Part of our scaling up process was figuring out how to deal with weed control. We knew wheel hoeing the whole farm was not sustainable unless we hired a horde of college kids. We first tried laying black plastic (with and without a plastic layer), but ended up with too many weeds on the edges. Then we tried burning holes in black woven landscape fabric and planting into the holes. But it was challenging getting those little statice plants to grow up through the holes and keeping the holes weeded. So we looked to the cultivation practices of larger growers for inspiration to see what we could bring back to our farm. We were only planting 2-3 acres when we chose to go with mechanical cultivation.
In order to mechanically cultivate, we had to standardize our spacing in the field to 10” between rows. All crops are now 4 rows or 2 rows per bed, and the difference comes with the in-row spacing. Above is a table of crops and how we transplant them. Dahlias, tuberose, and salvia are crops that are planted two rows in the bed; they have 20” between rows so we can cultivate. We use the tire tracks as the walkways, leaving the width of the beds at about 40”. We have 10” between rows which is either marked out with the ganged Earthway seeder we use for direct seeding, or this year we just attached C-clamps to the back of our new tiller. The rows are at 6”, 16”, 26”, and 36”.
Below is a table with the in-row spacing, number of rows per bed, and number of seeds per cell planted on Sunny Meadows Flower Farm to facilitate mechanical cultivation.
As you can see from the chart, some of the crops we double seed in the flat to work with the spacing. For example, we would want amaranth to be 3” apart so it doesn’t get too huge, but instead we double seed it and then plant every 6”. This takes up less space in the propagation house while germinating too. Greenhouse space is what motivated us to try double seeding the ball celosia and planting every 12” rather than single seeding and planting every 6”. Single seeding would take twice as much precious greenhouse space, soil and labor to seed and transplant. This year we are seeding 30 flats every other week with the double seeding method, which would be 60 flats each time if we single seeded. We are keeping them at the same amount of space in the field by going every 12” with these double seeded plugs, instead of 6” with a single seeded plug. We did an experimental patch last year and it worked, so now we use it for both ball celosia and sunflowers (although we mostly direct seed suns).
Order of operations
Mechanical cultivation has allowed us to do less hand weeding, but it has to be proactive rather than reactive. It is most effective when weeds are at their white thread stage, or even little seedlings. Once the weeds are too big and their roots are developed, it is difficult for mechanical cultivation to break the roots and may require hoeing or weeding by hand. The idea is the tractor does most of the weeding between rows, and hoeing and hand weeding take care of in-row weeds. Cultivation is done weekly depending on the crop and maturity of the plants. Here is our arsenal of weeding equipment in the order it is used:
Massey Ferguson 231 with tiller at the home farm, or Ford 2120 with Maschio tiller at the new rented farm where we are expanding. Deep till bed 1 month before projected plant date, then stale bed by shallow tilling 2 weeks out and then again just before planting.
Below, this tractor is using belly-mounted basket weeders to cultivate very small weeds growing around two rows of seedlings. All photos by Gretel Adams.
Farmall 100 with basket weeder built to our standardized spacing. This is used anytime from pre-emergence (as long as you can see the planted rows), until the plants are about 6-8” tall. The first set of baskets scrapes the top layer of soil and the second set of baskets turns faster and further breaks up the root clumps.
Tine weeder with gauge wheels and tire track cultivating sweeps which any low-horsepower tractor can pull. This can do direct seeded crops or tiny plants once they have established themselves, because we don’t want the tines to rip the transplants out before they have established roots. The benefit of the tine weeder is that it gets in-row weeds as well as between-row weeds. The tire track eradicator gets the weeds between the beds. The tine weeder is a new piece of equipment for us this year, so we are still figuring out its exact place in the mix. The tines were useful for dahlia weeding when the plants were small.
A second Farmall 100 with belly-mounted cultivator sweeps. It pulls a toolbar with tire track eradicators as well. This hills the soil a little, so it is important to wait until plants are a little bigger before using the sweeps. This can be done until the plants are 12-18 inches tall, then they become too tall to go under the cultivator. That is the final step in our cultivation process. The hope is that by the time the plants are too big to cultivate, they are shading the soil enough that weed seeds aren’t germinating.
Below is a tractor equipped with belly-mounted cultivators and rear-mounted sweeps for the tire tracks.
Throughout the process, we are also checking on the in-row weeds. The goal is to hoe them rather than hand weed, but that requires staying on top of it. We have a variety of hoes that we use depending on the plant spacing.
We now have multiple Farmall 100s with different implements, but if you were to start with one piece of equipment, we suggest a basket weeder belly mounted on a cultivating tractor. It acts like a whole army of wheel hoes churning up weeds. The advantage of the belly mount is that you are able to look down and see what you are weeding as you are doing it.
The Allis Chalmers Model G is another good tractor for belly-mounted cultivation. They were only built from 1948 to 1955 specifically as a cultivating tractor. The growing postwar popularity of herbicides sealed their fate, as Allis Chalmers never sold as many as they hoped so they were discontinued. Used models have been popular with organic and small-scale growers ever since.
As with any equipment from that time, some are in better shape than others. An update on the Allis G is the Tuff-bilt tractor, which has been produced since the 1970s with a similar look and capabilities and more modern features. We also recently purchased another Farmall with a belly mounted mower deck, which is nice for mowing around the farm; it just doesn’t turn as tightly as a new mower would. Since agriculture has industrialized and scaled up so quickly, we gain inspiration from how small to medium scale agriculture worked in an earlier era.
Other pieces of equipment that are useful for this mechanical cultivation system are:
Furrowing sweeps to create the trenches for planting dahlias, tuberose, lilies, salvia, rosemary, and a few other bareroot perennials. We use the same toolbar that is our tire track eradicator, but place other sweeps on it- with two trenches in our cultivatable spacing. With the use of our cultivating techniques, we didn’t hoe dahlias until the beginning of July when the plants were too big for the tractor to fit over them! Typically, it would have been a multi-day job with the whole crew out there hand weeding. We used to do lilies 3 rows to a bed, but are switching next year to only doing 2 rows so they can also be cultivated; otherwise our field lilies end up being a weedy mess. We are going to start doing more perennials at this spacing as well, and are even going to try peonies this way, so we will keep you updated as we figure out more crops that can handle this treatment.
Ganged Earthway seeder- 4 Earthways connected together so a whole bed is seeded at once. We use the popcorn plate for a lot of things. You have to special order it, but it is perfect spacing for suns and zinnias.
Or a tractor-pulled seeder. This is also set to the same four-row spacing and is good if you are doing multiple beds of the same crop. We are mainly using it for sunflowers and zinnias so we don’t have to change the seed plate too often.
Below, four C-clamps were added to the back of this tiller to mark the rows in freshly-tilled beds.
The downfall to mechanical cultivation is that it does require more equipment, but all of our Farmalls were purchased for around $2,500 each, and the first one came with the cultivating sweeps. We just wanted people to know that if they are looking to scale up and are thinking about buying that much black plastic or landscape fabric, there is another way. A tractor may seem like a big upfront cost, but it is similar to the cost of buying a plastic layer or for the labor of installing and ripping out all that plastic each year. We are also trying to figure out how best to fit irrigation in with these cultivating practices. We were told by other farmers that you can use the cultivating equipment with the drip irrigation down, but we have had a hard time getting the timing right to keep the tines from grabbing the drip tape. So we made cultivation a two-person job. Now Steve can be on the tractor and someone else can assist if there are issues with drip tape getting tangled.
There are still a few places where we use the woven landscape fabric- around the edges of greenhouses, for the floor in greenhouses that aren’t planted into the ground, as well as around woody perennial crops. We also may still have beds where the system isn’t perfect and a crop needs saving. We have found the beds that we don’t get enough time to really prep in the spring are where the worst weed pressure is. Sometimes when it’s time to plant, you’ve got to just get out there! But the object of mechanical cultivation is that you are using equipment to do the dirty work, and then just hoeing or hand weeding in row instead of the entire bed. Hopefully once we utilize the tine weeder a little more, there will be even less of the in row weeding as well. Good luck out there fighting those weeds!
Gretel and Steve Adams own Sunny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus, OH. Contact them directly to schedule their consultation services which can be tailored to fit your business or personal flower farming needs at firstname.lastname@example.org.