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.

  • 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
  • Use hogs to till and prepare the ground for planting.
    Photo by Nathan Winters
  • Planting with the Hoss wheel hoe with planter attachment.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • An original S.L. Allen Co. Planet Jr. seeder also has cultivator tines and hoe knives that can be bolted to the frame once the planter unit is removed.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • Most row crops will require cultivation at least twice between the time you plant the seed and when the growing crop canopies.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • Oscar H. Will III is the great grandson of legendary 19th century seedsman Oscar H. Will, who specialized in offering Native American corns to the world.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • There's no better way to remove the kernels from the cobs by hand than with a hand-cranked corn sheller
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • When you grow your own corn, you have many different heirloom cultivars to choose from, which enables you to experience true corn flavor.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • 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 it into a horse- or tractor-drawn wagon.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III
  • It takes about 40 minutes of hard cranking to mill roughly 8 pounds of corn using a GrainMaker mill, which can also be adapted to be powered by a bicycle or electric motor.
    Photo by Karen K. Will and Oscar H. Will III

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.



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