How to break land?
May 11, 2012 8:08 AM   Subscribe

We have an 1 acre field of grass and a few other plants like dandelions etc. We want to turn it into a garden of heirloom and "open pollinated" food, in an effort to reduce our footprint as well as feed our family and others. The question I have is what is the best way to "break" the ground the first time.

Because I have been in exile 1000km away from home for the past 10 weeks I have had no time to worry about how to do this and I will only have a matter of days to do it. Here is the thing I would like to do NO till but clearly I have to this year as it is pure vegetation. I was thinking about doing it by hand BUT I have no time. Here is some criteria I would like to meet BUT I am open to any suggestions or even "Don't BOTHER doing that!!!"
- cleanest way to do this? Reducing as much gas consumption as possible.
- I have NO access to a real tractor. No access to a draft horse team
- Can a wheel hoe do anything to sod?
- 10 hp tiller seems bad and bouncy to boot but has anyone done this amount of land this way? (yes the first criteria is blown here)
- I would rather not cut the sod first and I do not mind YEARS of weeding
- I am dividing the land into 4 for rotation and I plan to use perennial plants to use as divisions should I keep a centre of grass or just chop it up too and then start the lines? Also suggestions for diving plants? One row MUST be raspberries :)

ANY advice on this would be great. I really wanted to do it all by hand but now I am forced to do this between may 19th and the 24th.
posted by mrgroweler to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you never plan to use the tiller, sell it and hire someone with a tractor.
posted by bellastarr at 8:12 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: I don't own a tiller I would rent it if needed I would rather not use gas powered implements if at all possible going forward but because of the time constrain (season) I am open to suggestions. Hiring someone is only problematic because I don't KNOW anyone with a tractor.
posted by mrgroweler at 8:21 AM on May 11, 2012

I'd rent the rototiller if at all possible. You'll go nuts trying to bust that much sod by hand. I bet you could knock it out in a day easily. The first time it heaves a big rock up and out of the way, you'll know you made the right choice.

If you had some time, you could clear the grass down to something manageable with a small herd of goats. Plus, free manure.
posted by jquinby at 8:22 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah goats WERE an idea (I really want a few dairy goats) BUT like I said I got stuck in a different country for almost 10 weeks (I still am).
posted by mrgroweler at 8:24 AM on May 11, 2012

Where are you at? Typically there are lots of "Tractor work offered" ads in the Farm&Garden section of Craigslist, or the local newspaper.

I would not recommend the tiller; one because it will be a lot of work, and two, the tractor with a middlebuster will cut deeper than a tiller will. If there are any large rocks where you are, you'll need the guy with the tractor to help move them.
posted by bellastarr at 8:25 AM on May 11, 2012

How long has the grass been growing there? If it has been well established, an acre of sodbusting is hard, hard work, if not bordering on impossible purely using hand tools. Prairie pioneers in the 19th century outsourced their field opening to skilled sodbusters -- so do as bellastarr suggests. Find somebody who can break sod for you, and have them do it. Have them go both directions, N/S and E/W, to better break up the sod and make for easier planting soil. Prairie settlers did one direction in the spring, let the land fallow, and then went the other direction in the fall, for awesome planting conditions the next year.

It will be easier to just plow under the whole acre, rather than just quadrants with sod in between. Plus, it lets you more easily alter to a two-crop rotation if there's not sod remnants in between the quarters.

Are you located in a rural area? Around where I live, there's farming historical recreationists who do demonstrations of actual farm work with horses and such. Ask your local historical society if they know anyone, and you might be able to track down a guy with a team of horses and a nice steel plow who'll do it for you.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:26 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: I am in Lanark Ontario and there are tons of Farms my problem is I have been travelling for years and don't really know anyone there.
posted by mrgroweler at 8:27 AM on May 11, 2012

Ontario, eh? Call these guys. They have a horse-drawn plowing category for their competition, so they might know somebody who can help you out.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:30 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: Oh I not at all resistant to hiring or asking for help it is more the distance problem and the time constraint without actually having that network built yet. In fact had I been home I the plan was to make sure I did it that way.
posted by mrgroweler at 8:34 AM on May 11, 2012

Try the local co-op/feed supply places for tractor services recommendations. They will be able to point you in the right direction. You're going to be in there for supplies eventually anyway so you might as well get to know them now.
posted by bellastarr at 8:38 AM on May 11, 2012

You might want to solarize first, so that you don't end up with more weeds than vegetables. You might also take a gander at the Ontario Extension Service pages.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:49 AM on May 11, 2012

This place has a website and advertises on Kijiji as offering rototilling service and might be good to talk to anyway for what you are ultimately trying to do.
posted by bellastarr at 8:50 AM on May 11, 2012

There is a way to do this that requires almost no heavy labor, but does require time. If you plan to be on this property for awhile, you can smother the sod using "lasagna mulch"/"sheet composting" principles, and then build raised beds on top. Here's some suggestions from a permaculture forum:

There's some permaculture jargon in those posts, but the gist of it is this: leave the sod as it is. Put some kind of thick organic material like cardboard on top of it so that the sod seedlings can't get through to the light. Put thick layers of more organic material that will compost in place (manure, leaves, grass clippings, straw (not hay!) etc) on top. Let it compost in place; you don't even need to till it when you want to plant. Worms will get in and aerate the sheet compost. You can plant in this after a couple months, but the real benefit will be in about a year from now, when the compost has broken down into fantastic soil. The "no-till" aspect of this will be especially good for the perennial plants you want to have.

Another corollary to this (and jargon) is hugelkultur. This is when you dig a ditch and stick logs and branches in it (a lot of wood) and then cover in compost / dirt / turned over sod, then let it rot for a while. You can plant on top of the compost and dirt on top right away, but as with the sheet compost, the benefits will accrue over time. The woody aspect of this helps to hold water where plants can use it near their roots. Here's a loooong forum discussion of Hugelkultur. Again, when you want to plant vegetables and perennials, this is a great way to go about it:

So, these are all strategies that take time to mature, and if you're looking to have a great garden this summer, they won't work AS well as if you had an entire winter to let it mature. I would suggest maybe opening up a small plot manually for the summer, and trying to put in some of these long-term strategies to mature over the fall/winter for planting next year.

If you had any questions on this type of gardening, feel free to memail me - I'm obsessed with this stuff.
posted by permiechickie at 9:03 AM on May 11, 2012 [14 favorites]

If you plow all this grass under this year you're going to have a acre of dust and weeds in August and mud this winter. Unless you have the means to row crop a whole acre by hand(!) you are not going to be able to use 1/4 of it. Start small, like a 60x20' plot and teach yourself to grow vegetables before you go nuts. Plan water, paths, compost, fencing etc. Remember you want the absolute minimum amount of bare soil exposed at all times.

Seriously if you don't have a LOT more experience than you're letting on and no job, this is a terrible idea.

Also plant trees and perenniala directly into the sod, just much around them. The largest portion of your lot should be for these
posted by fshgrl at 9:51 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: We have a huge garden almost 60x50 and are experienced at growing vegetables only this has been in a raised garden for about 6 years. This is the first year we have thought to ramp it up but planning has been a problem do to life in the winter.
posted by mrgroweler at 10:14 AM on May 11, 2012

Do you have any equipment for watering/ cultivating like a tractor? Farming in the ground is pretty different than in raised beds.
posted by fshgrl at 10:23 AM on May 11, 2012

Sorry for assuming you hadn't done this before! Fwiw I worked an organic market garden of about 3 acres in college. We had 2-4 people 6 days a week from 6am to noon and the use of tractors, irrigation system, greenhouse, drying shed and commercial compost turner. It's a lot of work, I can't imagine doing it by hand. And its really hard to take good care of all that bare earth.
posted by fshgrl at 10:36 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: fshgrl no problem and like I said I am new to this scale and I am "worried" about the work but I plan to take June/July and August off to work on it and document the craziness of trying to do it and the failures as well.
posted by mrgroweler at 10:49 AM on May 11, 2012

Ok, well my approach would differ depending on if you have the use of machinery or not. If you do you are going to be able to harrow/ weed/ deal with cover crops easily everything up so plowing it all up is an option. If not I personally would only bust up the grass exactly where you need to plant and only as needed, leaving the sod intact everywhere you walk or are not growing something. Otherwise you are going to go mad with dust and weeds.
posted by fshgrl at 1:03 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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