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Appropriate Use of Force In The Garden

Or Sufficient vs. Efficient Labor

I have something like 8 or 9 beds of lettuce that are probably around 18"x30' give or take. The beds are for the production of cut lettuce leaves (as opposed to lettuce heads) and weeds are germinating strongly in this and many other production beds. I am just one person and I have a million things I should be doing at any given moment. What do I do?

The answer to this and other similar questions on a small farm or market-scale garden operation can be simply maddening trying to sort out. Especially as one person with, admittedly, not that much experience.

Here’s another one:

I have a back section in my garden, probably 40'x120' which a family member came in and harrowed for me (like roto-tilling, but on another axis) with a tractor. Since that time, it’s been too cold for me to really effectively germinate most of the seeds I put into the ground too early (a rookie mistake). Weed seeds, however, have no problem germinating in the cold. They’ve adapted to it. Anyway, since the first harrowing, this area hasn’t been planted. But surrounding areas have, effectively cutting off tractor access. I purchased a second-hand walk-behind rototiller, but shortly thereafter it stopped working. What do I do?

In case #1, I went through first with my scuffle hoe to try to weed up between the lettuce rows, only to realize I didn’t plant far enough apart to effectively pass my tool — rendering it not useless, but inconvenient. My next (horrid, horrid) option was to weed all of them by hand — a task which would take hours. Instead, I improvised a technique based on a different tool that I could pass between the rows more easily: a long-handled ho mi digger (from Lee Valley). It’s like a little plow attached to a handle, and has a million and one uses that I’m always discovering in a pinch. It looks like this:

The result of my labor was that I cut basically small furrows between the lettuce rows, which had the effect of hilling up around the bases and in some cases covering a bit the baby lettuce leaves. Would it work?

Obviously, this is a “lazy answer.” The “right answer” would have been to weed everything by hand, and eradicate as much as I could. But my answer took a fraction of the time… and it seemed to work!

Sure, there are still weeds (and oat sprouting from my paths) in the lines where my lettuce are, but my lettuce didn’t suffer at all from the hilling — and there are no weeds at least between the rows. Not a perfect solution, but one of about a million compromises I’ve had to make to find labor answers to problems that come up which are both efficient and sufficient.

In this case, it’s efficient because of the minimal time/energy investment. And it’s sufficient — for now — because the lettuces haven’t been fully overcome by weeds. In fact, they’ve gotten enough of a leg up on their competitors that it looks like they just might make it through to adulthood. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, with case #2, my section of field which hasn’t been planted and needs to be flipped… It’s big enough that a mechanical answer is the “right answer” but both my machine-based options for a quick tilling are impossible. Plus it was raining. Not wanting to lose a whole day to rain and have the weeds invigorated by the moisture, I selected the patch (probably a 40'x40' sub-section) with the strongest weed growth and went out there to hack away with my ordinary long-handled garden hoe.


Got the job done, but that night my wrists and elbows hurt like hell. I couldn’t keep doing that every day. Too much chop-chop-chop creates a lot of undue stress and friction on the machine of my body. So next time, I switched tools.

It’s a coincidence, in this case, that my ho mi was again the go-to tool. In this case, it was for a sweeping action of the fat part of the blade scraped across the soil surface to cut stems of weeds, rather than the furrow-cutting point I’d used earlier. Using this tool completely eliminated the aggressive hacking of the soil which was both rough on the soil, rough on the tool and rough on my body. Using the ho mi turned it into tai chi instead of kung fun. Long flowing motions.

Again, efficient because it doesn’t break my body and uses less energy than the hack-hack-hack method, and sufficient until I was able to come back through and plant that area out to cucurbits.

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