Best tools for a big garden with a tractor

Emailed conversation I had with a NY grower, Larry, shared with permission:

This years garden has a combination of direct seed and transplants.
What seems to work best for us is to keep the weeds under control until the plants are about 3 inches tall, then mulch with straw. We mulch paths and open areas as much as we can, as soon as we can, and leave sticks and strings in to mark where the crops will come up, so they dont get lost. Hand weeding spots through the mulch or adding more straw, usually keeps weeds that are persistent under control, for the rest of the growing season, but occasionally I will have to rake up the straw mulch in places and rototill or heavily hoe some areas, and recover with straw.

Typically we do soil prep and level the whole area, lay out rows and start planting seeds.

We get lots of little weeds that show up within a week of planting, before the vegetables or flowers have even sprouted, or in the beds that are “ready to go”, but unplanted. The only way i have found to deal with the little weeds in planted rows, is hand or hand tool weeding, scuffle hoe, stirrup hoe, etc,. Rototilling the inter row area works, but you have to be very careful not to get too close to the seed line, or you lose the crop. I will also rototill the unplanted beds, the morning we plant, to get rid of the weeds that have sprouted. Its slow and time consuming, and not alot of fun.

Last year I tried the wunder bar, with s tines and sweeps, but the " sidesway" in the lower link arms kept me 3 to 4 inches away from the plant rows, on each side, to avoid hitting the plants. The telescoping sway braces couldnt be set just tight enough, with the available holes, so I scouted around to find an old fashioned turnbuckle and chain sway brace to replace them. By the time I found one that would work, the plants and weeds were a foot high, and I couldnt drive over them with the tractor, Since I was using the sweeps, I hadnt mulched, because the sweeps were going to make it easier, and then I couldnt get straw when I needed it. I need small bales, not an 1800 lb round bale, and the two farms I had dealt with in the past had nice new round balers!

Lots of hand weed pulling between plants, and to find rows. The drought killed off or delayed sprouting of most seeds, so it wasnt a good year, at all, but I could disc up the failed plant areas to control the weeds in 7 foot swaths At least it wasnt backbreaking work to erase the failed growing areas.
Squash and pumpkins were slow to vine, so I could roto till around the planting mounds, but hand weeding around the vines and fruit was a challenge. A far cry from past years when we could see every squash or pumpkin because it was on a bed of straw. I scrounged up enough straw to mulch between the tomato plants, but rototilled the paths, supplemented by hoe work.

We have tried plastic sheeting of various types with not much success, over the years. It requires too many hands to hold down, before you can secure it. It moves when you walk or kneel on it, and weeds sprout in the transplant plant holes. Never found a way to plant a row of seeds through it either. It seems to be a transplant system only.

The videos of the tine weeder in operation seems to make these methods obsolete, as you can rake every bed, as soon as you see weeds sprouting, without worrying about hitting the crop seed, as long as the seeds are deep enough. That I can visualize, but Im not sure how well it works when you have seed sprouts in the mix of tiny weed plants. Why doesnt it just rake out everything?

Lots of other unanswered questions in my mind.
*How dry does the soil have to be for the tines to do their thing? Some videos show a cloud of dust behind the weeder. What happens if you get 2 weeks of overcast and damp weather, that doesnt allow weeds to dessicate when uprooted? Will weeds even uproot in damp soil? Some things I read, note that they will even reroot. How deep do you plant seeds, to avoid tines, and develop strong enough roots to resist pull out? how deep do you run the tines? What happens if you cant go 4 to 6 mph? *

What kinds of soils work best with the tines? Its hard to tell from the pictures. We have silty soil, that will hold water, and then clump up when it dries out. We have a never ending supply of rocks. Walnut size and bigger get culled out each year, but smaller pieces remain. Do the tines skip over or around them?

I have had my tractor since April 2019, and have found agricultural equipment dealers unable to answer basic questions. They dont seem to know how to use the “tools” they sell, they just want to sell them.

Are there any novel fall back options, if the weather doesnt cooperate with the tines? I cant use basket weeders, because of varied planting rows, in each 36 inch bed. Finger weeders, would require multiple setups, like the sweeps, and they are much more expensive, so Im thinking it would be the improved sweep plan and handwork, until we can mulch. It would be very frustrating to leave the tine weeder sitting idle, if the weather doesnt cooperate, but it could happen.

This years direct seed vegetables include: potatoes, scallions, beets, watermelon, pumpkin, cucumber, snap peas, regular peas, squash and corn.
Transplants include sweet potato, onions, brocoli, cauliflower and tomatoes.

I was going to retry the sweeps this season, for row cultivation, and worked out the combinations of sweep sizes and locations to deal with our planting plan…We have 27 thirty foot rows, that use one of four different sweep combinations. I tried to get fewer, longer rows,but the cultivation needs for our garden didnt match up…

I have found several sources of small bales of straw on Craigs list. Once it stops snowing, Im going to pick them up, so I wont be caught this year without mulch!

… but the tine weeder seems to be an even better solution, albeit pricier. It looks like I could just drive over each 36 inch bed, without realigning sweeps every day, and take out the weeds, until its time to mulch and stake plants, and even keep tine weeding the onions and scallions after they are established, without needing mulch there.

*The goal is to make the garden less of a job

Hi Larry,

Great questions!

It sounds like reducing weeding labor is one of your main goals. Plastic mulch is key in this regard. Check out some videos of tractor-drawn plastic layers, they do a great job and would make it a lot easier, even for 30’ beds. Basically any crops you can transplant can be grown on plastic. And you’re right, you want to make the transplant holes as small as possible to minimize the number of weeds coming through. Also, as Jean-Paul Courtens discusses in this podcast (6. Row Cultivation, with guest Jean-Paul Courtens - Into the Weeds (New York State IPM) | Podcast on Spotify), you should lay plastic a couple weeks ahead of time so the weeds germinate and die before you make holes for them to escape.

For your crops not under plastic, especially for direct seeded crops like carrots or beets, it’s important to deplete the weed seeds in the top couple inches of soil (where they typically germinate from) before planting the crop. As you say, preparing the beds a few weeks ahead of time allows for several flushes of weed germination to be controlled with shallow tilling, creating a so-called “stale seedbed” where many of the weed seeds that would’ve emerged in your crop have been removed. Taking this a step further, it’s even better if you can take the ground out of production the year before rotating into these crops so you can do even more weed seed depletion with regular tillage in between periods of cover cropping to rebuild soil health. But at your scale, for the last one or two passes before your carrots or beets emerge, I think a bed flamer is the ideal tool. (Something like this: Red Dragon® Torch On Wheels | Gempler's). It can control those newly emerged weeds while not disturbing the soil and not bringing up new weed seeds. Plus, it will still work in moist soil, or with stones, where tine harrows would not work as well. And tine harrows should be used at 7-10mph, which would be hard to achieve for 30’ long beds. They can certainly damage vegetable crops. They’re more commonly used in grassy grain crops that are at high density and can slip through the tines.

For you row cultivator, I would just pick a row spacing that works for as many of your crops as possible and keep it set there. Remember that even if your row spacing is too wide or too narrow, you can adjust the in-row spacing to make up for that. Row cultivators are typically used after the crop is 3-4" tall. You can drive faster or slower to increase or decrease your aggressiveness depending on the crop size.

I like your straw mulching procedure. I struggle with all the grain that emerges in straw, unless you soak it over the winter (but then it gets moldy and not so much fun to apply), so I’ve actually had better luck with hay mulch. Keep in mind that it’s easier to mulch (or cultivate for that matter) wider densely-planted rows than narrow sparsely planted rows, as I show in this video: Top 3 Weeding Tips for Organic Gardens and Small Farms - YouTube

For more resources, check out our Weed IPM webpage: Weed IPM | New York State Integrated Pest Management

There is a new online forum for cultivation questions, do you mind if I post your question there? Thanks,


Hi Bryan
I really liked the common sense and near humor in your video. Planting is a positive experience, as its a season of hope. Harvest provides gratification. Weeds are a nuisance, Hard to find a joy there, except the creation of open space for the plants! My tomatoes and beans got almost as bad as yours, and I had 5 foot weeds coming up around my squash and tomato vines. Fortunately the ground was soft, so they yanked out quickly, and I got them all before they seeded!
some thoughts and questions from the video:

    • how dense do you plant in the row? Typically I will cut the seed pack spacing in half, sometimes by a third. Do you do even tighter?*
  • Is your straw from big bales, or small bales? MY oat or wheat straw is almost only stalks, with just a few leaves. I think they lose the seeds in the combining and subsequent raking into windrows for the small baler, plus the bales lose a bunch of chaff when they are being compressed and while airborne, courtesy of the kicker. Less turbulence in big bale making, so the seeds may get swept up, and packed in.*
    I got hay by mistake one year and it was a disaster. May have been a late cuttiing, with grasses going to seed. Makes bad feed for cattle, so I guess the farmer sold it to me, as it has lost too much energy to seed making. Good feed hay should be just leaves and stems. Perhaps thats what you are getting.which makes it better for mulch.

What kind of landscape fabric do you use, and can it be reused in another season? I tried some once and it broke up underfoot where I walked on it, but it seems to be much lighter in weight than what you had down.

The hassle is leaving the string down too long, particularly if you have to cull out a couple bad plants. I have had plant roots/stems entangle in the string in the rest of the row and drag up nearby good plants in the process of pulling a bad one. Plus the string line holds the mulch up off the ground in the interplant row space, where you want it to wo rk its best. I remove my string lines when I have visible plants to show me the row, but agree the string is essential to getting straight rows.

Some questions from your email reply:
- Since I have only 5 rows in transplants of my 28 total, I cant justify a $ 2500 tow behind plastic mulch layer. If I could find a good used one, that would be another story.
*- How do you control weeds in the interbed space and the plastic sheet anchor soil? Mulch? *
One year we got a gently used silage bunker cover. It was heavy gauge black plastic so we spread it out over the whole transplant garden area, thinking it would be better than cutting into row strips. NO weeds anywhere, but the plant openings, where we were watering the plants with a watering can. We had to poke some drain holes with a screw driver, to allow ponded rain water to soak through, as needed, but it held up for a couple years. Disposal was a hassle. I guess thats why the farmer was happy to donate it to us.
- I will look into flame weeder. Never thought of that for anything but grass in the cracks in sidewalks, for people who cant stand a stray blade of grass.
*- never did cover crops for the upcoming season of direct seeded plants, but it makes very good sense. Requires a multi year plan though. I know if you mow it, you can till it in with an old fashioned, sort of slow speed rear tine tiller, but not the mantis tiller What a tangled mess! *
How aggressively do you have to disc cover crops to turn them under? I cant use a moldboard plow on my tractor because of the wheel spacing, which is fixed. I would be driving over every furrow. When I asked the dealer about this, he said"its not an agricultural tractor, its a utility tractor". Do you want to buy one of those too, or I can get you a 6 foot tiller". Big tillers are not good for me. Too many rocks. my 16 inch rear tine will screech belts when a rock gets stuck, but there is no damage. Not so with a chain or gear drive tiller.
- YOur comments about tine harrows damaging row crops is not consistent with the pictures in the advertising information Looks like it might be soy beans. Their texts refer to root crops and row crop vegetables being good uses of tine tillers. Is this conclusion from your experience, or observations? I sort of thought the tines would tear up the wrong plant, as it doesnt know a weed from a planted crop, unless you removed a tine cluster for each row you wanted to protect, but that will leave weed stripes. Are yuo aware of anyone trying them in a real planting scenario, or of any published experimental experience?
Since I have a gear drive tractor, I have a 6.2 mph and 8.6 mph travel speed available with the release of the clutch. Stopping at the end of the row will be an issue though. What happens if you go a bit slower, say 5 mph? Could you compensate for less efficiency, by making a second pass?. The little tine ends will never line up exactly in pass 2. That wouldnt work for a farmer with 100 acres to treat but is fine for gardeners.

I understand in theory, about varying the interplant spacing along the row, to compensate for wider or narrower spacing between rows, and I think having fewer cutivator setups to deal with is a very good thing. Is there a rule of thumb for doing this, or does it depend upon the crop?. Beets at 4 inches along the row, at 12 inches between rows cant be shrunk down too much more or can they, since they have taproots? Does it matter if the leaves colllide? Imm guessing at some point it does. I know from reading about reduced corn plant spacings, there is a point where further reduction reduces yield more than the available space for more rows can offset. But there is pprobably a practical lower limit for tomatoes, brocoli, potatoes, cauliflower, and bush beans. IS there any guidance on when to do what level of densifying plantings, by variety? I can grow head lettuce at 10 inches both ways, in my raised bed, that I access from the perimeter, but is that practical for a traditional row crop? What are the limiting factors? ( in case you have not guessed yet, I am an engineer)

I really appreciate your help, and sharing your expertise.

Feel free to share whatever might be useful in your online forum, in whole or in part, from my emails, and I can share my experiences with you, if you wish. How do you access the forum?

I will check the Web pages you noted, and since Google knows what I have been looking up, some unsolicited tine weeder info from Rodale institute popped up today, and Ill be looking at that as well, along with anything else I bump into.

Thank you again for your helpful responses.


Hi Larry,

Glad you liked the video!

To get a sense of the limits of planting spacing, I would suggest looking at what the large-scale veg farms are doing since they’ll often put crops on 30" rows as that’s what their corn/soy cultivation equipment is spaced at. Even beets at 30" planted very densely within the row. You’re right though, head lettuce would probably not be a good candidate for this type of spacing, and looking at the large lettuce farms in California, they’re using a square spacing like you suggest.

I’ve used small square bales of straw from several sources and had lots of grain emerge, glad to hear that you haven’t though. For hay, probably first cutting is best, before seeds are set.

Woven landscape fabric seems to be more durable than non-woven. And it should be somewhat water permeable, but I’ve read that it can get clogged by soil. You should be able to get at least 5 years from it, especially if it’s rolled up for winter.

Keeping your planting line string pulled tight and off the ground a few inches can allow access if any weeding is needed.

I would suggest using plastic mulch, tarps, or landscape fabric in conjunction with drip irrigation to avoid cutting more holes in it. Yes, between strips on plastic, straw or hay is a good choice, otherwise hoeing by hand or with a tractor implement.

To terminate a hardy cover crop, you may have to disk, wait a few days, disk, wait, disk. Or go with oats or peas that will winter kill before seed set if planted in fall.

You could certainly tine weed at 5mph and compensate by making more passes. You can also use them in soybeans and some tough vegetables. They will do some damage though. Just keep in mind that they’re normally most effective on very small broadleaf weeds that are newly emerged. Grasses, mustards, and perennials won’t be controlled as well. So if you have a sensitive crop and have to further lessen the aggressiveness, they’re going to be less effective. You can tine weed before crop emergence, but from my work with beets, you really need to wait until the beets are 3-4" tall before they can handle the disturbance: Improving mechanical in-row weed control for vegetables and row crops

If you do look for a bed flamer, try to get one with a hood that keeps the flame and the heat in as long as possible.