Row Crops by Hand

Learn how to plant row crops without the use of expensive machinary by using hand tools such as a scythe and tiller.

Crops in rows

With a bit of luck and good timing, your direct-seeded row crops will emerge before the first wave of weeds.

Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III

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There's no expensive machinery required to grow your own field corn, fodder beets, okra, bush beans, peas, beets, sorghum, and virtually any other crop you’d grow in rows.

Planting crops in highly organized rows is one method for getting the job done, but it makes it easy to cultivate, mulch and even irrigate, and it works well if you plan to grow relatively large quantities. Planting and tending row crops can be readily accomplished using a few homemade tools and a hoe. If budget allows, the work will proceed more efficiently with a walk-behind planter and wheel hoe-type cultivator. Even if you wind up using a walk-behind rotary tiller as part of the equation, you’ll expend plenty of energy bringing in the harvest.

Preparing the Earth

Your row crop patches will benefit from some level of soil working in the fall or the early spring — possibly both. Put poultry to good use preparing the garden for planting, or use your hogs to glean, clean up, and till your vegetable patches. Either or both of these animal systems can do wonders helping prepare your quarter acre corn patch for planting and they’ll make plowing down green manure or cover crops a breeze. If you have a heavy-duty walk-behind rotary tiller, go for it — you’ll get a good workout horsing that iron horse around.

However, if you have neither hogs, nor a large poultry flock, nor rotary tiller, you can use a scythe to mow down the cover crop and a turning spade to work the ground. Alternatively, use a broad fork to loosen and aerate the soil and a hand cultivator (three-prong device attached to a handle) to smooth the seedbed. In both cases, you’ll expend plenty of calories to get the work done — take it in stages and work during the cool of the early morning if possible. The combination of hogs and a wheel hoe with tine attachment or a rotary tiller are tough to beat for preparing large patches for planting.

Some schools of gardening thought eschew regular tilling of any kind. In these systems, you might loosen soil with a broad fork and then simply plant patchwork style after pulling back sections of more-or-less permanent deep mulch. These systems can also be highly productive, although I’ve yet to figure out a good way to adapt it for large corn (or other grain) patches. It might be that we had rows ingrained into us at birth, or it might be that rows are fairly efficient. In any case, we do find that our little-worked vegetable garden ground stays very soft and fluffy and is easy to transplant into.

Once the ground is worked, and you’ve left it long enough to become friable and mellow, it’s time to do some leveling and clod or rock removal. The metal “dirt” rake works well for this task, although some folks pull a couple of steel fence posts or other pieces of scrap across the patch to smooth things out. If you are going to plant your crop in ridges so that you can use gravity to help with flood irrigation, now is the time to mark the rows and hoe or use a middle-buster type attachment on the wheel hoe to cut troughs while forming ridges.

If your soil is quite mellow, light and soft, you can accomplish much the same effect with a piece of 2-by-10 or other lumber of a similar dimension pointed at the front like the prow of a ship, adding sides to it, and some weight inside and pulling it through the garden. Likewise, there are attachments for some rear-tine rotary tillers called hiller-furrowers that will also do the trick. If you plan to simply plant the ground without furrowing so much the easier.

Sowing Your Seed

Early sowing tools included the same sharpened sticks, antler tines, and even flaked rocks that were used to work the ground, much like we use a modern dibble to open holes in the soil to a particular depth, into which we drop a seed — or several seeds. For some crops, those sticks or antler tines were used to open up shallow furrows into which seed was dropped more hastily and heavily to yield thick stands. Both methods work well for planting corn.

If you want corn in nice straight rows, use a stick or hoe to open a straight furrow (use a string as a guide), and drop seed into the furrow at regular. Once the seed is placed you can use a hoe, your feet or drag a length of 2-by-4 or other lumber down the rows to cover the seed and walk along the rows or roll the field in some way to press the soil into contact with the seed. If you want corn planted in hills set on a grid or in rows, mark the rows with the drill or stakes and string, hoe up hills and use a dibble to poke holes for planting the seed. Use your hands or the hoe to cover them and to press the soil firmly into contact with the seed.

Another fun method for placing corn seed in rows or hills is using the old-fashioned stab planter. The stab planter is more complicated than the homemade drill or planting stick or dibble, but it’s quite a bit simpler than walk-behind units in that it consists of an opener/seed delivery tube and some kind of seed-metering capability (sometimes as simple as the operator dropping the individual seeds into the tube). Closing and pressing are generally taken care of by the operator’s foot. Simple as it sounds, much of corn country was planted with such devices shortly after the sod was broken. Generations ago, the Oscar H. Will seed company planted acres of corn in North Dakota using a team of men armed with seed-metering stab planters.

The stab-style planter will save some wear and tear on your knees and back, save seed, and reduce the need for thinning. Antique semi-automatic units can be found at farm sales, junk shops or rustic antique stores. These devices usually consist of a hinged tube made out of wood and metal with a seed box on one side and a perforated slider that takes two to three seeds from the box and drops them down the tube and into the ground. You basically grab the two handles, pull them apart, stab the planter into worked ground, push the handles together, and pull it out of the ground. A light brush and step with your foot seals the deal.

New versions of this planter include the Stand ’N Plant standard seeder, which can be used to plant individual seeds and small plants like onions. You meter the seed or onion plants by hand, but you just need to walk down the row to get them into the ground. The Stand ‘N Plant seeder also is capable of planting in plastic-covered beds with infinite variation in row and seed spacing.

If you prefer a bit more mechanization and wish to plant in rows, then you may want to upgrade to a walk-behind garden seeder. In today’s terms, a garden seed planter is a precision machine that places individual seeds at a specific spacing along a row. As the planter moves along the row, it opens the soil to a specific depth, places the seed, covers the seed and provides some means for pressing the soil into contact with the seed. Walk-behind planters generally have a wheel in front that drives a seed-metering mechanism that delivers a single seed at precise spacing, an often-hollow wedge-like structure called the shoe opens the soil and helps convey the seed to the soil, a closing device pulls the soil back over the seed — chains, discs, etc. — and a press wheel at the rear that ensures good seed-soil contact, which is needed for efficient germination.

Working with hand planters can be joyous or frustrating, depending on your soil type, soil conditions, garden size and your physical condition. Lighter-duty planters tend to work better in lighter soils or heavy soils under ideal conditions (perfect moisture content, completely mellow, friable crumb, etc.). If soil gums up on the planter’s parts or is so tight that the openers can’t do their job, then it might be best to put off planting to another day and instead work on conditioning the soil.

Earthway’s 1001-B Precision Garden Seeder (about $125, well-equipped) is a good starter planter available new (This garden seed planter has been on the market (in various iterations) for decades. The Earthway is made with lightweight aluminum and plastic components that prove durable under most homestead circumstances. Some folks reinforce the handle structure when rivets loosen up over the years, but overall the planter is simple to adjust, simple to use, and can be had with seed-metering plates that work for just about anything you would direct-sow in rows in the garden — including corn seed of various sizes. If you want to change the spacing, you can simply tape over some of the holes on the plates. These days, you also can order blank plates from the company to create your own custom sizes/spacing. I’ve planted acres over the years with the Earthway; you might choose this planter for gardens or corn patches up to about a quarter-acre in size.

For gardeners with more ground to plant, the Cole Planet Jr. push seeder (about $600, well-equipped) is another good one. This plate-type planter is constructed of steel, cast iron and wood (the seed box is plastic) and is based on a venerable old unit-planter design that is sufficiently stout to mount on a tractor’s toolbar for multi-row medium-scale planting. This planter isn’t ideal for the smallest gardens — you really need to load its hopper with more than a packet of seed for best results, but if you have an eighth of an acre of corn to plant along with mangels, beans, and many other crops, this tool has the heft to get it all done today and come back for more tomorrow. And then you can hand it down to your gardening grandchildren. I’ve used the Cole Planet Jr. extensively to sow corn, fodder beets, and a number of other crops. The machine’s handles are adjustable to suit different-sized people, and its weight offers great momentum once you get it rolling. As you would expect with a professional-grade tool, this planter tracks well, and its row marker doesn’t skip.

The Hoss Tool Company, owned and operated by a pair of passionate gardeners, makes a small-scale garden planter as part of a truly versatile hand-gardening system that includes a wheel hoe with several different plow and cultivator attachments. The planter attachment connects to the wheel hoe using the same mounting holes as the cultivator tines and includes a rear press wheel that also drives the seed-metering plate.

The unit comes with a number of predrilled seed plates. Blank plates are also available for those with custom seed-size and spacing needs. This beautifully crafted unit is a perfect planter option for folks who already own a Hoss wheel hoe, or who intend to add that tool to their shed in the future.

If new isn’t in your budget, look for one of the nearly thousands of models of antique walk-behind planters that still turn up at farm sales and antique stores around the country. The key to working with these tools is that their seed-metering plates or drums or brushes are intact or easily fabricated. Look for names like Cole, Planet Jr., Atlas and a host of others.

Broadcast planting of corn isn’t generally recommended because it is difficult to get the seed deep enough or to keep the patch relatively weed free until the corn canopies. But by all means broadcast your corn seed if that is the only means available — keep in mind that you will save seed and be able to weed more easily if you choose to plant in furrows. I’ve had good luck sowing sorghum, corn’s relative, using the broadcasting method. But even then, drilling or planting with a seeder is more efficient and still plenty of exercise.

Cultivating

Most row crops will require cultivation at least twice between the time that you plant the seed and when the growing crop canopies. Once the crop canopies, the plants will tower above weed seedlings and the shaded darkness beneath the canopy will inhibit further germination and, more importantly, robust weed growth. If you have plenty of mulch, you can cultivate once when the crop is well established — say 20 inches tall in corn — and then lay a heavy straw or hay mulch between the rows. If you go this route, it will be useful to lay the straw and then walk on it to pack the layer into a dense blanket that will allow moisture to percolate down to the soil but will cause weed seedlings to perish while trying to penetrate.

In any case, cultivating row crops by hand can seem daunting, unless you have a few hand tools to help. Pulling weeds is of course the most rudimentary form of cultivating — except when your purpose is to loosen the soil or hill root crops. In those cases, you’ll always need to employ some form of mechanical advantage. Our most primitive ancestors once again relied on the planting stick, bone or stone hoe, and antler-tine cultivators to get this work accomplished in a reasonably efficient manner. Fast forward to the first half of the 20th century and it wasn’t at all uncommon for folks to hoe acre-sized corn or other row crop patches using a steel hoe attached to a long wooden handle. Indeed, gangs of laborers wielding hand hoes cultivated and weeded large acreages of row crops such as cotton and beans in lieu of horse- or tractor-drawn equipment.

I still use hand hoes of various sorts to weed and scratch the top layers of soil — but mostly between plants within the row — while I use the wheel hoe with either knives or spring-tooth tines to keep the space between the rows loose and clear of weeds.

Effective cultivating leaves weeds uprooted and the soil surface loose so that it can dry and create a mulch of sorts that will reduce weed germination near the surface. Although I’ve used a number of antique wheel hoes — found at various farm sales and junk shops — if you go that route, you definitely want to be sure that the wheel and carriage are functional and that you have at least one set of knives or serviceable tines specific to the individual brand and model. If you are a good with metal fabrication, then it goes without saying that you should not hesitate to try and create the attachments you need if you find a wheel hoe sans accessories.

Using a wheel hoe is as easy as grabbing the two handles and pushing the unit between the rows. You’ll find your own rhythm but it invariably consists of a push forward, partial pull backward, step forward, push again and so on. Operating the wheel hoe in non-compacted ground is pure joy because it gets your heart rate moving, it’s quiet and vibration- and fume-free, and is much easier on the soil overall than the rotary tiller.

You can also fit some wheel hoes with reversible moldboard plow blades, which will not only turn soil but also act as hiller/furrowers — really handy for some crops and/or irrigation methods.

I generally use the hogs to work corn ground, dress it up with a wheel hoe wielding tines, plant with the Cole Planet Jr. seeder, cultivate twice with the same wheel hoe setup, and then let what happens happen. Using this method, I wind up with less than 12 person hours in the crop until harvest rolls around. Strange as it may seem, some of our ancestors harvested acres of field corn completely by hand by snapping the dried ears from the stalk, ripping the husk from the ear and tossing the ear into a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon. So important a skill was this style of corn picking that hand picking contests still occur all over North America today. If your corn patch is a couple of acres or less, there’s no reason not to hand pick, unless your people shocked their corn instead.

There are lots of different ways to shock corn. In some cases the stalks are cut by hand with a corn knife; in others, a specially designed corn knife is strapped to the outside of one’s boot. You grab the stalk, give it a kick, and move on to the next stalk. In both instances the stalk cutter continues until they have a nice bundle of stalks — perhaps an armful — which they then bind together about a third of the way down from the top.

Some folks use twine to bind the bundles; others use a flexible piece of corn stalk. Once several bundles are made, they are stacked against one another in a hollow tent-like structure and usually bound at the same height where the individual bundles were tied.

A well-made shock is a great way to store corn for later use, when a corncrib for picked and husked corn isn’t available. Many folks still remember fondly (or not-so-fondly) the wintertime chore of breaking shocks, removing the ears to feed the livestock, and using the leaves and stalks for bedding or roughage. For folks that pick their harvest, winter is the time to turn animals into the harvested patch to glean precious grain, to consume or break down the stover, and prepare the soil for planting again in the spring.

If the corn or other grain in question was grown for human consumption, the exercise associated with using the bounty is far from over. In the case of corn, at some point you’ll want to remove the kernels from the cobs and there’s no better way to accomplish that on a smallish scale than with a hand-crank corn sheller. These devices range in size from the diminutive box-mounted models that you crank with one hand while feeding it with the other, to the larger, hopper-fed models that you crank with both hands — these models generally have a large shelling wheel that acts as a flywheel, which allows you to crank it up and reload the hopper without the shelling coming to a halt. Believe it or not, but some of these hand-powered shellers can deliver many bushels of shelled corn per hour — a bushel of shelled corn is about 56 pounds of kernels, depending on the moisture content.

Most of us aren’t keen on eating flour, flint or field corns whole, but we sure do like our cornmeal. Once you’ve burned the calories to shell the corn, you’ll burn a ton more grinding it into a coarse polenta meal and even more if you grind it into a corn flour. I enjoy growing all of our meal corn using tasty old flint and flour cultivars, such as ‘Painted Mountain,’ ‘Mandan Clay Red,’ ‘Mandan Society,’ and ‘Glass Gems.’ It takes us about 40 minutes of hard cranking to mill roughly 8 pounds using a beautifully crafted Montana-made GrainMaker mill. Grainmaker mills can also be powered with electric motors and they even have everything you need to use your bicycle to power your grain mill.


Oscar H. Will III is the Editor in Chief of Heirloom Gardener.