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The Rotary Plow Is A Powerfully Multifunctional Tool

From breaking sod to creating beds, managing crops and even turning compost, a rotary plow is a versatility powerhouse on the small farm, working homestead or edible landscaped community.

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by Zach LoeksJune 4, 2021
PHOTO: Zach Loeks

Multifunctionality—whether in tools, equipment or supplies, or even crops, soil and water resources—is always foremost in my mind. From my own farm to my edible landscaping business, I constantly look for ways to get more use out of my investments. 

When we put on our multifunctional thinking caps, we, as growers on all scales, begin to innovate. We create new and exciting frontiers for productive agriculture, homesteading and community landscaping.

When it comes to my walking tractor attachments, the rotary plow is one of the most multifunctional tools I own. This implement can be used for important jobs on the farm or homestead in spring, summer and fall. And its utility extends far beyond the typical application of forming raised garden beds.

rotary plow attachment walk-behind tractor
Zach Loeks


Breaking up Sod with a Rotary Plow

First, a rotary plow is extremely effective at turning new sod into garden space. After all, the rotary plow is a “plow”—though it can be helpful to think of it as more of a micro-plow.

To help visualize this process consider starting at one side of your future garden plot (say side A) and traveling with the tractor and rotary plow to side B and back. This distance is usually 25, 50 or 100 feet. However, I have made beds as long as 300 feet. 

Plowing a field is a process of going between A and B in a systematic way with a number of “passes” to turn over your future garden plot. Here are the steps for breaking up sod to create growing space.

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  • First, make a trench in the fresh ground with one pass. By doing this, you mark the mid-line. If the ground is very hard you may need to adjust the depth of the rotary plow and make a shallow trench. Then deepen it with a repeat of pass No. 1.
  • Now do a second return pass (No. 2) to fill in this trench with the same earth that was pulled out by straddling the long mound. This makes your plowed (but now flat again) mid-line. And this is now the start and center of a new plowed garden plot. Pass one and two make sure the center of your plot isn’t unplowed ground. The rest of your passes work around this mid-line.
  • With the center line established, we will now work around it in a long, rectangular plowing pattern. To start, make your third pass by driving the tractor just to the left of this turned and filled mid-line. The rotary plow will dig into the unplowed soil just adjacent and mound soil onto the mid-line to the right.
  • At the end of the plot, make a right-hand u-turn. Proceed with your fourth pass on the opposite side. Remember to disengage the rotary plows and lift the handle by raising the back-end of the tractor via the handlebars when making your u-turn.
rotary plow attachment walk-behind tractor
Zach Loeks
  • After the fourth pass, there will be trenches where the plowed soil has been removed by the rotary plow to make the mid-ridge on each side of the ridge.
  • From this point on, each pass with your rotary plow will throw soil onto an ever-widening center strip of plowed land. Simply place your right tire into this trench, allowing your rotary plow to dig deeply into the unplowed soil to the left (always on the left) of the ridge. Make continuous passes on each side of the mid-ridge by making u-turns when reaching both side A and B in continuous operation of the walking tractor and rotary plow. This grows the space between as completely plowed land.  
  • Unlike the initial passes to set up your mid-ridge, successive passes with the tractor must have the right-hand wheel in the plowed trench (not on flat land). This makes your plowing deeper, more consistent and straight.  

(Keep posted for a future article looking at when and why you might want a swivel rotary plow. There are many reasons why one or the other of these plows could be better for your land and your projects.)

Of course, if your plot has already been in garden, you won’t need to break soil. You can go ahead and organize your soil into Permabeds—unless it is highly compacted. Then I would recommend a primary plowing before bed forming.


Read more: How does a Permabed differ from a raised garden bed?


Plowing to Create Permabeds

I use the rotary plow on my BCS 739 to make Permabeds. The screw-like motion of a rotary plow, able to sink 6 to 12 inches into the ground and jettison cultivated soil out the right-hand side of the implement, is the perfect action for preliminary bed formation. 

One pass with a rotary plow attachment has the effective result of making a mounded ridge. I can then soften this ridge with a power harrow, rotary tiller or rake to form a raised garden bed.

rotary plow attachment walk-behind tractor
Zach Loeks

I orient the tractor to the left of a future beds center line—usually marked with a string between two stakes or marked directly in the soil by rolling a push seeder (without seed) into the plowed garden soil. Then I give it a returning pass, making sure to keep the line to the operators right.  

If this bed is never moved or destroyed, and it’s used to effectively crop rotate using guild design, we can then refer to it as a Permabed.

Trenching

A third use for a rotary plow is to create a half-trench as it turns the soil and spits it out to the right side of the implement. This creates a very effective trench for planting and managing multiple acres of potatoes or other crops that need to be deeply planted and hilled.

To perform a partial trenching, simply run the rotary plow along the desired line. 

To form a full trench (much wider, useful for tree planting), perform the partial trench. Then turn the tractor around at the end of the row. Place the left tire into the new trench (as opposed to the right tire that was there just moments before) to widen and distinguish a full, deeper and wider trench. I use this for planting orchards, reforestation, edible hedges and other landscaping.

This action helps distinguish paths between raised beds.


Read more: Keep your Permabeds ready to plant for maximum garden efficiency!


Turning Compost

Finally, you can use a rotary plow to turn compost. 

The tool can, of course, turn green manure into the garden to help build soil fertility. But you can also micro-turn windrowed compost piles to aerate the compost. Just turn it over so your debris decomposes much quicker.

No matter how you slice it, the rotary plow helps you easily transform and manage your soil numerous ways.

Grow On,

Zach

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