smaller models ~ have a great role to play in inter-row weeding, a boon for small farmers growing vegetables, for example, in straight rows.

Here the trick is to plant one’s crop in rows that are slightly larger than the working width of one’s tiller (so that when one tills there is no danger of the blades damaging or uprooting the crop).

As the weeds emerge, one or two passes up and down between the rows will effectively uproot the small plants and chop them up into non-viable pieces.

Clearly, one cannot weed with a tiller with a working width wider than one’s plant rows are apart and for this reason some tillers come with adjustable working widths, achieved simply by removing the outer blade sets.

If you are thinking of a small mechanical tiller for weeding there are a couple of factors to bear in mind. Firstly, they aren’t effective in hard, dry soil, because they aren’t heavy enough to dig in, but will simply bounce along the surface kicking up a cloud of dust. Secondly, in very heavy clay soils there is a sweet point of dampness beyond which their blades become clogged with mud and weeds. For best use, therefore, the soil should be on the drier side of wet. But if you allow the soil to dry out too much you get back to the stage of the machine starting to bounce over the surface. A solution here is to rock the machine from side to side as you work, so that the outer times have a chance to dig in with leach movement left and right. After a couple of passes up and down you will have achieved the desired effect and depth overall. With heavier tillers, and certainly those fitted with driving wheels, rocking the machine will be neither necessary nor possible.

Finally, ideally the weeds to be tilled should be no more than a few centimetres high. Larger, stringy, tall weeds will likely become entwined with the blades.

Main Image: Husqvarna tiller

This is part three in a six-part series on Cultivation. For more, click here.

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