I’m like you – I love growing my own food, but I’m always pressed for time. I also love natural systems and rich soil, and no-till gardening creates both. So, how do we combine our love of home-grown foods with our commitment to no-till gardening, while honoring our real-life time constraints? We garden smarter, that’s how.
To learn more about basic gardening and which veggies you should start with, please pick up your copy of The Gardening Notebook. You can keep any notes you takes on this article in your Notebook, FYI.
The following article is brought to you by one of my most favorite gardening people, Clarence Whetten. I first met Clarence in the Master Gardener program through the USU Extension when I lived in Utah. Together with his wife LeeAnn, Clarence inspires me as he grows a substantial amount of the food for his family.
He does this while pursuing a full-time, off-site career, as well as being an active member of his congregation and community. How does he do it? By balancing his time carefully and using all the tools available to him, including power equipment in his no-till garden.
No-Till Garden Fanatic
Just a quick note: if you are a no-till garden fan that shuns all electric or gas-powered equipment, this post will probably annoy you. My advice is to proceed with an open mind and read all the words written here. In other words, move beyond the title, and read the whole article. If you still don’t think this idea is for you, you can move on in peace. Namaste.
If you are a disciple of no-till gardening with lots of passion for gardening, but a strained schedule or an aching back, I encourage you to keep reading, as well.
No-till gardening is almost like its own gospel, right? Pure, undefiled, righteous. No-till gardening grows great dirt and, as every gardener knows, that’s what a successful gardener is really hoping to grow – great dirt.
There is a way to save time using select equipment serving special needs while still preserving the structure of your no-till garden soil. I’ll let Clarence explain how.
No-Till Garden with Power Equipment
I really like no-till gardening. Since I adopted it, my gardens are healthier and easier to work. I use a broad fork and hand garden tools to garden at least ¼ acre most years.
A large portion of the food my family eats comes from our garden. We have found that the higher the percentage of home grown food in our diet the better our health is.
No-Till Gardening and Time Constraints
Time is the most precious resource I have and it has become more difficult for me to keep up with my garden, work full time, and do the other things that I think are important. I didn’t want to give up on my no-till gardening but after considerable study I found some compromise areas where power equipment could work into my garden without destroying the wonderful soil structure that is the result of no till gardening.
These changes make my time in the garden more productive. This is especially true with constructing a new garden. I have been building new or adding to an existing garden just about every year for the last 15 years. At some time in the future this will end but I don’t know when. I recently purchased another 1 acre lot just to make sure I don’t run out of places to build another garden. This is the power equipment that I have purchased and how I am using it.
I have found that it makes a huge difference, especially during planting and harvesting seasons when time is most pressing.
Power Equipment for No-Till Gardening
Two-Wheeled Garden Tractor
I purchased a BCS 853 two wheeled tractor with a set of implements for it. (See videos below for demonstrations on use and attachments.)
This is a big two wheeled tractor and takes some effort to use it. I’m a healthy 63-year-old but sometimes this thing is a beast. The more I use this tractor the better I am getting with it and the less I feel beat up by it but just like any tool it requires practice to learn to use it well.
As I studied the features of various two wheel tractors, this one was the best fit for me. These are features that were high on my requirements list:
- Wheel brakes – with an independently operated brake for each wheel, steering the tractor is much easier especially when working down a row.
- Differential lock – this allows the wheels to be locked together so that they both pull locked together. With a heavy tractor having them locked together all the time makes it almost impossible to turn at the end of a row. This makes it a requirement to be able to lock the differential while working the row and unlock it at the end of the row to turn the tractor.
- Large wheels – I garden in raised beds. I want to have the tractor wheels span the bed rather than run down the top of it. Taller wheels keep the tractor from dragging on the top of the bed.
Accessories for the Garden Tractor
I purchased some accessories for my tractor that I think are essential.
- A set of 5 inch per side axle extensions are required to space the wheels correctly for the rotary plow.
- I also purchased a set of 8 inch per side axle extensions. Installing these allows the tractor to span my 30 inch beds rather than driving down the top of the bed. The quick connect system allows one to change the implements behind the tractor quickly and in my opinion is essential.
- It is necessary to mount weights to the front of the tractor to balance it correctly for the power harrow and flail mower.
- A simple J bolt that loops over the front bumper is used to mount these to the tractor.
- The flail mower kicks up enough dust and small plant material that a cooling air intake screen should be installed on the front of the engine.
Other Essential Garden Tools for No-Till Gardening
Along with this tractor, these are the most useful implements I have purchased:
Berta 36″ Flail Mower
The mower works well for cleaning up weeds and small brush to prepare an area for a garden. In the spring it also takes down over wintered grain cover crops mulching them to fine pieces. This tool has also made it much easier for me to utilize cover crops in my garden rotation. In fact, I made this purchase primarily to mow cover crops.
Cover Crop Example
I have never been a good cover crop grower because I could never find a way to work with the bio mass they produced without putting it into a compost bin. It takes time and effort to move the material to a bin and I want the composting to happen in the soil not in a bin anyway. This mower has worked remarkably well to solve that problem as it chops the plant material into very small pieces.
Hard neck garlic is one of my major crops. In mid-July as soon as the garlic is harvested I plant all the garlic beds into tillage radish with a row of seed along each side of the drip tape. (I grow in the desert southwest and use drip tape for irrigation.)
By late September the radishes are about 10 inches long and the tops completely cover the beds and walkways being 12 to 18 inches tall. At that point I mow them down. This allows time for the bio mass to rot before I plant the beds again at the end of Oct.
Here is a video of one working – click here to view video. I have purchased equipment from this person and he was honest and easy to work with.
BCS Rotary Plow
A rotary plow is a vertical auger that throws soil to the side as it moves forward down the row for no-till gardening. This is NOT a rototiller.
- It doesn’t mix and grind up the soil the way a rototiller does.
- It also doesn’t create a hard pan compacted area at the bottom of its tilling area.
- t handles rocks well.
- Rather than bouncing out of the ground the way a rototiller does it just pushes them out to the side; this makes it an ideal tool for building a new garden.
- Because it throws the soil out to the side it is perfect for building raised beds. I run the rotary plow down the center of where a new bed will be built to create a trench. Then I add compost and other soil amendments as I fill the trench back up by driving the tractor the opposite direction.
- Finally, the soil in the walkway is thrown up onto the bed to raise it and lower the walkway. I typically put a layer of wood chips in the walk way. After a few years, the bed will shrink down and the wood chips in the walkway will decompose. Then I use the rotary plow to maintain the bed by throwing additional soil from the walkway onto the bed.
Here is a video of a rotary plow being used to build a raised bed this way – click here to see the video. It is an amazing tool and saves me a huge amount of time building and maintaining my raised beds. I grow in 30 inch permanent beds with 18 inch walkways.
29″ Rinaldi Power Harrow
This is the best seed bed preparation tool that I have ever seen. It has become my favorite power garden tool of all time. It does an amazing job of preparing a seedbed for planting.
After mowing a cover crop, I run the power harrow over the bed to mix the organic matter and any additional amendments I have added into the soil. After mowing tillage radish, I use it to break off the top of the radish so it will die and rot rather than grow a new top. I will come back a few weeks later and run over the bed again just before planting.
I also use it to cover seed that has been planted by broadcasting the seeds on the soil surface. Its depth can be adjusted from a fraction of an inch to about 6 inches. The roller firms up the soil surface behind it for seeding. It doesn’t grind up the soil structure the way a rototiller does.
Here is video that shows what the underside looks like:
Dibble Wheels for Planting the No-Till Garden
We use a set of dibble wheels in to mark and place holes in the seedbed for garlic cloves and transplants to be planted.
- I plant garlic in 3 rows running down each bed with the rows being 8 inches apart and the garlic planted 6 inches apart down each row.
- Then, I put two drip tape shovels in front of the dibble wheels to pull the drip tape into the soil between the rows of garlic.
- We built a small cart to pull behind the dibble wheels for two people to plant from.
We plant about 1/4 acre of garlic. Marking and planting that much garlic took two of us about a week and was really hard on our bodies. Using the dibble wheels with the cart behind it allows three of us to plant that much in a day and we pull the drip tape in at the same time.
The dibble wheels were purchased from Earth Tools (earthtoolsbcs.com). They are the largest BCS dealer in the nation and the US importer for Grillo walk behind tractors. They are also a wonderful company to work with and carry a very large selection of equipment and parts.
Angle Blade with Removable Ends
I purchased an angle blade with removable ends that can be used to make it a box scraper. It has been great for moving piles of manure and compost. The angle blade also works well for minor soil leveling, filling pot holes, trenches and spreading gravel on driveways.
It seems there is always some material movement maintenance that needs to be done on a homestead. This tool fills the bill for many of them.
Purchasing – Let’s Talk Shop
The money investment for this set of tools was significant but I was at the point where I could not keep up without some power equipment. I studied a long time before I came up with this set of requirements and tools. It has worked really well for me.
Homestead Lady chimes in – Remember, we build our homesteads over time, so don’t feel like you have to run out and go into debt to acquire all these pieces. Use no-till gardening like Clarence has for a good while until you’re sure about what you’re willing to pay for; a 20- year old may value different tools than a 60-year old. Be smart.
Earth Tools is the largest BCS dealer in the United States and carries the best variety of implements and parts for them. They are also the United States importer and distributor for Grillo two wheel tractors.
For Earth Tools website – click here. I have sometimes found better prices from other dealers so shop around.
Clarence has worked with agriculture all of his life. He was raised on a 300 cow dairy farm that raised much of its own feed. Afterwards he worked his way through college by building a landscape maintenance business. He graduated with a BS dual major in Agriculture Education and Horticulture from the University of Arizona, going on to teach Vocational Agriculture and Horticulture for six years.
In the early days of the personal computer he started taking classes to learn to build input and output models for the agribusiness units in his Ag classes. After retraining he started teaching computer science. He was an early pioneer of using the Internet (actually using UseNet before the Internet existed) in classrooms and developed the early pilot programs that led to the funding to put Internet connections into every public school and library in the state of Utah. He left education for a 25 year career of Information Technology in the aerospace industry but education has never left his heart. He has taught gardening classes his entire adult life and teaches evening technology “maker” classes for children ages 10 to 18.
About 20 years ago he and his wife LeeAnn discovered that the more of their own food they ate the healthier they were. This led to some large gardens where they raised about 70% of the food their large family consumed. They have become practiced at year round gardening in a zone 5 climate. Clarence and LeeAnn are both graduates of the Utah State University Master Gardening program and continue to give back to their community.