By Graham Holland
A standard one tenth of an acre allotment is but a kerchief of land, or so we were told. Let us consider the humble spade: it is approximately 8" in width. In order to dig one tenth of an acre we must dig 522,720 times with our spade. What a lot of digging? What's more, the weeds just come back, and say thank you for breaking up the soil a bit.
This picture shows an allotment of a tenth of an acre, just like ours was when we 1st got it; we have 2, together, now. We could never manage 2 without our Fergie. You will note a proliferation of weeds including dock, giant hogweed, dandelion, and strange purple stuff as well as a wide range of seed loaded grasses. YUCK, can't eat most of those. Something had to be done! Prior to the first winter, we gave it a thorough ploughing with our 1948 TEA 20 with a view to exposing this unwanted plant life to the harsh cold of the winter frosts. Damn, Global Warming! No Frost to speak of!
Come springtime we gave it a thorough cultivating. Ready to plant! By this time we had raised dozens of tobacco plants, tomato plants and other seedlings on the windowsills at home. We ridged-in a quantity of potatoes, and planted our seedlings in the lovely clean soil. That evening we sat back and raised a glass of fine English ale to our ensured success and watched. Nothing happened that evening, but by the same evening a week later, when we visited our allotment there were dozens of tiny nondescript shoots. By the end of the fortnight we were there with hoes and sweatbands around our heads every evening. By the end of the month, the weeds had won :o( It rather looked as though the only solution was going to be a few gallons of weed killer: there was no way that Fergie, even with row crop wheels, was going to be able to help out with this one. What implement would one use that would not dig up our seedlings, whilst smashing the weed?
At this point we decided to consult the experts. It soon became clear that the general principle is that any seed dropped by weeds, which was near enough to the surface to be exposed to the warmth of the sun and deep enough to be moist, would germinate and grow. Not only that, but our particular area was matted with bindweed and couch grass, which is a remarkable plant; its long roots sprout new grass at regular intervals along its length. We had chopped it up with our plough, which meant there was twice as much as before. Couch grass is a remarkably successful plant, which outstripped our seedlings and even our potatoes. The broad-leaved docks stood proud and high, shading smaller plants and shedding seed with amazing affectivity. Their roots plunged deep into the soil gripping with stunning tenacity and snapping when we tried to pull them out; only to re-grow later.
It was at this time that we were given a Rotavator (thanks Alan), and an absolutely invaluable piece of advice by a farmer friend. This advice was:- to allow the seeds to sprout and then dig them in/up with the Rotavator to kill them. The seeds that had been too deep to germinate will come near the surface where they will germinate: repeat this process over and over and, eventually, you will succeed. As to the couch grass:- allow it to set shoots, thereby using the stored energy in the root; before those shoots have to opportunity to transfer any goodness gained from the sun back into the root, dig them up. Repeat the process until the roots have given up all their stored goodness to setting shoots without having it replaced by the sun. Not only will this kill the roots, but it will also supply a green manure as you dig in the shoots. This advice has proven flawless; the only catch being that the timing is critical. Generally speaking we have been rotavating twice a week depending on how well the weeds seem to be growing. We now have NO couch root in our soil and, following a dose of rotavating, the seed that grows amounts to only ½ a dozen weeds on the entire allotment after a week.
There are some little tricks with rotavating using a Fergie: firstly Mr. Ferguson designed his tractor before the advent of the PTO driven Rotavator. As a result, a 4 inch (sorry Europe, but that's what it is!) Rotavator won't successfully pull behind a TEA 20 unless that Fergie has a reduction gearbox. Take it from us: we tried it many times! The Fergie travels over the ground just too fast for the rotavator to cut with the available power. Two kinds of reduction gearbox are available; Ferguson and Howard. If you buy one, do make sure its all there. They're a bugger to find bits for.
Secondly you need to make sure your equipment is properly set up. It makes a tremendous difference to the load on the tractor if your blades are in good condition (these have to be fitted correctly with very high tensile nuts and bolts). It is also important that the rear flap is functioning properly, without a rear flap the tilth is too coarse. You will need to have stabiliser bars. Without these bars, the pressure on the lift arms can be extreme. Most PTO drive shafts on a Rotavator you are likely to find are 1 3/8 and the Fergie output is 1 1/8. There are 2 choices here; one can either change the 1 1/8 shaft to 1 3/8, which is a very straightforward task for anyone who has a large bucket (to catch the oil) and an 11/16 spanner. Alternatively one can look to the future, realise that the next item you will purchase may be a topper, a bush hog or similar, and fit a 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 overrun clutch (actually a ratchet). If anything, the overrun clutch is slightly cheaper and a little easier to fit. This causes the Rotavator to suck into the ground in the same way as a properly set plough. It also reduces vibration, as there is never a situation whereby several blades are cutting into fresh ground at the same time.
Please note that we have gone to the expense of fitting a modern PTO shaft with the proper guarding, your Fergie is a very powerful machine, and whilst it is bound to love you, it may bite if you are not careful.
Do make sure you plough first, so that you don't cause a hard pan to be formed at the bottom of your cut. If this is glazed by repeated rotavating (especially with blunt or worn blades, you can end up with serious water problems and short plant roots, especially in clay.
It may be felt that a season doing nothing but rotavating is a waste of the land. Indeed if you do not mind using chemicals and have a strong back, you will get a quicker result, and, possibly, a more weedless result. We have also improved the tilth of the soil many fold; it is unlikely that any amount of careful digging and raking would have ever achieved the delightful effect we now have on our patch (which, as you can see below, we have doubled) and that of out immediate neighbour (the 10th acre strip further away). This is not to mention the fact that we have had the excuse to use Denzil (our new TEF with a reduction box) twice a week all through the season.
The area to the right of this picture is where we have not yet Rotavated. We decided to grow a few peas and beans on this small patch and rotavate that area next season so that we have, at least, some crop. We love fresh peas but we need many more plants to have enough to freeze down for the winter. The fleece tunnel between us and our neighbour is where we are starting some over-wintering seeds.
I've dropped in a picture of our banana loader at the bottom here. This is the 2nd most useful piece of kit we have. We use it every week to turn our pile of horse manure so that it gets plenty of air to help it to rot down. I'd hate to do this part by hand. The heat from the rotting process kills any seed that gets into the poo by passing through the horse; otherwise we'd be up to our ears in grass from that source too. If its not turned, the air is squeezed out and the rotting process stops. The table and chairs are where we sit to admire our work at the end of the day, toasting our success and admiring our straight lines. The old cultivator may come in handy if we break the rotavator and need to give things a wee turn whilst we are waiting for parts, but I doubt it. The tipping trailer will get fixed as soon as we complete the job on the muck spreader J The Mill Loader in the trailer was listed for sale in the FoFH Market Place. It was in use till we got the banana loader with Denzil at auction as a job lot.
Happy tractoring folks
Mark & Graham