The tilling of Tull

Before you pull out the ol’ rototiller this spring, pause a moment to reflect on Jethro Tull.

No, not that one.

This one

. Jethro Tull 1674-1740

Tull revolutionized British agriculture in the 18th century with his inventions: a seed drill that ensured uniform planting of seeds, and  a horse-drawn hoe. His machines solved challenges of his day – erratic germination of field crops, competition from weeds- and their design still influences modern agriculture. Buoyed by the success of his methods, he expounded in Horse-hoeing Husbandry his belief that best practices include pulverizing the soil to release nutrients, and withholding manure and other organic matter .

horse hoe

Tull's horse hoe

Turns out, his theories weren’t quite as useful as his patents. We  know now that adding organic matter improves soil structure, supports a diverse soil ecology, and supplies plant nutrients. And, that repeatedly tearing up the soil through deep plowing can destroy soil health, leading to the kind of conditions that created the tragic “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.

Truck on Colorado road, 1937

Truck on Colorado road, 1937


By now, you might be looking at that rototiller in the back of the shed with some suspicion, but what to do about preparing the garden this spring? If you are lucky enough to be able to time travel, you will have planted a winter-kill cover crop (I use oats for this) in October, or will have covered your beds with a mulch of straw, grass clippings, or leaves. Now you simply pull back the mulch and sow seeds, replacing the mulch after the seeds have sprouted. For the cover cropped areas, you can trim the stalks and plant transplants directly into the bed, relying on the remaining residue to retain water and suppress weeds.

Scuffle and stirrup hoeOn bare beds, a few passes with a sharp scuffle hoe or stirrup hoe to sever young weeds from their roots, followed by smoothing with a steel rake, might be all you need if the weeds are mostly annuals. Of course, once tough perennials like quackgrass have gotten established you’ll be working a bit harder to yank them out.  If a bed is so overrun with this type of weed that tilling is necessary it is a good idea to quickly sow a thick cover crop after tilling to suppress weed growth – for example, buckwheat sown during the summer grows vigorously enough to out-compete weeds, but it will need to be tilled again before it flowers to keep the buckwheat from reseeding.

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3 Comments on “The tilling of Tull”

  1. Michael Greer says:

    Jethro’s prejudice against manure was probably related to the vast number of weed seeds that commonly come with it. We use a lot of manure in our gardens, but try to run most of it through the compost first.
    Manure that is applied directly to the garden usually follows the removal of some crop, and precedes the planting of some quick cover crop. This allows the weed seeds to sprout, but they get turned under before they can bloom.
    Mulch is great, but I once mulched with hay, and thereby planted more weeds than vegetables. Even the straw we get here is chock full of seeds (usually oats) and presents a bit of a hassle.

  2. Ellen Beberman says:

    @Michael – Yes, Tull was concerned about the weed seeds, especially in horse manure. But, he also misunderstood plant growth (not surprising in 18th century Britain.) He believed that plants took up particles of soil directly through their roots; therefore, the more finely pulverized the soil, the better. Because organic matter made the soil clump together, it was frowned upon.

  3. Kirby Selkirk says:

    thanks for the story and the concert. Jethro Tull is my all-time favorite band.
    I met the group in Montreal many years ago any my date danced on stage with them during the concert.

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